I came to Afghanistan
to cover the first-ever democratic elections with an American
documentary film team. In the weeks leading to the Afghan elections
the Taliban vowed bombings and kidnappings. However, the only
excitement over the month of campaigning and Election Day was
that from the Afghan people rallying for their candidates.
With a week left before I was to leave Afghanistan, I had planned
a 3-day trek to Bamiyan with my colleague, John Monte, a cameraman.
Kabul had become a fortress city where dwellings were not called
homes or offices, but compounds with 2 to 3 guards holding AK-47s.
There was a slight tension in the air. International security
forces, ISAF, rumbled through the city in armored personnel
carriers and Humvees swinging 70 caliber machine guns. And there
was a constant buzz of Apache attack helicopters above.
Only a few days before I was to leave on my trip, a week after
the elections, the Taliban broke their silence. A suicide bomb
ripped through Chicken Street, a shopping area famous for rugs
and frequented by westerners. Two blocks from where I was staying,
John and I walked over (We learned later that a common tactic
is to attract a crowd with the first bomb so the second one
can inflict mass casualties).
At the scene we were told that a man with 6 grenades strapped
to him started tossing his arsenal at ISAF soldiers. Beside
himself, he killed 3, including a little girl begging on the
street, and wounded 7. The carnage laid on the ground. In the
days following the bombing, a soldier was shot in the park next
to my guesthouse in Sharhe-Now, and a UN worker was critically
wounded in a drive-by shooting. All UN and humanitarian workers
in Kabul were locked down, forbidden to leave their compounds.
After five weeks running all over Kabul I was burned out, and
in serious need of a vacation. I needed to see another side
of Afghanistan besides the chaos and dust of the city, and the
latest incidents only added to this desire. John, who had traveled
to Afghanistan two years earlier in 2002, kept telling me how
there is an addictive charm to the country. I still hadn’t come
to this conclusion.
Bamiyan — the place where the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas
— was a 10 hr. drive on brain bruising dirt roads that gave
your neck permanent whiplash— but it is said to be some of the
most beautiful country. We rented a 4 wheel drive van and hired
a driver who we thought spoke English (but actually only knew
the word “yes”) for $350, and we began our sightseeing tour.
The only souls in the mountain passes, altitudes for which we
could only find on Russian maps, were farmers on donkeys herding
their sheep. In a barren country, this terrain sees snow-capped
peaks rise from lush river valleys. Women in bright colored
head scarves and men in turbans wrapped around their faces to
protect from the harsh elements, separate wheat from its stalk.
I was told these are the descendents of Genghis Khan, the Hazara
people, and their elegant facial features look Mongolian. I
felt I had traveled back 4 or 5 centuries in time.
As men tossed the wheat in the air with wood shovels John and
I filmed and took pictures. They could not believe the digital
camera. Little laughs bellowed out as they looked at their image
(maybe for the first time). Their look of surprise was priceless
as they called their friends over to have a look—others started
posing for the photo shoot. Women in burqas quickly scooted
by, avoiding the cameras altogether.
The Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas is truly a shame.
These enormous sculptures were carved between 400AD and 600AD
and overlook the village of Bamiyan. Although they are now big
holes, one still feels their immense presence. As Jake Sutton,
a well-known cameraman in Afghanistan said, “they couldn’t have
picked a more perfect place to overlook for eternity.” All around
the Buddhas are caves etched into the side of the shear mountain
where monks lived back the day, and now, many Afghans inhabit.
There are ancient murals, caverns, stairs, and tunnels all throughout
the mountain, reminiscent of Anasazi Native Americans in New
Mexico. A UNESCO archeologist surveying the site said the plan
is to preserve the Buddhas as they now stand.
We found lodging for two nights at the UN guesthouse. Although
our host had to leave on an urgent mission for the UN into another
province, Afghans at the compound lined us up with sleeping
accommodations and food. It was $10 a night per person. We ate
the normal Afghan cuisine of rice, beans, a sauce with lamb
chunks, and flat bread (Nan). Being the Muslim holy month of
Ramadan, from Sun up to Sun down, no one ate, drank, or smoked.
John covertly puffed his cigarettes, and I ducked down in the
car to munch Pringles. Even our driver, Musa, who is a Muslim,
snuck a cigarette. I think these indulgences are allowed when
you travel, although the Afghan Supreme Court is trying to pass
a law forbidding foreigners to eat in front of Afghans during
Our 4-wheel drive trip continued to Band-i-Amir, another 3 hours,
where pristine deep blue lakes are set in mountains shaped like
the Grand Canyon. Losing our way (we were in the middle of nowhere),
we asked a little boy with a huge dog for directions. He immediately
dropped his large Afghan dog’s leash, and joined us in our trek.
Who knows what happened to his dog in those rolling hills, but
the kid, probably 11 years old, led our way for another hour
unconcerned. We ended up leaving the kid at the lakes—I have
no idea about his family, but he wanted to stay.
The lakes were amazing. They were so aqua blue and clear you
could throw a rock, and watch it hit the bottom. We hired a
boat for $20 that took us across to three different lakes, one
more beautiful than the first. I wondered how I happened to
be standing in the middle of Afghanistan, staring at such breath
taking views. In this secluded place there was no one, and only
our loud echoes off the sand stone peaks disturbed the solitude.
Leaving the lakes we passed several men riding donkeys. I am
starting to think Afghanistan has been built partly, if not
mostly, on the back of the donkey. Especially in this part of
the country, they stack donkeys 6 feet tall with hulls of grain,
wood, and people. Since arriving I had the urge to ride one.
On our way back from Band-i-Amir we stopped to film some farmers
herding sheep. I was slowly becoming a master at the one word
translation with my Dari handbook (I needed a whole lot of hand
gestures and some funny hops), but these farmers understood
I wanted take a donkey ride. With huge toothless smiles, the
farmers led the way to their donkey out in the field. Our driver
gestured to me not to go because of landmines, but I figured
the grazing sheep were pretty good guinea pigs.
The tame little donkey stood there as I jumped on its back.
John warned me it might buck, or race off with me. I gave it
a kick. It put its ears back, and stood there. Another kick,
and another. I started slapping its ass. With deep chuckles,
the farmers started kicking it. Even my driver ran over and
started pushing it. It stood there. Ten minutes and the damn
ass wouldn’t move.
We began the long trip back home, passing Soviet tank ruins,
on our way to Kabul. It is interesting to see the faces change,
from Hasara to Pashtun. It’s also interesting to notice how
the bright smiles can change to dark stares. Afghanistan has
many ethnic regions, and depending on the area, safety levels
vary. The US military conducts operations throughout the country,
and in a mountain valley we passed a 10 Humvee convoy of American
troops fully geared and out on patrol.
Admittedly my personal safety crossed my mind, as my western
appearance was the source of a variety of stares. An hour outside
of Kabul we heard on the car radio that three western UN election
workers were taken hostage in the middle of a Kabul traffic
jam in broad daylight. The BBC report said their images showed
up in a fuzzy video on Al Jazeera. We drove through three check
points on our way into the city as the Afghan National Army
poked their heads into our van.
With car horns honking, traffic jerking in and out, we moved
into Kabul’s hectic flow. It is said that one day in Afghanistan,
is like three days anywhere else—it is exhausting. I don’t believe
I could have appreciated the beauty of this transitional democratic
country if I hadn’t ventured outside the compound walls of Kabul.
The chaotic side of Kabul can drive you nuts. But the infectious
humor and endearing smiles of the people I met, and their hopeful
outlooks for the future, pulled me in. After six weeks, despite
the problems of the Taliban, warlords, poppies [the source of
heroin production], and massive reconstruction facing Afghanistan,
I boarded my plane wanting to return. I now have the mysterious
addiction John calls, the Afghan bug.