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  • Writer's pictureDominik Täuber

Afghanistan after the Taliban took power


Ein Mädchen in einem Dorf in Bamiyan.
A girl in a village in Bamiyan.

In 2021, shortly before the Taliban took power again, I traveled to Afghanistan for the first time as a photographer. Around two years later, I was drawn back to the country in the Hindu Kush. What has changed since then? How are the people and my guide Aarian*, with whom I will be traveling for the next few days, doing?

 

I love photography. Getting to know people and other cultures and being able to portray them in their everyday lives, even under difficult circumstances, is my passion. After my first trip through Afghanistan in July and August 2021, during the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban's advance to Kabul, it quickly became clear to me that one day I wanted to return to the war-torn country with its friendly people and rich culture.


Begegnung mit Schafhirten.
Encounter with shepherds.

And so, in May 2023, I'm back on the plane to Kabul, wondering how the country has changed, how the people are doing, how the encounter with the Taliban will go and how they will react to me as a photographer from the West.

Just like two years ago, Aarian is waiting for me outside the airport in Kabul. He looks healthier than I remember him during our trip in 2021. Calmer, not quite as tense. His eyes are still full of warmth. But I can also feel the pressure on him. Living as a Hazara, an ethnic and oppressed minority, in a country as dangerous as Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime, is a constant burden.

After a warm welcome, we immediately get talking again. Before we talk about the upcoming trip, we discuss the events of two years ago, when we were traveling together during the Taliban takeover. The events are still very much on our minds.

 

In contrast to back then, the security situation under the Taliban has now improved significantly, says Aarian. We will be able to move around more freely and complete most of the upcoming trip by car, which was unthinkable in 2021 due to the high level of violence in the country.

Our route will take us from Kabul to Bamyan, the Band-e Amir National Park, on to Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban, and finally to Herat, in the west of Afghanistan.

 

The last two years have not been easy for Aarian. He has had practically no guests to show around the country. The economy has collapsed. Many people are suffering from hunger. As a cab driver, he was able to make a living for his family. I am one of the first people he is now showing around the country again.

 

Before we leave the Afghan capital, we visit a park in Kabul, which is situated on a hill and offers a comprehensive view of the city with its more than 4 million inhabitants. It is Friday afternoon and the park is crowded with people, most of them Taliban, who arrive in numerous pickup trucks, some of them armed. The atmosphere is relaxed and people nod at me in a friendly, sometimes somewhat surprised manner. Everyone seems to be enjoying the pleasant, not too warm temperatures in the capital, which is 1,800 meters above sea level. However, there are no women or girls to be seen. They have been increasingly excluded from public life since the change of government. It is a difficult situation for me to deal with and, as a photographer, to accept the circumstances as they are.

 


Blick über Kabul.
View over Kabul.

Bamyan


From Kabul we drive west to Bamyan. The landscape changes along the way. Gentle hills pass by and shepherds with their animals can be seen. The road becomes increasingly steep and offers spectacular views. I get a feeling of vastness.


Zwischen Kabul und Bamiyan.
Between Kabul and Bamiyan.

When we finally reach the Bamyan Valley, the surroundings change impressively. Rugged rock formations glow in the afternoon sun. A small river runs alongside the road. Villages with mud houses dot the valley. The people, both men and women, are colorfully dressed. The beauty of this area is hard to put into words.


Die ehmaligen Buddha-Statuen von Bamiyan.
The site of the former Buddha statues of Bamiyan.

 

Parts of Afghanistan were once considered the center of Buddhism and two impressive Buddha statues, 38 and 55 meters high, stood in Bamyan until 2001, when the Taliban destroyed them.

The rocks with the caves are still worth seeing. On the one hand, they show the former cultural treasure of the region and, on the other, illustrate the intolerance of the former regime, which is now back in power.

 

I imagine what it must have been like for the first travelers to visit such a culturally rich place many centuries ago and cannot comprehend that people are capable of destroying such a cultural asset.



Blick über das Bamiyan-Tal.
View over the Bamiyan Valley.

 

Band-e Amir

 

We drive on to Band-e Amir National Park, a little further west and, at around 2,900 meters above sea level, high in the Hindu Kush. The last stretch leads along a dusty road and suddenly the view opens up to the deep blue lakes. Once there, we hike through the valley and along a panoramic path above the lakes. The panorama and the gorges remind me of the national parks in the Midwest of the USA. We meet a few visitors to the national park, mostly families, and it's good to see that people have access to such a beautiful and soothing place.

 

 


Der Band-e Amir Nationalpark.
The Band-e Amir National Park.

 

Kandahar

 

The next destination on our journey is Kandahar, once founded by Alexander the Great and the spiritual headquarters of the Taliban. The road from Kabul to Kandahar was once considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Attacks and fighting had to be expected at all times. These dangers are now a thing of the past and we can complete the route in a day's drive.

 

Before we are allowed to move around freely in Kandahar, I have to go to the local cultural office and get permission, which goes without a hitch.

 

We visit the mausoleum of Mirwais Hotak, an Afghan tribal leader and founder of the Hotak dynasty of the same name. As so often in Afghanistan and Iran, I am impressed by the architecture of the burial chamber with its mosaic decorations.


A group of young people notice me and approach curiously. We exchange warm glances and I start to photograph them. They are very happy and although we can't communicate because we speak different languages, we understand each other straight away. I like encounters like this, because with my pictures I can show another side of Afghanistan that you don't often see in the media.


Eine Gruppe Kinder und Jugendlicher in Kandahar.
A group of children and young people in Kandahar.

 

Herat

 

The trip is coming to an end and this time my wish to visit Herat is coming true. This was not possible in 2021 due to fighting.

As we drive through the province, we pass green wheat fields that form a fascinating contrast to the desert landscape. I remember descriptions from a book by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, who described the landscape around Herat in exactly the same way.

 

With over 500,000 inhabitants, the oasis city is the third largest city in Afghanistan and is home to the Musallah complex with its striking minarets as well as the citadel. These are impressive and fascinating sites of ancient civilizations, long before the birth of Christ, at the time of Alexander the Great. It never ceases to amaze me how intact such buildings still are and I always feel transported back in time.

 

My second trip through Afghanistan ends in Herat and it is again not easy to say goodbye to Aarian and the other guides. While I can return to my safe home, I leave them behind in a war-torn and poor country whose future is more than uncertain.


Der Musallah-Komplex mit den Minaretten in Herat.
The Musallah complex with the minarets in Herat.

Ein Glasbläser in Herat.
A glassblower in Herat.

*Name wurde geändert.

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