Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Remembering My Afghanistan

Ten years ago, in November 2002, I spent a month in Afghanistan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reporting on life in that country one year after the fall of the Taliban.

I wrote a series of news and features stories for RFE/RL. I had had many years of experience as a reporter and an editor, but I was, to put it mildly, nervous. I was scared. Scared of failing. I was even scared of getting injured or killed. It still felt a bit dangerous on the streets, if not from the Taliban who had evaporated into the teeming crowds then from the packs of wild dogs that still roamed the streets at night. And of course, I didn't speak the language.

In the end, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

I covered a deadly protest at Kabul University, visiting students in their squalid dormitories and interviewing injured protesters in an equally fetid hospital.

I spent a day with a family to see first-hand how the political and social changes in the country were affecting real people.

I flew a kite high above the dusty streets of the capital, as the traditional Afghan hobby could once again be practiced in the wake of the Taliban's demise.

I covered maternal mortality, crucial highway projects, and the challenges posed by getting much-needed food and medicine to refugees and to Afghans living in remote parts of the country.

I flew on a small plane over the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains west to the city of Herat, the capital of a province ruled by a warlord named Ismail Khan as his own private country. People there told me they felt "kept in a cage." It was the only time in Afghanistan I felt genuinely concerned for my personal safety.

Herat is famous for its five remaining 15th-century minarets. Many have already fallen. UNESCO is working to try to save them.

I reported on efforts to save the remaining 15th-century minarets of Herat, true national treasures.

It was a beautiful city, but it was permeated by a palpable atmosphere of fear.

I met so many wonderful Afghans, including someone who has become a dear friend, Mustafa Sarwar, then a medical student at Kabul University who would be my translator and "fixer" for the duration of my trip. Any reporting successes I enjoyed in Afghanistan were all due to his untiring efforts and good humor. He's now working as a journalist in Prague at RFE/RL. You can read more about our friendship here.

I'm sure a week hasn't gone by in the last decade that I haven't thought about my trip to Afghanistan. I'm still in disbelief that I actually went there and did what I did, which was not to embarrass myself and to write a few stories that I am still proud of.

Ironically, it's much more dangerous there today than it was just a year after the fall of the Taliban. But you know what? I'd go back in a heartbeat.

An expert kite-flyer (the man to my left) let me have a go. He was in a kite war with another flyer in another part of the city. Kite flying is a national passion in Afghanistan. By the way, I grew my beard long for the trip. Men with red beards are treated with more respect in Afghanistan. Many men dye their beards with henna to turn them red. Mine was all natural.

My fixer, Mustafa Sarwar, and I flew from Kabul in the east to Herat in the west in a small plane. Turned out, we were the only passengers. Imagine your own private jet flying over Afghanistan. It was also Mustafa's first airplane ride. He was able to see his country for the first time.

Flying back to Kabul from Herat, low over the snow-covered mountains.

A family was living in this crumbling building. Notice the small kids perched on the edge.

I wrote a story about this family, chronicling their lives as they struggled to find work and care for their sick baby.

Looking out across Kabul.

Another view of Kabul from on high.

Mustafa and I on the rooftop of the famous Hotel Intercontinental, Kabul spread out behind us.

Arriving in Herat, near Afghanistan's western border with Iran. The province was a country unto itself when I was there, ruled by the feared warlord Ismail Khan.

The ancient tile work had mostly fallen off the minarets in Herat. I collected a few pieces of colored tile before I left. There were no guards to stop me, and people were walking on them and turning them into dust. UNESCO, I've got them if you want them.

A billboard advising Kabul residents about the hazards of wild dogs, of which there were many.

Mustafa, my fixer, happily playing his drums, which had been hidden away during the Taliban years, when music was banned.

Mustafa and his uncle, who was our driver, outside Bagram air base, where they bought lots of U.S.-government C-rations and other food designed for soldiers. It was readily available outside the gates and provided sterile, dependable and cheap food for the family.

An old Soviet tank by the side of the road to Bagram.

I profiled this family in 2002, telling how their lives had changed since the fall of the Taliban. Girls could now to school, women could work, life seemed promising. We revisited the family in 2011 to see how they had fared (read that story here). That's them below.


  1. Wow! Respect to you Grant.What an experience and what memories you must have.

  2. Thanks, man. It was the experience of a lifetime.