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Remembering Afghan Journalist Zabihullah Tamanna

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ZABIHULLAH TAMANNA
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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On a cold November morning -- actually, it was more the like the middle of the night -- on the roof of a hotel in Herat, a TV crew from Canada was huddled around a small camera, set up to capture the sunrise in this northwestern Afghan city.

As the dark sky began to lighten, it became clear that it might be too overcast to see anything coming up over the horizon. And that's when the lone Afghan in the group decided that coffee was required.

The restaurant won't be open for another hour, I warned him as he started to head toward the elevators. He turned and said, don't worry, I'll get them to make some.

Don't worry, don't worry. That's the common refrain of the fixer in a place like Afghanistan. The traffic is horrible -- we will never make it to parliament in time for our interview. Don't worry, don't worry. This person I really need for my story hasn't called me back. Don't worry, don't worry. Is it safe to travel there? Don't worry, don't worry.

Zabihullah Tamanna must have repeated that refrain hundreds of times over the weeks I worked with him in 2015. He wrote it in his e-mails and said it in phone calls prior to our arrival. And by the time we started shooting our documentary, he no longer needed to voice it -- he conveyed his reassurance by just a nod. Don't worry.

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Zabi, Mellissa, and photojournalist Sat Nandlall, on assignment in Kabul for Global 16X9 in November 2015.

I wonder if that's what he said to NPR photographer David Gilkey when the convoy they were riding in last week came under attack in Helmand. I imagine that he told David the same thing, before their vehicle was destroyed and they were both lost to us forever. I imagine that Zabi, as he was known, was probably very worried, but that he wouldn't let on because he wouldn't want to alarm his colleague. He had a very calm way about him -- sometimes so calm it would border on exasperation, especially when I kept repeating the same questions.

He was calm because he was confident. He'd been doing this job -- working with foreign journalists -- for almost 15 years, and he was used to the rhythm and requirements of our work. He was astute, often one step ahead of us, and knew how to trouble-shoot a shoot if an element of a story fell through. There was always someone he knew or could call to help us out of a jam. There was always an element he thought would add to our narrative, a suggestion that would lift the story, a question we hadn't thought to ask at the end of an interview. His confidence carried and warmed our team during those cold and rainy November days of shooting.

His innate curiosity was what made him a splendid journalist. He asked as many questions of me as I did of him. What is Canada like? What is Washington like? Where did you go to school? Why don't you have children? It was a constant exchange of ideas, an earnest attempt to understand another culture; this was Zabi's true nature.

Without him, and other brave journalists like him, the rest of us would not be able to do our jobs.

He was a proud father, showing off pictures of his children on his old Android phone. He talked about moving his family to Canada someday; they might have a better life there, in a country where the randomness of death doesn't haunt civilians the same way it does in Afghanistan. It hurts to imagine the potential that will never be realized; the life Zabi could have lived with all the opportunity and freedom that a country like Canada would have offered.

But for the moment, he loved what he was doing in his home country, despite the inherent dangers that come with being an Afghan working with foreigners. He was proud to be NPR's fixer; proud of the documentary we produced that winter. It was important, he told me, to help get Afghanistan's story out to the rest of the world, when the rest of the world was too war-weary to listen.

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Zabi, Mellissa, Sat, and producer Claude Adams at Babaji high school in Herat, November 2015, talking to the principal about students being poisoned. Photo courtesy of David Lavery.

Long after I returned to Washington, he would still fill my inbox with story ideas "for the next time, dear" -- stories he knew would interest me, about the continuing struggle for women's rights, about setbacks and steps forward, to try to convince me to come back and keep telling Afghanistan's stories. I told him I would, and I was looking forward to working with him again. Without him, and other brave journalists like him, the rest of us would not be able to do our jobs.

Later on that cold November morning in Herat, true to his word, Zabi returned to the rooftop with steaming mugs of coffee. I was lamenting the clouds that refused to budge, ruining what we hoped would be a glorious sunrise. It's still a beautiful city, he said, maybe the most beautiful city in the whole country. Just wait until the light comes. Don't worry, don't worry.

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