David Gilkey and the Kitty From Kabul

The NPR photojournalist killed in Afghanistan on Sunday seldom seemed to smile. But Squeak could make him chuckle.

Squeak, the Afghan tabby (David Gilkey, courtesy of Sean Carberry)

There are cat people, and there are dog people. David Gilkey, the NPR photographer killed in Afghanistan on Sunday, was a dog person, in personality as well as in pet preference. Half of him was pure junkyard dog—gruff, husky, and intimidating with his shaved head, Special Forces beard, and gunfighter’s eyes. He loved crawling through the mud and sleeping in the dirt with Marines. His other half, though, was Labradoodle—soft, sensitive, loyal, and kind of goofy.

When I took over NPR’s Kabul bureau in June 2012, I inherited Jack Bower, the gorgeous but twitchy German shepherd who had belonged to my predecessor. David, who passed through the bureau regularly during his frequent trips to Afghanistan, loved Jack and wanted to bring him to the U.S., but the dog had developed an unpleasant habit of biting people. David said that cost Jack his visa; I ended up having to give the dog away.

But in the fall of 2012, a dirty, worm-infested kitten started wandering through the well-manicured garden of the NPR compound in the upscale Taimani neighborhood of Kabul, one of the two main neighborhoods where foreigners lived in the city. I took pity on her and brought her into the house as my new roommate—Squeak.

Come May 2013, David was back in the country that had become a second home to him since he had hit the ground with the first wave of the U.S. invasion of 2001. In the course of his countless trips to the country ever since, Afghanistan was the story he invested more blood, sweat, and tears in than any other. That spring, he and the rest of the NPR crew breezed through Kabul for a few days before heading out on a month-long embed with the U.S. military in southern and eastern provinces of the country. Tom Bowman, a correspondent, and Graham Smith, a producer, both took to Squeak, despite her skittishness. David was unimpressed. He missed Jack.

About a year later, David arrived in Kabul for a long-anticipated reporting stint with me. We had talked about working in the field together practically since I met him during my first week at NPR in 2011, where I was hired on as a “danger producer” and then dispatched to cover places like Libya and Syria before ending up in Afghanistan. His constant reporting trips around the world had kept David busy and unable to link up with me, but finally, as Afghanistan’s presidential election approached in the spring of 2014, he got word he could deploy to Kabul for a couple of months. In early March 2014, David joined Squeak as my roommate.

Our primary assignment that March and April 2014 was covering the upcoming election, and the violence that preceded it. We were running between campaign rallies, covering attacks, and heading out around Kabul and to other provinces to work on feature stories. At the end of each reporting trip, we’d come back to the house to file, eat, and decompress. It was in those moments that Squeak became David’s muse.

At first, David was just humoring me and my (in his eyes odd) affection for the moody little beast. Particularly odd, perhaps, was that I had trained her to sit on my shoulder; sometimes she’d jump to it from the couch or the coffee table, and other times she’d jump from the floor, and I’d catch her halfway up and put her there. She was heavily bonded to me and not so friendly with strangers. But gradually, she began to court David. He’d be sitting at his desk editing photos, and she’d crash through his bedroom door, walk around the room, meow, and then walk out. He’d get up and close the door; moments later, she’d barge in again.

This initially bothered David, but he developed a child-like fascination with Squeak’s behavior. “Kitty,” he’d observe with a chuckle (he usually called her “kitty”), “keeps busting open my door. She hates closed doors!” He started constructing cat toys for her; he’d take paracord (the thin nylon string used for parachutes and other tactical gear—David had a field kit that made many Special Forces troops jealous) and tie a pen cap or something to the end of it and drag it around for Squeak to chase.

One day David was on his hands and knees filling our living room bukhari, which is basically a primitive wood stove used to heat Afghan houses. Squeak jumped on his back and sat on his shoulders to supervise his work. After that, increasingly, when David would take breaks from editing photos (or breaks from napping, which was a favorite pastime of his), he’d play with Squeak. He took over feeding duties. He posted artistic photos of her on social media.

Gilkey and Squeak (Sean Carberry)

One of my favorite pictures of David depicts when she first took a nap in his lap— something she rarely did with anyone other than me. He sat on the couch looking at her completely befuddled. He didn’t know whether to scratch her head, or what he was supposed to do, so he just sat quietly, trying not to move or disturb her.

Then one day, for the first time, she jumped on David’s shoulder, like she usually did on mine. He reacted like a five-year-old on Christmas morning. Here was this beefy guy who looked like a security contractor or a lumberjack, and he was simply giddy, as if by perching on him this little Afghan tabby had initiated him into some secret club.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Squeak an object of innocence, as she could be terror, but in that setting, she could always provoke a smile—even from David, whose nickname among his colleagues was Smiley because he rarely seemed to smile and had such a dry and dark sense of humor. He came to see her as I did, as a friend and a source of emotional support in a dangerous place going through a weird time.

And we needed it. The period in which David and I reported together corresponded with a sea change in the tactics of the Taliban, who were now conducting more attacks on foreign civilians in Kabul than ever before. Two months before he had arrived, in January, Taliban gunmen attacked a popular Lebanese restaurant in the city; 13 foreigners, including friends and acquaintances, were killed, along with eight Afghans. In March, gunmen shot and killed a Swedish journalist in broad daylight; later in the month, militants attacked diners at the upscale and heavily secured Serena Hotel, killing a beloved Afghan journalist and his family as well as several foreign civilians. There were attacks on election compounds and guesthouses across Kabul. In April, the day before the vote, two veteran AP journalists were deliberately shot by an Afghan police officer. One, Kathy Gannon, was seriously wounded, and the other, award-winning photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, was killed. After I finished reporting that story, David and I just sat in our living room and looked at each other dumbfounded. “What the fuck?” he kept saying.

During that dark time, we would talk for hours about the state of the country. What conclusions could we draw from the attacks targeting foreign civilians?Were they blips, or did they show a trend? What stories could we safely cover? How much should we restrict our movements? Were we heading toward a Baghdad-style locked down existence?

David had seen just about everything in the country, but this had him unnerved—which was unnerving to me. If he was starting to feel that things were getting dark and dangerous in Kabul, then it must be bad. But I was grateful he was there. It was difficult to cover all of the violence and report on the deaths of friends and people we knew, and it was stressful to figure out how to react to the increasing danger in the city. But David had lived through the worst of Iraq and Afghanistan; having him in the house helped keep me grounded.

At the same time, Squeak helped keep us both grounded.

In early April, NPR pulled David from Kabul and sent him to Cuba. I would remain in Afghanistan for the rest of 2014. David planned to return for one more stint together, but other assignments kept him from coming back before I shut off the lights and closed the NPR bureau in December of that year. Through the remainder of my time in Afghanistan, though, David would check on me anytime something went boom in Kabul, and he’d always ask about kitty.

After I left, I resettled in D.C. and imported Squeak. David would pass through town now and then in between assignments to West Africa to cover Ebola, or across the U.S. to cover veterans, and he’d always make it a point to swing by my place to give kitty a scratch. This spring, David started the process of moving his home base from Portland, Oregon to D.C., and once he had some downtime after his latest reporting trip to Afghanistan, he was going to complete the move. Squeak and I were looking forward to it. But the story he loved so much, and believed was too important to let fade from the headlines, claimed his life.

I’m glad Squeak isn’t capable of understanding what happened to David and feeling his loss. I’ll miss him and his giddiness with kitty. I never got the chance to tell him that I had put instructions in my will that if something ever happened to me, I wanted him to take Squeak.