Mark Richards Found Beauty in Afghanistan, Then Afghanistan Almost Killed Him

The photojournalist learned to ride a horse, met a legendary warrior and had the most sensual experience of his life

Mark Richards Found Beauty in Afghanistan, Then Afghanistan Almost Killed Him Mark Richards Found Beauty in Afghanistan, Then Afghanistan Almost Killed Him
Mark Richards is a survivor, but Afghanistan almost killed him. At the age of 28, the photojournalist sneaked across the border from Pakistan. It... Mark Richards Found Beauty in Afghanistan, Then Afghanistan Almost Killed Him

Mark Richards is a survivor, but Afghanistan almost killed him.

At the age of 28, the photojournalist sneaked across the border from Pakistan. It was the early 1980s and he was making his living taking pictures of war. He’d spent the past few years covering all the conflicts Southeast Asia had to offer. As Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, he was ready for a new challenge.

One night, at a party at the American embassy in Bangkok, he met Australian Tony Davis—the man who would convince him to go to Afghanistan. “He is the prototypical Australian no-nonsense kind of guy,” Richards says of Davis.

“If you were in a bad situation, you’d follow him anywhere. He was a nice person. But he told me tales of Afghanistan, driving down roads with the guerillas and seeing headlights ahead and the guerillas assured him it was nothing and then, as they came up upon it, it turned out to be Russians. So they had to haul ass. ‘This is totally insane,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’”

And with that, the photographer picked up his gear and flew from Thailand to India to Pakistan, aiming to cross into Afghanistan on foot. He had no plan, little money and a pocketful of cheap speed. “The friend of every pilot,” he says. “Simple ones. The kind you can buy at a Thai drug store.”

When he left Afghanistan three months later, he was almost dead.

Mark Richards photo

By the time he met Davis in the early 1980s, Richards was already addicted to conflict. He’d left home in 1972 at the age of 17, fleeing a verbally and physically abusive family. For a lot of kids with shitty home-lives, the military is a guaranteed ticket out of a bad situation. For Richards, the fact that America was at war in Vietnam just made the prospect more enticing.

“I always felt it was way safer to face the Vietnamese than my stepmother. I would live longer. The Vietnamese were way worse shots than she was. Every male who could, went into the military in some shape or form. My sister just got pregnant.”

Richards enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a signals-intelligence specialist. His job was to interpret aerial photographs. “It was towards the end,” he says. “I was there in ’73 aboard a carrier and then in ’75 during the evacuation when they were pushing helicopters off the carrier.”

Richards served during both Operation Frequent Wind and Operation Eagle Pull. He helped evacuate both Saigon and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The experience left such an impression on Richards that he used to ask all of his assistants where they were on April 30, 1975—the day Saigon fell. “Vietnam was crazy at the end, during the evacuation,” he says.

He left the Navy in 1976 and went back to the U.S. for college. He graduated in 1982 and immediately went back to Southeast Asia. He stayed there chasing wars, taking photographs, getting high on adrenaline and avoiding home.He liked the rush of conflict and wanted to stay close to it, so he became a globetrotting photojournalist. “Pick a country, find your war,” he explains.

By 1983, Richards needed a new war to chase. He’d spent three months following guerilla groups in Burma and got a great photo out of it. “I sent a Christmas card home that year at a temple with an AK-47 saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ That scared everyone,” he says. Then he suffered through a bought of cerebral malaria in Bangkok and got into a fight with the women he was staying with … or rather, her husband.

“A lot of craziness ensued,” he says. “I went out with her and her husband one night and he got awfully drunk and he threatened to kill me. So I had to hop out of the taxi as it was driving through Bangkok traffic. I don’t recommend that.”

The husband wasn’t someone you wanted to piss off. “He was somebody who coordinated security throughout Southeast Asia for U.S. embassies,” Richards explains. Despite that, Richards kept in contact with her and the woman eventually left her husband. “I’m not sure why I was tempting fate like that.”

Freshly free of her husband, the woman invited Richards to a party at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok and it was here that he met Davis and learned of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion and the brave warriors defending their home from foreign invaders. He decided he had to go.

“Like most people that end up there, I had issues,” he says. “I had father issues, family issues, anger issues, am-I-a-man issues. That sort of thing. Not to mention a deep and abiding insecurity.”

Mark Richards in a Mark Richards photo

Davis had contacts in Peshawar—a Pakistani town close to the Afghan border–so Richards made his way through India, into Pakistan and headed for the border town. He spent a week there before taking a bus to Tari Mangal, boarding a vehicle with some fixers in the dead of night and crossing into Afghanistan. “It was like the end of the Earth,” he says, remembering the first time entered the country.

While he traveled, he learned what he could of the war from his contacts and people he met on the road. One name—Ahmad Shah Massoud—came up again and again. Massoud was one of Afghanistan’s most famous mujahadeen even then. His legend would grow. Afghans called him the Lion of Panjshir. He would fight the Soviets to a standstill in the ’80s. Many credit him with forcing Russia to withdrawal.

Richards was in Afghanistan chasing a high and avoiding home, but he needed a goal to justify his stay.  It was all well and good to run into a war-torn country and take a few photos, but to score a big sale back home he’d need a big get. Massoud was that big get. If he could photograph the rebel leader, and possibly interview him, then he could sell it all for decent money back home and pay for his adventures in abroad.

But Richards wasn’t prepared for the harsh terrain and constant danger of the country. “I thought I was in shape, but I wasn’t,” he says. “I was barely keeping up.” His group traveled mostly at night and alternated between hiking and horseback. Sometimes, they’d march as long as 13 hours in a single day.

“My high school letter in sports was A for asthma,” Richards jokes. “I’m quite the athlete now, but that’s only because of Afghanistan.”

Worse, back in Tari Mangal, he ate something that didn’t agree with him. “It gave me diarrhea … and I had that the entire time I was in Afghanistan.” Richards hunted for toilet paper and comfortable places to shit as much as he did Massoud.

“I became paranoid about toilet paper the way a hungry man is paranoid about food,” Richards says. “I always needed to have it on hand. One time I was at a stream bed and I was doing my business and I see this Afghan guy not too far away from me, maybe 30 or 40 feet. So I do my stuff and start to walk away, I see him pick up river gravel and wipe his ass. That inspired me to always have toilet paper.”

The journey from Tari Mangal to Massoud in the Panjshir Valley was perilous. Richards tells me that he almost died several times and that those deadly detours usually involved bathroom breaks. “Every time I almost died, I had my pants down. How’s that for infamy?”

The first brush with death was at a routine pit stop at night. Richards told his fellow travelers he needed to stop off to relieve himself. He didn’t speak the language and they didn’t understand him, but he thought they had so he took himself to a nearby stream bed and dropped trou.

“Then, all of a sudden I heard AK-47 firing-bolts,” he says. “So I hard to turn around and walk back towards them with my pants down and my hands up. That was the first time.” Lucky for Richards, it was just his fixers jumping at shadows in the dark.

After days on the road, Richards and his fixers arrived in the Panjshir Valley and, near a ramshackle tea house, found Massoud. This was the end of the winter of 1983. The Soviets and the Afghans had brokered a ceasefire, so Massoud was taking a lot of meetings and planning. Richards had a chance to sit and interview him through an intermediary.

Massoud. Mark Richards photo

Finding Massoud had been Richards big mission, what drove him through the harsh terrain and brushes with death. Yet when Richards tells this story, he’s light on the details. Massoud was distracted with meetings and strategy, Richards was distracted by his bowels and sense of adventure.

Halfway through his time in Afghanistan, he’d achieved his goal and met the famed rebel leader Massoud. This was a man who would go on to take a hard line against the Taliban, help found the Northern Alliance and die in a suicide bombing just days before 9/11.

He was a legend then, but would become a national icon. For Richards, he was just another pit stop on a journey through a foreign land.

From the Panjshir, the photographer went north towards Kunduz. He wanted pictures of the Soviet military and his fixers aimed to please. Just outside of Kunduz, Richards found the Russians, but he also found something he didn’t think he’d ever see in Afghanistan — a toilet.

“A real toilet. This was above my dreams, the closest thing to heaven possible,” he says. On the way into town, however, the Russians had buzzed them. “A [spotting plane] flew over and then, a little later, an [MI-24 attack helicopter] came over. It did some circles and left.” The group pushed through and made it to the village where Richards sat down on porcelain for the first time in two months to ease his troubled bowels.

The comfort didn’t last. “Then I hear all these explosions and rocket fire,” Richards says. “The Mi-24. It was coming from the other side of the town and [my guides] said, ‘We gotta leave.’ And I had just sat down to shit and I wasn’t gonna leave for nothing. If I was going to die, this was it.”

Taking his own life in his hands, Richards finished using the toilet before fleeing the village with his guides. He got close to the Soviet army yet again as he was driving to Kunduz in a jeep. It was the middle of the night and the driver switched on the jeep’s headlights.

“Which I can’t believe,” Richards says. Throughout his journey, his fixers worried over light and reflection. They even worried over Richard’s camera lenses, complaining that the reflection off the shiny surface might give away their position.

The driver began to say a word over and over and over again, but Richards couldn’t make it out. “All of a sudden I see this red light flashing over our heads … and after a few minutes I figure it out — it’s a tank firing over us.”

Richard’s fixer was saying “tank” over and over, but the photographer couldn’t understand him until the shows started flying over their heads. It was the second time Richards got close to the Soviets but was unable to take any photos.

Richards circled back after Kunduz and moved South, retracing his steps and making his way back to the Panjshir Valley. It was the third time he got close to the Soviets without capturing a picture and the third time he almost died while taking a shit.

Richard’s journey, reconstructed. Mark Richards screengrab

This happened outside a village called Jabal-Os-Saraj. “I was near a stream bed. At the time, I was just gonna wait and there was gonna be some Soviets up on the hill. When all of a sudden I heard some mechanized noise,” Richards says. “I had been in the military, I knew it was a tank not more than 50 meters away. And I had my pants down again. Apparently the Russians were down there to goof off, go to the bathroom and wash themselves. I couldn’t take the shit because I was afraid they’d hear me when it hit the water. So I had to wait.”

I ask if the diarrhea fought him. “You would be amazed. I had inspiration. I don’t know if they would have actually heard me, but I wasn’t going to find out.”

Richards eventually succeeded in photographing the Soviets. He caught armored troop movement from a distance while coming back through the Panjshir Valley. The photos appeared in Time years after he got home.

Also back in the valley, he got up close and personal with a 20 year old Soviet POW. “He was captured … driving a truck … taking food for soldiers. He only had two months of prep before going to war and didn’t know he was going to Afghanistan,” Richards recalls.

He interviewed the kid through an interpreter and took a haunting photo. He doesn’t know what happened to him.

Mark Richards photo

On the way out of Afghanistan, Richards had two experiences that have stuck with him for the rest of his life. “I had one of the most sensual experiences in my entire life in the middle of Afghanistan,” he says. On his way out of the country, he ran into a French medical team and a woman doctor asked if she could wash his hair.

“I didn’t look or smell that good,” Richards says. “The sheer act of washing my hair … it was one of those juxtapositions — this horrid place that’s super macho, no females anywhere, you don’t see women because it’s very rural.”

He tagged along with the team as it left Afghanistan. Crossing some rivers, he almost died again.

“It was at night,” he says. “As we approached [the river], there was the smell of cordite, there was lights and there was a haze of gunpowder in the air. Around the bend, there was a helicopter attack going on.”

The French medical team. Mark Richards photo

His group struggled to cross the river on horseback during the attack. “It was one of those times where you feel so alive because so much is going on,” he says. “I was so excited, it’s such a life affirming moment. We came up out of there and we had to go into a full gallop to get out. We went up a dried river bed. If you fall from a horse at that speed in the middle of Afghanistan, you’re dead. Even if you don’t die, you’re going to get an injury and then die.”

The American photographer and the French doctor rode horses out of Afghanistan and experienced wildly different emotions. “I was almost laughing I was so ecstatic. I came down because the French doctor next to me was crying. Probably the more realistic response. I have the kind of brain where I’m more comfortable on the outside, being shot at than on the inside, listening to my own brain.”

As they traveled the manic episode passed. “Going down this river bank. I was trying to tell her jokes and every time I’d laugh, I’d hurt. She was singing a song in French. It was the end.”

He ran out of money and came home. He had 20 bucks to his name, but says he lost it on the plane. He had the pictures of the Soviets and Massoud, but — thanks to the ceasefire — the public thought the war was winding down. He wouldn’t be able to sell them for a few years. He’d lost weight, could barely walk and had no cash. He asked to move in with his parents. They said no.

He told me this story on the phone and afterwards emailed me the photographs of Massoud, the Soviet prisoner and the French doctor. He’d traveled through Afghanistan on horseback during the Soviet invasion and survived. He was a survivor.

Mark Richards photo

But right now, on the phone with him, I know he doesn’t realize that. “I felt like a total,” he says but chokes on the final word. He can’t say it. The phone goes dead for a minute and I hear Richards crying on the other end. I ask if he’s alright and he takes a moment to compose himself, but when he comes back on the line he’s not the jubilant adventurer I’d been talking with. He’s the sad little boy he was before he left home to join the Navy.

“I felt like a total failure,” he says again, finishing the sentence. “It was the lowest point in my life. I remember going through supermarkets and … being unable to go in. Too many bright lights. Too many people. I couldn’t shop for awhile.”

Richards wasn’t a failure. He journeyed through Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, faced death and interviewed a man who would become a national icon in Afghanistan. He sold his photos to Time. I remind him of all of this, and he tells me he knows, but his voice is half-hearted. I can tell it’s a conversation he’s had in his head a million times. It’s a conversation he’s never resolved.

Richards had classic PTSD symptoms and, thankfully, he’s a vet. “I go to the V.A. for my healthcare,” he says. “I can get plenty of treatment for my PTSD. But if you’re a freelance journalist … there’s nothing and there’s no association. There’s no getting together with other journalists and talking about happy times.”

Richards has settled down. He no longer rushes out to the world’s deadliest places, chasing adrenaline and war. Now he runs at night on a mountain near his home with headlamps bobbing on his head. He likes to go when it’s raining. The exercise helps him manage the depression and post-traumatic stress.

Running at night is dangerous, he concedes, but Mark Richards wouldn’t be Mark Richards without putting himself in a little danger. “Other people it might scare,” he says. “But to me, it’s calming. Externally, I’m so focused on my feet … that I don’t think.”

Mark Richards photo

He freelanced, worked for The Orange County Register. He got married, had kids, settled down. He survived. He survives.“I ended up okay,” he says. For Richards, that’s a damn good place to be.

And he still watches Afghanistan. “Why don’t we ever learn from the past war?” he says. “Going into Iraq and Afghanistan, we threw away everything we learned in Vietnam … the idea of a central government there is crazy. It’s not going to be a good ending. It’s going to be Saigon April 30, 1975. It’s America. It’s another decade. We’ll have another war.”

His memories of Afghanistan are bright and clear. He took hundreds of pictures, copious notes, and can still chart out his entire trip using Google Earth. “You can’t mess with my mind,” he says. The memories that burn brightest and clearest are, typically, those in which he cheated death.

Except for one.

He was walking back across the border with the French doctors and trying to impress the woman who’d washed his hair. “I was walking down the river bank and I was trying to tell her jokes,” he says. “Every time I’d laugh, I’d hurt.”

I ask him if he misses it. “Yeah,” he says. “The intensity. It’s easy to live life like that … the purity. I don’t encourage it, but I understand it. There’s no complexity. I had purpose. I had meaning.”

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