A climbing expedition in Afghanistan isn’t about climbing. It’s about Afghanistan and the people who live here. For more than 30 years this country has been in conflict; at times there has been relative stability but in recent years, as foreign troops withdraw, security is again deteriorating. As I listen to the news today, Kunduz has been taken by the Taliban…and then retaken by Afghan Forces. Civilian casualties are at 170, the US has launched airstrikes, and gunfire throughout the city continues.
One of the most poignant moments on this expedition occurred during our last days in the mountains while we discussed our reason for a delayed return to Kabul due to heightened security surrounding Afghanistan’s National Independence Day. The Western component to the team (Danika, myself, the film crew, and SEPAR) felt we should stay in the mountains a few more days to avoid being a potential target on the roads and in the cities, but the girls argued otherwise. It is always like this here, there is always bad security in Kabul, we know this, we have been here our whole lives. Please can we just go home now?!. It was testament to both their homesickness and the raw fact that when you’ve grown up in a war zone, it’s what you’ve come to accept and all you really know. It makes you both fearless and desperately insular at once.
But aside from war and the perception of this country being a ‘dangerous’ place, what is Afghanistan really like for a western visitor? The country isn’t set up for tourism so most of what we known or perceive about Afghanistan comes from journalists and military — we generally don’t have a lot of insight into this place otherwise.
When I arrived in Kabul on August 1st it was hot. Unbearably hot. And I live in Salt Lake City, a place where summer temperatures routinely climb above 100F and a veil of pollution hangs over the city most days. Kabul also has poor air quality; dust and diesel fumes saturate the air and I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as vehicle emissions standards. The difference here is that escaping the oppressive heat and thick, polluted air is much harder than in Salt Lake City (or any hot Western city for that matter) where fancy air filtration and conditioning is fully functional and mandatory in just about every home, vehicle, and public space. Yet while I wilted in the heat, life continued around me. Markets were busy, traffic was heavy, construction was underway, children were in school, and people simply went about their daily routines. It was at once like any place in the world and simultaneously…a world vastly unlike my own.
Aside from the heat, the next most prominent feature of traveling in a war zone are the weapons (not to mention the relics of wars past: rusting tanks and crashed helicopters) carried by police, security guards, and Afghan National Forces. And I’m not talking about a concealed pistol here and there, I’m talking about full on Russian Kalishnikov’s (AK47’s), Bazooka’s, and various other assault rifles slung casually over the shoulder or cradled in position, finger resting lightly in the trigger, for immediate use if needed.
Within a few days, the novelty of seeing firepower everywhere faded and I fixated instead on the double concrete walls topped with curling barbed wire and heavily guarded, sandbagged entrances to just about everything in the city. What lies within these walls, however, are beautiful, lush gardens, courtyards, homes, restaurants, and offices. They seem to be a peaceful oasis of quiet and privacy in an otherwise bustling, edgy city. And this is where the many contradictions of Afghanistan begins.
Behind the concrete walls, behind the language barrier, and behind the curious gazes peeking shyly out from headscarves, the kindness and hospitality of the Afghan people is beyond nearly anything I’ve ever known and most definitely beyond most western hospitality. If there’s one thing I could say to those that label all of Afghanistan and it’s people as ‘enemies’, ‘terrorists’, or ‘insurgents’, it would be that the Afghans I met were heartbreakingly kind and would do anything for you. Yes, there are plenty of outliers, but there are in every country. I kept coming back to the thought that if a traditionally dressed family of Muslim Afghans were walking down the street of an average American city, a warm welcome would be unlikely. Best case scenario might be a quietly locked door and subtle stake out through the curtains.
Yet as I walked up the valley toward our basecamp below Mir Samir on a reconnaissance hike, the pastoralist families living in stone shelters among the hills would come running out to bring us hot tea, fresh yogurt, and delicious bread. Though Danika and I were traveling with an Afghan colleague, we were nonetheless foreigners… and a curiosity (it should be noted that I’m tall, blonde, and female — I stand out almost anywhere I go — and here was no exception). Yet they’d talk with us and then invite us to stay longer, stay the night, they’d beg and when we declined they seemed genuinely disappointed.
Throughout our trip, this theme remained the same: generosity in an impoverished country, kindness amidst conflict, and the desire of many Afghans to see change for the better, change for their children, and change for their country. Exhausted by war, this is precisely why the families of the Afghan Women’s Mountaineering Team have accepted the risk of their daughters breaking barriers in a culture where women, among many other things, don’t go mountain climbing.
Stay tuned for part II, The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir: success in the mountains.
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- Climbing Afghanistan: a land of contradiction, Part I – October 7, 2015