Steep lives in the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan

Robert Capa, one of the world’s greatest war photographers, said: “If your picture is not good enough, you’re not close enough”.

In Afghanistan, during the last three years, I got close. I got very close to the people of Badakhshan, a remote mountainous province in the north east, where the Hindu Kush collides with the Pamir and “the distance from Kabul seems to be measured in centuries as much as in miles”, as my Lonely Planet guide phrases it hitting the nail on the head.

I got close to people whose houses had just been destroyed by landslides, people whose only sustenance comes from tiny and barely productive pieces of land on slopes so steep that even standing upright is challenging. I’ve met them as they tried to get something useful out of a destructive debris flow, selecting stones or shoveling sand and gravel to sell as building materials. I’ve met them as they stared at their lost properties, their children playing on the earth that now buries their old play ground. Some of the people I’ve met will be the next victims of yet another landslide, without us ever hearing or reading a word on their tragedies. Many of them will have to relocate their houses if they want to survive natural hazards. Others will likely loose their cultivable fields within few years, as a merciless river keeps eroding the foot of the mountain, thus making the soil unstable.

Many of these people have themselves contributed to their ruin, unaware of the consequences of deforestation on steep clay slopes and unable to manage rainwater in a sustainable way. But can I blame them? Being among the world’s poorest and totally uneducated, they pushed indeed nature to and far beyond its limits. Yet they didn’t do it to make easy money, as is often the case elsewhere in the world. They did it desperately attempting to feed their many children and warm up their rudimentary houses through the long and inclement winters of these mountains. Overpopulation, once again overpopulation.

I got close trying to help the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee and Engineers without Borders to ease those people’s misery, making them a bit safer from natural hazards, teaching them how to manage their mountains in a more sustainable and less life threatening way. And I’m telling a bit of their story through some pictures here.

Meet their timeless faces for the first time, up in their mountains and without understanding their language, and you may instinctively wonder whether you’re safe with them or something is about to happen to you. That’s the result of years of carefully selected news about suicide attacks, bombings and hostilities against foreigners in Afghanistan. In reality, the people you meet in Badakhshan will shake off you the fear and prejudices you came with. They don’t blow themselves up to kill foreigners, but welcome them sharing the little food they have and a cup of tea. They ride mules or walk for days to get to a nearby village. They teach their pupils with no multimedia or internet connection, trying to defeat a widespread illiteracy. They suffer from malnutrition, have a life expectancy of barely 50 years and look always much older than they actually are. They are not connected with the world 24 hours a day on a smart phone, but they’re connected with their neighbors in a way for us unknown. Or perhaps forgotten.

You may also want to check the B&W gallery from this work, with a few more street shots: Streets and roads of Afghanistan

3 Comments on “Steep lives in the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan

  1. In such places, being close to the ( male) population is easy. Meeting the female population is something else. It takes time… and even spending time is not enough. The pardah system is so strong ! It seems like women are living in jail from puberty to old age.

  2. Beautifully shot and moving series. Yes, the absence of women is so sad. Amazing what light blue eyes many of the men have. Stunning countryside but , what a harsh existence.

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