Day trip to Panjshir

Today was a day you couldn’t really do justice with words, so I’m going to try to approximate justice with pictures and video.

But first, a brief explanation of context.

Last night the German newspaper Der Spiegel released some photos of the U.S. “kill team” which had been killing Afghans at random and taking trophies from their kills. The photos depicted soldiers doing horrendous things to dead Afghans and were therefore supposed to be the new “Abu Ghraib”, where similar photos were released of detainee abuse which had caused mass rioting in Iraq. The assumption was that the reaction would be strong here, and with good reason.

So this morning we had to decide whether or not to take our planned trip to Panjshir (pronounced Panj-sheer), about 150 km north of Kabul. We’d been encouraged to do it, partly because it gets you out of Kabul and gives you a sense of the 93% of Afghans who live in rural towns and villages.

Given most of the country (even in Kabul) don’t have television or internet, we thought it was unlikely they would hear the news of the photos until later in the day at least. Even then, it was probably safest for us not to be in Kabul when people did find out. Added to that was the statements from every local we’ve talked to (bar one) that Panjshir was the safest part of Afghanistan. All we’d need to do was stay away from any U.S. military today as much as possible, as they would be the likely target of any attacks.

The most dicey part was going to be being noticed getting out of and back into town, so we covered ourselves up as best we could and headed out of town. Once out in the countryside, everything changed.

Panj (meaning five) shir (meaning lion) is named after five brothers who, as legend has it, were “like lions” and are the spiritual protectors of this place. We drove past their (supposed) graves on the way through the valley.

You can check out a bunch more photos on Facebook, but here are a few that I think are worth highlighting:

Our driver, Satar, pulled over by this shepherd with his flock of sheep so we could take pictures. Lo and behold, about a minute later we had watched the shepherd play midwife to a new baby lamb. Spring in Afghanistan brings new life yet again!

Of course, among the new life still stalks the old ways of death…while lambs are born on one part of the road, there are U.S. bases springing up on other parts. This is just one of three brand spanking new U.S. bases we saw along this 150km stretch of road (as well as two old ones). We also drove past the infamous Bagram Air Base – not directly past, but close enough to see it in the distance.

I just really liked this photo.

I still can’t get over the mountains here – so beautiful with their craggy, snow-capped peaks. This was taken in the morning mist.

This is the entrance to the Panjshir valley – the sheer sides demonstrate visually how difficult it would be to take control of this area militarily. The hero of these parts is Ahmed Shah Masoud – his picture is pasted up everywhere on buildings in the valley, often with “National Hero” written underneath. He was a much-loved leader of the people who had defended them from the Soviets and then the Taliban. In fact, at one of the checkpoints inside (near the old rusty Soviet tanks) one of the police told us with pride of the time the Soviets tried to take Panjshir. Masoud allowed them to come into the valley, then blocked it at both ends, and killed them all. They had no chance, no way to escape.

Then more recently when the Taliban tried to take it they intended to do the same thing, only to find that there were too many refugees coming through to do it safely. So instead they retreated through the gap, came back around the back of the mountain, and defeated the Taliban through superior knowledge of the area.

Of course, these stories have to be taken with a grain of salt but locals are certainly fiercely proud of their ability, through knowledge of this place, to defend it from all comers.
There is certainly no shortage of leftovers from the Soviet war. From land mines to rusted tanks, these stand as a semi-permanent reminder of why you should never mess with the Afghan people.

In fact, the tanks sit directly below this town, perched at the top of sheer cliffs, housing a staggering 5000 people.

The Taliban came through here at one point and destroyed this refugee camp, the remains of which can be seen on the opposite side of the river.

Simply stunning.

I’ve been really wary of taking photos of kids, partly because I know how weird it would be for some random stranger to come up and take photos of my kids. So I’ve only taken kids’ photos if they’ve asked me to and their parents have said its ok. Even still, I hesitate in putting them out for all to see. But I also think it’s incredibly important to put faces to the people who are being killed in this war. On March 1st, 9 children just like these were killed and one seriously injured by a NATO air strike while they were collecting firewood for their family home. On March 15, 2 kids like these were killed by a NATO air strike while they were digging an irrigation ditch. Kids like these sit in dirty refugee camps for years, sometimes decades. Kids like these are put into detention in Australia for no other reason than their parents wanted them to live somewhere safe. This war is not a geopolitical issue, it’s a personal issue.

This is the main town of Panjshir – the fields in the foreground are shaped into a map of Afghanistan. The left side of the picture is the south and the right is the north. Amazing!

Here’s the crew that came to Panjshir today – from left to right is Donna, Steve, Martha, Paki, me in front, the “security” guy for the area (who said that we would be safe as long as we were in this valley under his protection), Martin and Patrick.

Speaking of staying away from military convoys, we ended up seeing four small convoys of armoured personnel carriers on our day trip. This one is Afghan National Army (ANA), but all of them included U.S. and ANA.

And from the weird and wonderful files comes this shot of three live turkeys tied to the roof of a van. The kids in the van packed full of people were looking at quizzically as if to say, “So we have three turkeys on the roof of our car. What’s the big deal?’

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