The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is an enclosed, mountainous country in the heart of Central Asia that has been a crossroads of civilizations since early historical times. The area described by the ancient Greeks as Aria, was conquered by the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC. and then by Alexander the Great who, arriving in the Indo-Caucasian region, defeated the Persian emperor Darius III in the battle of Gavgameli (331 BC.). The Greek conqueror imposed his rule in the region of Bactria and Sogdiana and married Roxane.
This was followed by the Hellenistic kingdoms of Bactria, mainly the Seleucids and Menander’s rule, which flourished for two centuries and developed the culture of Greco-Buddhism, with a mixture of influences depicted in the findings of the “Gandhara” art. At the beginning of the 1st millennium, the famous Silk Road was developed, which together with the economic benefits of trade, brought knowledge and progress. In the 7th century AD. the Arabs brought the religion of Islam, gradually expelling Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and drastically changing the cultural identity of the place. Later, Mughal conquerors like Genghis Khan and Timur ruled these areas.
Afghanistan’s most turbulent, recent history is sparked by the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Mujahideen movement put up strong resistance in a 10-year war, backed by foreign power of the US and Pakistan, which have geopolitical interests in the region. The victims of this war number up to 2,000,000. After the withdrawal of the Soviets, a catastrophic civil war broke out and the rise of the Taliban Islamists. The extremists took control of the country and imposed extreme sharia law, violating human rights, especially of women, committing massacres, looting settlements and monuments, burning fields and causing famine. As a result, part of the population was forced to flee their homes to escape, causing a wave of refugees that continues until today.
In 2001, after US intervention under the pretext of defeating terrorism and chasing Osama Bin Laden, the country was officially liberated from the Talibans and an international peacekeeping force was deployed under NATO. But the extremists regrouped and organized guerrilla warfare, while the international military force proved insufficient, while bombing attacks with countless victims have no end.
In 2020 most of the country is still under Taliban control and despite negotiations, the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops and the release of terrorist leaders, the truce and the coveted peace ultimately failed. Instead, attacks have increased and some other terrorist groups have emerged, like the Islamic State (ISIS), launching their criminal activities. The victims of the bombings and armed attacks include journalists, clerics and worshipers, activists, members of humanitarian aid, doctors and medical units, maternity hospitals with mothers and newborns, universities full of students, young children …
In Afghanistan, and especially in the Taliban-controlled areas, opium is grown, which is estimated to account for 92% of world’s heroin production, resulting high economic interests.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world due to lack of foreign investment, government corruption, terrorism and armed conflict. It has one of the highest infant and child mortality rates in the world, the lowest life expectancy and high rates of malnutrition.
Afghanistan’s territory is mostly mountainous and rugged, with large mountain ranges, plateaus and river basins. The main mountain range is the Hindu Kush, the western extension of the Himalayas that stretches through the Pamir and Karakoram mountains, to Tibet. To the east are some fertile mountain valleys and a few forests while to the south and west there is desert. The climate is extreme, with icy winters and high temperatures in summer.
Afghanistan is a war zone and traveling to that country poses an immediate risk to life. But the rich experience hidden in this isolated, mysterious, barren and harsh place are a lure for the few passionate travelers who seek a pure authenticity unaffected by modernisation.
The lion of Panjshir
Ahmad Shah Massoud was an Afghan politician and a powerful commander of the resistance against Soviet invation between 1979 and 1989. In the 90s, he led the military wing of the government and, after the Taliban came to power, was the top commander of the opposition to their regime, until his assassination in 2001.
He became involved in religious anti-communist movements with Burhanuddin Rabbani and later joined his party. During the Soviet-Afghan War, his role as a powerful leader of the mujahideen rebels earned him the nickname “Lion of Pansjeer” as he successfully resisted the Soviets from occupying the valley of the same name. In 1992, he signed the Peshawar Agreement, a peace and power-sharing agreement in the post-communist Islamic State of Afghanistan, and was appointed Minister of Defense. He fought to defend Kabul against warlords led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who broke away and bombed the city, and later against the Talibans, who besieged the capital in 1995 with at least 60,000 civilians killed.
After the rise of the Talibans in 1996, Massoud, who opposed their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, returned to the armed opposition until he was forced into exile in Tajikistan, strategically destroying the Salang Tunnel on his way north. In 2001, he visited Europe and urged European Parliament leaders to put pressure against Pakistan’s support to the Talibans. He also asked for humanitarian aid to combat the horrific conditions of the Afghan people. Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda and Talibans in a suicide bombing on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the September 11 terrorist attacks hit the United States, which eventually led to NATO invading Afghanistan and allying with the forces of Massoud. On September 20, Rabbani was also assassinated. The Northern Alliance eventually won the two-month war in December 2001, ousting the Taliban.
Massoud was posthumously named “National Hero”, and the date of his death is a national holiday. Massoud is considered one of the greatest guerrilla leaders of the 20th century, also nicknamed as “Che Guevara of Afghanistan”.
His opponent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is considered a terrorist by the international alliance. During the civil war, he tried to capture Kabul before Massoud, bombarding it with heavy ammunition provided by Pakistan, destroying 1/3 of the capital and leaving tens of thousands dead. He was nicknamed the “butcher of Kabul” and was also accused of killing journalists, intellectuals and feminists, and abusing humanitarian aid money and equipment. Among other things, he joined the Talibans and helped Osama Bin Laden escape. Following negotiations, a peace treaty was signed in 2016, which provided him amnesty and the opportunity to engage in politics, following a ceasefire with the Talibans. The UN and the European Union have also lifted sanctions against him. In 2017, Hekmatyar entered Kabul with a heavily armed convoy, urging the Talibans to enter into peace talks.
The harsh environment in this region of Central Asia, seems to shape that people alike. The population of Afghanistan is consisting of various ethnic groups, mainly the Pashtuns who are considered authentic Afghans and are conservative Sunnis. They are followed by Tajiks speaking Dari (Persian dialect), as well as the Hazara group of moderate Shiites. In this place there are also many smaller tribal groups and unruly factions that control their areas.
Afghanistan is a deeply religious Islamic country and the way of life is very different from what we know in the western world. The view of women with the traditional blue burqa (chadaree) that even the eyes are hidden behind a veil, may be strange related to European standards. The fact is that religious conservatism and the loss of women’s rights prevailed during the civil war. The Taliban, enforcing sharia law, even imposed stoning penalties for indecency, with women being the biggest victims. Now, in the free areas the new generation and especially the upper class, enjoys a more liberal way of life, with relative freedom and dressing choices. Almost all men, however, prefer the traditional clothing consisting of the Khet robe with knee-length front and back ends, the Partug pants and the round pakol woolen hat.
There are no entertainment venues in Afghanistan, only wedding halls with unusually gross luxury.
All the people we met and socialized with, showed much kindness and friendliness, while the presence of foreigners was for them quite unusual
The Talibans, which means enlightened “students,” is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement and military organization waging a holy war (jihad) within the country. From 1996 to 2001, when they came to power, they imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, committing massacres of civilians, burning huge farm areas and denying international humanitarian aid to the starving population. They caonquered all of Afghanistan, detaching power from the Mujahideen warlords until their overthrow in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion. The Taliban were formed by uneducated Pashtun villagers, who were educated in islamic schools with the support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and were embroiled in a holy war of Islam, participating without hesitation even in suicide attacks if requested.
The sad story of Bacha bāzī.
It is a shameful custom where young boys are sold by their poor families, under threat or financial power to older men for fun at private dance shows, dressed women’s outfit. These children become victims of sexual abuse and child prostitution, and although bacha bazi is illegal under Afghan law, the government is unable to end such practices in isolated areas controlled by strong and well-armed warlords.
Thousands of children roam the dusty streets of Afghanistan, working or begging to earn small money that their poor families desperately need.
The sight of neglected children, sometimes as young as 3 years old is common, even under the hot summer sun or the cold of winter.
They usually sell pencils, chewing gum, newspapers… others polish shoes, wash cars or wishing good luck by spinning a cup of smoking herbs.
With the growing number of street children, estimated at 50,000 in Kabul alone, there is an increase in cases of abuse that are not usually reported due to social taboos.
Opium poppies are widely grown in Afghanistan and the government is unable to enforce bans, especially in the Taliban-held areas, which generate huge revenues. On city sidewalks, drug addicts inject their dose in large groups, in plain sight.
Trade and use are not normally allowed in the country, but hashish is widespread and has been a tradition for centuries, it can be obtained everywhere and the authorities do not actually prosecute its use.
Although Islamic law prohibits the production and consumption by locals, improvised production of alcohol of dangerous quality has begun to spread. The main source is the grapes that thrive in the country.
This traditional horse riding game is similar to polo, but the role of the ball replaces a headless goat carcass for which players compete by maneuvering on the game field. It is the national sport of Afghanistan and is organized every Friday in some cities, but not in Kabul anymore for security reasons.
The capital city, which hosts more than 5 million residents, is a leader in chaotic, unruly traffic conditions and environmental pollution. Built on a plateau at an altitude of 1700m. is one of the tallest capitals in the world, with colorful buildings that “climb” on the slopes of the surrounding hills, reminiscent of the favelas of Brazil. Snowy mountain ranges crown the wider area of the city in winter.
Kabul is a city of contrasts, with dominant images of poverty, busy flea markets and bazaars, as well as a few shopping streets for the favored oligarchy as well as the glamorous halls of social events and weddings.
The city’s attractions include several mosques, markets including the unique bird market, the Archaeological Museum that was unfortunately looted during the civil war, the Darul Aman Palace that is being restored but not allowed entrance, the Babur Gardens, Lake Qargha, the Mausoleum of King Mohammed Nadir Shah. Kabul is a heavily militarized area, with many outposts that fail to prevent terrorist attacks that happen on an almost daily basis.
The mountainous region of Bamyian, with the small town of the same name, became globally infamous in 2001 when the two giant Buddha sculptures were blown up by the Taliban Islamists. Now on the rocks that have a prominent place in the city, only the gaps of the majestic historical monument still exist.
Bamiyan is considered a relatively safe area of the country with a progressive population mainly of the Hazara tribe. Unfortunately, terrorism hit here too, targeting this Shiite minority once again, with a bomb attack on November 24th 2020 in the central market, which left behind 14 dead and dozens injured.
The Band-e-Amir lake complex in the country’s only national park is the emerald of Afghanistan, like the bright blue color of their waters, caused by the minerals of the seabed.
Herat is a city in the west of the country, near the border with Iran. Its cultural identity and influences from the neighboring country make it an exquisite, distinctive city in Afghanistan. It has some impressive monuments such as the Grand Mosque, a castle with the Citadel, the temple and cemetery of Khwaja Abd Allah.
The capital of Balkh province is located in the north of the country, just 55 km from the Uzbek border. In addition to the majestic Blue Mosque (temple of Ali) it has archaeological monuments of Hellenistic, Buddhist and Islamic times.
Samangan was a station on the Silk Road and an important center of Buddhism in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Kandahar was the capital of the Afghan Empire in the 18th century. In recent history, the region has been a hotbed of NATO military operations and a battleground
Tea, opium and gunpowder….
Afghanistan is a destination on the list of few travelers for whom the planet is not limited by war zones, dangerous territories and government travel warnings.
For me, Afghanistan was for long time an awe-inspiring destination, captured in my imagination as a mythical place unchanged in time, a forbidden travel dream but also a challenge to overcome my fears. The idea matured quite a bit in my mind and I decided that my travel experience is ready for this trip, even in the difficult time of the pandemic and despite its cancellation in early 2020.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is such a turbulent region that its tourism development is actually non-existent and only a few passionate, adventurous or thoughtless travelers, decide to enter the territory. For 40 years it has been in a bloody civil war, with Talibans’ extremism controlling most of the country, with deadly bombings constantly appearing in the news, while years of US military intervention added even more casualties between civilians. Religious fanaticism, human rights abuses and sharia law are a reality in Islamist areas and conditions so hostile for the population that it is forced follow the refugee path.
Still, Afghanistan is not just that. This isolated country of Central Asia, has a raw charm, a rough barren and imposing natural landscape, a long history, and above all an anthropological treasure of pure souls, tortured but also honest and friendly!
It would be a lie if I say that I was not afraid, that I hadn’t lost my sleep before my trip. I was thinking of my family, how unfair it would be to fill them with pain if i wouldn’t return from this trip, me or my remains…
Despite the recent negotiations for a truce and the withdrawal of American troops from the country, the attacks increased and the blood tax is daily. The Islamic State (ISIS) has been added to the civil strife, claiming responsibility for daily attacks on students, medical staff, human rights activists, journalists and innocent civilians in crowd gatherings.
Moreover, health risks were serious, in a period of Covid outbreak, in a country that ignores its existence without taking sanitary measures and people without information and precaution.
Once again, passion overcame fear and offered me and my two fellow travelers a valuable, unique experience in a legendary Central Asian destination. As lovers of adventure and chaotic places, passionate to explore unknown lands and cultures, our risk was rewarded generously. I will be happy to share this journey through pictures and stories, so we can travel together without any risk to you.
Welcome to Afghanistan
Entering the airspace of Afghanistan, a white mountain landscape is revealed in the plane window, a land without sign of human presence. Kabul’s International Airport, as expected hosts airborne military units. One of the hot air balloons that constantly monitor the city, figures in the sunny winter sky…
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THE PRINCESS OF SAMANGAN
Samangan is an archeological site of northern Afghanistan, where Buddhist monuments dating to the 4th and 5th centuries AD are preserved. Today, much of Balkh province is under Taliban control, in a war that has been raging for 40 years.
There, in the Takht-e Rostam stupa carved entirely from the rock, walking carelessly through the perimeter of the excavated structure, I felt a presence following me.
A little girl about 5 years old, with dirty clothes and hair and an empty sack often held by children in this country, with a complaining and frightened look, was coming after me. She had only one shoe and was stepping on the icy ground with her muddy feet! When I stopped, she did the same, when I continued she followed my footsteps. I tried to speak to her sweetly, to make her smile. The child was about to cry. Eventually I fell into tears first, trying to hide tears behind the dark glasses to get unnoticed.
I travel a lot in developing countries and have encountered great poverty, many children living in absolute misery… I had emotional moments many times, especially when help is never enough, when pencils and notepads are like a drop in the ocean … But this Barefoot princess broke my heart!
In the car I had a lot of markers for the children of Afghanistan, a second pair of socks, several wafers from my fellow passengers. The child hardly could hold them with in her arms, without changing her gaze or mood. We couldn’t leave this child like this. We asked our driver to take us to nearest town and buy her shoes. Our request was fulfilled, in another chaotic and dangerous city, we found children’s socks and perfect sneakers in a size suitable for the years to come.
The little princess was still waiting there when we returned, almost an hour later. We washed her feet and put on her brand new shoes. The little girl was still shy and puzzled until we left, she did not forget to collect her old shoe. Then we saw the little Afghan girl running happily on the slopes of Samangan, a princess in her own kingdom…