What is it like to live in war-ravaged Afghanistan?
For 28 days, award-winning Australian photo-journalist Andrew Quilty shared his life with us. See the country through his eyes in this live photo journal.
It's hard to draw to a close this 28-day period in Afghanistan from the south of France. But after having the same conversation with two other people today, I can only reflect on the fortunate position I am in… that I, as a visitor to Afghanistan, have the luxury of concluding from another country altogether.
I spoke with two highly accomplished photographers today at the Visa pour l'Image festival. One was from Colombia and the other from Turkey. It dawned on me what a privileged position I am in, to be able to work in a place like Afghanistan as someone who can pick up and leave at any point without concern for the family, friends or history left behind.
By contrast, while working amidst the upheaval common to their respective countries, not only do they have to complete their job, but Juan from Colombia and a Emin from Turkey must also watch on as their countries fall apart around them.
This is blindingly apparent on most days in Kabul. Most recently it happened when my driver Ali drove me to the airport. Every time he will ask where I'm travelling to, and every time I'm reminded of the misfortune of being born into a country like Afghanistan, where there's little alternative but to weather the inevitable storms, while the likes of me can come and go as they please.
After my journal entry a couple of weeks ago about the baby snake that paid us a visit at home, a couple of days ago we got some news of the planned release.
I mentioned on the day that Neda, the Iranian artist painting a mural on our garden wall, had been very particular about the house painters who were with us that day taking it out to the hills on the edge of town on their way home. She reminded them of the Persian superstition that the baby's mother would surely come after them if harm came to it.
Well, it turns out the painters forgot all about the snake curled up in the large Sprite bottle, so one of our guards Shafiq decided to deal with the problem himself. On the way to the foothills, one long stretch of road takes motorists past the infamous Kabul Zoo. Shafiq thought it was a stroke of genius to take the captured reptile there – a refuge from natural predators and humans alike. A place where it would be fed, cared for, and admired by the zoo's visitors.
Needless to say, having paid a visit or two to the zoo where the prized exhibit of recent years is an enormous pig, Neda, Sune and I were slightly aghast. We could only hope the snake wouldn't end up a symbol of Afghanistan's brutality like Marjan the lion, whose bronze statue has greeted visitors to the zoo since his death in 2002, after some forty turbulent and traumatic years of life.
A big change of scenery overnight. I woke at dawn, not to the sound of black hawks, but the empty streets of Perpignan in the south of France.
Perpignan is home to Visa pour l'Image, the prestigious festival for photojournalism, at which I'm lucky enough to have an exhibition of my work from my years in Afghanistan.
While this trip means I won’t post from Afghanistan for the full 28 days, as the journal title suggests, this trip is integral to it in a professional sense. There are few, if any places where so many leading figures in the industry congregate in one place at one time. Young photographers are able to bring their portfolios and meet with photo editors from National Geographic and The New York Times. While for others it's a chance to meet editors in person after communicating for so long via phone and email. Visa pour l'Image is also a great opportunity to rub shoulders with photographers whose work inspires and pushes you.
One thing I've noticed and appreciated, and which I suspect is a result of flying in from somewhere like Kabul rather than Sydney, is the deep sincerity in the receptions here from those I've been in contact with while in Afghanistan – friends, photographers and editors alike. It seems they're genuinely glad to see me in one piece, without having to say as much.
I'll be here until the journal wraps up, but I’ll continue to share some reflections on Afghanistan from afar.
This is just one of the several Black Hawk helicopters that whirr in low over our home en route to, or from, the Kabul Headquarters of NATO.
Black Hawks always fly in tandem – an expensive procedure aimed at ensuring backup and the means for extraction should one of the choppers go down – think Navy Seal Team 6 destroying their downed helicopter before taking off, after whacking Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.
They vary in frequency and route but a large proportion of Black Hawk flights above Kabul are transporting American government officials between their embassy and the tarmac at Kabul International Airport, only three kilometres away, but deemed too dangerous to do by road.
My local barbershop. I'm never sure who the actual barber is but when I show up every few months there are always a couple of bored but friendly young guys lounging around on the old, vinyl barber's chairs. One of them always hops to attention, ushers me into a chair, and works his fingers through my hair, assessing the best way to tackle the task ahead.
Before moving the Kabul, I don't think I'd paid for a haircut since I was in high school. I'd just dust off the clippers every six months or so and give myself a buzz-cut. But in Kabul, with opportunities available for treating one's self in short supply, I've come to look forward to the experience. If I'm lucky they'll even throw in a head and/or eye massage.
I'll usually hand over 500 Afghani (about AUD $10), probably well over the regular price, but for me, it's worth every cent.
After a long and emotional day with Jamshid's family (see yesterday's post) followed by an evening of editing pictures and a separate written piece, the lockout time for a party at the European Union's delegation in Kabul passed. So I stayed home, working with Sune, until a few of the EU partygoers dropped by after midnight.
I've known Mathilde since her first day in the country when she began as the communications officer for Médecins Sans Frontières. She was escorting me and a colleague to one of the hospitals they support, in Helmand Province. She's no longer with MSF – despite her love for Afghanistan and the work of MSF, security measures largely restrict staff to the confines of their compound. She now works with an NGO that overseas Afghan NGOs and which allows visits of this morning's nature.
The MSF compound wasn't the best incubator for a blossoming relationship by any means, but Mathilde and Ahmad have proved one of the more successful couplings amongst my friends in an environment infamous for its disastrous match-making.
Ahmad's an Egyptian entrepreneur and jack-of-all-trades who, amongst other things, runs a frozen yogurt joint behind the wire of the international military's "Resolute Support" headquarters in Kabul. Although the hassle of getting through the security cordon is prohibitive and has prevented me from ever sampling the fruits of his labour, Ahmad makes a carrot cake that sells out daily. The source of the recipe, which by coincidence, is one of Mathilde's housemates, kicks himself each time a slice is sold for ever having handed it over without a royalty agreement signed in blood.
After minor misadventures in Macroyan last night, this afternoon I found myself back in the labyrinth of Soviet-built apartment blocks after Friday prayers. But this time I had a purpose. I'd asked around about one particular student killed in the attack on the American University two nights ago – tributes for whom were filling my social media feeds. I made my way to his family home to introduce myself before the burial later in the afternoon.
I knew very little about Jamshid Zafar at that point, but over the course of a couple of hours, as family and friends waited for his body to be brought home one last time before burial, the picture of a bright, generous, sincere young man emerged. Zafar was known for his ability to find common ground with even the most hardheaded antagonist. He studied law but volunteered as a teacher for street children in his own time. He was always busy but equally available to talk with friends or other students who, in spite of his relatively young age, marvelled at his mind.
Once Jamshid's coffin arrived in Macroyan, it was carried beneath a fabric tent where female family and friends wailed, screamed and sobbed as more than a hundred men waited on the concrete road outside, shaking their heads and clicking their tongues each time a howl went up from the women, as if to acknowledge their pain.
From there, a procession of vehicles crawled through a dust storm, past the ancient hilltop fort of Bala Hissar and a lakebed that transforms into a giant sporting field once the spring rainfall dries up each year. At the base of a hill that marks the southern edge of the capital, Jamshid's coffin was draped in green velvet and carried to the edge of an open grave.
Amongst the congregation were a number of fellow university students, some nursing bandaged arms and hands after the ordeal on Wednesday night. Others had never met Jamshid but came to pay their respects nonetheless.
In Afghanistan, burials are traditionally the domain of men. After seeing the dead one last time at the family home before burial, it’s not until the following day that women are able to mourn at the grave. Today however, a group of young women – small but significant – were present to farewell their friend and brother. As men filled in the grave with shovels, Jamshid's sister, Angiza, was passed a handful of dusty earth. She lent forward over her brother and let the dirt slide through her fingers.
Once the burial was complete the mourners moved down the hillside, away from the grave which had been covered with pink rose petals and plump marigolds, to make a final communal prayer and offer personal condolences to Jamshid's father. The afternoon had turned hot and windless and beads of sweat replaced tears on the cheeks of many exhausted faces.
Not surprisingly, there was a mournful mood over Kabul today. After the confusion and misinformation circulating as the attack on the American University unfolded last night, daylight unveiled a sobering reality. At least 13 have been killed and dozens more injured.
Attacks that kill civilians going about their daily lives are hardly rare in Kabul, but this instance felt a step less removed for many of the foreigners living here. The American University was an English language school, so many caught up in the attack had professional and personal connections to internationals working for NGOs, legal consultants, media organisations, cultural and educational institutions and government advisory bodies.
For me, the most tragic aspect of this attack was that those targeted were at the core of a small, optimistic, educated class who – despite the pull of the mass exodus to the greener pastures of Europe in the past 18 months – elected to stay in Kabul.
While deteriorating security across the country was a major driver of the migration, for many with degrees and multiple languages under their belts, the free-falling economy and an unemployment rate of around 40 per cent countrywide provided little incentive to stay. Although significantly reduced in recent months, the exodus has been palpable in Kabul's professional sector. Staying became the exception. And it was the stayers – some whose confidence in the country bordered on polyannaism – who represented a much needed sliver of hope for the country.
I drove to one of the five Macroyan neighbourhoods late this evening. The crumbling, concrete apartment complexes, built for the families of the vast Soviet-era bureaucracy, remain vestiges of a class hungry for learning. So I assumed that many caught up in last night's attack must have been Macroyan residents. I didn't go for any other reason than that.
But Kabul can be a cruel city. Instead of finding and chatting with some heartbroken but defiant American University students as I'd envisaged, I ended up being harassed and taunted by a pack of boys whose education would most likely never take precedence over survival, and whose English didn't extend beyond "f**k you".
What was supposed to be another quiet night in – working into the night with a break for takeaway food and a nightcap later on – was interrupted at 7:15pm by the news of an explosion and ensuing attack at the American University of Afghanistan in southern Kabul.
Sune and I grabbed our things and jumped in the car with his fixer, Mukhtar, who sped us through mostly oncoming traffic, on the wrong side of the road. We called another housemate and asked him to take care of our food when it arrived.
With the neighbourhood blacked out and the government Quick Reaction Force only just rolling in, in columns of armoured Humvees, the area outside the university was eerily quiet under the circumstances.
The most well-known of Afghan photojournalists, Pulitzer Prize-winner Massoud Hosseini was tweeting from inside a classroom in the university. "Help we are stuck inside AUAF and shooting followed by Explo this maybe my last tweets." I later learned that he and the others had barricaded themselves inside using tables and chairs to block the door as attackers attempted to blow it in with grenades. Several people jumped from the second story windows to escape.
With little news emerging from outside the university and a legion of Kabul cameramen clambering over one another to get vision of injured survivors being carried to idling ambulances, we decided to leave and head for Emergency Hospital, an Italian NGO that caters specifically for the war-wounded.
The staff were typically calm despite having received close to 20 patients already, with the number expected to rise through the night.
We were escorted towards the emergency room but were cut off by two nurses wheeling a patient on a hospital bed, his burly torso and splinted right arm and leg covered in bloody dressings. Sune recognised him. They'd eaten lunch together earlier in the day to discuss Helmand Province for our upcoming story following our trip last week.
With that we left Emergency and headed for home. Our takeaway was waiting on the kitchen bench in plastic bags. A mouse skittered along a shelf behind jars of condiments and coffee-making contraptions. I took aim with the house air rifle from across the kitchen. Sune implored me not to smash the breakfast bowl it was hiding behind.
It was after 11pm by the time Cath, a fellow Australian journalist that lives nearby turned up for a nightcap tonight. As she, Sune and I sipped our drinks and brushed off mosquitos, the distinct boom and rumble of an explosion sounded off in the distance. While it was unlikely a bombing in Kabul at this hour would mean I'd be getting to work, for Sune and Cath, who cover breaking news for their respective outlets, it was potentially the beginning of a long night ahead.
We sat back, continued on our drinks and gave Twitter a minute or two to shed some light.
Earlier in the evening I'd left home for a drive and ended up in a dusty lot hidden like a giant courtyard behind dilapidated residential buildings surrounded by cinderblock walls, cyclone fencing and barbed wire. Now and again the sun pierced the clouds hovering above the mountains to the west. There were several cricket matches kicking up dust and the potential for a nice picture to be found, but I was keeping an eye on a group of 20-year-olds whose stares hinted toward hostility. I spent five or ten minutes taking pictures before I sensed the atmosphere changing. A stone scuttled past my feet from the group's direction and I turned for the car.
Unfortunately, to get to the car I had to walk back past the group too. A new guy – a few years older with a long, straggly, black beard and a white skull-cap – had just arrived and the group pointed him toward me. I opted for my usual tactic in such situations – a borderline-overly-enthusiastic "hello!" (in Pashto in this case) followed by an outstretched hand.
Then came something I haven't experienced in three years here. Rather than simply decline my handshake, he pulled some slack out of his scarf and used it to cover his hand before shaking mine. Glancing over my shoulder once or twice, I made my way back to the car. Ali – who's been driving me around Kabul since I arrived – had a tub of fresh figs waiting for me. He'd picked them straight from a tree at his office for me.
On the way home we drove past this giant Quran replica.
As for Cath and Sune, other than social media confirming the explosion had been heard across Kabul, by 1:30am little else was known, so they called it a night.
We're coming to the end of summer in Kabul. It's been a relatively mild season with temperatures rarely going beyond the mid-30s. It's a sure sign that winter is on the horizon when the city's power supply starts to falter, as it has in the past week or so.
There are numerous reasons for the power outages; 18 months ago avalanches brought down the lines that deliver most of Kabul's electricity from Uzbekistan. Last winter Taliban insurgents blew up several power pylons and planted mines throughout the vicinity. With only a couple of hours of electricity per day, Kabul was humming with the sound of diesel generators for over six weeks while the pylons were repaired.
Tonight, as the lights dimmed and flickered, Sune and I joked that President Ashraf Ghani's CEO and recalcitrant subordinate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah wasn't pedalling hard enough. The lights hung on with a dull glow for a few more seconds and then faded to black. Cooking resumed shortly after, under torchlight.
I was up early this morning to meet the friend and fixer that Sune, Danielle and I often work with in Helmand, on the outskirts of Kabul.
Although Helmand is his home, Rauf is in self-imposed exile at the moment. As an Afghan that worked for several years as an interpreter for the British army (not to mention foreign journalists), had the province fallen to the Taliban as was recently feared, he'd have been a marked man. (Rauf has been waiting more than 18 months for his UK visa to be finalised.)
We were waiting to speak with the local commander at a police checkpoint toward the southern outskirts of Kabul when a taxi pulled to a stop. Its boot was open and a pair of bloodied, lifeless feet hung over the tailgate. Inside, a middle-aged man lay on a stretcher. Several bandages barely hid stab wounds – inflicted during what we were told was a family dispute. A younger man held a clear bag of IV fluid to the roof. His hand was rusty with dried blood.
A plainclothes policeman jumped in, filling the remaining space in the back of the station wagon before the driver lumbered out into the traffic for hospital.
At home today we discovered that as well as a dog, chickens and mice, we also have a resident snake. As the lone Australian on deck, I sensed an unspoken expectation that I'd know what to do. Instead Sune, our chowkidor Shafiq, and I ran around with various weapons and donned protective footwear. At one point, when the centimetre-wide snake made a run for it, Sune even ended up on top of the timber chest under which it had been hiding.
We had a guest in the house at the time. Our friend Neda, an Iranian artist who'd come with two local workers to prepare an exterior wall before painting a mural. She was somewhat more level-headed, convincing us to change our tactics to a capture and release strategy. Back in Iran her dad did this all the time she assured us. Well, she must have paid attention because as soon as soon as the snake got into the open, she swooped in wearing a pair of rubber gloves, grabbed it by the tail and expertly slid her thumb and forefinger up its length until she had it by the neck.
Safely secured in a large, empty Sprite bottle, Neda asked the workers to take it to the hills near their home on the edge of the city once they'd finished their work.
To be sure they'd do as she asked, Neda reminded them of the Persian superstition that an aggrieved animal mother would surely come to avenge its baby's death. After the way she'd handled the snake in the beginning I got the feeling they weren't going to take any chances.
One of the first times my interest was really piqued about Afghanistan was during the drive home from a weekend camping by the Murrumbidgee River, five hours southwest of Sydney, back in 2011 or 2012.
In fact the old Land Cruiser we were driving was named Kush – a reference to the Hindu Kush mountain range that runs east to west across Central Afghanistan.
Pete, the driver, had just returned from a three year stint working in one of the least developed corners of the country. He versed us in Afghanistan's recent history, the missteps of the foreigners, and told stories of his encounters with Taliban fighters and international journalists.
A couple of years later when I'd decided to travel there myself, the only advice he gave me was, "never take photos from the roof".
Afghans have contradictory views on privacy. When even the most minute incident occurs on the street – in public – every man in sight will descend upon it until a crowd has encircled who or whatever is at its centre and everyone has offered their opinion on the matter.
Inside the walls of a house, however, all is sacrosanct. The honour of the women is at stake, after all. Simply taking in the view from a balcony overlooking a nearby yard is enough to send neighbours into a fury.
For that reason it took a few times before the guards across the road from home let me up to the top of their building site. What I really wanted to do, though, was take a picture of the workers balancing on a couple of creaky timber planks rendering the block's exterior. Seven floors up.
Although a bit perplexed as to why I'd walk up seven flights of stairs to take their picture, they continued their work while joking at my absurdity. Down below, the neighbours were all quiet.
One of the great things about living as a journalist in Kabul is that, even as international interest wanes, the country and its story continues to attract some of the best in the business. Not only that; with the number of foreign press barely amounting to double figures nowadays, there's a fair chance you'll meet visiting reporters at a dinner party or, in my case, as a photographer, go out shooting with them.
You'd have to make a pretty good argument to convince me that 35-year-old Russian photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev isn't one of, if not the best, working today. In the last year alone he's picked just about every major international prize under the sun, including a World Press Photo award and a Pulitzer.
Today, Ponomarev – who's in Kabul for a week or two on assignment for The New York Times – invited me along to the gathering of the same civil society movement that was torn apart by a suicide bomber during a peaceful demonstration three weeks ago.
The gathering was uneventful and didn't offer much for Ponomarev but he worked thoughtfully, always attentive to what happening around him. He was accompanied by a local New York Times reporter who kept asking if he'd finished yet. She warned that it was risky to stay too long after what happened last time the group had congregated in large numbers. I suspect she was just bored waiting for the photographer and his precious afternoon light.
More than insecurity, I'm guessing it will be the endemic greed and squander which permeates every aspect of life that will eventually push me out of Afghanistan. The disfunction that 40 years of war has instilled in every level of society, all the way to the top (the Afghan president is meeting with his deputy for the first time in six months this evening) is frustrating in the extreme, and enough to drive the most optimistic do-gooder to cynicism.
Of course, in a country of extremes like Afghanistan, exceptions to the rule stand proud, draw you back in, and implore you not to lose hope in the country.
This morning I shadowed Mohammad Rafiq, a physiotherapist with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kabul, as he paid home visits to paraplegics behind the mud walls of labyrinthine alleyways in the city's outer neighbourhoods.
Until he sought help from ICRC for his crippling polio at the age of 18, Rafiq was barely more physically able than the patients he saw today. Following his treatment, he decided he'd teach others to walk as well, and in 2002 ICRC petitioned for him to study physiotherapy at Kabul University. He has worked for the organisation ever since and, still carrying a heavy limp, pays regular home visits to as many as 250 spinal cord patients.
While slowly dwindling in numbers, the contingent of foreign journalists still remaining in Kabul are, for the most part, a close knit bunch. Tonight, friends Josh and Sarah hosted a small dinner in the living quarters above the bureau of a major international news agency, where Josh works.
They're in one of the more fortified parts of town, home to several large embassy compounds and a handful of other media bureaus and NGO offices. Before you can get to them though, you'll have to pass through rows of blast walls, boom gates, sniffer dogs, walls of razor wire on wheels, road spikes, and Nepalese Gurkhas.
The headquarters of the international Resolute Support military mission are also close by. Dinner conversation stops and starts seamlessly when interrupted by Black Hawk helicopters, camouflaged against the night sky, fly in low and in tandem. They're as often flying US Embassy staff to and from Kabul International Airport – the 3km drive is deemed too dangerous – as they are ferrying some of the 10,000-odd foreign soldiers remaining in Afghanistan between bases.
Over the back fence is a mosque with PA system, so the story goes, donated by a major embassy nearby as a gesture of goodwill. Since then, the embassy staff have been able to hear the local mullah's anti-western sermons on any given Friday, louder and more crisply than ever.
Today I returned to Kabul from the reporting trip Sune and I made to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. I'm more disappointed at being unable to share my experiences than I'd expected. (As detailed in a previous post SBS decided they were unable to condone the trip because of the risk involved, which means I can't share anything that we took away from it.)
Of course, risk here is rarely where you anticipate finding it. Half an hour before we landed in Kabul, an improvised explosive device took out a car carrying a senior police officer on the road we usually take home from the airport. (Fortunately the vehicle's occupants were only injured, not killed.)
It's always nice returning home after a trip to the provinces. As much as we love doing them and lamented leaving so soon on this occasion, accommodation options are usually basic-at-best and coming home to a shower and your own bed never gets old.
After two long days of shooting, I was keen to get into the laborious but satisfying editing process. My usual approach involves doing six passes through my pictures, slowly paring away the weaker ones until I have a selection of perhaps three to five per cent of the total shot. I then put those through editing software to make minor enhancements. Of course "minor enhancement" is subjective, but I'd be here all day if I started on that issue. Let's just say I'm of a less is more persuasion.
Above is a screenshot after the second pass through the images, at which point I'm down to about 20% of the original number. Some might think my process sounds slow. They'd be right.
Like yesterday's this is a backdated post. The photo was taken on Thursday the 11th and is taking the place of a more timely post for reasons mentioned in yesterday's post.
It was 32 degrees when three men, each towing fully laden carts of firewood arrived at our house with the fuel that would see us through the upcoming winter.
The load cost about $250 AUD and will mostly be burnt in a single bukhari, to heat the main living area of the house.
As the three workers unloaded one of the carts, Samim, our house chowkidor – part doorman, part guard, part handyman – happily oversaw the work without feeling the need to lend a hand.
In the background, Shami was tied to a tree. Most Afghans are terrified, if not repulsed by dogs. Islam – or most interpretations of it – dictate that they're unclean.
While the greatest risk with Shami, arguably the happiest dog in Kabul, is a few dusty paw prints on your shirt, one of the dogs at my last house, Mushu, almost sent us bankrupt with all the stitches required to patch up our guests over the years. He'd have been put down years ago if he was back home in Sydney, but he was a good judge of character so mostly we didn't hold it against him.
Today's post is slightly backdated. When this is published I'll be out of Kabul on a reporting trip that SBS wasn't able to support, due to the risk involved.
The picture was taken on the evening of Friday the 12th as I packed my bags prior to flying early the following morning. Aside from my camera equipment and obvious essentials, this is more or less what I'm taking. Clockwise from top left: typical Afghan shoes (no socks), a multi-adapter power board, two shalwar kameez and skull-cap (pastels are the colours of choice in the province to which I'm travelling), flak jacket, kevlar helmet and first aid kit.
For liability reasons, SBS won't accept pictures or text from the trip, including travel to and from the province. Situations like this are commonplace for journalists working in conflict zones, now more than ever. Publishers are increasingly reluctant to take on too much risk.
While I'm not entirely opposed to the policies of media organisations that limit the risk their journalists can expose themselves to, as a journalist myself – and particularly as a freelancer – the circumstances can be constricting.
In years gone by, when editorial budgets dwarfed those of today, more reliance could be placed on security and contingency plans. Nowadays, however, most publications struggle to cover even the basic expenses required to report stories like that which Sune and I will be covering, let alone ensure emergency medical evacuation, security and insurance. In order to mitigate as much risk as is practical, unfortunately compromises, like shortening time on the ground, and limiting movement, usually have to be made.
In this case it was a judgement call. SBS's security advisors assessed the risk was too great. But being on the ground in Afghanistan, however, with a good grasp of the situation into which we're going, with trusted local sources at our destination, and ultimately, the desire to tell a story, Sune and I determined that we could do the trip within an acceptable level of risk.
Back in a couple of days!
Friday is my favourite day in Kabul. It's the equivalent of the western Sunday. The roads are relatively empty and families congregate at the few family-friendly parks in the city.
I left home late in the afternoon in the hope of finding one of the lavishly decorated wedding cars to stalk and photograph – Friday is also the preferred day for weddings. I've seen some in the past, completely covered in balls of cotton wool except for a small, heart-shaped aperture in the windscreen for the driver to navigate through, but I never managed to get a good picture.
Unfortunately this afternoon was a bust as well. In fact I didn't manage to shoot any pictures I was happy with, and so, with apologies, for today I'm posting another demonstration of unorthodox cycling techniques in Kabul.
Three weeks ago, just a few kilometres towards the centre of Kabul from this barren hilltop, a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the centre of a crowd gathered for a peaceful demonstration.
More than 80 mostly ethnic Hazaras were killed. 250 more were wounded. It was the worst single attack in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion of 2001. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility, a first in the Afghan capital.
The following day, with the help of an earthmover, more than 20 of the dead were buried here on the far southern outskirts of the city.
Sadly, in Kabul, such attacks often mark points in time on the calendar as much as religious or public holidays.
Thursday evening, the beginning of the weekend in Afghanistan, brings mourners--both male and female--to cemeteries across Kabul, but within Islam's essential 40 days of mourning, the mood is particularly sombre.
This evening, women made their way through the rows of headstones, stopping and crouching at each to offer prayers as children ran and laughed and the men stood back, solemn and still. One walked toward me, his hands outstretched with deference, offering a small cardboard box of dates.
One of my favourite series' of modern photographic portraits is "Axe Me Biggie", Australian photographer Stephen Dupont's collection of black and white images made with a ‘land camera’ over an hour or two on the streets of Kabul in 2006. Strangely, I'd never wondered what on earth the title meant. But that was before I'd ever stepped foot inside Afghanistan. Once I arrived in 2013, carrying a camera over my shoulder most of the time, it didn't take long to work it out... "Mister, take my photo!"
It's hard to carry a camera anywhere, but particularly on the streets of Kabul -- its youth self-conscious and social media-mad--without hearing the demand.
And so it was this evening, as I returned home after collecting some photographic prints for a friend. "Axe me biggie! Axe me biggie!"
Wahid Gul was manning a police checkpoint on a residential street in central Kabul. It must be a mind-numbingly boring task for the thousands that do the same across the city, but it's these young men that provide the last line of defence against the frequent bomb attacks in the capital--something I try to keep in mind while enduring my twelfth pat-down on any given day.
On a wage equivalent to roughly AUD 240 per month and with only 8 weeks training, that's a lot of responsibility, especially when the police themselves are often the targets. Six weeks ago, 30 were killed and 50 wounded when two suicide bombers attacked a bus carrying police cadets. Countrywide, somewhere in the vicinity of 5,000 policemen were killed in 2015, alone.
After taking a frame or two I showed Wahid Gul his pictures on the camera's screen. Nodding with approval he asked if I'd join him in his container for tea.
I often refer to Danielle and Sune as my Kabul parents. I've been living with them in a simple but very homely Afghan-style house with a leaky mud roof and a bulging mulberry tree for six months.
Before running out on some errands this afternoon, I knocked on their door down the hall from my room.
The two of them and their beloved Kabul mutt Shami were having one last cuddle before heading to the airport. Danielle is getting out of Afghanistan for a few weeks of down time.
Sune Engel Rasmussen is a Danish freelance writer working primarily, but not exclusively, for The Guardian. He had his first story published in the hallowed pages of Harper's recently and in June was presented with the New Voice Award at the prestigious One World Media Awards in London, for his work in Afghanistan.
Danielle Moylan is from Perth originally but met Sune, who'd just kicked off his journalism career, while working for DFAT at the Australian Embassy in Tehran a couple of years ago.
Danielle recently made a foray into journalism, and after writing full-time for less than a year; she's already graced the pages of Newsweek and The New York Times. Not surprisingly, that's ruffled the feathers of some of the old guard amongst the press corps here. In early September you'll find a remarkable story she's written from Kabul in The Good Weekend.
And of course Shami. Like many of the dogs taken in off the streets by foreigners, Shami arguably defines our house more than its human occupants.
Originally given to Sune and Danielle to look after temporarily, the idea of sending Shami off to the U.S. to her pre-arranged adopted parents becomes harder by the day.
It's a surprisingly common conundrum for foreigners here. Street dogs are routinely rescued from garbage piles and gutters before Kabul manages to consume them. Most are taken to one of the few animal shelters, but for those who come to Afghanistan with the intention of staying some years, taking in a dog after signing a long term lease on a home with a sprawling garden is logical for many reasons.
Problems have been arising of late, however, as houses are abruptly closed down, when, after security incidents, employers decide to evacuate staff from residential houses, moving them to secure and soulless compounds or outside the country altogether.
While furniture can be dealt with less sentimentally, Kabul's much-loved, but typically temperamental canines can make even the U.S.' Afghanistan exit strategy seem straightforward.
I always swore I'd never become one of those scarf-wearing photojournalists. Of course, on the first day I arrived in Kabul, in December 2013, I hit Chicken Street (Kabul's version of Darling Harbour) to buy a handful.
I'd wear a black and grey chequered number with black jeans and a leather jacket to the social events. My Kabul host was dutifully bringing me along to gatherings of journalists, analysts and heavy-hitters from the UN. Maybe my inexperience wouldn't show as much if I veiled it in a scarf... Just like the German tourist buying the 'I Love NY' t-shirt in Times Square.
Since coming to terms with all that though, I've discovered these scarves really are one of the most useful (and ubiquitous) items of clothing, if only in certain -- mostly arid – parts of the world, such as Afghanistan.
I've used a scarf as a dust mask in sandstorms, as a gas mask during civil unrest and provided one to a driver to secure our vehicle's broken muffler after it dropped to the ground in a particularly hairy area in the south. They keep the sun off in summer, provide an element of disguise while driving through potentially hostile areas outside Kabul and, according to an instructor at a first aid course I took, make great tourniquets for grievously wounded limbs.
The batch I picked up that day back in 2013 have slowly been lost behind washing machines, under plane seats, and to various pet dogs. Late this afternoon, on a bridge that spans the Kabul river close to the centre of town, half a dozen salesmen balanced what looked like crucifixes on the road, each with 40 or 50 colourful scarves hanging from nails in the crossbar. For 150 Afghani (about $2.20 AUD) I picked out a relatively plain one – charcoal grey with black pin-stripes. It ought to go well with the jeans and jacket.
Just as I was about to head for home after a quick walk up a hill not far from home late this afternoon, a rabble of boys came careening up the side of the hill, two of them clutching scruffy cockerels.
Another boy I'd been speaking with who'd been watching a game of soccer on top of the hill looked at them warily and said, "bad boys". He went on to tell me they steal birds from the houses at the bottom of the hill and carry them to the top, where they're out of sight, to pit them against each other in a fight.
Bloodsports like cock fighting are common in Afghanistan, despite government attempts to ban them. The semi-legal nature also makes negotiating with the participants before taking pictures tricky.
They dropped the birds on a patch of ground in the lee of a building that the police usually use as a small base from where they can monitor the surrounding street. Today they were nowhere to be seen.
Two of my housemates, Danielle and Sune, had just sat down for a nightcap after Sune returned home from a function at the British Embassy. It was about 9pm when our other housemate announced that his boss had just sent him a message about a possible kidnapping in Kabul. Two foreigners had been taken, he said.
Sune is correspondent for The Guardian in Afghanistan. Danielle is also a writer. The news meant that Sune had to get to work. As Danielle trawled Twitter and the local news websites, Sune began phoning around – first putting his local fixer to work before calling the embassies and interior ministry officials.
While unfortunately the kidnapping was confirmed, the embassies of both nationalities concerned requested an initial media blackout – a common practice in kidnapping aimed at keeping the profile of such cases as low as possible.
With that, Sune informed his editor in London, snapped his laptop shut and called it a night.
I'd just finished a portrait assignment with a subject who didn't want to be physically identifiable in the photo because of fears for his safety – something I'm getting a lot of practice at nowadays.
Returning home from the outskirts of Kabul, the driver of the private taxi I'd hired came up behind a young guy riding along with a car steering wheel fixed to the handlebars of his bicycle.
I had the driver Elias pull up alongside him, I hung out the window just long enough to fire off a couple of frames and ask him his name – Nazir Shah – before he disappeared through the cracks of one of Kabul's infamous traffic jams.
Ask any foreigner living in Afghanistan about how they feel flying back into Kabul after time away and most will speak of a tinge of trepidation that accompanies them over the mountains that surround the capital.
I've been out for two weeks of R&R, and, after two significant attacks in Kabul since leaving (one was the most devastating, countrywide, since the 2001 invasion) I arrived home this morning to hear from my housemate (a Danish freelance journalist named Sune) that a group of adventure tourists were attacked yesterday while driving through a remote part of the country several hundred kilometres west of Kabul. Apparently Contiki didn't cut it for the group that included eight Britons, three Americans and a German national. I suppose the tourists got their money's worth. (None were killed).
But regardless of the situation on the ground in Kabul – and the associated level of anxiety that ensues – descending into the broad Kabul Valley, the view of the southernmost fringe of the Hindu Kush mountain range never fails to invigorate the inspiration that Afghanistan stirs in me.
The first time I flew into Kabul International Airport, after landing safely, collecting my hand luggage and making my way up the jet bridge, I remember the intimidating stares of those queuing on the other side of the glass that divided those arriving and those departing.
I've since learned not to see the stares as intimidating and always love the juxtaposition of expectant faces against the reflection of the air field in the tall windows of the departure lounge.
Arriving back in Afghanistan, however, scarcely prepared for the delicate ways necessary for negotiating Kabul with a camera, I'm rarely game to lift my camera so soon. Today was one of the first times I'd tried.
Photos: Andrew Quilty
Design: Nathan Kopp
Producer: Megan Gibbon