Published in Jan-Feb 2022
I first ran into Kathy Gannon soon after moving to Islamabad at a dinner of movers and shakers (there is no other kind in Islamabad). Standing nearby when a senior politician was giving her a lecture (mansplaining was not a popular term then) on how the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) first concern was extremism, her reaction struck me. The PPP was in power then and the country was struggling to deal with militancy, and what the politician said was something one heard often. Most of Islamabad was convinced that ordinary people shared their concern with extremism.
But Kathy has never been one to buy the palatable sweeping statements preferred by many. She told him of her recent trip to a government hospital where everyone she spoke to had more basic concerns on their minds, such as money or decent medical attention. Over a decade later, this overheard conversation still defines Kathy for me. She is a journalist who has an unflinching or obsessive adherence to facts, regardless of whether the powerful accept them or not.
When we met for this profile, she had recently returned from Afghanistan, during which she had insisted on visiting the apartment of someone who had accused the Taliban of invading their house. She wanted to see it for herself. She told me about a video that went viral, in which an Afghan Taliban was seen cutting the hair of a young man. “I found the original video in which the sound could be heard and it wasn’t about the hair. I found it odd, to begin with, because the Talib also had shoulder-length hair,” she says over a cup of coffee.
For Kathy, facts are determined by talking to the people, which makes even more sense if you keep in mind that she has spent decades reporting on Afghanistan – particularly on the ordinary Afghan people who were perhaps not given much attention during the years the Western forces propped up the government in Kabul. As she says, she is better at talking to people.
The keyword for her is reporting. She identifies as a reporter – ‘journalist’ is too presumptuous for her liking – as is brewed coffee. She chugs down coffee the way a chain smoker consumes cigarettes – but only instant. She doesn’t like the other kind.
How did this Canadian reporter end up in Pakistan? Born in a small city in Canada to a large and close-knit Irish Catholic family, Kathy didn’t want to be a journalist because her brother was one and he seemed so well-read and knowledgeable to her. Then life intervened. Her brother needed help bringing up his son and Kathy moved to where he lived to help out. The Irish Catholic family ethos deemed it so. She joined the paper her brother worked for, beginning a journey that was to last a lifetime.
After over a decade working in Canada in several cities, Kathy made her first trip to Peshawar. She returned there once she had spent some time in Japan. She returned because she wanted to travel and partly because she needed to earn money. And Peshawar in the late eighties was a hub for foreign journalists who wanted to cover the war in Afghanistan. Kathy joined them and made several trips to Afghanistan, accompanying the Mujahideen. After a year in Peshawar, she was offered a job at AP in Islamabad and accepted. “It was a local job”; she took it because it meant a steady income and moved to Islamabad shortly before Zia-ul-Haq’s plane crashed.
Crossing treacherous terrains, climbing mountains, watching Soviet planes fly past… she has been through it all. She remembers the time they walked for three days only to be told that they were still in Pakistan’s Tirah Valley; the time they crossed a minefield and she saw someone step on a mine; evenings when the fighters would pass around a basket of medicines ranging from pain killers to antibiotics; the day a Russian plane flew so close by she could see the pilot’s blond hair or the night she was on a mountain top and the sky was covered with stars.
She did all this before we were even aware of how the trauma of war could affect those covering it. Did she ever feel she suffered from PTSD? It is hard to tell whether she answers the question or deflects it. She doesn’t deny that the experience was difficult, but provides no detail, preferring to tell the lighter anecdotes and insist on how fortunate she was to meet such interesting people and have so many adventures. She laughs as she narrates how she climbed to the top of the mountain and then made fun of the Mujahideen, who reached later.
As an aside, she mentions she is scared of heights despite having spent years climbing mountains to travel to Afghanistan. “It wasn’t an option to not be strong.” Few words, but then she doesn’t dwell on the struggles. Again and again, she rushes through the scary moments and slows down to provide details of the gentler ones.
She stops to think when asked if she saw it as adventure or became addicted to the adrenalin rush. When she answers, she is certain it was neither. It was a job and she had committed to it and had a living to earn. “What else would I do?” she asks, adding that she is hardly a good writer or a star journalist, calling herself an “in-the-moment” kind of a person.
Lucky, fortunate, blessed, are words she mentions again and again. Lucky to get the chances she did, fortunate to meet the people she did, excited to tell the stories she did and privileged that people speak to her and let her into their lives and stories. As she says so, she mentions the families of the boys who fell from the plane as the Western powers were leaving Kabul. She located their villages and sought the families out, recounting what they said. There are no stories of personal heroism or grandeur, only of the people she met.
Yet, it wasn’t the Afghan people who kept her in our part of the world, it was a Pakistani. Soon after she moved here “I met (Naeem) Pasha and which is why I didn’t go back.” Soon after they met, she fell ill and he brought her soup and so began a love story that is still going strong. They eventually married in 2004, although she says she doesn’t know why they decided to do so then. However, the commitment to the relationship that turned Pakistan into home started long before 2004. She quotes her stepdaughter Kyla (who Kathy says was six or seven when she first met Pasha) as saying that she doesn’t remember her father not being with Kathy.
Between the professional and the personal, she never thought there was another place she could be.
Along the way, came her book on Afghanistan, I is for Infidel, which she says she only wrote because of the way “people were being made heroes of” after the Taliban were removed and others brought in.
And rambling as she does, in most of her answers, she adds, “The real manipulation of fact and history makes me feel that our job as reporters is to ask questions and report. Not be activists and not be opinionators.” Two short sentences reveal not just what she sees her job to be, but what is happening around her in her field.
In 2014, Kathy, who was then 61, and her close friend, photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, were attacked while covering the elections in Afghanistan by an Afghan policeman who was in charge of protecting them. Anja died while Kathy was severely injured. An interview she gave then quotes her as saying, “I looked down and my left hand was separated from my wrist.” She continues to wear a brace. I can only ask if it was difficult to return to Afghanistan afterwards. “I needed to. Anja would have been outraged if I hadn’t,” she replies. “It was important for me not to be held hostage to fear”, apprehensive whether she would now meet Afghans and wonder if they would attack her.
It is something she has said in nearly every interview she has given about the attack. In the ones that came immediately after the event and those that took place years later. But there is always a concern in the voice. The concern of a journalist who wants to do her job sincerely and never with any bitterness.
Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for NewsWise on DawnNews.