Assignment Afghanistan | People & Places | Smithsonian

Assignment Afghanistan

From keeping tabs on the Taliban to saving puppies, a reporter looks back on her three years covering a nation's struggle to be reborn

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As my eyes adjusted to the dark and gloomy schoolroom, I could see the men more clearly, their woolen shawls drawn up against their tough and leathery faces. They were farmers and herders who lived hard lives on meager land, survivors of foreign occupation and civil war, products of a traditional society governed by unwritten rules of religion and culture and tribe where Western concepts like freedom and happiness were seldom invoked.

But there was something I had not seen before in the faces of these turbaned villagers; an almost childish excitement, a look both nervous and dignified: a feeling of hope. It was October 9, 2004, and they were among 10.5 million voters who had registered to elect the first president in their country’s history. No one shoved or jostled as the line inched toward a pair of scarred school benches, where two elderly officials were checking off ledgers, marking thumbs with purple ink, murmuring instructions: “There are 18 candidates for president, here are their names and pictures, mark the one you want, but only one.” Then they handed each man a folded paper and motioned him politely toward a flimsy metal stand curtained with a red gingham cloth.

I positioned myself behind one of the benches. I wanted to remember this day, this hushed and universal ritual of a fledgling democracy that once had seemed impossible to imagine. In another week, I would be leaving the country after nearly three years that had been among the most exhilarating, as well as the most grueling, of my career as a foreign correspondent.

During that time I had covered the assassinations of two cabinet ministers, tiptoed through the human wreckage of car bombings, chronicled the rapid spread of opium poppy cultivation, witnessed the release of haggard war prisoners and the disarming of ragged militiamen. But I had also traveled with eager refugees returning home from years in exile, visited tent schools in remote villages and computer classes in makeshift storefronts, helped vaccinate flocks of sheep and goats, watched parched and abandoned fields come alive again, and reveled in the glorious cacophony of a capital city plugging into the modern world after a quarter-century of isolation and conflict.

Even on days when I awoke feeling as if there were little hope for the country and less I could do to help, invariably something occurred that restored my faith. Someone made a kind gesture that dissipated the poison around me, told me a tale of past suffering that put the day’s petty grievances in new perspective, or expressed such simple longing for a decent, peaceful life that it renewed my determination to make such voices heard above the sniping and scheming of the post-Taliban era.

On this particular day, it was the look on a young farmer’s face as he waited to vote in a chilly village schoolroom. He was a sunburned man of perhaps 25. (Once I would have said 40, but I had learned long ago that wind and sand and hardship made most Afghans look far more wizened than their years.) He was not old enough to remember a time when his country was at peace, not worldly enough to know what an election was, not literate enough to read the names on the ballot. But like everyone else in the room, he knew this was an important moment for his country and that he, a man without education or power or wealth, had the right to participate in it.

The farmer took the ballot gingerly in his hands, gazing down on the document as if it were a precious flower, or perhaps a mysterious amulet. I raised my camera and clicked a picture I knew I would cherish for years to come. The young man glanced up at me, smiling shyly, and stepped behind the gingham curtain to cast the first vote of his life.

I first visited Afghanistan in 1998, a dark and frightened time in a country that was exhausted by war, ruled by religious zealots and shut off from the world. Kabul was empty and silent, except for the squeak of carts and bicycles. Entire districts lay in ruins. Music and television had been banned, and there were no women on the streets except beggars hidden beneath patched veils.

For a Western journalist, the conditions were hostile and forbidding. I was not allowed to enter private homes, speak to women, travel without a government guide or sleep anywhere except the official hotel—a threadbare castle where hot water was delivered to my room in buckets and an armed guard dozed all night outside my door. Even carefully swathed in baggy shirts and scarves, I drew disapproving stares from turbaned gunmen.

Interviews with Taliban officials were awkward ordeals; most recoiled from shaking my hand and answered questions with lectures on Western moral decadence. I had few chances to meet ordinary Afghans, though I made the most of brief comments or gestures from those I encountered: the taxi driver showing me his illegal cassettes of Indian pop tunes; the clinic patient pointing angrily at her stifling burqa as she swept it off her sweat-soaked hair.

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