Images of Afghanistan

Some images from recent weeks. This below is M., for some years the logistics support man for our office in the North. He was meant to organise plumbing repairs, re-mudding the roofs before winter, supplying diesel for heating, fitting carpets. He was cheerful and kind, and got things done in a bumbly kind of way, where several things generally ended up broken that hadn’t been initially. I remember finding him spraying our fruit trees with some terrible toxin long banned in Australia, his only protection a piece of cloth over his head. He was an awful driver, nervous, incompetent and forever stopping paying attention to lean around and talk to you. As our office contracted a few years ago, he was taken out of the logs role and now works as a watchman. He seems quite unbothered by it all. I imagine he is happy he still has a good job.

The outer wall of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, in the centre of Mazar. From a distance, the Shrine a supremely beautiful.

But the tiles are poorly fixed, and forever snapping off and falling, and every now and again if you are unlucky and stand too close to the walls, one may strike you. So at the Shrine are employed a small team of men whose job it is to spot gaps, and form up new tiles. But colours are hard to match, and patterns too sometimes: it is only up close that you spot it.

Kabul now. The street sweepers. But I cannot help but think of Guantanamo Bay when I see their orange outfits. Most of these men are long superannuated, relics of lives, their eyes are rheumy and weak, their lungs hardened by years of dust and they limp and scratch around the streets. As a gesture of thanks, our office and several others joined together last Christmas bought them all bags of rice, oil, tea and sugar. Such food distributions are something we never do; they are a nightmare, and though well intentioned, this one was no exception. I was only there to translate and as I spoke, even poorer, more asthmatic, crippled people appeared out of no where, asking pitieously for a bag. Several well-heeled office women with snotty attitudes lined up and helped themselves to the parcels. There was only just enough; and even then there was a scuffle to make sure all the men got one. Several of the younger men tried to queue up twice.

Like I said, a nightmare. It is surprising though how popular such charity actions are.

A friend asked me to accompany him to take photos of an area where he used to patrol, when he was here on military service. The aim was to ‘revisit the place, see if there are improvements’. The photos would go with the article he had written about it. So we went back to the village, and he stopped and talked to groups of boys and old men. None had any idea why he was there, who he was. Predictably, the boys were disinterested, suspicious and cheeky, and the old men courteous and welcoming, but it was a confusing experience; trying to explain why he was there, what he wanted. The old men reiterated how they still had no wells and little water; the boys accused us of being rich aid monkeys.


Images of Mazar: Is this progress?

I am in Mazar. Again. The place where this whole Afghan journey really started for us. When we first came here to live, it was Taliban town, and it was harsh, simple and a lot of fun (if you like your fun harsh and simple). Much is barely recognisable these days. The airport where we used to drive out right to the plane, and wander about the runway, is a now a major military and commercial hub. Dozens of helicopters; a constant flow of planes; intrusive, invasive security; attitude thicker than month-old custard.

The drive into town is the same though: about as ugly an entrance to a town as you could get, through the metal workers, the truck yards, the gasoline tanks. And they chopped down all the lovely trees in Ferdosi park, to erect a concrete monument.

Several years ago, I took a photo of this scene below. As you can see, the street was still gravel. The sky was less crowded. Less buildings. Is this progress? Mazar has gotten a lot of trade through Uzbekistan and the Hairaton border, and it has made the town rich, but it has not made it beautiful.

It is still a friendly, open place. I spend a good few hours in the second hand bazaar, I walk all over the town. Getting out of Kabul reminds you that the ideal of the unveiled woman is still a long way off. Not that unveiling is the only indice of progress.

The modernising of the town, in contrast to the conservative gender status makes me reflect more on what progress, or development is here. I spend a while with a group of young people, and we talk about their dreams for this country. They are all based on images of Dubai. I try to explain the unsustainability of Dubai’s growth, that it is a mirage, a fiction. Afghanistan cannot become a Dubai, and should not try. Afghans must have their own dreams.

It occurs to me though, the possible meanness of what I am saying. On what can they base their dreams for this country? There are precious few current, positive narratives from which a vision of the future can be drawn. And realistically, aside from Europe, most countries are not strong on building a future from past cultural and social strengths.

Further on, I come to the men selling amulets, evil-eye tokens, fake fossils, broken pottery. I find one old man with a range of junky stuff, including a belt buckle that reads, ‘Wonderful Wyoming’. He is amenable to a photo and I explain that I want to tell stories of ordinary people, that too many stories are about the violence and chaos. He nods, and another man interjects: ‘We are Dari speakers here. Dari speakers equals peace. Not like the Pashtun speakers. Dari; peace.’

His words reflect a long antagonism between Pashtuns and the other ethnic groups, particularly keen here in the North where memories of the Taliban massacre of hundreds of Hazaras in 1998 are still strong. It was a hard time: intially, after an alliance, the warlord Dostum betrayed the incoming Taliban, and the local people turned on them, winning back the town. That was 1997. A year later, the Taliban were back, and they were merciless – as the Hazara and Tajiks and Uzbeks had been. The slaughtered lay in the street, and the Taliban forbade anyone from going to gather the dead, until they had rotted, or the dogs had eaten them. Such memories endure.

Images of Kabul

I took the below photo without the boy’s permission. I had meant to take it with his back to the fire, but at shutter click, he turned. I felt unhappy about that, it felt like I had taken something from him.

The Kabul River. If you google for photos of the Kabul River in the 60’s, it is devoid of rubbish. People swim in it. It is clean and while not beautiful, at least appealing. These days, it is a drain and a rubbish bin.

Images of the Hazarajat

Some recent shots from a freezingly cold week I just spent in Lal wasare Jangal, central Afghanistan. It is harsh, but not without beauty.

Most people live extremely simply in these parts of Afghanistan, including the expat team I stayed with. No running water, outside long drop latrines (no fun at -20C), simple housing. Electricity is like the old days here, from solar panels, and there is no TV. The Lal bazaar is essentially a few shops selling car parts, some apples and plastic shoes. I asked about vegetables and they laughed at me. You want veggies, bring them from Kabul or grow them yourself.

I spent a week training the development team in the mornings – all in Dari and Hazaragi, which left me tongue-sore and jaw aching, and the afternoons working with the expats. We did have time for a few wonderful walks up the mountains. Lal is probably the safest part of Afghanistan, with all Hazara people there is no support for insurgent groups at all, and there was never much Soviet presence so there are no land mines. Brilliant. But very poor, and much ignored by current aid efforts.

Lastly, in response to a few questions from Lucy and Stephen about working here: I am always happy to try to recruit people to Afghanistan. There are some ideas or suggestions I have – anyone wanting to take this discussion further can email me direct at sparrowp at gmail dot com.

Images of destruction at Eid-e Quorban

The last three days have been Eid-e Quorban, the Festival of the Sacrifice. For those of you who went to Sunday School, you’ll know that Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his first born son, Isaac, on the mountain (one of those bible stories I end up shaking my head at). At the last minute, as Abraham has sharpened up the knife and is preparing to slit his son’s throat, God intervenes, thanks Abraham for his devotion, and in gratitude, Abraham kills a nearby sheep instead. In the Islamic tradition, Abraham is told to kill Ishmael, but the rest of the story is pretty much the same.

So at this Eid, which remembers that event, lots of sheep and goats are killed, and the meat distributed to the poor in thanksgiving. Quite a nice tradition, unless you are one of the sheep, I guess.

For Muslims around here, it is a time to visit, share meals with each other, and judging by what I see on the streets, give beebee guns to your children. I wonder how much the incidence of eye injury rises during Eid…

Julie took the time to visit and hold a wee, premature baby that has been left at nearby Cure hospital. The young mother had twins, a boy and a girl, prematurely. The boy has been taken home; the girl left at the hospital. It desperately needs touch and love, and so a roster of expat mums has been there to hold and cuddle it. I don’t think it is the case that the mother is disinterested – she is young, it is a long way to travel every day, and she has the other child to care for. It is predictable though, that it was the girl child who was left. Hopefully, if she gains strength, she will rejoin her family when she can come out of the Intensive Care Unit.

I and the kids took the time to visit the old Ministry of Defence, further up Dar-ul Aman.

We have visited previously, but the military then took a dissuasive position with regards us going in. This time we were more lucky, and the lone guard was happy to let us poke around. It appeared to be thoroughly demined (it was certainly thoroughly graffiti-ed, and in many places, thoroughly used as a latrine), and it was also thoroughly destroyed.

Kabul used to be full of such buildings or remnants of buildings, there are fewer and fewer as they are bulldozed for the construction of new narco-palaces.

Walking through it with the kids was strange. It was moderately nerve-racking, wondering if there was still any UXO around;  it was depressing – seeing the ruin and devastion of what had once been a beautiful and grand building; and it was a bit numbing. The Afghans I spoke too were ambivalent about the building: I don’t think they saw it romantically. It signifies loss and destruction for them, a sad time when the Mujahideen blew Kabul to bits. It is also simply a building, home now to some 30 refugee families.

Afterwards, we drove back to the hospital and shelled peanuts until Julie came.


(* all these images shot with the superlative Tokina 11-16 F2.8 lens, a fantastic wide angle lens, superior in construction, speed, performance and price than the Nikon equivalents – and I am normally a Nikon purist.)

Images of Faizabad

Some recent shots from four days in Faizabad, NE Afghanistan

1. The beautiful backdrop to Faizabad. The office compound is in the foreground. In the lower right, the white Landrover used by the Nuristan Eye Team. A grim reminder.

2. The bazaar. Ages since I have seen spices and colours laid out like this.

3. Faizabad makes good jewellery. A set of silver earrings from here cost only a few hundred Afs, and quite beautiful.

4. Autumn leaves on an early walk up the hill.

5. The view from the hill (visible in the first picture). Faizabad is a pretty town, and it was very good to get out of Kabul’s dust and haze.

6. Local kids on the way back to my hosts house. Shot with a wide angle lens, hence the slight distortion.


“Hey, Abdul. Nice outfit”.

“Thanks, yeah the baggy pants are very cool. And this waistcoat fits all my stuff”.

“Well, gotta go. Be seeing ya.”

Images of Afghanistan

Some recent shots

The mosque near our home. Taken from a moving car at dusk

A street vendor near the office

Early morning, walking to work