KABUL: The time after the American invasion was a time of great hope. The golden years. After the darkness of the Taliban rule, Afghanistan finally seemed to be on the road to a better life. But today, fifteen years later, that hope has vanished and life seems to be even harder than before.
I began working as a photographer for AFP under the Taliban, in 1998.
They hated journalists, so I was always very discreet — I always made sure to put on the traditional shalwar kameez outfit when going outside and I took pictures with a small camera that I hid in a scarf wrapped around my hand.
The Taliban restrictions made it extremely difficult to work — they forbid the photographing of all living things, for example, be they men or animals.
One day I was taking pictures of a line outside a bakery. Life at the time was hard, people were without work, prices were going through the roof. Some Taliban approached me.
“What are you doing?” they demanded.
“Nothing,” I answered. “I’m taking pictures of the bread!” Luckily this was in the age before digital cameras, so they couldn’t check to make sure I was telling the truth.
I rarely put my name on my photos at the time, I just signed them “stringer”, so as not to draw unwanted attention to myself.
AFP didn’t really have a bureau here back then, we had a house in the same neighbourhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, that we do today. Special envoys would take turns coming here, and we would regularly go to the frontline on the Shomali Plain, where the Northern Alliance was holding out against the Taliban.
Aside from the BBC, only the three agencies, — AFP, AP and Reuters — remained in the city. Then in 2000 all of the foreigners were finally chased out and I was left alone to hold down the fort at AFP’s bureau. I would phone in information to the Islamabad bureau with a satellite phone.
I watched the September 11 attacks on the BBC, not thinking for a second that there would be possible repercussions for Afghanistan. It was the Islamabad bureau that warned me some days later: “Rumours are that the Americans are going to attack.”
The bombings began less than a month later, on October 7, targeting the city of Kandahar near the Pakistani border, that the Taliban had made as their capital.
I was in the middle of phoning in the information to Islamabad when I heard the planes over Kabul. The first bombs were dropped near the airport. I didn’t sleep that night, but I couldn’t go outside.
The following morning I headed to the airport in my car. Not far from it, I came across a group of several dozen Taliban fighters, dressed in black.
One of them approached me. “Listen, I’m nice today so I’m not going to kill you, but get out of here right away.” I turned around, drove back and left my car at the office. The city was deserted. I came back with my bike, like an ordinary guy, a scarf wrapped around my hand to hide my camera. I took six photos that day, just six. I ended up sending two of them.
Coming out of shadows
Then one morning, the Taliban were gone, vanishing into thin air. You should have seen it. The streets were filled with people. It was like people were coming out from the shadows into the light of life again.
Colleagues began arriving in droves. AFP sent a text reporter and a photographer from Moscow right away and before you knew it, there were a dozen of us. Kabul became Journalistan. The office was never empty.
I helped out everybody, be it to find lodging, a car, a fixer, or a best way to get somewhere. My best friend opened the Sultan Guesthouse, the first one in Kabul and asked me to join him in the venture. I should have, he ended up making a fortune! It was incredible to see all those foreigners after all the years of isolation under the Taliban. They came from everywhere, and groups of children would run ahead of them on the streets.
I remember one young man, holding a dollar, repeating over and over: “It’s the first dollar that I’ve ever held!” It was a time of great hope. The golden years. No fighting in the city. The streets were filled with troops from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Turkey. The soldiers would patrol the city on foot, saying hello, relaxed and smiling. I could photograph them as much as I wanted.
You could travel anywhere, south, east, west. Everywhere was safe.
And then in 2004, the Taliban came back. First in the Ghazni province in the southeast. Then in 2005 and 2006, they began to spread out, like a virus.
Then the attacks started in Kabul, targeting places frequented by foreigners.
The party was over.
Today the Taliban are again everywhere and we are stuck in Kabul most of the time. T-Walls, those concrete blocks designed to protect against booby-trapped cars and trucks, have sprouted all over the city. People are no longer friendly towards someone with a camera. Often they become aggressive.
People don’t trust anyone, especially someone working for a foreign news agency — “are you a spy?” they ask.
There is no more hope
Fifteen years after the American intervention, the Afghans find themselves without money, without work, just with the Taliban at their doorstep. With the withdrawal of essential Western troops in 2014, many foreigners have left and have been forgotten, as have the billions of dollars poured into this country.
I long for those years, immediately following the arrival of the Americans.
Of course the city has changed a lot since 2001. New buildings have been built, large avenues have replaced tiny streets. The signs of war have all but disappeared — except for the old Darulaman royal palace, you won’t see a ruin in the city. The stores are full and you can find almost anything.
But there is no more hope. Life seems to be even more difficult than under the Taliban because of the insecurity. I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. I have five and they spend their time cooped up inside the house.
Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd. I can’t take the risk. So we don’t go out.
I remember all too well my friend and colleague Sardar, who was killed with his wife, a daughter and a son while on an outing at a hotel, with only his small son somehow surviving the attack.
I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out. It’s a time of anxiety.
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2018