War journalism goes meta. Kabul, Afghanistan

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
A photo of an old woman holding a photo of herself taken by Photo Journalist Louis Quail.

I’m not a journalist but sometimes get accused of being one. Admittedly, it can be hard to believe a guy with two cameras and a laptop is in some war-torn country is there purely for the fun of it.
Strangely you don’t get many tourist here. It’s not surprising then a good proportion of my more recent travels are spent with journalists. Most evenings in Kabul for instance basically comprised a bunch of journos and myself around a table talking about what shootings or kidnappings took place that day; Speculation on possible motives or methods; was any of us close at the time or indeed did this happen right around the corner; Did any of us have our own brushes with Taliban, possible kidnappers, various dicey circumstances; could any of us be next.
It’s more or less a war torn version of a knitting club.

Security.

That said, it’s not all about blood in the streets. Despite what you see in the news, not everyone is in lock down quivering in their sandals. Even here, people do get on with their lives and I’m not the only one to take notice. People such as Photo journalist Louis Quail are covering the more human experience of the Afghanistan people.

a photo of myself being photographed.

Stories such as a Museum director who saw most of his collection looted under the Mujaheddin or destroyed under the Taliban. Now he is slowing putting the collection back together, often literally, out of the pieces of what was left as well as putting new pieces on display. Or the story of Qudsia Zohab, a young woman who grew up in Taliban times not allowed to work or get an education. Her days were spent either at home doing little or if she was out it was always under the burque. Now in her mid 20’s she now has an education and works in ethnography.

Even I don’t escape the camera being pointed at me. I guess a random traveler who considers Afghanistan safe enough for my brand of haphazard wandering is a story all of it’s own. Thus I stand in front of a heavily shelled out building having my photo taken, all while I point my camera right back.

Who is documenting who on what story quickly becomes unclear.

Band-e-amir, Afghanistan

Monday, October 27th, 2008
A lake bluer than the sky.

Drive for hours overs dusty mountain roads and your brought to Afghanistan’s only national park. Band-e-amir is a series of deep blue lakes nestled amidst limestone canyons. This is Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon, truly a sight inspiring of awe.
Weather is worth traveling through Taliban territory to get here is entirely another question.
Pictures tell the story although sadly fail to do it justice.

Bamiyan, Afghanistan. From the Taliban to the Buddhas

Saturday, October 25th, 2008
Meet the Taliban.

As per usual, most of the fun is getting there. The road from Kabul to Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan has got to be the epitome of this. Take a bunch of guys, stuff them into an old Toyota Van and go riding along a dusty track through the mountains with amazing stark mountains rising out off narrow valleys. Some of the most amazing scenery you are ever going to see anywhere. All the while weaving through upturned Russian tanks, potholes, the occasional mine field, heavily ladened oncoming trucks and the odd military convoy. The sound track to this is nothing less than Indian Bollywood music while the guys in the back clap along while emptying the cigarettes I gave them and refill them with hashish. I don’t need to go to Mars, I’ve been to Afghanistan.

Meet the Buddha, or at least what’s left.

This is also a part of the world where the Russians amongst others have tried and failed to take. Stark reminders of this are in the innumerable green and red flags that dot the roadside. One for each martyr that died in battle. Coming over the pass past another flurry of flags sits an old Russian armored personal carrier surveying the pass. The driver slows, points at the carrier on the hill and says “Taliban…..Taliban…”. A not so subtle reminder of what I am in the middle of.

Minefield Etiquette. White=good, Red=Very,very Bad

This adventure brings me to Bamiyan, one of the oldest and most impressive Buddhist archaeological sites in the world. Well at least it was. Two Buddha statues were carved into the sheer cliff face in the 6th century. One measuring an impressive 55 meters high, the other 38 meters. Unfortunately the same decree that saw a hammer taken to the Kabul Museum I wrote about earlier, also saw the destruction of the Buddha statues in 2001. This of course was was a big job. When a line of tanks failed to do the job, a demolition team was called in from Pakistan to do the job “right”. What’s left is the towering caverns where the statues used to sit leaving only the feet and a pile of rubble to show for what was there. A German archaeological team is currently clearing and cataloging the rubble to evaluate if it’s feasible to re-assemble what must be the worlds biggest jig-saw puzzle. Their job is not made any easier buy the various explosives that are still hidden in the site, some pulled out the day I was there.
Still, the site is worth visiting. A myriad of caves through the cliffs lead to caverns that still bear some of the old Buddhist artwork, albeit with most of it chipped away or covered in Taliban graffiti.
In a sad way you might say this creates a new kind of history all of it’s own.

Landmine Museum, Kabul, Afghanistan

Friday, October 24th, 2008
Snap Quiz; are these (a) children’s toys, or (b) Land mines. If you guessed B, you get to keep your leg.

Here’s a museum only Afghanistan could host.(or possibly Somalia, Sierra Leone, Burma or a few other counties I’ve visited of late)
The Organisation for Mine Clearance & Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR) have been working for years attempting to clear the many thousands of land mines as well unexploded ordinance (UXO) that litter the country.
The OMAR also host an odd sort of Museum which has many of the dozens of types of land mines and UXO they have cleared on display. A highlight has got to be the Russian made “Butterfly” mines. These plastic mines are normally air dropped and have little kind of wings to float them to the ground. They also rather sadistically come in a range of kid friendly colours making them a kind of bizarro world children’s toy. This has rather sickeningly created missing arms a plenty.

 

70’s Tupperware or anti-tank mine?

Another nice one is the Italian made TC-6 anti tank mine. It looks more like 70’s Tupperware than an explosive device. Definitely not dishwasher safe. Another fun feature of these and some other mines is that they are mostly made of plastic. This makes them difficult to detect with the usual metal detector approach. For these they have specially trained explosive sniffer dogs to find them. Unfortunately they loose the occasional dog when it gets a bit too excited about it’s work.
None the less, the OMAR keep working to clear Afghanistan of the nasties above as well as educate the people to their dangers. Who knows how many lives have been saved by their work. When I asked they were hoping to have the country clear of mines and unexploded ordinance by around 2012. I’m not sure if they have factored in the amount of UXO being dropped on the country as we speak.

Kabul, Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008
19th Century weapons, a long history of war

Ah Kabul, Sunny and warm. Reminds me of home. All except for the ever present heavily armed police, crazy traffic, constant dust, the hum from a myriad of dodgy home made generators lining the streets, the war weary buildings hastily being replaced.

Despite all the bad press of late it’s not all bad news. For the most part the city is peaceful and the people are friendly. And although Kabul is emphatically not being a tourist town, it still has it sights.

Amongst them is Kabul Museum (yes Kabul actually has a museum). That said one of it’s most noticeable features is it’s near emptiness. Decades of war has taken it’s toll on Kabul’s culture scene. First The Museum was ransacked by the Mujaheddin’s in the 90’s and a lot of what was left got a hammer taken to it in Taliban times by the the ironically named Minister for Culture. Apparently they took a disliking to the un-Islamic nature of Afghanistan’s early Buddhist history. None the less, Thanks to the Dutch embassy, a lot of the rubble has been pieced back together and put on display. It should be taken as a success that Kabul has a Museum at all.

Darulaman palace, a little rocket weary

Sitting next to this is Darulaman palace built in the 1920’s. It too has seen better days. It’s war-torn shell stands on a peak which makes it a nice place for a military base. Thus now it is, resplendent in it’s razor wire and gun turrets. Still, the people are forever hospitable and after drinking copious amounts of tea and and chatting with the guards, a short wander around the Palace/military stronghold is made possible.

photos follow.

Feel free to comment below.

Kabul

Kabul Museum.

Darulaman Palace

Another Ill-advised adventure.

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Next Adventure begins October 2008

The last few years have been a bit of a cavalcade of odd and often ill-advised adventures (Sierra Leone, Somalia, Chernobyl, Burma, Zimbabwe to name a few). All this in the name of seeing if the world is as bad as it’s made out to be. Generally, so far at least, it’s not

This year is no exception.

So here’s this years destinations complete with bad press and dire travel warnings

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Afghanistan

Afghanistan

Destination # 1 – Afghanistan
The one question I get most after “are you nuts?” is “Gee Carl, why don’t you just go to (inset name of high profile American led war)?”. Well, to all those, now is the time to shut up.

For those of you who have been living under a rock the past few decades, Afghanistan is the scene of any number of invasions/civil wars/insurgencies. The past few decades alone have seen a Civil war, then the Russian invasion, then Taliban rule and currently the US led attempt in it’s “War on terrorTM”.


Pakistan

Pakistan

Destination # 2 – Pakistan
When I first booked this ticket a few months ago, there seemed to be a lull in news out of this Central Asian Country. Since then Pakistan has been making the news for all the wrong reasons. Pakistan is also home to the old wild west of the Northwest frontier Provence as well as the Tribal area’s famed as the part of the world it’s guessed Al-Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden) is currently hiding.

If this wasn’t bad enough. It seems the hotel I was going to stay at in Islamabad is having some difficulties. Guess they wont be taking my reservation for a while.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Destination # 3 – Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka should be famous for it’s beautiful beaches, endless tea plantations and warm tropical climate. Indeed it’s these things that attract over half a million tourists each year.

Unfortunately it is also home to one of the worlds longest running civil wars. For 25 years the Sri Lankan military has been fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

This war has cost anywhere between 70,000 and 338,000 live depending on who you ask.

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As per usual, this whole thing will be played out as it happens right here. Fell free to Sign up to the news letter or leave a comment.