We left the Turkish Embassy at around 5 a.m. The small white minivan had arrived just as friends from an international NGO had promised it would. Inside sat a driver, an Afghan civilian with a shy smile, slightly intimidated to be picking up someone from in front of the impressive fortress-like walls of the spacious embassy building in Kabul. The fact that armed security was waiting out in the street with me didn’t seem to help.
As I climbed up to the front seat next to the thin, aging man, he shot up a toothless smile, one of many that would come to be a way of reassuring me that things would turn out OK: as we crossed the armed Tajik fighters standing guard at check points, next to the loosened ropes across the main roads of the city leading outside; as the road ran out with burnt car carcasses piled up at the end to prevent those that take the bridge route from falling into a river bed; and as he sped off North towards Penshir through a land devastated and empty, completely shelled out.
That was Afghanistan in 2001, a vast empty cemetery with large portions of dry, bombarded, bleak country side hosting only the tattered flags of the rival militant groups on the ruins of destroyed signs of human civilization. With a President, frightened more about his longevity than that of his country, put in place and making public appearances with American soldiers as bodyguards, warlords had started fighting, infighting, continuing to create havoc.
According to the Western media, the Taliban had fallen, and in the early days it almost seemed so, unless you were an Afghan. Many times in the streets of Kabul I had been warned by my translator, a young Ozbek boy, Erkan, to keep my head scarf on, because that car parked away on the street side with the tainted windows was a Taliban car, or the men in the store where he ran to buy me a drink had warned him that “bad things” would happen to me if I didn’t adhere by the rules of Sharia. I didn’t. Each time he came to me with eyes wide open, scared more for my well being than his, I kept on telling him, “the Taliban is gone, they are no more, and I will not cave in to a few brutes who will not let go of a legacy made to be forgotten.” He would often reply, “the Taliban is not gone. They are here, they are everywhere. They may no longer be in power, but that doesn’t mean they are gone.”
I knew Erkan was right. With the borders opening up, I had entered the country as soon as it was declared by the Western military powers that Taliban had fallen. And I wanted to hold on a little longer to the dream that the day would come for this devastated land of beautiful people, where the oppression would truly go away, and the people would once again be free. But deep down I knew that it was naive of me to think so. I knew the day I heard the news of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination, bad things, very bad things were in store for Afghanistan. Without him as an alternative, the future of the country looked bleak. Taliban, or some other group with another name, it didn’t matter, the day the lion of Panjshir died, the aggressors earned a free for all: all hopes for Afghanistan to become one country and for Afghans to one day live in peace, also died.
What happened two days later in a different geography confirmed my theory. For many, that was the day the fate of the world was sealed, as on that day Bush’s “new world order” mantra emerged. However I believed our fate had been sealed the day Masood died. I knew that Afghanistan would now be lost, and with it humanity. I knew, but nevertheless I kept on hoping that I was wrong.
I had started packing for Pakistan on the 12th of September. For three months I would be parked in Peshawar, covering the refugee flow, talking to the Taliban (through my translators, as the religious clique would never talk to a woman, nor let one into their leir. So I stayed outside and drank many glasses of sweet tea as my translators, my friends, my colleagues tried to negotiate a break into Afghanistan for me) By December, exhausted, short on film, and rather hopeless that I would ever be able to enter Afghanistan, I returned to Istanbul. I had barely unpacked my bags when the news hit the airwaves that the Taliban fell. The next day I got a call from a contact in Ankara. In the early hours of the following morning, a plane would take the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Turkey, along with the Turkish Ambassador to Kabul. A member of the press had canceled last minute and should I wish to go instead, there would be a seat on the plane for me. I was in Kabul in less than 48 hours.
The ambassador, finding out I was the only member of the press that was going to be staying behind in the country other than himself, invited me to lounge at the Embassy. I took up the offer with delight, as I knew that the bomb shelter at the Turkish Embassy, an underground set up with bunk beds, would be a much better place to lay my sleeping bag, than the overcrowded Intercontinental.
The embassy was well situated and within walking distance to the offices of UNHCR and other NGOs. During my first weeks, I was taking in everything Kabul had to offer. Erkan, my translator, my young protector, my guide and my friend was a god-sent! He came from a family of 5. They used to live in a cute little house with a small garden where rose bushes grew. Following the areal bombings post – 9/11, their house was destroyed. His mother was maimed with a head trauma during the NATO bombings and the family was devastated through the ordeal of trying to save her life in overcrowded hospitals serving the “colleteral damage” of the Western powers’ fight against terrorism.
In December 2001, Kabul was still trying to mend its wounds. Simple lives had turned spartan. People had lost their livelihoods, but they held onto a thin tread of hope. The Taliban had fallen, yes, and they were still around, but if the people stood up they could win back their lives, their freedom, most thought. During my first month of stay, I saw that glimmer of hope slowly fade away.
Devastation first came in the shape of hunger and poverty. Later, as sporadic violence. With lack of a security apparatus, and a near-complete void in leadership, the warlords roamed free. Guns and ammunition were everywhere. Armed factions, Tajik, non-Tajik, soldiers, militants, bandits, hijackers, they were everywhere. Most families’ daily intake of food had diminished to a handful of flour and water.
After a year of visits, I left Afghanistan, never to return again. My hope for the country, the little that there was, had died. I couldn’t help by being there, I was merely watching all that was happening, helpless. For the first time in my life, I escaped, got out, and left everything behind. Years passed. Each time Afghanistan came in the news I followed intensely. Every time Karzai appeared on TV, more polished than the time I remembered him, I watched. He looked much different than the time I photographed him at his first public appearance in Kabul, me among a handful of photographers inside the ministry in Kabul, with his hands shaking as he spoke, with two hefty US marines standing guard behind him.
In 2011, I was sitting at a restaurant in Northern Iraq when all news channels started broadcasting newly arrived footage of protesters breaking into the UNAMA compound in Mazar-i Sherif. As I watched the footage over and over again in the days to come, from different angles, on different news channels, I shuddered as the camera fell on a particular image: an Afghan man taking an automatic rifle from the ground and trying to smash it to pieces on the curb. For me, the running image of this desperate man, trying so desperately to break a rifle to pieces, taking his anger, his pain, his loss out on a piece of metal in the mayhem and the chaos of a-protest-turned-ugly summed it all: we had failed Afghanistan. We had failed the Afghans. For reasons strategic and for matters of security for us, we, and through us humanity, had failed a country and its people. And yes, with the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9th 2001, the one man who would not let his country be run to the ground by gun totting thugs, was dead. And the day that marked the passing of the Lion of Panjshir, also marked the end of humanity for all of us.