Shooting Afghanistan: Beyond the Conflict (III)
How does the simple process of walking broaden one’s conceptions of Afghanistan?
May 14, 2008
For me, Afghanistan is not a nation of combatants — of Mujahideen, Taliban or tribal riflemen. Nor is it a place wholly defined by destruction and tragedy. Instead, when thinking of Afghanistan, I think of quieter moments and other isolated events.
In 2004, Kate Clark and I were traveling for a few days through Paktia and Khost province. Kate was the sole BBC correspondent covering Taliban Afghanistan for several years — and was ultimately expelled from the country for reporting on the massacre of Hazaras in Yakawlang, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the presence of training camps for foreign fighters.
Poets and soldiers
Upon our arrival at the USA Gardez PRT, we were subjected to a brief wait by the Afghan guards while our credentials were reviewed. Their guard post was surrounded by potted plants and singing bird cages, the guards only recently rustled from their afternoon naps. Driving away after that generally unsatisfying interview, we turned to see these guards running after the truck.
Worried that we had breached some security protocol, a hand was thrust through the window containing a neatly folded piece of paper. The inscribed Pashtun poem spoke of fleeting glances between man and woman, and of poverty and longing.
The guards then pleaded with Kate to deliver the folded note to the BBC in the hopes of it being read over the air. Here is the Afghanistan of poets.
In 2005, upon returning from a one-week trip into Ghor province, I was looking to interview combatants in central Herat. A week before, during Mujahideen Day celebrations, a local police contingent and the Afghan National Army had exchanged gunfire, killing several civilians.
The violence was a continuation of an armed competition for power between Ismail Khan and a centrally appointed governor.
Life in the city
The city itself was full of life and trade, its broad modern avenues and shops mixing with its Timurid- and Safavid-era (10th-15th century) tombs and mosques, inlaid with blue tile.
At the central Congregational mosque, a Hazara man knelt for his mid-day prayers next to a monument commemorating the defeat of the British and with his daughter imitating his movements. Wandering through the city, speaking to traders, I was constantly referred to other parts of the city.
Ultimately, no combatants could be found. Instead, I sat, talked and discovered the Afghanistan of traders. In one of the few covered bazaars left in Afghanistan, I sat and spoke to a silk trader about his life and family while sipping green tea and chewing on a molasses treat.
Business as usual
These Afghans were able to avoid mobilization with all armed groups and to maintain businesses during times of conflict. Some shops were full of newly fashioned tin items (spades, watering cans). Others were full of large reams of cloth and bags of brightly colored spices.
In Kabul, each weekend I would set out for its surrounding hills, scouring its book shops, sitting in its tea and kabob shops, looking, absorbing and considering all that had happened there — and wondering about the future direction of the city.
Progress in the midst of conflict
Downtown construction — of a select number of gleaming high-rises — was offset by unofficial housing snaking up Kabul’s surrounding hills, driven up even higher by the excessive housing costs.
Throughout Afghanistan, I witnessed the passion for fruit, gardens and flowing water.
I joined a pick-up volleyball match in central Gardez, where I was roundly humiliated at the Afghan national sport, unable to serve, volley, spike, bump or set.
The untaken image
I am also reminded of pictures not taken — moments and images not captured — that can now only be recalled imperfectly. Some of these were simply missed opportunities — the decision to leave a camera in a car prior to entering the Kandahar mosque, missing remarkable photographs of the religious instruction of children and Koranic recitation.
Others were deliberate decisions, based on the desperate and sad events witnessed. Those moments related to stories of child labor in vicious conditions in Pakistan — more powerful still than any witnessed scene of violence or act of physical violence.
Without any immediate avenue for publishing the resulting image, for drawing attention or inducing change, the taking of a photograph would be an intrusion. As a form of response, the act of taking a photo in warfare can easily be proposed as a transgression.
The difficulty of witnessing brutality, deprivation, fear and sorrow is partly due to the resulting feelings of helplessness and imposition.
The reality was far more complex than child labor. In the midst of chronic drought, families had sent their youngest children to work in household carpet factories run by community members. The funds allowed families to survive. Yet young children were working for hours in a suffocatingly hot environment.
A few days later, I made my first crossing into Afghanistan via the Tulkarem border point at the Khyber Pass. In 2001, the Pakistan government was beginning to expel Afghan refugees, arguing that Taliban Afghanistan was now safe for return.
The border gates were packed on the Afghanistan side, with Pakistan’s border guards wielding rubber tubes to beat back those pushing against the gate.
Memories we carry
A small girl moved through the gate carrying a piece of an engine on her back and was immediately struck by the border guard. She would then return to the other side to transport another piece of the engine.
Each time I lowered my camera. I had made similar decisions during other travels in East Timor, Kosovo and elsewhere.
And so, war photography can also be about the pictures you don’t take but always bring home in memory.
These stories and photographs say nothing conclusive about Afghanistan. However, at their most ambitious, they should broaden our conceptions and realities of that country.
Some editorialists and commentators derive and construct entire theories from such brief, fleeting moments, with Thomas Friedman’s reliance on the taxi driver as a constant source.
An honest account
Every image, experience and discussion is said to speak to core truths. Some may see this essay as reflecting naïve sentimentality, promoting an Afghanistan of gardens and daily life that disregards the very real dangers, challenges and dilemmas occurring within its borders.
Stories of survival should not discard the destructive consequences of 30 years of conflict. Stories of armed outposts surrounded by gardens and of city districts rich with traders should not be adopted in substitution for descriptions of warfare, destruction and insurgency. Instead, our view of Afghanistan should incorporate both realities.
Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.
(Deceased.) Visiting Fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University Michael Vinay Bhatia tragically died on May 7, 2008 after having returned to Afghanistan to continue his field research in September 2007. He was a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. At the time his 2007 […]