Afghanistan: Behind the headlines

Award-winning photo journalist, writer and documentary-maker Nick Danziger was commissioned by DFID to explore changes in Afghan lives five years after the defeat of the Taliban.

Hayatullah in shopHayatullah

"I am sorry I’m late,” says Hayatullah apologetically, “I was trying to sort out a row between two neighbours. Their sons were fighting.” Violence is something Hayatullah is used to. His first shop was destroyed in 1983 during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Having lost everything, Hayatullah had to labour in the fields. Several years later, he moved 200 kilometres west to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif where he opened a shop and built up the business with loans from friends. But the Taliban take-over of Mazar in 1998 saw the end to that enterprise. He moved back to Badakhshan, as a labourer in the poppy fields. “It was hard work... My health suffered.”

Three years ago, his luck changed. He successfully applied for a micro-credit loan of 10,000 Afghanis (£106) which allowed him to open another shop. “I promised I would not work in the poppy fields again.” Business, slow at first, now grows steadily. Hayatullah sells a wide variety of goods from rice, tea, oil, biscuits and salt to notebooks and pens... “I know what other shops charge, so I try and charge a few Afghanis less.” He paid back his loan over two years and says his life is better than it has been for 30 years. “It is a huge difference from before: Then it was a hand-to-mouth existence. Now I can support my family; my children go to school, I can take them to the doctor and buy medicines. Without the loan, I would be waiting to die.”

Juma Khan

Juma KhanLike many settlements near the main road from the Russian border to Kabul, Kart-e-sol (which means “peaceful quarter”) suffered disproportionately during  the years of war and insurrection.

Now the village has three hours of electricity each evening, TV and a new access road, but a return to anarchy is  still a possibility. “We try not to think about the past but fear is at the back of our minds,” says Juma Khan. “We have just rebuilt schools and roads; a return to violence would be heart-breaking.”

Juma Khan has more to lose than most: a mild-mannered 55-year-old shepherd with a hundred sheep, ten goats and a few cows and donkeys, he has spent most of his life with animals and was a logical choice to become the community’s veterinary worker. The work is largely providing vaccinations, as well as undertaking castrations and treating parasitic and infectious diseases. Before taking on this job, he – like his fellow shepherds – had never consulted a vet and reckoned to lose about half his livestock a year. In three years, this has been reduced to less than 10%.

Juma Khan learned his skills at a four-week course organised under the Afghan Government’s National Solidarity Programme and now earns about 2,500 Afghanis (£26) per month from small charges to the farmers whose animals he treats. “I am an employed person. Everyone respects me now,” he says. He can now buy medicines and support his family. He has a son who wants to be a teacher. “The old ways are disappearing and the children have very different aspirations. They don't want to be farmers or shepherds these days,” he says with a frown. 


Kubra looks far older than her 38 years. Like the other women in her village, her life has been hard and as mother to 12 children – five daughters and seven sons – there has been the added burden and stress of bringing them up during 25 years of insecurity and war.

“My brother-in-law killed some Russians, so we often had to move: I lived in five different villages in just seven years. Later, under the Taliban, some of my sons fled to Iran but they had no qualifications so they worked as farm labourers. My husband is a farmer.”

Her youngest children, two sons and two daughters, are going to school – an opportunity her other children and she never had. Kubra is the only cash bread-winner for the family. Before, she was earning between 30 and 50 Afghanis (35-60p) a day as a tailor but now she is employed under the National Solidarity Programme as a tailoring teacher for village women and her salary has increased. With jobs scarce and her working aged sons unemployed,her family depend on her meagre income. The courses, held in one of her home’s two rooms, are oversubscribed. She has also gained the respect of her students. “This is a time of lots of improvements in my life. When I’m working, I feel very happy. My children are also happy, now we don’t need help from others. Security is very good, there is electricity and they have brought sewing machines for us – the women want the project to continue.”

Dr Aqila Jan

Dr Aqila JanDr Aqilah Jan has always been an independent woman, even under the Taliban. “I have worked here for five years, and I was the first woman to go to remote villages to tend to patients. The Taliban did not interfere with healthworkers.”

Since then, she has moved from health to local politics and is chair of the Community Development Council (CDC) in Chaghcharan, as well as a member of the Ghor Provincial Council. She is married to an assistant doctor, Maroof Khan, and has four young children.

In the three years since the CDCs started under Afghanistan’s rural development initiative, the National Solidarity Programme, she says there have been many changes for women. “They were not allowed outside the home, the girls were not allowed to go to school, and women did not participate in decision making. Now there is better security, many girls are encouraged to go to school, and five women are in the CDC and four in the Provincial Council. "She is particularly proud of a daily literacy course in the  local mosque for 40 women.

Some members of the community objected that Aqilah was chair of the CDC, but she says both men and women elected her, and her husband supports her. When they first arrived it was a time of devastating drought and insecurity. The main neo-Taliban activity now is further south, but recently several nearby schoolrooms were destroyed. “We (the Provincial Council) had a meeting... to discuss this, and we recommended that people should denounce and not protect those who are responsible,” she says, “The country’s bright future depends on education, that’s why they are targeting it. People need to realise that if you burn schools, you are burning your own future.”

But she believes the country’s embryonic democracy can take hold, “It’s new, progress is slow, but as time passes it will be more successful. ”Aqilah has her own plans for the future: to run for election to the national parliament (the Wolesi Jirgah) in Kabul in four years’ time.

Jawed LudinJawed Ludin

Jawed Ludin, President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff, remembers his first day as Presidential spokesman in May 2003: “After being introduced to the President I asked to meet my colleagues and see my office. They took me to a prefab which was locked – there was no one there and they had lost the key. The next day, they broke the lock and I entered the office, the size of a 20-foot truck container. There was a filthy desk, chair, sofa and large TV, as well as a new computer. It had been there for a year and was still in its box.”

Not one of his 17 staff was computer literate, and in fact many were ‘phantom’ staff, existing on paper only. “The only stories that came out of the Presidential Palace were clichéd accounts of whom the President met, when the meeting took place, and that they discussed matters of ‘mutual interest’.” On his departure two years later, Ludin says,“It took me two hours to introduce my successor to the 60 members of staff in four departments of the Director of Communications Office... Our Press Officers are highly professional – the best in the government.”

Ludin was 30 years old in 2003 when he returned to Afghanistan, with a Masters in politics and sociology from London University, after 11 years in Pakistan and the UK as a refugee. The Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in 2001 brought him into contact with senior Afghans who later became ministers. He married an Afghan in Canada, but was headhunted and returned, “with hope,enthusiasm and a lot of energy” to his formidable task as presidential spokesman. He glosses over his own abilities and feels the credit should go to DFID for supporting the transformation of the office with a £1.5 million grant. “The key was that DFID spotted where the capacity was for change and invested in it.”

Malalai on a mission

Malalai interviewing a boyMalalai is a young woman on a mission. Her weapon is her tape recorder and her assignment, as a journalist, is to give a voice to Kabul’s young people who are facing a difficult and uncertain future. She is the editor of Straight Talk – a weekly programme for teenagers in the Dari and Pashto languages, whose many listeners ring in each week by the hundred. Working for Media Support Partnerships, the programme is funded by the UK’s Global Conflict Prevention Pool and Malalai is the only one of her four siblings with a job. Her wages go to her mother to look after the family. She spoke to Developments on a recent visit to London to launch Afghanistan: Development in Action.

"Before five years ago we couldn’t leave the house without a brother or a father to go with us, not to go to school, not to go to work. At the time I was like a simple girl, working at home with lots of hopes but that was all. I remember I wanted to study English, but in order to go to high school I had to wear a veil and hide from the Taliban and always change the route I took so they could not follow me –  if they had seen me out alone they would have been angry. They would only be happy for me to learn a little of the Quran, and then only in the home with other women.

I knew that this was wrong, of course. This is not the way women should be treated – they should learn and live like men can. Although at this time men did not have freedoms under the Taliban either.

The war was very frightening, naturally. With the American attack on the Taliban we decided to stay in our house in Kabul, so that it would not be stolen from us. But when the evening came, all the power went off so the Americans could not see where to bomb and so it was very scary. With my mother and brothers we went to the bathroom and sat and prayed, and my mother took the Quran in her hands and everyone was crying.

Life improved after the Taliban, things began to change slowly and, like every girl, I wanted to go to school. I felt so free, not having to wear a veil. I studied my English and mathematics,and then I got a job and now I am working and also studying. I heard about a workshop in teacher training and I was chosen for a job, so I was working for two years making radio programmes, showing new ways of teaching methods to teachers.

Then I began making programmes for youth – which is what I am doing now. We cover problems of youth, everything from music to politics. Take political expressions, for example – like people use the word “democracy” but they may not know what it means. They might say it means a man and women living together! So we explain the meaning of politics. I can speak with people from all walks of life about what they feel and think.It has made me strong; I know about people’s difficulties and problems and sometimes I can help solve them.

Suicide bomb attacks are on the increase in all parts of Afghanistan. Now the Taliban are fighting, they don’t want democracy, they don’t want girls to go to school. Everyone wants power, this is the main problem here. Young people might complain about customs such as forced marriages, or child marriages or the big expenses of weddings, but they say that life is much better day by day, even though they are worried about security and lack of jobs.

Radio is a pastime for many Afghanis, especially in rural areas where there is nothing else going on for them – it is the only outside contact for many because there is no internet or TV, no power often. Most of our listeners are from rural areas. Some are from cities but they are busier studying or working, and when they are free they watch TV. So we have many listeners in rural areas and we have so many phone calls we can’t always handle it – 50 a day a minimum.

If the Americans or British had not come I would still be wearing a veil, or sitting at home. It has been a big help for many people like me. People here in the UK are free, and we also want to be free in Afghanistan, but we only can at the moment with the soldiers from America and Britain – it’s a very good thing they are there. If the Americans or British go, then our army is not strong enough to defend us from the Taliban or Al Quaeda. But I would like to see them leave when our army is strong enough to defend us.

Things have changed dramatically for me – now we women can do anything it seems. We can go to school and university, we can get jobs, we can go out alone without our father or brothers. We are working together with men in society. If today I go out and work in the office, say, of a foreign NGO, some people think that is not good for a girl – some boys will say she is a bad girl. But I don’t care – if other girls see me doing this then they are encouraged. I am a Muslim, but I don’t wear the veil or stay in the house. Lots of people think we are Communists and not proper Muslims. But I say to women if you want to achieve your wishes, do not listen to these comments."

This selection of photographs, and the (edited) individual, personal stories that go with them, come from the DFID book Afghanistan: Development in Action. To receive your free copy go to www.dfid.gov.uk.

We have just rebuilt schools and roads, a return to violence would be heart-breaking.