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  • Writer's pictureDominik Täuber

Afghanistan. The sad, beautiful country in the Hindu Kush.

Juli, August 2021

The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif.
The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif.

After 20 years of military operations in the Hindu Kush, the U.S. decided to withdraw from Afghanistan by the summer of 2021. The scenario that the Taliban will try to take power again has been known. Perhaps not immediately after the withdrawal of troops, but almost certainly in the foreseeable future. In August 2021, events finally came to a head.

Aaarian (name changed) greets me with a hearty laugh at the airport in Kabul. My nervousness, which had been steadily increasing during the flight, noticeably decreases. From the first moment I feel welcome in this unknown country. Not as a traveler, but rather as a friend. Together we walk to our car and meet Bari (name changed), my second guide and driver. Bari is calmer than Aarian. He is very friendly to me but in his own way also introverted. I sense a hidden sadness in him from the beginning. Only in the course of the journey I will understand why.

I am very tired from the long flight and only want to sleep. During the drive from the airport to the Green Zone and to my security accommodation, I don't get to see much of Kabul.

View over Kabul.
View over Kabul.

Once there, I don't even manage to wash and change properly and fall into bed early in the evening, into a deep sleep.

With a huge bang, which literally came out of nowhere, it pulls me half out of bed. I don't realize what has happened and feel for the light switch, but can't find it. Then I see a strip of light under the door. My neighbors all come out of their rooms. We meet in the hallway, want to talk to each other, but don't understand each other because of the different language. I go back to my room and listen to the sounds of the night. Shouts sound from outside. I don't understand anything. What is happening? The shouts are getting louder and now I hear every word, more and more clearly. "Allahu akbar, Taliban. Allahu akbar, Taliban!" It echoes on the streets of Kabul. Apparently young people are demonstrating against the Taliban takeover. I write to Aarian, who is staying with Bari in another shelter, and ask him what just happened. Tensely I look at my smartphone and read the answer: "A bomb attack".

The next morning, I go to the garden of the facility to wait for Aarian. Shots echo through the streets of Kabul. Firing goes on for minutes. Rapid volleys, always alternating. After about 15 minutes, it calms down again. A few shots are still fired. Then silence returns. I perceive the sounds of the surroundings again, the driving of the cars, the conversations of the people, almost as if nothing had happened at all.

I meet Aarian. We talk about the explosion of the night. About the gunshots I just heard. I learn since my arrival, within one day, how dangerous life in Afghanistan can be.

The Taliban are now not waiting for the withdrawal of troops. The takeover is happening these days, in August 2021.

Together with my guides, we discuss the situation every day. As a photographer, I want to give an authentic picture of Afghanistan and its people, with all the events I encounter.

We talk a lot during our trip together about life in Afghanistan, the beautiful, the sad and the terrible that people have had to endure for decades. Bari's brother was hit by a tank shell and blown to pieces during the first war against the Taliban. Diar (name changed), another guide I met, experienced a massacre in Mazar e Sharif when fierce fighting broke out between different factions and the Taliban. He remembers it well when he left the house afterwards and had to step over corpses lying all over the street.

I too pass dead bodies, in the middle of Kabul. They are drug addicts who just lie dead on the side of the road and no one wants to take care of their final resting place.

Beautiful things, on the other hand, I find everywhere. People who greet me with a smile, people who are interested in me, who want to talk to me, who want to invite me for dinner to their house, to their family. I smell new scents in the markets, eat fine ice cream, yes Afghan ice cream, see colorfully dressed people, women in Kabul with a lightly tied headscarf, burqa-wearing women in the countryside.

The fully veiled women may seem abstract from a Western point of view and no doubt the life of a woman in Afghanistan can be indescribably difficult. Gradually, however, I also learn another perspective, that some women appreciate the protection that a burqa provides.

Women with burqa.
Women with burqa.

What a country. So different, so incomprehensible. So hard to understand. And so beautiful.

I am standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif. It is late afternoon and the low sun makes the architecturally impressive landmark of the city, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Afghanistan, light up fabulously in different shades of blue. Prayer has just ended and, at least for a moment, events in the country seem to have receded a bit into the distance. Families sit together on the ground in front of the mosque, enjoying the warming rays of the sun and chatting while the children run around playing.

On the grounds of the Blue Mosque, Mazar-e Sharif.
On the grounds of the Blue Mosque, Mazar-e Sharif.

Even though Islam is almost the only religion in the country today, parts of Afghanistan were the center of Buddhism before Islamization. In the town of Charikar, located in Parwan province, I visit a renovated Buddhist stupa. In Sanskrit, one of the most important languages in Hinduism and one of the oldest languages in the world, stupa roughly means hill. The 33-meter-high structure looks back on 1,850 years of history and impressively shows the cultural diversity of Afghanistan.

The Buddhist stupa in the town of Charikar, Parwan province.
The Buddhist stupa in the town of Charikar, Parwan province.

I imagine how nice it would be to be able to travel through a peaceful Afghanistan.

During a car ride from Kabul to Jalalabad, near the border with Pakistan, I share my thoughts with my two guides, Aarian and Bari. They both start smiling fondly and share with me that they were just talking about this very thing in their native language, Dari. They dream of one day being able to drive across their beloved country by car, together with their families. Without any fear. Just as they like it, wherever they want to go.

On the way from Kabul to Jalalabad.
On the way from Kabul to Jalalabad.

In the meantime, the Taliban are not far from Kabul and it is time for me to leave the country again. Saying goodbye to Aarian and Bari is not easy for me, as I have the feeling that I am leaving them behind in a dangerous, uncertain future. On the plane from Kabul to Istanbul, I think back to the events of my trip. The beautiful moments and the sad ones. And of the dream of my Afghan companions. A dream that no one knows if it can be lived one day.

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