The following is an account of KMF Productions, the creators of the RTÉ internationally acclaimed TV documentary series ‘What in the World,’ recent visit to Afghanistan to shoot an episode of the upcoming series. Told through diary entries by Presenter and Editor Peadar King, we journey with him and his crew to Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan that for the last three decades has been ruined by war. Misean Cara is a proud supporter of ‘What in the World.’
Afghanistan Day 1
The departure lounge in Dubai airport was like any other international departure lounge. We joined the queue for our 09.55 flight number EK640. Airports are liminal spaces. Places that allow for quick glances knowing that you will never again be in the same place with the same people. Quick eye contact can be easily averted and carry no threat, no risk. And so a quick surveillance reveals a group of people lost in various electronic devices – phones, tablets, laptops. Whatever happened to books? Except this one was somewhat different. The destination was Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, the site of the first war of the twenty-first century. An eclectic travelling party that one usually finds in such places, this was not. There was a noticeable absence of women. Children too. Neither seen nor heard. Lots of middle aged men. Some clearly of Middle East origin. Afghans too.
But what was noticeable was the number of western middle-aged men. Ken O’Mahony and myself included. Some travelling alone, some in pairs but no noticeable large groups. One man had an American flag emblazoned on his t-shirt – brave if not foolhardy I thought. Once boarded two guys sitting in front of me watched Rambo type films all the way on the three-hour flight. As if they haven’t had enough of it in the real world I thought. Passport control was a formality. Just as my passport was handed back to me the official said: “Welcome to Afghanistan”.
This blog was written while we were in Afghanistan and published on our return. It wasn’t safe to do so while we were there. Photographs by Ken O’Mahony.
Afghanistan Day 2
Having spent the night in a safe house Ken and I met with Malalai Joya. About six or seven years ago I read Peter Braaksma’s book ‘Nine Lives’ that features stories of nine people across the world who have made a singular contribution to human rights. Included was human rights activist and putative presidential candidate in 2019 Malalai Joya – “I’m a social feminist”, she told me. “I’m opposed to fundamentalism and imperialism, the twin enemies of humanity”. And for years I have conducted an extensive conversation with the Defense Committee for Malalai Joya or DCMJ for short, the organisation that organises her protection and security about the possibility of travelling to Afghanistan to make a documentary on Malalai. Those conversations have eventually brought me here to meet with Malalai in person. Described by the BBC as “the bravest woman in Afghanistan”, one year after her birth in 1978 following the invasion of the Soviet Union, her family fled first to Iran and then to Pakistan returning to Afghanistan as a late teenager. Later, she was the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Afghan parliament. She was expelled in 2007 for her denunciation of the Afghan warlords and has lived in hiding ever since. She has been subjected to numerous death threats and assassination attempts. She is the reason we are here. And the film we are about to make is about her and the country of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan Day 3
Fifteen years after its commencement in 2001, an estimated 92,000 people have been killed and 100,000 injured in the war in Afghanistan. The dead cannot speak for themselves. Some of the injured can. This is an extract of what one such victim told us.
“When the bomb exploded there, I was inside the room with my husband. Also my baby was with me. When the bomb exploded I didn’t hear its voice or sound. I became deaf and blind. The power had gone. Then I didn’t hear anything. I couldn’t find anything. I don’t know by which way I came out of the room. Then I heard the voice of my father-in-law. He was shouting – where are all my sons, Masoud and Abdullah? Everywhere was blood on my body. I didn’t know where my husband was. I didn’t know where my son was either. I was in hospital for 20 days under treatment. I was in the emergency hospital. When I woke up, I noticed all my body was injured. I didn’t know my husband had died with his brother.”
Afghanistan Day 4
Malalai Joya’s belongings are few, which is useful as she has to cram all of them into two suitcases. Hers is a life lived on the move. We first met her in one of her safe houses. Getting there was mired in secrecy. Even the driver did not know the precise location of the house as we set out under armed guard from our own safe house. Final directions did arrive when we got to the district in which Malalai had spent the night. The car drove up to the door and we were told to exit quickly kerbside. Protection for those who hosted her as much as for our protection. For fifteen years she has moved from one friendly house to another. Her survival depends on her wearing the hated burqa and hijab. Ironically, the hijab and the burqa are her safety net. They allow her to move with relative freedom throughout not just the city of Kabul but throughout the country. Hiding in plain sight. But as she struggles to put on her cover, it is clear how uncomfortable she is with it. Her blue burqa covers her from head-to-toe. A grill over her eyes is her only view of the world. It is clear that it ill-fits her and not just the physical inconvenience of it. I’m a social feminist, she tells me in one of three long conversations we have had. A social feminist forced to take cover under the hated burqa. The prescribed dress code of those who wish to silence and kill her. The irony of it all. The prescribed dress code of her oppressors, the main plank in her protection from the very same oppressors.
Afghanistan Day 5
We set out early for Jalalabad, Afghanistan’s fifth largest city and about a three-hour drive from Kabul on a road built by the Soviet invaders. The scenery here is breathtaking. Huge craggy clumps of rock towering above us to our left. Between us a deep ravine and a dry river bed. Our only protection is a foot high occasionally breached wall. And driving like we have seldom seen. Breakneck speed as cars and trucks weave in and out and between each other with inches if not centimeters to spare. This is Taliban controlled territory we are told. Distracted by the speed of our driver that news doesn’t disturb us. We have enough to be getting on with. By journey’s end we are not so sure on which side of the road Afghans drive. Overtaking on the left and right. Where there is a space claim it before someone else does. Afghan drivers, an antidote to the threat of the Taliban. The only consolation is that we saw only one car accident en route. Luck seems to be with us. But then again I thought, we only have to be unlucky once. Only once, Ken and I reminisced, had we experienced such driving. That was back in 2011 in Ethiopia as we raced against the darkness to get to our hotel in Addis Abba. Even Ken who is normally unflappable in such situations was unnerved. On this road, we weren’t allowed stop. Even a quick pee break was considered risky. Perhaps on the return journey. As it transpired we were allowed a brief stop. An old Soviet tank and some quick landscape shots. But that was for the return journey.
For now we were happy that we arrived – safely.
Afghanistan Day 6
We’ve just arrived at the home of Abdul Miamat. He is a key supporter of Malalai and he will be our host for the next few days. Security here is very strict and we have to wear traditional clothes in an effort at minimizing our impact. Malalai arrives too in full burqa. Abdul lost seven of his brothers in Afghanistan’s many wars. Photographs of each of his brothers are carefully kept behind a glass case. Carefully he lifts each out recounting the location and timing of each death. Just seven more people killed in Afghanistan’s killing fields. Dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom the British and US-led war has resulted in an estimated 92,000 people killed and 100,000 people injured since 2001. The Soviet invasion cost an estimated one million Afghan lives and the civil war in the intervening years cost an estimated 62,000 people’s lives in Kabul alone. And that is before we count the estimated 100,000 young Soviet lives lost and the more precise figure of 3,521 Coalition forces killed. This is a country drenched in bloodshed. Then there are the countless injured. Those who envy the dead. But it reaches a point where numbers are redundant. Beyond comprehension. Beyond imagining. It sounds trite to say but occasionally we need to be reminded as we were in Juba the capital of South Sudan by peace mediator Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul in his equally splintered country, that one death is one too many. For Abdul Miamat, seven were too many.
Afghanistan Day 7
Malalai was just four when she first became a war refugee. As the Soviet tanks rolled in on Christmas eve 1979 – the guys on the tank just posed for us and there is no suggestions that they were involved in the invasion – along with her family she first fled to Iran and then to Pakistan. In 1998, her family moved back to Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power where she engaged in the clandestine activity of teaching girls in underground classes as women’s education was banned. Yet when the United States-led invading force deposed the Taliban in 2001, there was no relief for the people of the country. “Under the banner of liberating our people”, Joya told us, “the Americans attacked Afghanistan. The Americans pushed us from the frying pan into the fire”.
A parliament of sorts emerged from the invasion and in 2003 at the age of twenty-five Joya declared as a candidate and was elected. From the outside, Joya challenged what she perceived as a sham parliament accusing her fellow-parliamentarians of criminality, corruption, misogyny, drug and warlordism. Within the parliament her microphone was turned off when she attempted to speak, had water bottles thrown at her and threatened with rape. Yet she persisted in highlighting human rights abuses. For her outspoken comments she was expelled from parliament in 2007. “A stable or a zoo is better than this parliament”, she declared, “at least there you have a donkey that carries a load and a cow that provides milk”. She was branded as ‘impertinent’, an ‘infidel’ and ‘out of the frame of humanity’ and was suspended from parliament for her views. She describes the post Taliban Afghanistan as a ‘narco state’. Quoting an old Afghan saying she said “it’s the same donkey with a new saddle”.
Afghanistan Day 8
Today we leave Afghanistan. We rise early, chillily early, to catch the sun rising over Kabul city. As it has done since the city was first founded in the fifth century.
And despite the carnage, despite the killings, despite the injuries, the shutters go up in the shops, the markets open and the early morning cars escape the inevitable snarling of later traffic. And despite the incessant war, women and men continue to make love, children are born, grow up and as we make our way down from a mountaintop overlooking the city, they make their way to school. Life. Whatever it is about the human spirit. It’s resilience. It’s determination to go on. Regardless.
As the day unfolds the words of Irish Nobel Laureate for Literature Samuel Beckett, from his work ‘Unnamable,’ come to mind as they come to life on the streets of Kabul.
You must go on, that’s all I know.
You must go on.
I can’t go on.
You must go on.
I’ll go on.
Afghanistan Day 9
Thanks to so many people who liked or shared the blog from Afghanistan over the past eight days and to those of you who took the trouble to get in contact.
Thanks to my friend and colleague Ken O’Mahony for eight days in Afghanistan.
Thanks to new friends and colleagues Ajmal Arwin Nimf and to Shahin Sultani who with great good humour guided us though the week.
Thanks to numerous other people who cannot be named, drivers, security guards, people who hosted us and cooked for us, watched out for us.
Thanks to all those who gave of their time and shared their stories with us. Without you, it would not have been possible.
But above all thanks to Malalai Joya who brought us to Afghanistan and for her persistent bravery and courage in her struggle against fundamentalism and imperialism.
Thanks too to all of those in Ireland who continue to oppose US occupation of Afghanistan and in particular those opposed to the use of Shannon airport in its facilitation of that occupation.
The documentary will be broadcast on RTÉ, the national broadcaster of Ireland in December of this year – details to follow.
This concludes the blog from Afghanistan.
Shortly we will leave for Ghana.
Until then, to borrow a South African phrase, first heard many years ago from my friend David Diholo, who has followed this blog … ‘go well.’