Letters from Afghanistan

Because I want to visit Afghanistan,I flippantly told history professor John Richards as he went around the class last spring asking why we were taking "Afghanistan: Warrior and Nation Building." Though this response was all I could think of at the time, it planted a seed in my head that I would toy with and eventually succumb to.

My parents had originally taken this as another fantastic whim of mine that would never materialize. As the pieces began falling into place, the battle lines were set. My parents, particularly my mother, were against my foray into Afghanistan. But when I steadfastly refused to change my opinion in the face of her arguments, it was decided that I would be allowed to go--under certain conditions, of course: I was to arrive by air from India, and I was to stay for just one week, and I was not to leave Kabul.

I arrived in India late on a Sunday night; it was hot, humid, and loud. The next morning, I awoke early and set off to the airport to meet the only ticket agent for Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national airline, in India. It took another full week for me to get my hands on a ticket to Kabul.

Finally on the Ariana flight to Kabul, I found myself closely inspecting my fellow passengers. I wondered what they were going to be doing in Afghanistan. Some joked and laughed; others, myself included, sat pensively.

July 15

Kabul's shabby, minimalist airport: Plane wrecks flank both sides of the runway, along with fortifications and a string of private jets for the different nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and aid organizations operating out of the city. Outside the airport, the tail of a Russian MiG was being repainted in the new Afghan colors.

Kabul defies expectations. For sure there are rusting tanks and vehicles and walls sprayed with the ubiquitous bullet holes. From the constant stream of media footage shown in the West, I was not surprised by the destruction. Parts of the city are totally destroyed from the civil war. And of course, there is a massive army presence. Yet in the central areas of Shari Naw and Akbar Xan Mena, there is no bomb damage, and the bazaars revealed an energy I had not anticipated.

John Spencer Bassett

Wide, tree-lined avenues and bustling streets convey a sense of what Kabul must have been once--progressive, hip, a city on the move. I bought a guide to Afghanistan from the 1960s and one to Kabul written at roughly the same time; they describe a place "where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars filled with colourful, flowing turbans, gaily striped chapans, and a multitude of handsome faces." Each face I see has been etched by a conflict that has lasted nearly thirty years. And yet, in many ways, I am in awe of the recovery made in this relative peacetime.

I've managed to make my way to the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) building, where I met Peter Huff Rousselle, the chief of operations. He is very kind and offeres me a place to stay for the next few nights--five in total--on condition that I take photographs for the U.N. center. This will be good because he is getting me access to hospitals and women's education programs that I would not otherwise have.

July 17

I have found the people here remarkably friendly and curious; I am often stopped in the street by an outstretched hand and fragments of English sentences. I have been followed and stared at, and have become accustomed to large groups of children following me around, demanding that their photographs be taken. Some come with serious questions, asking me my opinion of their future, what foreign troops want and expect in Afghanistan, and what I am doing. At the moment, I have no answers for them. I want to help in some way, but for now, I can only observe.

Yesterday I wandered by the music corps and was invited in for a recital. Though I had no idea what they were singing about, it was engaging and fun to be there. I have done a lot of walking around the city and am beginning to get my bearings here. The bazaars are full of colors and sounds, and full of life and energy. It is here that the city seems most alive and where people go about their daily business.

Women walk around, their burkhas billowing in the wind and dust. Sometimes they finger the blue fabric as they huddle over the cosmetic stalls. Far from discarding the burkha after Kabul was "liberated" from the Taliban, women have continued to wear them. Under the Taliban, females could not go out into the streets unless accompanied by a male member of the family. In practice, this is still often the case. The women who work for the UNFPA, including the cooks, are all picked up from their houses and dropped off after work.

The latest music from Pakistan and India blasts out from shops. Many of the food packages dropped from U.S. planes can be found for sale. The Afghans do not like them; they sell them in hopes that they might purchase more flavorful food. The shops are merely shipping containers; opened during the day and locked at night, they often double as homes. The banks of the river have been reclaimed by shopkeepers and made into a tented city, all constructed with canvas covers donated from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Passing through the market this morning, I saw a live pelican for sale. From what I understood, it is a useful source of oil.

Scenes from an Afghan journey:the rug market

Scenes from an Afghan journey:the rug market.

Alcohol is available on Chicken Street and Flower Street too, hidden in empty Pringles tubes and sold for $6 a can. Shopkeepers flock to the foreigner with carpets and hats and antiques.

I was surprised to bump into a London ambulance, zigzagging between cars, lights flashing and siren blowing. When I got close enough, I noticed that it was a donation from the London stock exchange, but before I could read the rest of the inscription, it found a gap and disappeared into the chaotic traffic.

This afternoon, I begin to take photographs for the U.N. Populations compound. This should provide an opportunity to see what all these organizations are doing here. There are certainly enough of them, in fact, so many that property values in Kabul have shot up, and arriving Afghans are finding housing expensive and hard to come by.

A third of the city is rubble, often referred to as simply the front-line district. Walking through it one can find spent ammunition and war debris. It is hard to describe such a place; the name Hiroshima could be aptly applied. Yet people are moving back into these areas, living in shipping containers. They somehow manage to make a living from the little that is around them.

July 18

The people here have been remarkably friendly and I have already been invited to their homes, to concerts, and for tea. I changed some money, about fifty dollars, at the bazaar, and got a stack of "Afghanis" six inches high; their biggest banknote is 10,000 Afghanis and the exchange rate is 40,000 to the dollar, so you can imagine the raw mass one has to lug around! The exchange touts only accept the big bills if they are crisp (anything with a crease is passed around for a good look). The problem is, I can't hide them. When people ask for baksheesh, they point to my bulging pocket.

There is a big Kalashnikov-rifle culture in Afghanistan: Everyone has a gun or can get one. It scares me sometimes when a man waves his gun around, gesticulating and playing with it in a most unorthodox manner. I would not be surprised if one accidentally went off, and I continue to say to myself, "I hope the safety catch is on." I was somewhat bemused when I walked into a restaurant this afternoon to find Kalashnikovs hanging in the place of coats on the rack near the entrance, each one distinguished from the other by its owner's designs and motifs, usually Bollywood female stars, stuck to the handles.

It is funny to see these young U.S. Army punks in uniform driving around in their Hummers, with tattoos and crew cuts, and one man mounted on the gun. They cruise around here as if they own the place, and I guess they do. When they pass, they look at me and I look at them. The American embassy is a fortress, defined by a large perimeter wall, razor wire around the top, turrets with cameras, and youthful soldiers ducking under sandbags.

The old city: a street scene in Kabul's Shari Kuhna

The old city: a street scene in Kabul's Shari Kuhna.

July 22

I think I have found a guest house to stay in for the next week. It is in a safe location and is the cheapest that I have found.

I am still learning. To the shock of the guards at the U.N. compound, I went out for dinner one evening wearing shorts. I was not aware that this was a cultural faux pas, but luckily nothing happened. Afghans are likely to get irate over such cultural "mistakes." My two pairs of trousers will have to serve me well, and one pair is already filthy.

The other day, the United Nations Population Fund Association took me along to photograph their meeting with the minister for Women's Affairs. What I found interesting about my visit to the ministry was watching all of the women walk through the entrance and immediately remove their burkhas. Underneath, they wore makeup, nail polish, and smart clothes. I asked someone why Kabul's women still wore burkhas. His answer was that they still feel incredibly vulnerable and uncomfortable. There have been, and continue to be, acid attacks made against women who do not wear them. Many of the women I spoke to complained that the burkhas give them headaches. It's an impractical, uncomfortable garment, and dangerous to wear, they say, because they have no peripheral vision to help deal with Kabul's traffic. But, it is perhaps more dangerous not to wear one, so most do.

July 22

a Kabul baker wraps himself in cloth to withstand the heat from the oven

A Kabul baker wraps himself in cloth to withstand the heat from the oven.

I share the Haseeb guest house with two C.I.A. agents, two Korean photographers, and some U.N. employees, one a very kind doctor from the Sudan.

I had taken a roll of film of the marching band, and yesterday presented them with the pictures. I had stumbled into one of their practice sessions a week earlier and had since become close friends with Colonel Mohamad Alam Kohstany, commander of the Central Army band. They are delighted by their images on the prints, and have invited me to a party at their barracks. One would think this a safe proposition, but they have only one gun, which probably does not work.

I am visiting during the melon season, and have managed to stay away from some of the less-savory-looking platters. I bought a melon in the market and this has lasted me for the past couple of days--cheap and delicious. The food here is very greasy, though tolerable if one doesn't mind mutton. Meat, to the Afghan, is quite a luxury. Many families eat only vegetables.

I continue to be amazed by the hospitality of the people and a little fatigued by all of the children trying to get into a photograph. I am routinely followed by a whole bunch of them. Eventually, I give in and, as the camera is lifted, they assume their poses, very stiff and unsmiling, folding their arms and huddling close together.

I plan to stay in Kabul this week, making a couple of day excursions to the refugee camps and to the area north of Kabul, supposedly completely decimated during the civil war, and later up to the Panjshir Valley. Next week I will look into going to Masr-i-Sharif.

July 30

It was quite an incredible drive to Masr-i-Sharif, remarkable because of the number of destroyed Russian tanks and armored vehicles remaining by the road. The ground was littered with the carcasses of burnt-out vehicles, some having tumbled thirty feet down into a gorge, almost certain death for the Russian crew. The Russians responded to these attacks by destroying much, if not all, of the villages on either side of the road in an attempt to prevent the mujahadeen from blending back into them.

At some points along the road, there were mine-clearance personnel painstakingly clearing the ground inch by inch a foot or so off the road. I could clearly make out the tops of the land mines these men were working on. Our driver, seemingly oblivious to all of this, would casually swing off the road in order to pass the vehicle in front. My heart was often in my mouth. Just last week a bus was blown up.

One becomes very familiar with landmine markings: Red stones outline the mined areas and white stones designate the boundaries of a de-mined area. On street corners in Kabul, notices in both English and Dari warn that between twenty and twenty-five people are killed by landmines in Afghanistan each day.

The landscape itself was one of indescribable peace and beauty: lush valleys set against red hills, high snow-covered peaks, a spectacular limestone gorge near Kholm, and the flat high plain of the Uzbek border, where camels and sheep graze and the land disappears into a hazy line of horizon.

a Hazara refugee in Bamian Province

A Hazara refugee in Bamian Province.

Things did not go quite to plan. I was surprised to learn that my guide had never been to the North and, further, was a Pashtun in a city and province with heavy Uzbek and Tajik populations. The first day, I spotted some Uzbek women sitting in the shade of a tree. I sat next to them and, after a few minutes, began to take their photographs. A crowd grew around us. As I continued to photograph, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder; it was my guide pulling me away by my collar. From the start, he had been nervous, but as he watched me take the women's photographs in public, he had become increasingly agitated, worried that my actions might bring recriminations from the watching crowd of men. By the end of the trip, he preferred to stay in the hotel and let me explore the city on my own.

I took the opportunity to visit a hospital. Though I only gained permission for the men's quarters, it was a moving experience. Mahmod Akbar, a young doctor overwhelmed by the volume of cases, took me around. In one room in the mental ward, I encountered a man who was asleep, perhaps drugged, and chained to his bed. His contorted body struck me as rather harmless. As the doctors jockeyed to be photographed, I felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow.

Later that day while I was walking around the city, a vehicle driven by four U.S. Marines stopped me. They asked me my business in Afghanistan, then, quite unexpectedly, asked if I or someone I knew was writing a biography on John Walker Lindh. I replied that I was not, nor was I familiar with the author, and asked what they wanted: "No, no, we just want to find him for ourselves and ask him some questions."

July 31

I managed to check my e-mail for the first time in a week. I laughed at the stories from my friends in the States, my brother's glum complaint at being "sent away" on holiday, and rather more worryingly, the frantic e-mail messages from my mother. She had decided enough was enough and that she wanted me out of Afghanistan. But it is easy to disobey one's parents a couple of thousand miles away, so I quickly concocted a tale and a reason to stay--that unfortunately, I could not change my air ticket.

The security position here is much safer than it's portrayed to be by the press. In fact, it is hard to imagine that just a few months ago these very skies were the backdrop of firefights between anti-aircraft guns and coalition jets. When the driver of the taxi points at a house and tells you that is where bin Laden lived or Al-Qaeda trained, it is hard to believe that these buildings were used for such sinister purposes. Already a tourist trade has begun selling access to the compounds.

August 5

a schoolgirl attends class in Bamian Province

A schoolgirl attends class in Bamian Province.

I am slightly fed up with kebabs and rice, which have formed my diet for the past straight three weeks.

Bamian, where mammoth statues of Buddha once stood, was a sight. The Taliban destroyed the statues, but there are tremendous ruins. It took nine hours to travel 150 kilometers, which should give an idea of the state of the roads and now my back. At one police checkpoint, our driver continued straight through, hoping to avoid giving anyone else a lift. We assumed that all was well until bullets ricocheted off the asphalt and all around us, even hitting our car. Obviously the policeman had woken from his nap and was rather angry. In any case, we did not stop.

The statues were erected under Kanishka the Great as part of a major commercial and religious center. At the same time, thousands of caves were dug out, sanctuaries exquisitely adorned with plaster friezes and colorful frescoes, and inhabited by Buddhist monks. The site drew pilgrims from all over to come and worship. Since those days, though, the caves have been robbed of their dÈcor. They have served as hideouts for mujahadeen fighters during the civil war and as lonely outposts for centuries. Now scores of refugees are making homes of them.

a Kabul baker wraps himself in cloth to withstand the heat from the oven

August 7

This morning I obtained permission to visit a girls' school. Outside in the courtyard stood two large tents for classes of fifty students each. I found out only after my visit that the headmaster had feared if any of the girls mentioned to their parents that a Western man had taken their photograph, they would be pulled out of the school. I felt guilty when I heard this.

During the afternoon, I stumbled upon a U.S. special-services mission in the hills around Bamian. When they saw me carrying all my cameras and with my guide, they were not happy. There they were, with ridiculous amounts of guns and equipment, talking to the village elders of a remote refugee camp. When I asked about the soldiers' visit, I was told that the refugees were offered new homes and were asked for information about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

August 8

Kabul's chief of police granted me a visit to the city's quite congested jail. Most prisoners were unchained, save for a few murderers, and their quarters were cramped. In one tiny room I spotted children, who looked to be the age of twelve, locked away.

Outside, women and children brought food and communicated through a grill in the fence with their relatives on the inside. They handed the meal through a hole in the door to the waiting guards, who picked at what they thought looked good before passing it on to the prisoner.

Later, I took a walk to an empty swimming pool at the top of a hill. It was quite surreal. Here, too, were the shrapnel marks and bullet holes that decorate nearly every building in Kabul. I started talking to the guard. He was eighteen, and had been a soldier for about a year. He gleefully recounted how, during the Northern Alliance offensive, he had killed thirteen Taliban soldiers. Here was a young man, who could have been enrolling this fall with the Class of 2006, relating unimaginable deeds. Perhaps the greatest tragedy for this country is its loss of innocence.

August 11

a Kabul woman's burkha billows in the wind

a Kabul tea merchant oversees the arrival of tea into his warehouse

Cultural divides: a Kabul woman's burkha billows in the wind, top;a Kabul tea merchant oversees the arrival of tea into his warehouse, above.

I noticed a new set of traffic lights today in Kabul. No one was heeding them. I am not even sure if the Afghans knew what they were. They looked with wonder at the flashing colors and drove on.

At a kebab restaurant in the bazaar, a technician playing with a satellite dish made from tin drums managed to tune in to an Italian TV commercial featuring a bikini-clad female. The room went silent and everyone stopped eating, mesmerised by an advertisement for muscle toners. The audience was intrigued: "Do Western women wear these instead of covering up?"

August 12

At the airport I ran into the journalist who had stayed at the guesthouse with me. He was writing a piece on two Afghan children who were flying on my flight to India for heart transplants. A very nice English girl of Afghan parentage, Seema Ghani, had arranged their transport, visas, and operations while working in Afghanistan.

The airport's X-ray machine and metal detector were broken. One guard glanced over my luggage and the other guard never bothered to look up. Waiting in the lounge, I was going over all the possibilities of what could happen, when suddenly I heard a large explosion and a plume of smoke rose high into the sky from somewhere between the runways. A surge of people, mostly foreigners, dashed to the window. The Afghans just continued with their conversations.

As we taxied to the runway, the plane's ceiling panel fell to the floor. That was the trip's last eventful moment. By the time I descended the stairs and put a foot down on Indira Ghandi International Airport in Delhi, I felt great relief to have this venture behind me.


--Hall is a senior history major from London.

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