pamela constable

The turkeys were scrawny. There was no cranberry sauce, so we made do with pomegranate seeds. There was no pumpkin pie, no ice cream. There was one bottle of wine for more than 30 people. No grace was said, only a somber toast to those who were not with us.

But every one of us gathered at that Thanksgiving dinner in Afghanistan — grizzled journalists from Wales and Australia and Poland and half a dozen other countries — knew what we had to be grateful for. Our lives.

It was Nov. 22, 2001, and we had been through a harrowing week. On the 17th, we had crossed the border from Pakistan in an old school bus, late at night, not knowing what lay ahead in the dark. When we reached the nearest city, Jalalabad, things seemed quiet. But remnants of the Taliban regime and other armed men were still on the loose, notably in the area between Jalalabad and the capital, Kabul, about 100 miles to the west by road beyond a forbidding mountain range.

So we waited, crammed into a chilly hotel. On the 19th, several groups of journalists decided to hire taxis and head to Kabul. I was among them, traveling in a loose convoy of eight vehicles. We were all seasoned foreign correspondents, drawn by the drama of conflict and struggle, aware of the risks and eager to follow the news. About 30 minutes into the trip, our taxi stopped briefly, and we lost sight of the one in front of us. Suddenly, there was a commotion and a cloud of dust. The taxi ahead had spun around and was racing back. As the driver passed us, he shouted that we should follow.

There was no one else in his car.

At a gas station, the distraught Afghan cabbie tried to explain what had happened, but not until we reached our hotel did we learn the full details. Gunmen in turbans had ambushed the taxi and forced out the passengers — Harry Burton, an Australian cameraman for Reuters TV, and Afghan-born photojournalist Aziz Haidari, who worked with Reuters in Pakistan. Both were shot dead on the spot. The gunmen had also stopped another vehicle and killed two European reporters — an Italian, Maria Grazia Cutuli, and Julio Fuentes from Spain.

Amid the anxious, milling crowd in the hotel lobby, I spotted my Afghan interpreter, a shy and formal man. Obviously relieved, he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Good, good.” A little later, I heard Rone Tempest of the Los Angeles Times talking into his satellite phone and telling an editor, “No, that’s not correct. She’s OK.”

He was talking about me. It was barely 6 a.m. in Connecticut, but I realized I needed to call home in case my dad, who was in his 80s, turned on the radio. Somehow managing to sound casual and cheery, I told him that there had been a highway incident but that I was fine and would be back for Christmas.

The next several days were hectic and grim. Chris Tomlinson, an Associated Press reporter from Nairobi and former Army intelligence analyst, quietly took charge. Calls were made, ambulances sent to pick up the bodies. At the hospital morgue, I had to identify Aziz, because I was the only one who knew him. An orderly opened the pine box, and I saw a face, swollen and purple, wreathed in cotton. It was not the jovial, blue-eyed man I remembered, but it was Aziz.

We also had to cover the story. We took notes and interviewed drivers and passengers and officials. I could barely bring myself to type, but what I produced for The Washington Post’s front page was professional and dispassionate. A few paragraphs into my account was a terse sentence: “About a dozen other journalists in the convoy, including a Washington Post reporter, escaped unharmed.” It was a way of protecting myself from the truth, which was that I had come extremely close to being killed.

On Nov. 21, we suddenly realized that the next day was Thanksgiving. At first, it seemed inappropriate to celebrate the holiday. Four colleagues were dead, none of them American. But several friends suggested it might help brighten our gloomy spirits. Jake Sutton, a puckish Welsh cameraman, organized the event with help from me and the hotel’s dining manager. We scoured the local bazaars and came up with eight pitiful turkeys. We scooped out a dozen pomegranates for sauce and cooked vats full of rice and vegetables.

That evening, a long table was set with candles and the feast was laid out. Rone produced a bottle of Bordeaux from his backpack, and everyone poured a few drops into a glass, including those who spoke no English and knew little about the tradition. We toasted our lost colleagues, our distant families, and the miracle of being alive to share the bounty before us.

Eighteen years have passed since that Thanksgiving in Jalalabad. A few of us who were there kept up friendships or stayed in touch; others scattered to distant homelands. Several wrote journalistic memoirs or essays that included descriptions of the dinner, which remained a poignant communal moment in the long, hard slog of reporting on international conflicts. Some of us met again in Iraq, and one American who joined us in Jalalabad shortly after Thanksgiving, human rights activist Marla Ruzicka, was later killed in Baghdad.

I remained in Afghanistan for several years after the incident and returned periodically on reporting assignments through this past September. The arc of events there has remained vertiginous, violent and inconclusive. Tens of thousands of people have died in the ongoing wars with Taliban insurgents and Islamic State militants, including more than 2,400 American troops, and many more have been wounded. Dozens of Afghan journalists have been killed, including a close friend who died in a suicide bombing in 2018. Peace and political stability remain elusive, while international interest has waned.

At the moment, I am back home in Virginia, looking out my window at green fields dusted with frost and preparing to spend Thanksgiving Day with old friends. We will eat too much turkey and stuffing and pie, drink too much wine, laugh a lot, commiserate over the sorry state of American politics, share iPhone pictures and shoo the dogs away from the kitchen.

We will offer toasts to friends and family who cannot be with us, and pause to bless the feast before us.

It is a ritual that I never take for granted.

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Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post's foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.

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