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Remember Afghanistan: twilight, burkhas and dust

I spent a month traveling through the Northern Afghan provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan. It was the soft sorrel color of the mountains that I noticed first as our Russian army plane dipped down towards the Faizabad airport. It was late afternoon and the soft light of sunset set a velvety sheen across the landscape. There were a few curious locals gathered at the airport as we landed. Children standing in their bare feet, quiet, staring. Their eyes were the color of the mountains.

Those dark, dusky mountains were easily beguiling, like the Northern Lights of my home in the northern Québec. There are no trees. It’s like a dessert – a landscape as harsh as the lives of the people that depended on it. I call them my Velvet Mountains. But as the dust from the plane engines settles, the view is less idyllic.

This is northern Afghanistan, the territory that serves as a base for the opposition Northern Alliance in their campaign against the ruling Taliban regime. It is a nation that hasn’t been a nation for generations. It lies at the crossroads of middle Asia and competing regional interests have left the nation fractured, even medieval in appearance.

There is no electricity, running water, or telephones. The houses are made from mud, the water is pumped by wells, and roads are made from rocks that crews break with sledgehammers. There is no public transport – some people walk, some ride donkey or camels, others horses, motorcycles or just bicycles leaving clouds of dust behind them.

Faizabad, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, September 2001
A woman takes a shy glance backwards before walking on through the street with a companion.

Like many, I felt magnetized by the burkha. I guess I always had some stupid questions to ask the men – How do you recognize your wife? How can you get married if you’ve never seen your future wife? How can you fall in love? Sometimes, when we were passing by in the jeep, some women would turn, clutching their burkhas and hide their faces to the wall. Other times, as we were walking, I would see a curious eye peaking out at me, or hear a small little voice giggling, “Hello, mister. Hello miss, Hello”

As a woman, to be in jeans was very uncomfortable. Not because of the heat, but because everyone looks at you. I didn’t wear a burkha, but I did have to cover my head with a scarf and wear long sleeves. It was hot, about 25 C. I did finally buy a burkha and wore it once to a wedding, but it was impossible to work in. I had to learn how to walk in it like an Afghani, which prompted much laughter.

Near Dasht-e-Qala, Takhar province, Afghanistan, October 2001
The road workers build the road from Rostaq to Dasht-e-Qala. These workers are mostly displaced people who fled Taliban a year ago. Shelter Now International, an American NGO, which builds this road, provides the refugees with grains.

Lots of people were simple. They didn’t know how to write, how to read. Religion and the mosque shaped their daily lives. Those who were educated were more suspicious of the war and its outcome. They feel that the previous upheavals have put them back a hundred years in time. And though they stayed in Afghanistan, they are skeptical about the future. One Afghani former journalist asked me how he could move his family – not to Pakistan where refugees usually flee, but straight to Europe. He wanted to avoid the fundamentalists altogether. I don’t know how these people can defect – emigration requires money they don‘t have.

I visited the high school in Faizabad. The students were beautiful young women between sixteen and seventeen with large brown eyes and fair skin. They study the Koran and Islam religion, math, physics, geography, Farsi and English. Most of them would like to become teachers or doctors. When the classes ended students put on their burkhas and slipped down the dusty street.

Faizabad, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, September 2001
A young teenage girl walks against a stream of burkha-clad women on her way home from high school.

Children were a constant presence. One day, after school let out, we had over a hundred kids walking with us, tugging at our sleeves, saying, “Hello. I love you.” We would sometimes split up, and say to them, “See that guy over there? Go to him.” And they would run over to our companion and torment him while we did some work. But sometimes it was harder to laugh it off. Twenty years of war and with little schooling had quelled their bashfulness and it was difficult to get away from them.

Dasht-e-Qala lies south of the Amu Darya River, which borders the Afghan province of Takhar with Tajikistan. This was the front, an area that was held by the Northern Alliance. At the time, mid-October, it was pretty quiet.

Near Khoja Bahauddin, Takhar province, Afghanistan, October 2001
A view from a car window
Faizabad, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, September 2001
A crowd of curious men gather around a group of foreign journalists.
Faizabad, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, September 2001
Young boys play a game of soccer on a barren plain, seemingly oblivious of the burkha-clad women walking across the pitch.
Khoja Bahauddin, Takhar province, Afghanistan, October 2001.
The lambs are slaughtered near the marketplace.
Faizabad, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, September 2001
Girls dressed in their school uniforms walk home from classes in the afternoon.
Unlike in other areas of Afghanistan, girls were permitted an education.
Faizabad, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, September 2001.
The Northern Alliance soldier looks across the Amu Darya (river).
Dasht-e-Qala, Takhar province, Afghanistan, October 2001
The Northern Alliance soldier looks across the Amu Darya (river).
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Iva Zimova

Iva Zimova, Czech and Canadian born in 1956

. I first developed my photographic eye in Montreal, where I studied photography at Dawson College. But… More »

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