Rafal Gerszak had to witness war in order to document history, but it almost cost him his life. Out in the wild of Canada’s north, he found his way back from the brink.

Rafal Gerszak had to witness war in order to document history, but it almost cost him his life. Out in the wild of Canada’s north, he found his way back from the brink.

July 02. 2008: Spera District, Khost Province, Afghanistan. Hot thick air, window grease, an endless brown horizon. Four Humvees filled with armoured men trail through the ridgelines, kicking up a cloak of dust that bounces in sync with the convoy. Minutes become hours in an un-air-conditioned fuzz. Sweat drips. Eyes close. Men begin to doze. 

Rafal Gerszak was never more fresh faced than the day he first arrived in Afghanistan. It was 2008, Obama’s debut year, and the Canadian photographer decided to face an urge: a desire he had to better understand the contours of his Polish roots.

In 1989, Rafal was a 10-year-old child living in a refugee camp in West Germany awaiting a visa to Canada with his family. He recalls his father’s friends rushing off to witness “a historical event”, but it would be years before he connected that day with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Afghanistan, he figured, was somewhere to confront the past: the pink mist trail left in Communism’s wake, and the butterfly effect felt by his family. The war in Afghanistan – triggered in 1979 by Soviet Forces, fuelled by US-backed Islamic insurgents, and escalated by 9/11 – was a story worth documenting, thought Rafal, precisely because no one else seemed to think it was.

“I went to Afghanistan because it is so underreported,” says the 36-year-old, who hoped to embed with Polish forces for 30 days but ended up spending 12 months with a US platoon. “They approved my embed because I was basically the only journalist on the ground.”

Afghanistan
Rafal is sat in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and son on the corner of East Hastings and Clark Drive in Vancouver – or as he calls it, “ground zero of the opioid overdose epidemic”. It’s a gritty part of town, where history feels real.

On good days, it’s a base from which to travel to assignments. On bad ones, it’s filled with ghosts. “It could be a helicopter flying overhead,” he says. “Or when I hear the wind blow and the windows rattle. Little things like that take you back to that space where everything is black and white.”

That monochrome world, of life and death, became Rafal’s reality for the year that he spent with the 104th Air Force Division – “sleeping, eating, shitting” alongside a group of young men, equally fresh faced, and veterans who’d been in Iraq. Weeks would go by where barely anything happened. But when it did, it left more than a mark.

Afghanistan
July 02. 2008: Three hours from the combat operating post. The radio crackles to life. A red-hot engine has brought one vehicle to a halt. Sluggish bodies and heavy heads are summoned into action. Chains connect one 4×4, now comatose, with a towing-partner. The snake of Humvees makes a U-turn and accepts its Sisyphean fate. Hot thick air, window grease, an endless brown horizon. The same muted peaks fill the same frame – then a figure breaks the rhythm. A silhouette on the ridgeline that wasn’t there before. 

In March 2009, on the plane home, Rafal promised himself he’d never go back. “But two months later, I bought a one-way ticket to Kabul.” Home wasn’t as he left it; friends and family felt different. The smallest thing could trigger him into a frustrated rage. The woman in the coffee shop complaining that two-per-cent milk won’t cut it. Friends talking about the same old things they talked about before. No one seemed to get it.

“For a while I was blaming the people around me like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with everybody?’ But slowly I started realising that I needed to change things – it wasn’t everybody around me that was screwed up.”

The Back of Beyond, Chapter 1
Back in Kabul, Rafal found distraction photographing life inside and beyond the military base. Soldiers and fixers blended into one seamless band of brothers. In Afghanistan, the lines were simple. “Life at home is full of grey areas, but in a conflict zone it’s black and white,” says Rafal.

“If I’m going into a village, or covering a political event, it didn’t matter if I had showered or what kind of person I was. If I was trustworthy, they welcomed me into that situation. Back home, if I didn’t shave for a couple of days, all of a sudden I’m looked upon as that. Over there it wasn’t like that. Things seemed a lot clearer for me in a situation like that – I didn’t have to think about these little things in life that didn’t matter. That don’t matter.”

July 02. 2008: One hour from the combat operating post. Ting ting ting ting ting. Tiny rocks razor sharp cascade against the glass. The convoy has been ambushed. Those rocks turn out to be pellets of lead and rocket-propelled grenades. He grasps his camera with a hand that feels as numb as a foreign object. Time slows. Dust clears. A bullet strikes between his eyes. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event, feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. Rafal didn’t know any of that until he started doing a bit of reading.

“I didn’t know if I was experiencing it, because I didn’t know what it was. There were no flashbacks, I didn’t wake up in cold sweats. It wasn’t those kinds of symptoms – just little details of my life that were affected.”

Helicopters and wind were just some of Rafal’s triggers when he returned to Canada for good. But it’s the day of the ambush – the ting of metal against glass – that’s scorched into his memory. “It was one of those days where you didn’t expect anything to happen,” he says. “You’re sort of dozing off and your whole world is flipped upside down.”

Afghanistan is not a war where allegiances are worn on people’s shoulders. The same village elder that invites you and your men inside for tea may be plotting your doom the moment you leave his home.You are shot at, blown up, accosted by children, avoided by women, isolated, alone, and very far from home or worse you are home.The battles are fought in Afghan villages, the bombs exploded on Afghan streets, and the legacy of this brutality is branded into the psyche of every Afghan child.“Battle is an orgy of disorder” - George S. Patton
A bulletproof window saved Rafal’s life, but it couldn’t block the aftershock. Back home in Vancouver, he would drive through the Rocky Mountains to visit family in Edmonton, taking in a vista that typically inspires calm or awe.

“When I first got back I used to look at the ridgelines and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good spot for them to ambush us from.’ That’s what I’d be saying to myself in my mind – and I needed that to be gone.”

Still battling with the grey areas that govern city life, feeling irritable and siloed in a crowd, in summer 2013 Rafal packed a bag, jumped in a van with his girlfriend and son and without thinking headed north.

They drove across the Arctic Circle, taking in 7,000km in two weeks, and ended up in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Since that trip, the city has become a pitstop, a base from which to organise work and the next trek into the wilderness. Rafal has been to some of the most remote corners of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, from Sixty Mile River and Ogilvie Mountains to the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyakyuk. He’s lived with an off- the-grid community for six months, and returns to Inuvik at least once a year; it’s where he adopted his first retired sled-dog and – though he’ll only admit it with a warm laugh – where ultimately he believes he was saved.

“The self-therapy was basically going out into the woods and camping in the middle of nowhere,”says Rafal.“I read that there’s more moose than people in the Yukon – there’s just over 20,000 residents in the Yukon Territory, which to me was perfect. The less people, the more nature, the better.”

The Back of Beyond, Chapter 2
Rafal only started making pictures a few trips in after noticing the rapid changes happening in Canada’s North. In the summer of 2016, the Slims River in the Yukon Territory stopped running without warning, due to the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier. Members of the Yukon Geological Survey will study the area for years to come to determine the impact on land and wildlife. In the meantime, all that Rafal can do is preserve what keeps drawing him here.

“This project is ultimately my thanks to that environment, giving me what it gave me,” he says. “In my mind it may not be here for future generations, so being able to photograph it and contribute in some way to keeping that memory alive – that was my thanks to being saved by nature. It sounds corny but it’s the truth.”

March 02. 2015: Inuvik, Northwest Territories. ‘Bird’ lands on cabin door, eyes up scraps of meat. ‘Fox’ enters ‘Den A’ for eight minutes, then emerges and heads for ‘Den B’. ‘Bird’ its towards the floor, hovering to steal a morsel. ‘Dog’ ambushes from behind. 

Dawson City is a drive-through town with one good local store. Rafal headed there when he first arrived, carrying a book called The Colourful Five Per Cent. “It’s basically about all the characters that inhabit the Yukon, and I wanted to meet more,” he says. “I asked a lady if there were any old-school Yukoners living a bush life, off-the-grid. That’s how I met Corwin.”

Corwin Guimond, 66, arrived in the Yukon in 1973 to become a trapper and learn to live off the land. He lives in a hand-built cabin in the back of beyond, waking up most mornings at the crack of dawn to go salmon fishing.

The Back of Beyond, Chapter 1
“I’ve never had a relationship like that with anybody – except in Afghanistan,” says Rafal, who visits Corwin at least once a year and was on the phone to his wife just yesterday.

“He doesn’t give a shit if I shave, or if I’m muddy from a hike. If I say I’m going to help him unload his boat in the morning, I’m there. There’s no judgement between us – no strings attached. He brings me back to, I guess, a simpler time.”

For someone who once identified as a ‘city guy’, Rafal’s life has taken a surprise diversion. Despite growing up in rural Alberta, he had to go to Afghanistan to experience his first hike, and used to think “the bigger the city, the more people, the better”.

Afghanistan taught him how to survive in the wild. The memories he shares with soldiers-turned-friends of long arduous hikes through the Hindu Kush mountains are cherished, but not always warm.

“Going out hiking again and experiencing nice things instead helped me reclaim nature as a positive experience.”

Rafal splits his time between his place in Vancouver and off-the-grid cabins, where he can go for weeks without seeing another person. He usually heads up after summer ends (“It’s like a bad Armageddon movie, with all these RVs heading south and I’m the only one heading north”) and starts to unwind as soon as he’s out of range (“I’d be happy if they turned o all social media; sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era”). Assignments still bring him back to the city – and sometimes they bring up old ghosts.

Recently, Rafal covered the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat disaster near Bella Bella, British Columbia. The boat, owned by Texas- based Kirby Corporation, ran aground on 13 October near the Great Bear Rainforest carrying 223,831 litres of diesel fuel. “To give focus to a story like that means the world to me now,” says Rafal. “But still, I was scared shitless on the plane back.”

The Capital
A newfound fear of flying is another hangover from Afghanistan, but even local stories can summon up demons. A couple of weeks ago, Rafal joined local firefighters on a ridealong. “And it took me back right to those same situations,” he says.

“You’re in the truck and the radio is going. For three or four days after that, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. But knowing I can get back to being better, it’s easier. I don’t need months or years to get back to a peaceful moment. It just takes a few days of working through it – usually out in nature.”

In the Yukon, with friends like Corwin as his guide, Rafal has found release. But the North hasn’t become a place to escape. If anything, it’s more like a trusted old friend forcing him to face things head on. There is comfort in this new familiar world.

“You know, rules in regular society are very flexible,” says Rafal. “Things change so often, even laws. But in nature, if you put yourself in a certain situation you can die – and these rules have been in place for thousands of years. That started bringing me peace. It wasn’t just in war that things are black and white – in a peaceful life that can also be true.”

The Back of Beyond, Chapter 1
This article appears in Huck 58 – The Offline Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

Check out the portfolio of photographer Rafal Gerszak.

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