Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Do you want to go to Kandahar?"

This was a question I really didn’t expect to hear, not on this trip, maybe not ever.

Kandahar didn’t factor into my plans. I just didn’t think it was a possibility, not just because it is considered dangerous enough to keep most un-embedded foreigners out, but also because of the high cost of secure lodging and transportation.

But, to my surprise, NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was asking me to accompany her on a week-long reporting trip to the city in one of Afghanistan’s most volatile southern provinces.

I wouldn’t have gone to Kandahar on my own, but this was to be Soraya’s third trip there and she has been reporting from conflict zones for 10 years. She has lived and worked in Afghanistan for the past three years. I trust her judgment. And she offered me the opportunity not just to provide visual content for NPR’s website, but also to experience a place and a people that few outsiders get to see, and to do it relatively safely.

It was too tempting to pass up.

Journalists take calculated risks everyday. Just being here in Afghanistan is risky. Every time we leave the security of the hotel or guest house, there are risks. We weigh the need to work on an important and compelling story with the ability to do it as safely as possible.

Working in Kandahar presented some challenges.

For the first time ever, I wore a burqa to work. I had to work quickly, never staying in one place for longer than 20 minutes. I tried not to attract attention to myself, the car, the driver, the translator or Soraya. I traveled in a nondescript small car, changed my daily routine outside of the guest house and tried to think a little like the enemy. I thought about where I would strike if I was a bomber or a kidnapper and tried not to put myself in those situations; or if I had to go there, I didn't stay long. And some places were simply off limits.

No matter how many precautions you take, or how many things you do to try to prevent something bad from happening, bad things can still happen. But if we let fear completely take over, no stories would be written, no photographs would be taken. One piece of advice somebody gave me before I left for Kandahar was, "Just do your work and take care of yourself and don't worry about the rest." A way of saying, you can only worry about what is in your control.

A few street scenes:

Women's market. (Unlike in Kabul, in Kandahar it is rare to see a woman not wearing a burqa. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the wide range of colors--green, brown, lavender, rose, peach and olive--worn by the women in public. I had only seen the stereotypical blue burqa and occasionally a white one.)

Flat bread frying in a bazaar stall.

Rickshaw driver. Afghans consider the rickshaw the mode of transport least likely to be targeted by roadside bombs.

Radio salesman. During the reign of the Taliban, music, dancing, television, cinemas and many other aspects of cultural life were against the law.

Bike traffic.

Women's market.

Tea shop.

Chawk-e Madat Square.

A photojournalist friend once told me that Afghanistan feels safe until it isn't. The feeling of security one can have in Kabul is deceiving. A bomb can come out of nowhere.

I got a different feeling when I was in Kandahar. People there live with a much more frequent and sustained level of violence. Afghans die as they go about their daily lives. Kidnappings occur regularly. Assassinations have become terrifyingly efficient. As both the seat of provincial government and the largest city in the southern part of the country, frequent suicide attacks and IED's aim to destabilize the entire region.

The day after we arrived in Kandahar, a man detonated an IED just outside the main gate of Mirwais Hospital, the city's main public hospital. The intended target was a passing Afghan National Police truck. Two people were killed. The five injured included Nassir Ahmad, 8, shown in the emergency ward at the hospital.

Forty-five minutes after the blast, only some bits of blood and debris from the trees overhead remained.

I don't think I was imagining the underlying dark vibe I felt from strangers, subjects and others I met. The people of Kandahar are weary. There is no security and life is cheap.

The dead woman's young daughter was seriously injured and on an operating table somewhere in the hospital.

More from Kandahar coming up...


ingrid barrentine said...

You have big balls.

Kevin Taylor said...

Whoa, Holly. What Ingrid said.
Your photos are always so strong and so human.

Lorie said...

Amazing work. Heartbreaking.
You are very brave. And although I have a hard time imagining you thinking like the enemy I know you're thoughtful and will take care of yourself.
Traveling mercies.

Erin said...

Holly. I am running out of comments that could hope to be worthy of your work! As always, this is amazing stuff.
Chawk-e Madat Square -- that photo & what your friend's quote about "Afghanistan feeling safe until it isn't...", well that is just perfection. Everything looks so tidy & organized at the square, but it's like you can almost hear the bombs going off & see it blown apart. How did you do that?
Be safe friend.