When hope is gone

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.

Aftermath of a truck bomb attack on a market in Kabul, August, 2015. (AFP / Shah Marai)

I began working as a photographer for AFP under the Taliban, in 1998.

Taliban fighters and Kabul residents watch as surgeons cut off a thief's hand at the national stadium in Kabul, under Taliban rule. August, 1998. (AFP / Stefan Smith)

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.

Afghan woman with bread, Kabul, June, 2001. (AFP / Shah Marai)

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 neighborhood, 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: “Rumors are that the Americans are going to attack.”

Taliban fighters try to repair a broken tank in Kabul, in anticipation of a possible US attack. October 2, 2001. (AFP / Shah Marai)

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.

AFP correspondent Shah Marai during the time of Taliban rule, when beards were mandatory for men. (Photo courtesy of Shah Marai)

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.

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.

Afghani women walk in Kabul on 14 November 2001. Just a few days before, before the Taliban were chased out, they were forbidden to go outside without close male relatives. (AFP / Alexander Nemenov)

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!

Soldiers of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance wave on November 12, 2001, a few days before they triumphantly entered Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. (AFP / Alexander Nemenov)

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 Britian, 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.

Kabul residents celebrate on November 13, 2001 after the Taliban were chased from the capital. (AFP / Alexander Nemenov)

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.

Mourning victims of a twin suicide attack at a mosque in Kabul, July, 2016. (AFP / Shah Marai)

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 toward 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.

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.

An Afghan man who lost his father in an attack weeps at the main gate of the Karte Sakhi shrine in Kabul, October, 2016. (AFP / Shah Marai)

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.

This blog was written with Anne Chaon in Kabul and translated by Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Aftermath of a suicide attack in Kabul, May, 2015. (AFP / Shah Marai)
Shah Marai