Capturing Afghanistan’s troubled history

AFGHANISTAN — A Distant War: Robert Nickelsberg; Prestel, London.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

Much has been written about three decades and more of war and turmoil in Afghanistan. Mostly, these books depict a land that was once a buffer between Czarist Russia and the British Empire, went on to become a Cold War battleground, was owned by Pakistan and Al Qaeda through the Taliban to use as a staging post for their respective ambitions, and is a country teetering on the edge of an abyss after the U.S. and the rest of the world and their militaries have given up trying to build it as they thought it should be built. Wars have raged through this land, but reading these books leaves you with a question: as the Great Game plays itself out, is Afghanistan just strategic real estate? What about its people?

Now for the first time, here is a book that tells you about the people — Afghans, non-Afghans, combatants, civilians, fighting, fleeing, dying, living, dancing, surviving — each pages speaking more than a thousand words, in the only way this happens: through images.

Robert Nickelsberg is a veteran photographer who has worked for Time, The New York Times, Newsweek and a host of other Western media organisations. In Afghanistan – A Distant War, we see through Nickelsberg’s eyes and the lens of his camera the story of a country and its people as they transitioned from one war to the next and the brutal power struggles in-between. Starting with the exit of the Red Army in 1989, and ending with the exit of U.S troops this year, this book is a poignant portrayal of Afghanistan.

Only a handful of journalists today can claim to have covered the Afghan story so consistently, and Nickelsberg is one of them — the number of times he is quoted in another book, The Fountainhead of Jihad by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, gives you an indication — his camera capturing scenes of intense human drama both in and away from the military action.

One arresting series of images shows a Taliban soldier taking aim with his gun. In the next frame, he has fallen to the ground, but is still sitting. The third shows him prone, face down, cap by his side. In the final frame, another Taliban fighter drags his mortally wounded comrade away from the scene. The photographs were shot at Mazar-e-Sharif in May 1997, after a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and Uzbeks broke down.

Photographers dream of being present at a scene like that but the most telling images in the book are not the ones of the mujahideen, their guns and their rounds of ammo, or of American soldiers, but those that portray ordinary people caught in the mess.

In some photographs, it is almost possible to imagine what Afghanistan might have been without a war. A Constable-like rural idyll of green trees, blue skies and cotton clouds, were it not for those mushrooms of black smoke rising up from the ground in the middle distance, and in the foreground, instead of a farmer sleeping under a tree, a woman and her children taking cover from Afghan air force bombers during the March 1989 battle for Jalalabad (picture above). Or an urban jungle called Kabul where, on a bright day in May 2013, the traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see and people shop at open air stalls set up under colourful garden umbrellas. Except that somewhere in the neighbourhood, perhaps on the same day, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a NATO convoy, killing 16 people, and the wreckage is being cleared from the road.

In October 1996 an Afghan mujahideen’s widow with six young children struggles in an apartment in Kabul, with no heating for the winter and little food. Two men, one of them a government soldier, drag a wounded civilian to safety during a gun battle between rival mujahideen in Kabul, March 1993. A man pushes back a woman in a shuttlecock burqa with a gun, pressing it across her shoulders as she tries to access UN food aid in Kabul, February 1993. A family flees the fighting in Kabul as the Hizb-e-Islmai and Hizb-e-Wahadat fought President Rabbani’s government forces. The woman’s face has the calm air of resignation. Behind her are children, one boy carrying a hen in his arms. From February 2001 is the haunting image of an infant’s body being washed before the ritual burial — the one-year-old boy died of exposure to the cold in a refugee camp in Herat.It may be a measure of how journalism itself has changed in this millennium, favouring more embedded reportage, or of how unsafe Afghanistan became for journalists that in the period 2001-2013, Nickelsberg’s photographs are mainly about the U.S. military as it fought in that country. Few show non-combatants in the same detail and proximity evident in his images from the 1990s. One image from these later years is of a man suspected of sheltering Taliban fighters being questioned by American soldiers (bottom pic). Another, at Bagram air base in May 2013, shows a contingent of bare-headed American soldiers preparing to leave after their tour of duty, as another arrives, helmets on. At the same base, a soldier inspects vehicles waiting to be shipped back to the U.S as part of the withdrawal. One of the final photographs in the book is of school girls crossing a busy Kabul road as a policeman holds the traffic back, leaving you wondering about the fate of these girls if the Taliban make a comeback, as they are most likely to, in the coming years.

This book did not need a New Yorker writer such as Jon Anderson or other star commentators such as Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid to give it heft. Nickelsberg has jotted briefly his own memories, or an anecdote or two at the start of each section. But really, each briefly captioned photograph speaks for itself as a slice of Afghan history.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 8:07:36 AM |

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