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Journalist Kathy Gannon retires after 35 years covering Afghanistan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Thirty-five years is a long period of time to spend in any region of the world. But if we're talking about Afghanistan, 35 years takes us through wars, changes of regime and events that have shaped the rest of the world. Thirty-five years is how long one journalist, Kathy Gannon, has been covering the region. And now she is retiring from her post as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Associated Press. We wanted to hear her reflections on her long career and the history that she has witnessed. Kathy Gannon joins us now from Islamabad. Welcome.

KATHY GANNON: Thank you very much.

CHANG: I don't even know where to start with a career like yours, Kathy. I mean, if we can just travel back in time, I'm so curious about your first memories of the region. When you first arrived as a young correspondent, is there one image that comes to mind for you?

GANNON: There are a lot of images that come to mind. But, you know, I guess, when I first came, I remember walking through villages and climbing these mountains and the spirit of the people. And it wasn't really - at that time, of course, it was the Mujahedeen, the U.S.-supported Mujahedeen. And they were fighting the invading Soviet army. But it wasn't just them. It was the villagers, you know? And you'd walk through a village, and people were just so welcoming.

And there were times we were walking through Afghanistan and climbing the mountains. And there, you'd look over it in the night, and the mountains were literally on fire with napalm. I remember walking through a minefield and having to follow in the footsteps of the ones in front and over to the side as somebody was blown up. And so it was really quite an extraordinarily dangerous time. So yeah - a lot of memories that sort of blend into feelings, really.

CHANG: Did you know at the time - I mean, we're talking about the late '80s. May I ask, how old were you at this point?

GANNON: Yeah, I would have been in my very - my early 30s.

CHANG: Did you have any idea back then that you would be staying in this region for so long?

GANNON: Absolutely not. I had no idea at all. I had come from Israel. I had been in Israel freelancing before that and came to Peshawar in Pakistan, thinking that we would do some reporting on the refugees, and never for a moment thought that I would be spending an extended period of time. I always thought that two, three years at a time in one place was a good amount of time...

CHANG: Wow.

GANNON: ...Because I always felt, you know, you don't want to get too comfortable. So here we are 35 years later in Afghanistan. So that idea went out the window.

CHANG: Exactly. All right. You get there in the late '80s. If I can fast-forward a little bit to 2001, September 11, when you think back to that day, how much did you understand at that time that your beat was going to fundamentally change, that this region would be entering another yearslong conflict?

GANNON: Yeah. You know, in 2001, when 9/11 happened and it was clear that people were focused on Osama bin Laden as being the - behind it and Al Qaeda, Afghans at the time said, they're going to set Afghanistan on fire. And for me, it was another convulsion for Afghanistan. And the actual narrative of the Afghans somehow got lost to the narrative of the U.S.-led coalition, and it was very much focused on the horrors of what had happened and where is Al Qaeda.

But it was - really, for me, I remember doing these vignettes of life in Kabul, and we had to turn the lights off because the Taliban somehow believed that if the Americans couldn't see them, they couldn't hit them. Kids hiding under the tables and the fear that they felt as the planes - hearing the planes and the bombings and the pain of the people, you know? So it was, really, for me, an extraordinary privilege to have been able to be there and to have been able to tell those stories.

CHANG: You brought tremendous humanity to your reporting, but you personally also had some incredibly scary moments. If I can ask you about one of them, in April 2014, you got shot in Afghanistan. One of your colleagues who was traveling with you was killed. Do you mind telling us about that moment?

GANNON: Sure. Absolutely - and because Anja Niedringhaus was just my friend and colleague and photographer, and she died. I was hit with seven bullets.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

GANNON: The police commander emptied his AK-47 into the - into our car. And Anja and I were sitting in the backseat. And we were in - outside of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. And, Ailsa, we were there because Anja really wanted - she had this image in her head of this picture that she wanted to take of villagers coming down to register their vote because this was the day before the election. And this was the Haqqani area. She was sitting right beside me because she had her cameras off on her - to her left.

And we hadn't even spoken to this police commander. So we just - we were talking, and we were kind of joking. And I don't know what came over him, but it was at close range, and he just emptied his AK-47. And I just remember thinking, I don't want to be afraid. I don't want to - I don't want it to be a panic. And I just remember taking deep breaths and trying to be calm.

And I lost a lot of blood. And there was an Afghan doctor 'cause they had to operate in Khost. And I just remember this doctor saying - just before he went in, he said, I just want you to know that your life is as important to me as it is to you - and really saved my life, I'm sure. And Anja, I found out later, had died.

CHANG: My God, Kathy, how does something like that not fundamentally change you?

GANNON: You know, I had 18 operations, but I knew I had to go back because, first, Anja would have been outraged if I had not. And I didn't want some crazy gunman to make a decision for me that this was going to be the end of my career.

CHANG: Well, Kathy, 35 years, 3 1/2 decades, why did you feel that now was the time to leave?

GANNON: I guess you want to leave before people are shoving you out the door, so there's that.

CHANG: True (laughter).

GANNON: (Laughter) There's that. So leave while you can. I have to say, I just feel so incredibly grateful to have had the career I've had. I mean, to have witnessed so much history - the invasion of the Soviet Union, the invasion of the U.S.-led coalition, the Mujahedeen.

I also - I believe very strongly that we as journalists and journalism is about telling the story of others. And I feel that more and more, I'd like to maybe look at journalism and where we are today in our profession. I have a book in the works, so that's - maybe that's the next phase.

CHANG: Well, I can't wait to read what comes next. Veteran journalist Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press. She is retiring from her post after 35 years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thank you so much for all your tremendous work, Kathy.

GANNON: Thank you, Ailsa. Thank you so much for taking the time and being so kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.