Remembering Anja: 'One guy and one gun altered everything'
Roses lay in front of a picture of the Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, 48, who was killed April 4, 2014 in Afghanistan, in Paris, Saturday, April 5, 2014. (AP / Michel Euler)
Published Tuesday, April 15, 2014 10:57AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, April 15, 2014 11:29AM EDT
Grief is a terrible thing to articulate. For years I have reported war and what the loss of life means for those left behind. There have been days that have hit me harder or haunted me longer but what happened in Afghanistan on April 4 is so irreparably different. I am still struggling to steady my head and organize words let alone attach them to a fact as unbearable as the death of my friend Anja.
Anja Niedringhaus came into my life a decade ago by way of my husband, Kevin, who had known her since the early 1990s when they were both photographers covering the fall of the former Yugoslavia. Anja had amassed an impressive archive of images and a Pulitzer Prize during her career but she and I hit it off mostly over girl stuff. Over the years we shaped our friendship around affinities for wine, skiing, dogs, journalism and pricey skin cream. Conversations could shift easily between relationships, military embeds, family and thyroids (mine is hypo, hers hyper) and almost every one of them punctuated with laughter.
Anja filled the space around her. She was bold but not brash, strong but not harsh. She was clever, witty and so much fun. Kevin described it well when he said she could make a room honest just by being in it. That is an accomplishment when the room is full of strong-minded journalists.
Moments of dignity
In her coverage of conflict Anja was able to find moments of dignity in places with little of it. She was fearless in a way but still got scared and was gutsy enough to admit it. She exuded class, grace and the sort of levity only Anja could muster. That shone through a few years ago when she embedded with the Canadian military in Kandahar and was injured by shrapnel.
“I got shrapnels in my ass!” she wrote in an email. When an infection returned her to hospital months later she joked, “I think Taliban shrapnels are trying to get asylum in Germany!”
When Anja was granted a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University for the 2006-2007 academic year she needed to find her own funding to do it. She approached it with practicality: Pick somebody in the world with a lot of money and ask for some of it. So she cold-called a well-known American billionaire. And after she met him (or better yet, after he met her) he wrote a cheque for every Harvard dollar she needed because she was Anja.
It is destroying to speak about her in the past tense.
It was through Anja that I met Kathy (Gannon) several years ago in Kabul and over dinners we chuckled at our loosely formed ‘40+ club’ with a few other women. And so when I returned to Afghanistan a few weeks ago for an assignment it seemed only natural that Anja and Kathy were there too.
“Amazing that you are here!” wrote Anja. They would return to Kabul from Kandahar the next day. “Let’s make a reunion!”
And we did. Anja made soup and sausage and we all talked and laughed for hours. She asked about Kevin who she adored and reminisced about a wedding they attended last summer (I was too pregnant to board a flight to join). We began making plans for skiing in the Alps in January and I showed her the latest photos of our son. She watched videos of his bath time, messy meals and his first tooth and she put her hand to my cheek and said, “Well done, darling, well done.”
The next day I made a quick stop to see her on my way to the airport to leave Kabul. We hugged on the stairs of the AP house and hugged again and when I kissed my friend goodbye she said, “I am missing you already.”
Two and a half weeks later Anja was gone.
'I really want to do this'
Their plan that day seemed relatively safe: Travel with elections monitors under the protection of Afghan soldiers and police. Anja had already seen more of the country than most journalists, so going to a remote province near the Pakistan border would have appealed to her.
“I really want to do this,” she told me of the three months she planned to stay in Afghanistan this time. She said she felt confined by her new small apartment in Geneva and by the political stories she had to cover there.
“It’s getting so dicey here,” I told her.
“But I’m happy!” she said. There was often no point in arguing with Anja.
I am trying not to imagine what it looked and sounded like in that flash when the policeman approached the car and yelled and fired, snuffing out such a vibrant life in the back of a Toyota parked in the dirt. Anja died instantly as Kathy bled beside her. One guy and one gun altered everything.
Anja’s hometown in central Germany is about as opposite to Afghanistan as you can imagine. In Hoexter, lush green fields and rolling hills cradle a quiet village along a river. That it is so idyllic seemed to underscore that our friend died a long way from home.
Mourners filled a Benedictine monastery for her funeral. Dozens of journalists came from all over the world and sat with people from her hometown. That in its own way captured who Anja was – a woman drawn to seeing the world and its chaos who cherished rural life and the farmhouse she shared with her sister’s family. It was her sanctuary.
When the service finished we walked in a procession to the cemetery and Anja seemed to be everywhere. She was in the blue sky, the birdsong and the breeze that touched her mother’s hair. Nobody talked much because there seemed so little to say. Days will simply seem incomplete without her. What we know and what we cling to with sheer gratitude is that we are thankful for each second we spent with her.
Maybe that is why it was so hard for me to leave her grave. We returned to the cemetery the next day with our son and a few friends to steal just a little more time. I stared at the patch of dirt piled high with white roses and lilies and told her what I wanted to say.
Then I blew a last kiss in her direction and whispered, “I’m missing you already.”