My dream with journalism is to travel to the frontiers and send their stories to breakfast tables thousands of miles away. Join me for my first chapter, in Afghanistan, summer 2006. These are my letters to you.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Turning Point


I arrived at the Afghan Embassy in London half an hour before it opened. A crowd of Afghan men were already gathered, talking in Dari. They wore thick coats over their shalwar kameez, and crossed their arms against the cold. We waited.

When the bolts slid back on the heavy doors, however, the two other foreigners and I were ushered forward. The visa queue was three people deep. The Afghans were there for other business; they were not yet returning to their homeland.

I asked the man in the three-piece suit behind me why he was going to Afghanistan.

"Journalism," he said, and held out his hand. "I'm Richard Beeston, from the Times. I want this in my passport so that I can pop over at short notice. We're expecting things to heat up very soon." He said it with confidence.

I put in my paperwork, left the Embassy and wandered through Hyde Park. I bought a newspaper, and learned that Richard Beeston is the diplomatic editor for the Times. I thought about what he told me, then got on a train for Southall to look for a ticket into the fire.

I found the Ariana Airlines office in the Punjabi center of London, tucked between a sweet shop and a music vendor, blasting the latest Bollywood hits. There were red paan stains in the street. I felt like I was back in India. Inside his office, Aziz found me a flight from London to Dubai, then Dubai to Kabul. There were no credit card machines, so I found a couple ATMs and paid for it in cash.

That afternoon I had a visa in my passport and a ticket in my hand. I celebrated with a box of Indian sweets in Regent's Park. You couldn't have found a happier man in London.

That was two weeks ago. Richard Beeston was right. Things in Afghanistan have heated up. The Taliban are mounting their annual spring offensive, rising stronger now than at any time since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001. Though concentrated in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the violence is creeping north.

In Kabul, on 29 May, an American military convoy crashed into a civilian traffic jam, killing up to eight people. Shots were fired into the air to keep the gathering crowd at bay. Then, as the tide turned violent, the US soldiers sped off. In the following turmoil, 2,000 people took to the streets to protest the continuing American occupation. The correspondent for the Times, Tim Albone, in Kabul, says that the events of this day may have turned Afghanistan against the US military presence for good.


An Afghani police car burns in the streets of Kabul as protests
rage after a US army vehicle crashed into a traffic jam, killing
up to eight people. (SYED JAN SABAWOON / EPA)

Heavy US bombing continues almost daily on Taliban targets in the South. Their insurgence continues unabated, however, as the fighters are able to slip back into the tribal regions of Pakistan to regroup and gather supplies.

It may seem strange to some that I am eager to board the next plane to such a place. But I would be unable resist the pull of the adventure of practicing journalism here, even if I tried. It is my passion. I'm sure most of you have felt the same about something. And so, I am waiting for my plane with anticipation. I fly from London on 4 June.

My next post will be from Afghanistan, in'shallah (God-willing). Depending on internet access in Kabul I hope to update this blog at least once a week. In the meantime, check out www.timesonline.co.uk for some great articles from Tim Albone, who is in the thick of the action.
Khoda hafez, my friends.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Summer 1995: the Beginnings

"Afghanistan is a stark beauty, vicious and seductive." Christopher Kremmer, The Carpet Wars

Photo by James Hill
It wasn't an obvious destination for a family holiday. We were living in India at the time, however, the airfare was cheap, and the summer of 1995 found my parents, sister and me on an Ariana Airlines flight to Kabul. I came into the country a relatively innocent boy of 11. I left having shot off a tree branch as thick as my leg with a Kalashnikov rifle.

They have never left me, those first glimpses of Afghanistan. There was an indelible ink in the rusting tank carcasses on the side of the roads, the bullet shells in the dust at my feet, the village feasts under the mulberry trees. At night we looked into the sky and saw not shooting stars, but red and green tracer bullets streaking across the black. From a distance, they were silent and magical.

The pride of history was palpable in the country even to a boy. We traveled north from Kabul, winding through the Panjshir Valley in a Land Rover. Alexander the Great and his army had followed the same route, on horseback, over 2,000 years ago. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired genetic legacies of the invading army remain in the people of the area to this day.

We had arrived a year shy of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and the nation was relatively peaceful. There was still the periodic strategic grappling of the warlords, however; many of whom still control provinces of the country. We spent one night in a Kabul basement after we were awakened by jets roaring in from the north, tearing the sky in two. The muffled thuds of their bombs followed, along with the angry chatter of anti-aircraft guns.

But we still saw Afghanistan at peace. We were treated to orchard feasts in the villages, eating sheetfulls of mulberries for desert. There was no end to my curiosity of the Afghan spirit; famed as much for its overwhelming hospitality as its ferocity in war.

Yet there was much I did not understand in Afghanistan's eyes; a yawning gap between her fierce pride and boundless generosity. There were questions unanswered, and even then, I knew I would return.

Now 11 years have passed. I am 22 years old, and, as I write this, finishing up an exchange semester at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales. In early June I will return to the country that is still imprinted on my heart. I will spend two months working with the Open Media Fund in Afghanistan, set up by journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, and now overseen by the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society. I will be based in Kabul, and travel through the Northern provinces to work with Afghani journalists, editing their English copy, and writing articles of my own.

This website is an invitation to join me in my travels, wherever you may be in the world. Peruse it at your leisure and share it with your friends. I hope it will be a set of eyes and ears for you in a distant place.

Until the next time, khoda ru shokr; may God protect you.