Afghanistan in the Autumn

Afghanistan isn’t the first place you would imagine I (Jeremy) would go for a break from Africa, however as my parents are both doing aid and development work there it was a perfect chance for me to visit them at “home” for an all too short 10 days before going on to Yemen to travel around with Richo for a few weeks.

For a couple months I moved my base of operations from the UK to Dubai for the cheaper flights around the Middle East and to enjoy the company of the friends who I could stay with while I was based there.

A word about Dubai, it is everything that is wrong with money and power in this world, with huge skyscrapers, wide congested roads filled with large obscene cars. Where the price of beer is more than London and the cost of everything else in this tax-free playground for the rich also feeling pretty obscene after Africa. It’s a place devoid of culture, but full of air-conditioned shopping malls, the size of which would frighten you. And then there is the slave labour… tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos and many other Asian nations, all working for a pittance, scrabbling to earn enough to send money home to their families and at the whim of a government and people (Emiratees and ex-pats) who treat them with at best indifference. It’s a sad place for so many when money is your sole purpose!

Of course there are some shining lights in all of this and I met some truly wonderful people in Dubai who were doing a great job and having an impact, but it’s a place that lacks the culture and creativity of Africa. All the creative energy has been invested in making money and showcasing it to the world.

Flying out of Dubai on one of the new, safer, Afghan airlines into Kabul you can’t help notice the difference immediately. From the vast air conditioned DXB airport you arrive in the single hall of KBL International Airport with a single small room for the baggage and a once again almost refreshing hassle around you of passing through red tape (ID cards for foreigners – but first you have to find the guy and give him 2 passport photos!) and the many layers of fort Knox like security to get to the outside world.

Afghanistan is such a sad place, with heart rending stories all around, and unlike my visit two years ago when there was a real tangible sense of hope the feeling now is one of hopelessness and you can feel that people now just want all the foreigners to leave because then maybe all the fighting will stop.

Sometimes the perception in the west is that the Taleban are a major force in making the country extreme, keeping women covered up, repressed and un-educated along with stifling all progress in the country, however it isn’t as simple as that because the mindset of most people outside of Kabul is probably as conservative as the Taleban and only a few people are beacons for progress and development.

Everything and everyone from the outside world is treated with distrust and apprehension by the religious authorities that control the hearts and minds of most of the people. Anything that might break their control over people is scorned and banned.

In the midst of all of this there has been a huge explosion of information flooding in through the countless satellite dishes that receive hundreds of channels, the mobile phones clutched in everyone’s hands and the other trappings of the west you see appearing in the market places of Kabul. DVDs of all the latest movies in our cinemas are available, Bollywood is a favourite with similar family values and themes and an Indian soap opera is a huge hit in the country, along with the series 24 which has just started to air!

Kabul is really a hot bed of development and progress with new buildings springing up all around, some huge Mosques approaching completion and even several Dubai style glass shopping centre where you can even buy genuine iPods alongside their Chinese counterparts! The sheer number of ex-pats and returning Afghans has made Kabul far more cosmopolitan than the parochial towns filling the rest of the countryside.

I guess it’s no wonder then that Kabul has increasingly become a target for more and more attacks, there is so much there that seems abhorrent to the Taleban and the place is chock full of foreigners who often make such soft targets that hit the news big time. One of these disgusting attacks happened while I was there.

Where my parents live in the north of the country is one of these parochial towns. Quieter, simpler, agricultural people, who just want to be able to run their farms, feed their families and continue with their lives as they have done for centuries. However the combination of war, instability and drought has most scrabbling in grinding poverty. This year’s harvest was poor and most people will struggle through Afghanistan’s bitter and vicious winter barely able to keep their families alive until the next harvest. A predicted lack of food aid across Afghanistan is going to mean that many will starve in inaccessible parts of the country, or where their tribe doesn’t get the attention that other tribes might from the government.

Everywhere you go throughout the country you see the symbols of the war that has been passing up and down this land, from the Soviet era tanks littering Red Hill (so called because of the amount of blood spilt here) to the heavily armed foreign forces that drive down the middle of the road forcing all other traffic to peel off to the side until they are past. This is not a country of peace and the people haven’t experienced that in a long time.

In the midst of this you find a people where hospitality is everything, you can’t leave any shop without first having a cup of tea and a sweet with the shopkeeper! While I was there I had the pleasure of being invited to an Afghan home for lunch, it was quite an incredible spread with some really delicious food that the women of the house had spent hours preparing! Despite this I never saw a single woman from the house!

Segregation of the sexes in Afghanistan is pretty much complete, the only person who will see the face of a woman is her husband and immediate family. They are fully covered up if they leave the house or work in the compound and only then if escorted by a male relative. Men do the shopping for their wives and every other possible chore that needs to be done outside. If you pass a woman in the street she will look away and gather her burkha around her even more so you can’t even see the full-length dress she has on. Even young girls are covered up from a very young age and you rarely see even the youngest without a head covering. Good luck trying to capture one of these floating ghosts on the street without a zoom lens and a fast car!

It’s a place with staggering raw natural beauty, jagged dry mountains that cut the country in bits and surround towns and cities. Drying rivers flowing down onto green plains where the river flows and a dust bowl everywhere in between. But the environment despite all of it’s beauty is a harsh place to try and survive, it’s hot sun and hard winters score the faces of it’s people and limit their life spans.

But these are proud hardworking people eking out a living in a hot and dusty land and unlike in Africa where every child is asking for a gift in a lush and green paradise, there is something strong and dignified about the Afghans, like no matter how much you put on their back they will continue move. The built in human survival instinct.

I don’t know how much hope the Afghan people really have left for their country, will the American’s next surge make any difference or have they lost their window of opportunity for another generation? I would like to think that things can change in this place but I must say my heart is beginning to fail just like I sensed it was in the Afghans.

I took hundreds of pictures of this most photogenic of countries and regret the hundreds more I didn’t take, I’ve selected a few to put up on this blog for you to browse through with captions in the Afghanistan section of the gallery.

If you are interested, here is another article by a BBC correspondant who visited Kabul.

One Comment

  1. One of the best and most informitive pices you have written Jeremy. It is something that every one in the UK should read and experince. They might then appreciate how lucky we were to be born in Europe and not in a place like Afganistan. We are all to materialistic and cut of from what the real world throws at people every day. Again best peice you have written. Nigel

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