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...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Drugs, Part 2

The second part of the NPR drug series focused on the former Russian Cultural Center, a bombed-out campus of buildings in Kabul that has become a notorious addict hangout used primarily by men.

You can look at Part 2 of Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson's series on NPR's website here.

According to a February 2009 United Nations survey, around 650 addicts live in the buildings at the Russian Cultural Center, and officials estimate 1500-2000 additional people come everyday to buy and use drugs. Heroin is the drug of choice, with 98 percent of the residents either smoking or injecting it. The drug is cheap. Unemployment, poverty and despair are all in ample supply.

Conditions at the site are terrible. The buildings provide little shelter from the elements. There is no electricity, plumbing, heat or clean water. The floors inside are covered in trash, dirt and human waste, a ripe place for disease to spread. The UN says that during the winter months, 2-4 people died each day at the center.

To stem these daily deaths, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime set up an emergency detox program on the grounds of the center in February. They also began feeding the residents one hot meal per day, so at least they wouldn't starve to death. Although meant merely as a stop-gap measure, this program has become the largest ad-hoc drug treatment center in Afghanistan.

The Russian Cultural Center was an experience. We decided to go mid-morning, hoping people would be stirring before the day's midday meal. Soraya asked both her driver and her fixer to come in with us. The "counter-narcotics" police wanted to accompany us as well (for our own security--why else?), but we refused. We were saved from that situation by allowing a doctor from the detox program to come in with us. Better than the police any day. (Part of Afghanistan's problem is that everyone is involved in the drug trade. It's just too lucrative. Police, members of Parliament, government ministers...)

So, we were five people. To me, that's way too many. In Afghanistan, it's true, I never just go off and shoot by myself. I always have somebody with me, whether it is a driver, translator or another photographer. Especially going into a potentially risky environment, I'd rather not go alone. People can get pretty agitated about photographs even if they're not high on narcotics. But it's very difficult to be unobtrusive with five people.

So, in we went.


A drug dealer sits at the entrance to one of the buildings. Heroin is cheap and readily available at the former cultural center, despite the so-called counter-narcotics police just outside.


When we actually got inside, I was totally shocked by what I saw: room after room packed with men all squatting and in various stages of smoking heroin. I've definitely never seen anything like it.


Addicts light up in a dilapidated room. Users melt the heroin paste then inhale the smoke to feel the effects of the drug.

Some people were definitely upset that we were there, others graciously allowed me and Soraya to talk to them and photograph them. It's always amazing to me what people are willing to share of themselves, even something like their addiction. But I think doing this kind of work would be impossible if I didn't always try to treat everyone I meet with basic respect and humanity, no matter what their situation.


Heroin paste that has already been melted and is ready to smoke.


Ruhollah, 25, an Afghan refugee returnee from Iran, smokes heroin.




We only had 15 minutes or so before it was time to go. Soraya, who understands Dari (Afghanistan's Farsi dialect) said she could hear people threatening us.


A bombed building serves as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime emergency detox program, where addicts can try to quit. The detox center serves the 650 residents with a daily hot meal, and if they choose, detoxification assistance, medical aid and counseling.


Muhammad Rahim, 28, sits in an acute detox room where he will spend a week before moving to a second recovery area.


It's Muhammad's first time trying to quit.


A recovering addict in the final phase of detox sits next to the fire at the center.


Each of the former Russian Cultural Center's 650 residents will receive soup, bread and a little fruit for lunch.


Hundreds of men line up and wait patiently to receive a portion of food.


A man sits hunched over his soup and bread, the first and only meal of the day, just outside the emergency detox center.


Afghans have very few options for treatment of drug addiction. International donors have spent lots on opium eradication, but almost nothing on treatment.




Friday, April 17, 2009

Drugs, Part 1

The first assignment I worked on in Kabul was a two-part series with National Public Radio's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about Afghanistan's growing drug addiction problem. You can see NPR's web presentation of Part 1 here. (Please listen to Soraya's audio piece. It's good.)

The Afghan government is doing little to treat its own addict population, and funding for treatment from international organizations lags way behind funding and support for opium eradication. Experts we talked to said that a new United Nations survey being conducted is expected to show that 1 in 12 Afghans abuses drugs.

For the first part of the series, we visited Karima and her six children in the neighborhood of Shahre-Kohne, literally translated as "Broken City", in Kabul. Karima is addicted to heroin, opium and hashish and the week before we visited her, she was so desperate for cash that she tried to sell her 5-year-old daughter. Karima has exposed all of her children to the drugs from pregnancy onward.

A nearby drug treatment program, the Nejat Center, has been reaching out to Karima. Counselors and doctors have been visiting the small room where the family lives, trying to convince Karima to quit. She says that she wants to quit, but so far hasn't been able to.


Karima prepares her morning fix--a mixture of heroin and opium rolled in a cigarette.


Rika, 3, sits next to her mother and watches the process.


Karima said that her husband got her hooked on the drugs. That's 5-year-old Raisa (the one Karima tried to sell) on the far right and 3-year-old Rika, playing with her mother's cigarettes.


Fahima, 12, watches her mother. Karima makes Fahima go out and buy her drugs for her.


Rika, 3.


Fahima sits calmly while her grandmother Fariba, left, and Karima, right, giggle from the effects of the drugs. Both of Karima's parents are also drug addicts.


Pooh and cigarettes.


Fahima answers the door. Her hair is falling out in chunks and she has kidney stones. All of the children suffer from their exposure to heroin and opium smoke, as well as malnutrition.


Karima reaches for her few cooking utensils so she can begin to prepare lunch. Private donations to the Nejat Center were used to buy Karima a small stove and some gas for cooking, as well a few cans of food and cooking oil.


For lunch, potato soup with a little onion.


Arun, 7, and Raisa, 5, wait while Karima slices onion and potato. Karima's addiction means that sometimes there is just enough food to stifle the hunger pangs, but not enough for the children to thrive. And sometimes no food at all.


The youngest, 1-year-old Ghodratullah, sleeps soundly in his crib.


Karima hands off her still smoking cigarette to Fahima. The Nejat Center counselors recently discovered to their horror that the 12-year-old girl also smokes some of her mother's heroin and opium.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Afghanistan: Orientation

To the annoyance of my parents, I am here in Afghanistan once again.

I arrived in Kabul two weeks ago and am hoping to stay a month or two, continuing work on a couple of projects and making myself available for assignments. (Hint, hint. Hello? Hello?! Anybody???)

A friend and colleague has graciously offered to put me up in her house for awhile--and I finally know how to give people directions on how to get here. One of Kabul's many challenges is the lack of actual street names, let alone house numbers. Some streets are so famous that everybody knows them, like Flower Street, which is a well-known street full of shops. Some streets have mysterious names, like Toilet Street. Others are simply called Line 5 or Line 8 (although many Afghans don't seem to know these streets), with one unnumbered door in the wall following another.

Still other streets are known only by their landmarks, like mosques, bazaars, stores or restaurants. I can't post my exact location on the Internet, so I'll just say that my street is unofficially known by the name of a restaurant serving a popular fried food. I feel like laughing every time I have to give people directions but hey, whatever gets me here.

I've gotten a couple of assignments, which I'll share later. Until then, I'll wow you with a few images from my daily existence here...


This is an Afghan dish called palaw, which I call "lunch", served nearly every day where I am staying. The dish is a giant plate of meaty rice cooked in meat juices (often lamb) with some kind of stew to eat with each spoonful. I always get a portion of yogurt, which I never touch. The bread is actually very good and fresh from the bakery everyday.


Walls, razor wire, fences: the view from the second-story balcony. Oh, yeah--by the way, this is pretty typical of the weather we've been having. Rainy, chilly, muddy...


...which is why I am thankful for the wood stove in my room. My friend Taimani (the dog) loves it too.