My first trip into Afghanistan, back in August of 1998, was a step across the border at the Kyber pass checkpoint and then a step back into Pakistan while both sides guards yelled loudly at me. I was trying to photograph incoming Afghanistan refugees, something I was not supposed to be doing so I just made a play for it. Shooing me away does don’t begin to describe what happened next.
Up the road a short distance, after being smacked around a bit, I collected myself and my cameras and got busy trying to shoot the incoming Afghanistan refugees from the safety of a dry goods merchants porch. This border crossing was no place for a rookie to the area.
But I have always been a first time visitor to foreign places in so many way. Why should Afghanistan be any different. Back in the late 90’s, when the Associated Press was still managed by journalist and not bean counters, I would call New York and tell a supervisor where I was going and how long I was expected to be gone. I had seen reporting by the Washington Post from Afghanistan and was determined to go. I made some phone calls, did as much online research as I could and packed my bags. Islamabad, Pakistan would be my first stop.
After a few days in Islamabad the AP’s number one shooter in Pakistan BK Bangnash helped me get an Afghanistan visa from the Taliban, (I still have it) and I was a few short hours from making the journey.
I had planned to travel by car from Islamabad to the border, cross, head for Kabul and then make a round trip journey to the North and back down through Kandahar. Fixers and transportation along the way had been arranged by BK. There we no flights into Afghanistan at that time. The Taliban were everywhere but BK assured me as long as I kept my wits about me I could make the journey.
I was standing in the office in Islamabad when the news came on about a huge cruise missile strike to Afghanistan because of Osama Bin Laden.
The terrorist group al-Queda had bombed US Embassy’s in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug 7, 1998. More than 200 were killed including 12 Americans. On August 20, Clinton ordered missile strikes into al-Qaeda in Khost area of Afghanistan.
Suddenly I was off the go list for Afghanistan. It would be too dangerous I was told. I would not return until September of 2002. The images shown in “Afghanistan Diary” are mostly from that time. I roamed loose for four weeks working out of Kabul on day trips and other stories I could find on my own. The country was supposed to be free of the Taliban but the truth was they had just stepped back for a while. While I was there to mainly document the September 11th one year anniversary there was a car bombing in Kabul that killed over 25 and wounded over 150. The next day I talked my way into a funeral of one of men killed in the attacks. I photographed the entire service and then as I was leaving several men in the funeral party turned on me. Coming to my aid my driver talked then out of at the very least beating me up. It turned out to be the most dangerous experience of the entire assignment.
I am a US Navy veteran of eight years. I was there when Kuwait was liberated from Iraq. I was there when Los Angeles burned during the riots of 1992 and a lot of other places that had been dangerous to work in. I had no desire to be embedded with the US Military or any other group of heavily armed men.
I did however want to work on making lasting images of the Afghan people. If given the chance I would go back today.
All photos by David Longstreath/Associated Press