I had just finished interviewing an Australian engineer about a reconstruction project at a boys’ school in Tarin Kowt when there was a thunderclap. Debris hurtled into the air in a column of smoke a couple blocks away. And I thought, “Suicide bomber.”
Just a few minutes earlier, I’d been out on the street outside the school with some Australian soldiers. Glancing left I’d glimpsed a Dutch patrol idling in armored personnel carriers and trucks outside a girls’ school. It was International Women’s Day, so the Dutch had hauled some of their national media to a ceremony with local ladies.
Back at the boys’ school, my heart sank when I connected the dots: The Taliban had blown up Women’s Day. At a school. For girls.
The Aussies had their armor and helmets on and their weapons ready. They were itching to help. But the order came from higher to stay put (see photo below). The Dutch quick-reaction force was on the way and they didn’t need extra people getting in the way. Over the next hour or so information trickled in. Three Dutch soldiers were hurt. Now one was dead. There were four dead Afghans, now ten. Many of them were children. Later, we patrolled around the blast site, where a small crowd of grieving Afghans had gathered. And that night, we all jumped when Dutch artillery started firing in the distance.
It was a full day before I got back to Kamp Holland. It turned out that the suicide bombing was just a prelude to a major Taliban offensive. Hundreds of fighters had poured down the mountains to hit Dutch and Afghan army checkpoints in nearby Chura. The Dutch fought back with everything in their arsenal: the cannon, their Apache gunships and even F-16s from Kandahar. I climbed a hill to the artillery firing position and watched them fire off a few rounds. The gunners ate ice cream between fire missions and helped me position my cameras for the best shots.
Before bed I checked out some footage shot by a Dutch reporter in the bombed convoy. You could see Dutch medics desperately doing chest compressions on their dying friend. A runner, scurrying between vehicles to deliver messages, had to leap over a pile of children’s body parts.