‘Ambushed by the Taliban’: Kandahar locals recount Danish Siddiqui’s death

Danish Siddiqui, an Indian photojournalist with Reuters, was embedded with the Afghan forces. On Friday, July 16, he was reporting from Spin Boldak in Kandahar province when Taliban fighters ambushed him as well as Sediq Karzai, an Afghan special forces commander.

Both Siddiqui and Karzai were murdered.

In Spin Boldak, a small town that sits by the Afghan border with Pakistan, Noor Karim, a community elder, told this reporter that he had never met the Indian photojournalist killed just a few kilometres from his house. But had he met Siddiqui, Karim said, he would have strongly advised him against taking that trip around his town, which has been under siege by the Taliban for many weeks now.

“As a community elder and someone who has watched this crisis for many weeks now from the very frontlines, I wouldn’t recommend any civilians to come to this frontline. Surely not an Indian,” Karim said over the phone, perhaps a word of caution to discourage any ideas I might have of taking the same road from the ancient city.

But few journalists would heed such advice, especially when faced with a story to expose the human miseries brought on by the wars of men. The brilliant body of work Siddiqui left behind is testament to his commitment to telling stories that provoke the collective human conscience.

Siddiqui was reporting on the escalation of the Afghan conflict that was triggered by the ongoing withdrawal of the US and NATO forces which started in May. The region has been under frequent assault in recent months by an emboldened Taliban that has mounted increasing attacks across districts in the country.

“Danish had been in Afghanistan for nearly a month and he came to us in Kandahar one week ago,” said Ahmad Lodin, an Afghan journalist and head of Afghan Orband Weekly. “He came with the special forces and they worked on this story about rescuing an Afghan police officer who single-handedly protected the police district for three days despite being surrounded by the Taliban. The story became so famous in the Afghan media.”

It was during this mission their vehicle came under attack from the Taliban and a rocket fell close by. Siddiqui caught part of the ambush on his camera and uploaded it to social media: terrifying scenes of an explosive hitting their armoured vehicle.

Then, on July 16, Lodin said, Siddiqui headed to Spin Boldak with Afghan commandos.

“He wouldn’t separate from them at any point,” he said, emphasising Siddiqui’s dedication to covering the operation.

Siddiqui was injured when their convoy came under attack from the Taliban.

According to Reuters, Siddiqui informed them he had been wounded in the arm by shrapnel early on Friday. However, the organisation’s official statement on Siddiqui’s death did not clarify why an injured journalist was not pulled out from a combat zone after a close call and an ambush. Instead, the statement remained vague: “He was treated and Taliban fighters later retreated from the fighting in Spin Boldak.”

Once Siddiqui was back on his feet, Lodin said, he was raring to return to the field. An Afghan commando named Sediq Karzai was assigned to Siddiqui to help manage and guide him through the embed. Karzai was with the photojournalist when the Afghan forces went to retake Spin Boldak district from the Taliban.

“Sediq Karzai was in the same car with him and Afghan commandos, and when they stopped near a hilly area,” Lodin said. “That is where they were ambushed by the Taliban.”

Few details are available on what went on in the moments after. The Reuters statement quotes an Afghan commander as saying that he “had been talking to shopkeepers when the Taliban attacked again”. According to Lodin, the Taliban attacked Karzai and Siddiqui and both were killed in the fight.

The Taliban, on their part, have denied involvement in Siddiqui’s killing.

“We are not aware during whose firing the journalist was killed. We do not know how he died,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, told News18. “Any journalist entering the war zone should inform us. We will take proper care of that particular individual. We are sorry for Indian journalist Danish Siddiqui’s death. We regret that journalists are entering war zone without intimation to us.”

But locals and officials dispute this claim.

“They killed him and kept his body,” said Lodin. “We contacted the Taliban and the Red Crescent but they would not return it. After much negotiation, we were able to convince them to hand over the body around 3 pm.”

According to Lodin, Siddiqui’s body was brought to Mirwais hospital in Kandahar city at 8.15 pm. At around noon on Saturday, he said, it was sent to Kabul with the help of the Afghan army. Lodin also said that Siddiqui’s body had been “disrespected” and “mutilated”.

Afghan journalists have long been in the line of fire. Eleven journalists were killed in 2020 while five were murdered this year, not including Siddiqui. Four of the five journalists killed in 2021 were women.

Amnesty International, that has regularly called for accountability over the deliberate killings of journalists and activists in Afghanistan, condemned Siddiqui’s murder. In a statement, Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s South Asia regional campaigner, said, ”To preserve the fundamental right to freedom of expression and ensure public access to reliable information, reporters engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict must be provided with better protection measures by the authorities.”

Many of these attacks are targeted, illustrating that those killing journalists are seeking to control the narrative of the Afghan conflict. And as the battle for control of Afghan territories intensifies, journalists on the field are under increasing threat for giving the voices of the victims of the Afghan war an outlet.

Also Read: ‘There was no one like him’: At Danish Siddiqui’s funeral, hundreds throng to say goodbye