New York (AP) — Over and over, Kathy Gannon has re-lived the decisions that led to her close friend's death — and almost her own — in Afghanistan.
Gannon, a veteran Associated Press correspondent, and Anja Niedringhaus, an award-winning AP photographer from Germany, had negotiated through many stories and many dangers together for five years. But on April 4, as they prepared to cover the presidential election in Afghanistan the next day, an Afghan police commander ripped into them with gunfire.
She keeps asking herself if she could have prevented the tragedy. And the answer is always "No."
"We weren't careless or cavalier about the security arrangements ...," she said in New York last week, in her first interview since the attack. "We really made sure that we had a safe place to stay, we knew who we were traveling with, we knew the area in which we were going. Honestly, I've thought it through so many times — I know neither Anja or I would have done anything differently."
The two women were accompanying a convoy transporting ballots from the city of Khost in eastern Afghanistan to an outlying Taliban stronghold, under the protection of Afghan security forces. As they sat in their vehicle in a well-guarded compound, one of the men supposedly assuring their safety walked up, yelled "Allahu Akbar," and fired on them with his AK-47. Then he dropped his emptied weapon and surrendered.
Niedringhaus, 48, died instantly. Gannon, 61, took six bullets through her left arm, left shoulder and right hand.
"I remember saying, 'Oh my God, this time we're finished,'" Gannon said. "One minute we were sitting in the car laughing, and the next, our shoulders were pressed hard against each other as if one was trying to hold the other up. The shooting ended. I looked toward Anja. I didn't know."
As the driver sped their bullet-riddled car to the nearest hospital, 45 minutes away, the translator told Gannon, "Kathy, don't leave us." She was sure she was dying.
"That time was very much about really making peace," Gannon recalled. "I was so trying to just breathe and just go peacefully."
At the hospital, Gannon was sedated in the operating room. When she woke up, she'd been airlifted back to the capital, Kabul.
It was only there, still half-conscious, that she realized her friend was dead.
The months of recovery and therapy since have been grueling. Gannon raves about the care she has received, in particular from Dr. Duretti Fufa, a hand and reconstructive specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Fufa reconstructed Gannon's left arm with bone, fat and muscle from her left leg, attaching nerves and arteries where there was once a six-inch (15-centimeter) hole.
"As horrible as everything was, there were so many times you think, 'My God, I'm so fortunate,'" Gannon said. "Every nerve, even the smallest nerve in my left hand, was intact. How is that possible?"
The doctor in turn praised Gannon for her perseverance.
"She is an incredibly motivated person," Fufa said. "I could not ask for a more motivated and pleasant patient to work with."
Gannon still can't move the fingers on her left hand. But when she recovers, she is determined to return to Afghanistan. While her relatives in Canada and Pakistan worry, they understand her decision.
"Neither Anja or I would ever accept to be forced out by some crazy gunman," she said. (He has since been sentenced to death by an Afghan court.)
Gannon has established a strong bond with the people of Afghanistan over three decades of covering one war after another. As she put it, "There's history still to be told there."
Moreover, Gannon said, Niedringhaus would want her to go back. Niedringhaus worked in trouble spots such as the Gaza Strip, Israel and Kuwait, and was one of 11 AP photographers who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for coverage of the Iraq War. She and Gannon started working together in 2009 in Kabul and hit it off, despite an initial disagreement over a military assignment.
"It was as if we had known each other for ever," Gannon recalled.
Both journalists believed in getting away from officialdom and spending time in villages, sleeping on the floors of mud houses and talking closely with people. Now, Gannon insists she will do so again — without Niedringhaus, but in her memory and with her spirit.
"If it was reversed, Anja would be out there telling those stories too — she'd be telling them in the most amazing pictures," she said. "It might be physically half a team, but emotionally and every other way, when I go back, it's a two-person team. We're together on this."