DEATH IN THE MOUNTAINS
Image: ©David Pratt
The picture above is ©David Pratt. He very generously donated it to an online project we've been running in peace charity, Dove Tales, and the poem I wrote in response is below.
I first saw David's picture in his exhibition at the Sogo Gallery in Glasgow's Saltmarket. I found it exceptionally powerful and moving visually, but it also had a very special meaning for me as my friend, Andy Skrzypkowiak, died in those mountains.
Andy was an exceptionally courageous photojournalist, celebrated for his footage of the Afghan mujahideen force led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir. Massoud was a cultured and sophisticated man who read Persian poetry as well as the political writings of revolutionary leaders, and Andy was fascinated by him.
I met Andy through my great friend, the photographer Chris Gregory, who fell in love with him and married him after a seven day courtship. Immediately after the wedding he flew out to Afghanistan for what would be the first of sixteen trips there.
On his last trip, in 1987, he was murdered by a member of a mujahideen group controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - apparently for his camera.
He was charismatic, troubled, honest, crazy generous, a bit crazy. Not like anyone else I've ever met before or ever will again.
The Seeker My friend died in these mountains, harsh lands on a Biblical scale though it was the Koran he brought back with him. He went to bear witness, had a camera he’d never used and a can-do attitude he’d learned from the SAS. He bucked the system there, too maverick to toe the line, a failure in his eyes though not in the eyes of others. Up there in the mountains they were soldiers too, fighting their holy war. Maybe all war was holy to him. Not that he wanted to see people die but he understood resistance to oppressors. He worshipped their courage.
He marched through the night with men who knew the paths by heart, following their footsteps with faith
and blind animal grace.
They slept in icy caves, scattered with animal bones,
and he talked of books and love with the man who was a lion to his people.
A man who recognised
the roaring inside him and knew
there were ways
to quiet it, to be still.
In the thin air of the mountains
existence becomes pure and it’s easy to believe heroism is about finding ways to die. The chance of a noble death, dying in the pursuit of truth, was taken from my friend. He was murdered - for his camera. But I hope that up there, where the height of luxury is hot tea infused with the tang of woodsmoke, he was finding a way to live.
Chris Gregory was a photographer who worked for The Observer, the Sunday Times Magazine and many other newspapers. We worked on many stories together, most memorably one about the ship girls of Cardiff, women who worked as prostitutes in the docks area of the city.
Below she talks about Andy and their trips to Afghanistan:
Andy Skrzypkowiak had a profound influence on so many lives, not just mine and my daughter‘s but the Afghans he knew and the people who knew him. He was murdered at the age of 36, leaving me and my then two year old daughter Shahnoor just photographs, movie film and memories. He made over a dozen trips into Afghanistan to film the conflict and the effect of the Russian invasion. I accompanied him on two of the trips. I took still photographs whilst he shot movie at very close quarters.
It was always dangerous, he was always in bombing. I recall running on a mountain track with Russian shells bursting round us every few seconds. It was like a war movie, with thunder and flashing explosions and the earth spluttering around us. But this was real and Andy faced this every trip he made.
As a reprisal for the mujahideen attack, whilst we sheltered in a ravine, Russian helicopter gunships fired 6000 rounds a minute towards our hiding place. I felt the downdraft and listened to the deafening explosions, then the tinkle of shrapnel as they strafed the riverbed so close by - and then we were running to the opposite bank over the water as the gunships turned 180 degrees to strafe the bank just 10 meters away from where he had just fled. I wanted to know why they didn’t just drop bombs on us. Andy, with his army training and knowledge of war, told me the downdraft from such a low height would have destroyed the helicopter. Andy was the son of Polish refugees, born in Ely. He was magnificent, with all the power and beauty of a volcano and all the turbulence too. Even after so many years and a happy second marriage, I still miss him. Our daughter has named her first child 'Andrzej' after him.
To order prints of David Pratt's picture contact Craig Wallace at Sogo Arts.
I met David through my work with Dove Tales. By one of those curious coincidences of fate, he had also met Andy Skrzypkowiak - in Afghanistan:
I was still pretty young and very much a rookie war reporter when I met Andy Skrzypkowiak. At that age we all feel indestructible and I revelled in the exotic, high-octane experience of my early years in my chosen profession.
But all that quickly evaporated with Andy’s death. A seasoned ITN cameraman, though himself only 36, he had talked kindly to me offering advice in the Pakistan frontier town of Peshawar while on one of my first war assignments during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Raised in Britain by Polish parents, Andy took me under his wing, offering insights that were to prove invaluable. So, too, was his infectious passion for the job.
“This war will go down in history, and I want to be in there, close, getting it all on film,” Andy once said. A few months later he was dead, killed near the Kantiwar Pass on his way into Afghanistan’s remote Panjsher Valley.
To read the full text of David's article, click below:
My thanks go to Chris Gregory for sharing her memories of Andy Skrzwypkowiak in Afghanistan and to David Pratt for allowing me to use his wonderful image.