Behind the Prizes: Silent Night

On March 11th, 2012, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left his army base and allegedly killed 16 innocent civilians in the villages surrounding Kandahar, Afghanistan. While he was criminally tried in America, little has been heard from the villagers who witnessed the gruesome murders firsthand. Lela Ahmadzai, a German video and photojournalist who was born in Kabul, happened to be in Afghanistan when news of the massacre trickled out. She decided to go to Kandahar and record the firsthand accounts of those who saw their families massacred. In her multimedia piece, Silent Night, she uses photo, video and audio to showcase the stories of those directly affected by Bales’ actions.

Columbia Visuals: How did you find this story?

Lela Ahmadzai: I was in Kabul with two journalists – one for the LA Times and one for Der Spiegel. The day the attack happened, I was quite surprised to see it in the press. It was covered by BBC and CNN, and that was something new to me. I’ve been working in Afghanistan since 2003 and I’d heard many stories about victims of these kinds of attacks on civilians. But, I never had proof of these kinds of actions. 

Once I went to South Afghanistan, I found out that [the villagers] weren’t living in the area anymore because it was too hard for them. The people didn’t feel comfortable there anymore. They are mostly farmers of pomegranates and grapes – very simple farmers who had lived there for generations. They had to leave their land that they got from great-grandfathers.

I contacted a good journalist named Mamoun Durrani and I started to send him from house to house to find out where the [victims] live. Finally, we decided to interview the victims from all three houses [where the massacre occurred].


Hekmatullah Gul and Rafiullah witnessed the attacks from two different locations near Camp Belamby. In Haji Mohammad Wazir’s house there were no surviving witnesses. From the series “Silent Night” © Lela Ahmadzai.

CV: How did you visualize a story that took place in the past?

LA: Mamoun took some of the pictures the first day the massacre occurred. I could not go back in time, but he was one of the best colleagues for me to have because he was there from the first day. 

We found the solution to portray the people through close ups. We took shots of faces, and hands, and moments.  You can awaken a story with these moments, how they look in my camera, how they behave.

We had one burning photo [of the bodies,] but we don’t want to shock people with the piece. And because of those gruesome photos we decided to keep the movie in black and white – it’s not about blood or shocking, it’s about the eyewitnesses. 

IMG_0012-1-w (1)

Rafiullah,15 years old. Shot at the home of his neighbor. Wounded in both legs and lost consciousness. From the series “Silent Night” © Lela Ahmadzai.

CV: How did you gain the trust of your subjects? What challenges did you face?

LA: In the beginning it was quite hard. In Afghan culture, they don’t allow women to speak about things like the massacre. When they saw me they thought, “Oh shit. So this lady wants to talk to us?” They didn’t know how to react. But I very quickly began using traditional behavior. I knew how to respect the oldest one, how to be with the kids. After two or three days, they opened up. After three or four  days they really opened up. They even said, “Thanks for listening to us.” I think it was the language and the behavior that worked.

They saw that I was trying hard. There were journalists from Kandahar, journalists from the West, and I was the only one that’s translating and trying to really connect. It was good to spend the time with them; a week, not a few hours. We wouldn’t have the same results if we did quick interviews for an hour. We spent time, eating, talking, drinking tea.

I also shot the video with a DSLR camera, not huge equipment. That way the subjects aren’t scared, there is no big equipment and lights – I never use those in that setting. It’s important that you have a little camera to focus more on the protagonist and their story. 

The challenging part was to really manage seven eyewitnesses (only three ended up in the final video) and to listen to the stories, translate and work in four languages. I was speaking in German, English, Persian and Pashtun.

CV: Why did you decide to use photos along with the videos?

LA:  Photo makes the moment stop. You really have to look at the photo and listen to the audio. For us, the interview is the most important part – first comes audio. You need a story, you need to build a story. Video is too consuming most of the time. To listen to a foreign language and to read subtitles, it’s too much for the head and for the viewer’s attention.


Hekmatullah Gul, 8 years old. Oldest of seven children of Mohammad Dawood and Massouma. From the village Najiban. Hekmatullah witnessed his father’s murder that night. From the series “Silent Night” © Lela Ahmadzai.

CV: The subject matter of this story is quite difficult. Did you find it personally taxing to report on this?

LA: After four days of talking to the survivors, my stomach felt quite bad. I wasn’t sure. I’m a journalist, I work everyday. I was by myself and had a good distance between the story and my emotions. But my stomach hurt. I started to not eat breakfast and I knew I had to leave. After a while, I realized it’s a big pressure on a reporter to hear these stories for seven days, over and over again.

CV: How did you publicize the piece after it was published?

LA: Der Spiegel paid most of my costs to be there. After the story was shot, edited and produced, we decided to give it out for free online. We sent it to AP or Huffington Post and they wrote little articles about it and used our movie. It was important for us that we had twenty different magazines and storytelling places republishing our work online.

Haji Muhammad Wazir

Haji Mohammad Wazir, age 38, was a fourth-generation grape, pomegranate, and wheat farmer in the Belamby area. On March 11, 2012 he lost eleven family members. From the series “Silent Night” © Lela Ahmadzai.

You can see Silent Night at the World Press Photo Multimedia exhibition at the Brown Institute at Columbia Journalism School. The exhibit will be open from January 19-February 6 (Monday-Friday) from 4pm to 8pm. Silent night will play at 4:05, 5:56, and 7:36. More information click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.