Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Sunday 4th March 2012 - Remembering the first visit to Afghanistan

Sunday 4th March 2012 - Off on another plane, this time to Hobart in Tasmania. It’s been another packed day but I thought I’d spend some time answering an email I’ve received. ‘Why did you go to Afghanistan in the first place and how did you meet Mir?’. Well, it’s a bit of a tale but here goes:

July 2002: A warlord's guesthouse, central Afghanistan. A long way from home. I am, perhaps surprisingly, really quite comfortable. There are no luxuries but the floors are clean, the thin foam mattress supports my weary bones nicely and, above all, breakfast, lunch and dinner arrive in a rolled up plastic mat straight to my feet. Bread and oily brown soup, rice, an egg, some Pepsi, an apple or two. Did I say no luxuries? Forgive me; this was the height of luxury. Wonderful. Waking at 5am, the near-darkness lent an air of unreality. I was indeed a long way from home. Peeking out of the window, I could see the first wash of light stroking the early risers; men wrapped in blankets who were shuffling along the road outside. I dressed and crept down the well-worn mud-brick staircase and out into the courtyard. Silence. I banged my camera’s tripod against the wooden gates on the way out and the sound echoed off the high defensive walls. But no-one stirred. I looked to the mountains on my left. The Hindu Kush – the ‘Killers of Hindus’ - an unpleasant name for such a magnificent view. Two women, head to toe in sky blue, drifted past averting their gaze. A dog barked. Ahead of me was one of the world’s most extraordinary tourist attractions except there were no tourists any more.

What had once been a favourite stop on the bus route from Europe to India was very much now off-limits. The cliff that I was approaching contained two huge vertical niches into which, 1400 years earlier, two statues of Buddha had been carved. These ‘Buddhas of Bamiyan’ were the most famous spot in Afghanistan. Bamiyan, a verdant valley at 2500 metres, is bordered by two cliffs – in between which cultivated fields are dotted with mud-brick houses, each like a fort. Those homes – like the one in which I was staying – were little changed from the time the Buddhas were built. Their size and defensive nature told a story: the Silk Route that passed through this valley, linking Central Asia with India, had brought both wealth and trouble. These enormous statues, each of a calm Buddha gazing serenely across the valley, had marked this spot for centuries with impunity. Then the statues, having lost their faces to Islamic soldiers in the 18th century, were utterly destroyed by the brutal Taliban regime in March 2001. Over a period of two weeks, the Taliban had packed explosives in crevices around the statues and, despite last-minute offers of $50m from both Japan and the Metropolitan Museum of New York, they lit the fuses. For a brief period, this remote valley in central Afghanistan had been front page news. Few held sympathies for a regime that was just as brutal to its own people. It was said that on this very road a woman had been beaten to death for showing her ankles. True or not, countless atrocities like it had indeed happened. During the rule of the Taliban – and in the preceding Russian occupation and civil war - an estimated two million people had been killed. Two million. This was undoubtedly a land of guns and rocket launchers. I was carrying my camera and a microphone. A year earlier and had I been seen with a camera I’d have been thrown into jail. But then the world had been turned upside down by the Al-Qaida attacks on the eastern coast of the United States. In the fall-out, US President Bush had given the Taliban an ultimatum: hand over their ‘guest’ Osama Bin Laden and stay in power or refuse and face the consequences. The Taliban refused, Bin Laden fled, the US and a wide coalition of international forces forged a united and rapidly successful front of Afghan anti-Taliban groups under the title of the Northern Alliance.

I had followed this story in the news back home and had found it all very confusing and very far away. Yet now here I was making use of the hospitality of one of those very warlords who had fought against the Taliban. Walking down this dusty road in central Afghanistan, I wondered to myself what exactly did I have in mind? More immediately, would I even be allowed to get my camera out? The only way to know if I had any chance of making any kind of film was to set my camera up and see what the reaction was. A few people stared curiously at me as I walked but most went casually about their early-morning business – tending crops by the roadside, urging donkeys laden with produce towards the bazaar, collecting water in yellow containers from the single stream. At the remains of the larger of the two Buddhas, I stopped. Three Afghan men stood talking, leaning on shovels alongside wheelbarrows. They were clearly about to start a day’s work. The three were exactly what one would have expected Afghan men to look like if your only point of reference was the TV news: turbaned and bearded. ‘Here goes’, I thought. I set up my tripod and slid the camera on to it. The three men turned towards me and picked up their shovels. I smiled nervously while also keeping my hand on the tripod’s quick release button just in case. I pressed ‘record’. A sudden move and the men sprang into action; one jumped into a wheelbarrow and started dancing and the other two began singing.

Then, while I was looking through the lens and marvelling at the unpredictability of human behaviour, something else strange happened. A little child in a colourful hat suddenly stood in front of the camera and stared down the lens. It was a split second and I barely noticed but that was the first time that I saw Mir. It was a fleeting moment but it was enough. That chance moment subsequently led to his face being seen by audiences around the world.

(More on Afghanistan tomorrow...)

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