KABUL, Afghanistan — There is a small overpass – called Friendship Bridge – that transfers passengers across the river Amu Darya that divides Uzbekistan from Afghanistan. It takes a few minutes on a small Uzbek military bus and around 15 minutes on foot, but it is an expedition into a different time and place.
On the Afghan side is a border town called Heraitan, and a few sleepy Taliban sit with guns around a rundown hut beside a faded “Welcome to Afghanistan” side. I cannot help but notice different signs and stickers promoting “Balkh Province” literacy and various educational initiatives for girls and wonder how long they will last.
Passport control is a paltry building manned by a lone Taliban fighter sitting in a cramped office overflowing with files. He says nothing as he skims our passports and checks our valid media visas issued by the former Afghanistan government, handwriting details into a notebook before stamping my photographer and me in with a fresh “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” imprint.
And then the long and snaking journey through the new – or old – Afghanistan begins from the northern border to the capital Kabul. It is about 280 miles, and Google Maps predicts it should take around seven hours. However, any local knows it takes almost double that given the state of the roads and evidence of corrupt construction deals of the past, which involved cheap materials decimated by winter erosion and were never completed.
There are an estimated 16 checkpoints in total and although most wave you through, the presence of a woman in the car typically prompts the Taliban to ask a few questions. Nobody makes eye contact with me, and if they accidentally do, they are quick to avert their gaze. Some Taliban are especially welcoming at the sight of foreigners, wishing “guests” in their country a safe journey. With guilt, I can’t help but acknowledge that none of my Afghan friends and colleagues will be treated in such a cordial manner. The main thing anyone wants to know is where you have come from and where you are going.
One moment, my view from the window brims with mounds of earth dried to dust and small girls wrapped in colored hijabs with their backs bent over in the scorching heat carrying heavy bundles on their heads. Burqa-clad beggars sit with their young beside bombed-out roads, waiting for those passing by to throw a coin or a bottle of water their way.
Evidence of heavy fighting is everywhere – decimated homes with their masticated contents rotting under the daylight, broken and barren villages turned gray by relentless aerial bombing, and even mosques burned and razed almost to oblivion. The Taliban flags fly high into the clear sky at ruined outposts that belonged to the US-backed Afghan forces just weeks ago. Dozens of wrecked armored personnel carriers, once the staple of the defunct Afghan military, dot the roadsides – their flattened tires sinking into the ground as painfully thin stray dogs seek shelter beside them.
We swerve around potholes and overturned cargo trucks, careful to avoid the many spots where chunks of tar and dirt have been gnashed from the ground by years of war. In the words of our chaperon Gul, the roads of his country have become “so spoiled.” He tells us everyone wants to run away from Afghanistan, but there isn’t a place for everyone to go.
“When I first saw the Taliban flag come into my village, I could not eat, and I cried for days,” he says. “And I asked the Taliban commander to just please allow us to fly the Afghanistan flag next to it too.”
For Gul, that rectangle of red, green, and black stripes represents much more than President Ghani – who ultimately fled the palace weeks ago and allowed the Taliban to storm through without resistance. But his simple request to the Taliban was met with aggression, and a swarm of rifles pointed his way, prompting the university student to carefully retreat.
“How can we stand up? One person is not enough,” he says wearily.
Gul learned to speak English by watching Hollywood action movies – his favorite being the “Fast & Furious” franchise – and he loves Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber. He also enjoys singing and reading poetry in his native language of Pashto, also the language of the Taliban, which publicly prohibits such pleasures.
The thing about the Taliban is that almost everyone you meet has relatives who are both members of the insurgency and Afghan forces. It is not a clear-cut delineation but more a murky switch of allegiances depending on how hardline one’s views of religion are and how they can best feed their family and afford them protection. Locals say many Taliban remained hidden in the hills, waiting for the designated date of the American withdrawal, but now swarm the streets freely in mass numbers.
Our driver and his brothers are constantly asking opinions, wanting to understand how the outside world sees their country. They are all disappointed that the US left, although none express anger or blame. None support the Taliban, insisting life was better before, but express genuine confusion as to why the US military destroyed millions of dollars worth of high-powered equipment given to the Afghan forces before its final frenetic departure from the Hamid Karzai International Airport last week. They warn that their country still has the ISIS-K battle ahead.
“We Afghans are unlucky people,” the young driver says. “But we would be the luckiest people if the wars ever leave – look outside at this magical place.”
Certainly, Afghanistan is a bleeding country, but it is still a beautiful one. Unfortunately, it is easy to forget it is a lovely place, ripped apart by a history of bludgeoning and battles.
In the next moment, the sights are ripe with the fertile lands of Afghanistan – almond trees on one side and peanut crops on the other, the lush greenery cast against the ceaseless Hindu Kush mountain range. Those in the rural regions are seemingly immune to living life in states of uncertainty, conflict and change.
We stop at Samangan Province for lunch, where restaurants bring out brass trays of sheep kebabs and goat yogurt and life goes on. It is odd to think how quickly mindsets adjust, including my own, as I pull up my face mask and casually mention it is because the Taliban are clustered outside – a concept that would have instilled grave concern less than a month ago.
I realize that this is the first time, somewhat ironically, that I can travel by vehicle across Afghanistan. This was something I could not do for years previously, given that patchy control the Taliban already had over many of the roads and infrastructure along the way, rendering it too dangerous to do so. Even more ironically, the only parcel I am now unable to get into is Panjshir Valley – a once sleepy, picturesque place which we used to visit for weekends of horse riding and hiking, picnics and parties filled with flying kites and baking bread in tiny mud huts equipped with old wooden stoves dug into the earth.
The journey through the Salang mountain pass is perhaps the strongest microcosm of Afghanistan’s bitter past. It is a nefarious crawl through the tunnels and tracks which joins the northern part of the country to Parwan Province and then onward to Kabul province and the south of the country. The recent conflicts mean roads were never repaired, and in times of heavy fleeing and traffic jams, Afghans would die from carbon monoxide poisoning in the poorly ventilated tunnels. Moreover, the relatively empty passageway signifies that few are willing to brave the streets, except the Taliban, who screech past with flashing lights and demonstrations of prowess, that they must be given a rite of passage.
After the fall of darkness, we reach Parwan, and most notably the Jabal Sijaj – the turnoff point to Panjshir Valley, the iconic resistance province, and the last holdout from Taliban control. The presence of Taliban surrounding the entryway is the biggest we have seen, and the only time that a checkpoint pulls the cover over and calls a commander to come and check passports and fire off questions as rumors swirl that the Taliban is launching a dramatic offensive to push its way further inside.
By the time we reach Kabul, deep into Saturday night, the streets outside are almost silent. We sit in darkness, drinking tea and working by candlelight to save the small generator in the notoriously electricity-challenged capital.
Sunday morning, the beginning of the working week, brings with its remnants of “old” Afghanistan: fruit stands open on street corners, men huddled in small groups peering over a video on a smartphone, women out of their homes without male chaperones — around half without a burqa – and there are still a few car honks. Only the streets are a muted shadow of the past; the vibrancy and laughter have given way to a sense of lying low and constant anxiety.
“Have you had problems? Aren’t you afraid?” whispers one watermelon seller, his hazel brown eyes wide with worry.
The Taliban patrol in white armored vehicles, in police cars and on foot – always armed – their signature white-and-black flag already splayed across everything they possess. As I get closer to one vehicle, I see that the flag is painted across the back, yet a sticker promoting “Brooklyn Zoo” is beneath it.
It is a jarring juxtaposition of the world before and the one now, still struggling to find its footing.