Q&A: Robert Nickelsberg on a Distant War

In his new book, Afghanistan: A Distant War, veteran photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg offers a vivid close-up of the past quarter-century of Afghan history. As a photographer for Time Magazine, Nickelsberg first observed Afghanistan emerge from an eight-year war against the Soviet Union and then descend into a brutal civil war followed by a Taliban takeover. Since 2001, he’s continued going back to chronicle what he calls America’s War. He has documented things many Afghans themselves never experienced firsthand, and earned an unusually deep understanding of this complex country.

Bob and I worked together from 1997 to 2002, when we both covered Afghanistan for Time. In a recent chat, we talked about the years preceding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That date is a dividing line: Our short-memory world has made the pre-9/11 years seem distant and irrelevant. The current era of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan makes it easy to forget that anything existed before. But it did, and Bob Nickelsberg’s powerful evocation of those years reminds us of how much they mattered.

HANNAH BLOCH: You’ve been covering Afghanistan more or less continuously for 25 years. What was your very first trip there like?

ROBERT NICKELSBERG: I had moved to Delhi in 1987 and got a one-day visa to Afghanistan in early January 1988, still the mujahideen days, for a funeral in Jalalabad for Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun nationalist living in Pakistan. His last wish was to be buried in Afghanistan near where he’d grown up as a child. That day, 17 people were killed in two explosions during the ceremony. So that was my first encounter of the mayhem. I didn’t know where my car and driver were and jumped into anyone’s car with an empty seat and went flying through the Khyber Pass back into Peshawar in darkness and without a windscreen. I never thought I’d make it back alive. Since then, I’ve been maybe 50 times. I never keep track.

HANNAH: At that point, journalists had already been going into Afghanistan to cover the Soviet war throughout the 1980’s. But this was the start of a different era.

ROBERT: Someone recently asked what were my thoughts on my first trip in, and I said “I’m arriving late.” Journalists were already going in for eight, nine years. It was very challenging to play catch-up. But not at all did I feel I was coming too late. The pages were turning. A new chapter was about to start. It was the first time journalists were given access to Kabul. The learning curve was quite vertical. There were a lot of moving, shifting plates of history. All of South Asia was really cracking and buckling and crying for attention.

HANNAH: Let’s talk about what it was like for you as a photojournalist during the Taliban years, from 1996 to 2001. Among their many rules and restrictions was a prohibition of photography, unless it was of inanimate objects—no photos of human beings or other living creatures allowed. Plus you had to have a Taliban minder at your side at all times. How did you get your work done?

ROBERT: Each trip was a gamble. You had to register with foreign ministry and were given a guide and were not allowed to work without him at your side. Everything had to come onto a wish list of stories or interviews and they worked on it for you. They’re also reporting back to their seniors about you, what you’re like, if you’re some narrow-minded gringo, did you only want to take pictures of women—or of schools, when schools were closed. They tried to put you in a box and classify you. At the same time, we were doing the same to them.

You could see if they’d take money at the end of the day, ten dollars or five dollars. If they did, you could see what did it get you the next day. You’d have to try everything—luscious meals, heavy meat lunches. If they went for the bait, so to speak, you might have a successful or fairly successful trip, or at least get to every appointment you hoped for. I’d often test them by raising a camera, just thinking of taking a picture—of lines at a bus, for instance, because there were fuel shortages and people had a hard time getting from A to B to C. You’d keep them in view so they would have to react or not. Very often they would not even permit that kind of a picture. But often we’d find people on the streets would yell, “It’s prohibited, how dare you,” and you’d know they were pro-Taliban. You didn’t just worry about what your minder told you to do.

HANNAH: I had a Taliban minder once who was very up-front with me when we met, saying that he worked for them, but wasn’t “one of them.”

ROBERT: Each had his own background and personality. There were a number of levels of disciplinarian. If they were Kabul people, they were certainly a bit more tolerant of foreigners. Taliban from Kandahar really lived in their own world. Pink hands, we used to say, because they’d never had to lift up anything heavier than pencil or notebook. They were brand-new to the urban world. You’d try to empathize with them. I had more time moving around on the ground than they did. They were very curious about that. They may have been too young and had heard how horrific it was during the civil war, and here was a Westerner who’d spent more time in Kabul than they had, if they’d grown up in Pakistan. There were many very frustrating days and hours and sometimes we were just hoping some guy might get hit by a bus or come down with dengue fever or some emergency would take him out of the picture and we could request somebody new. It was difficult. These were new elements in the Afghan world. This was the power you had to deal with. They weren’t going away.

HANNAH: Even in Kandahar, some Taliban didn’t seem to mind being photographed. During the Indian Airlines hijacking at the Kandahar airport in 1999, some of the Taliban guards were asking journalists to take their photos and smiling openly for the cameras. But that was an unusual situation.

ROBERT: At that time, they wanted to be accepted, they were looking for some recognition. They were new to that.

HANNAH: You’ve said you relied on a wide-angle lens, not a telephoto in those years. What else worked for you logistically?

ROBERT: With a wide angle, I knew I could crop out particular parts. I’d often pre-set the focus and cough as I hit the trigger. Or I’d slam the car door and rattle off a bunch of pictures, while they [Taliban chaperones] got distracted. Or if they smoked, I’d offer them a cigarette. Or have the sun in their face so they couldn’t see what I was doing. I was given a very small margin of workspace. I’d always insist on having a window seat in the car. I’d lower the window and put my camera under my arm, pre-focus it and with the other hand, try to fix my blanket or shawl and then hit the shutter, see what I could get. Most were out of focus or blurry or tilted. If the restrictions were on, it might be all you’d get. I had no access to 50 percent of the population—women. My odds were quite limited.

HANNAH: What about Afghan photographers—what became of them under the Taliban?

ROBERT: When I first visited Afghanistan, cameras were in the hands of the local portrait studios or there were makeshift cameras on the street used for ID photos. Pictures and portraits were taken at weddings and for government documents. But during the Taliban years, the studio photographers were hardly able to earn a living and spent most of their working days photocopying documents. Some Taliban did surreptitiously slip into camera studios to have their photos taken against idyllic mountain backdrops.

HANNAH: What’s photography like in Afghanistan today?

ROBERT: Now that cell phone coverage has risen so dramatically, camera phones have become a way of communicating for Afghans who have little computer connectivity at home or exposure to a schooling environment. After 9/11, cell phones imported from Pakistan or Dubai flooded Afghanistan and soon camera phones were as common as texting. Videos shot with camera phones have also increased. Aside from the militant-controlled regions, Afghan families document their lives and send family photos throughout the Afghan diaspora. But in more traditional families, they’re generally careful when it comes to maintaining their personal privacy and images of women. They’re more savvy than before and quickly figure out new communications technology. Those who don’t want their photograph taken will make their desires known. They know the word “delete” very well.

HANNAH: There’s a photo in your book that I remember well, because it was the first picture I’d seen that made me feel empathy for the Taliban. It’s of a fighter in Mazar-i-Sharif carrying one of his wounded comrades, who’s wearing plastic sandals. The look on his face is desperate. You and a handful of other foreign journalists were covering fighting between the Taliban and Uzbek militia forces in Mazar-i-Sharif that erupted in the wake of a power-sharing agreement that broke down between the two sides in May of 1997.

ROBERT: I think we came in on the last flight to Mazar before the airport shut down. Those were known as “good” Taliban, and friendly. They were more accepting of foreigners at that time and particularly of journalists. And they were killed. And they were not in particularly good moods after those massacres.

The Taliban were about to take control of the north. It created a lot of tension and drama that didn’t go over well with the local population. Thirty-six hours after the deal, the Taliban started to close down schools and impose strict rules. In particular they wanted to take weapons away from the local population.

HANNAH: You don’t do that.

ROBERT: You don’t do that. Especially when Uzbeks are traditional enemies of Pashtuns. No Pashtun wanted to be caught by an Uzbek and vice versa. The agreement fell apart and pandemonium ensued.

HANNAH: What was it like for you being in the midst of all that? The pandemonium started while you were in a press conference, of all things, right?

 ROBERT: One of the worst things for a photographer is to sit through a press conference where there’s not very much going on, when I know in advance none of the images has a chance in hell of being used. We could hear gunfire from the press conference in the Mazar mayor’s office. I left with a few other journalists to see what was going on.

A scuffle had broken out when a Taliban vehicle landed in a sewer, and at gunpoint they insisted on help to push the car out. That’s not the way to make friends when you come into town. This was the first sign things were not going well. By 4 p.m. there was more and more fire and they [Uzbek militias] were gradually sucking in a column of Taliban fighters and pickup trucks on the main road to the airport. Three of us [photographers] moved forward. As the sun was going down, an Uzbek militiaman crossed the street in front and opened fire on us. That was the trigger and then everyone from the rooftops opened up on the Taliban who’d been sucked in. Some crazy Taliban fighter walked up to a garage, fired into it and was gunned down.

HANNAH: That’s when you took the photo of the fighter and his friend.

ROBERT: It was a series of pictures I took. His friend went up to rescue him, fired his RPG first, and picked him up and carried him out. No one really knew what was going on. As the sun was going down, Uzbek militiamen opened fire on us. Then everybody on the roof opened fire on the Taliban. They had them encircled. We stayed to see this firefight. Then they started taking aim at us. We took cover behind an abandoned Soviet jeep. They [Uzbeks] must have thought we were Taliban and took aim at us. We made a break for it. We ran in a column. I was in the back. One of us dropped their video camera nearly on my ankle. As we turned a corner to our left, we ran into an ambush of six Taliban hiding in a doorway. We moved away from that. We thought we were safe at that point. Then another militiaman wanted to take our camera gear from us, which didn’t make any sense whatsoever. They got two of my cameras. Luckily my third camera, my Leica, was still in my bag. We were relieved of our watches, rings, money. I forget what else disappeared. I managed to sit on my camera bag and they figured it was empty. The firing just started to get out of control. Then we took refuge in an ICRC clinic, we spent 24 hours in the clinic. The firing went on that night. The Uzbeks used our rooftop to fire on fleeing Taliban. We had water. We had no food. We didn’t really have any intelligence. I don’t remember we had much cell phone coverage.

HANNAH: Right, there were no cell phones in Afghanistan in those days. And this was before the Thuraya, so satellite phones were still in those bulky briefcases that you had to open up and set up to use. So you were isolated.

ROBERT: Yes, this was before the days of cell phone coverage in Afghanistan. And we weren’t carrying any of that gear. We had just left the press conference.

The next day we saw all the dead bodies the Red Cross was hauling away in a pickup truck. We had to grab everything and flee because the locals were going nuts and it was another excuse for them to loot. None of this made sense because we were not Taliban. It was just a complete breakdown of law and order. The local general was not able to control the locals. No way would we have any say over our fates at that particular moment, other than to flee.

HANNAH: So none of the sides even recognized that you were journalists or wanted to help you. How did all this compare with what it was like to cover Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s?

ROBERT: It’s comparable. But during the civil war, if you were caught behind lines, legitimately stuck, you could at least go to a local commander and get their sympathy and ask for security. And it was given. Though I’m sure there were times when there was not that hospitality.

HANNAH: You met with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the last remaining commander who opposed the Taliban, in May 2001, just a few months before he was assassinated by al Qaeda operatives posing as TV journalists on September 9, 2001. What story were you working on then? He sensed something was brewing, right?

ROBERT: The last ten percent of the country that wasn’t controlled by the Taliban was up in the Panjshir Valley and parts of Badakshan province. Not much exposure had been given to what was going on in that ten percent. I’d been up north to see about refugee conditions in February of that year and you could see the Taliban had started to restrict their access to aid. The goal was to see how Massoud was faring and what means of support he had. We [writer Anthony Davis and Nickelsberg] made it up to Khoja Bahauddin [Massoud’s base] by foot, by horse and donkey, flew a little in a helicopter held together with rubber bands and paper clips. We didn’t know if he was there at the time but we were going to wait it out. The interview took place after two days. We sat with him from eleven at night to close to three in the morning. It was his favorite time to read poetry or see guests. He hardly slept at all.

I’d last seen him in ’96. He was a very nervous-energy fellow, constantly in motion, giving orders, asking questions. People were in awe of him. He did bring up that some Americans were trying to make contact with him. He did say he was hearing about something going on in Kandahar with bin Laden, they were trying to hatch something. His people down there were telling him something was up. Well, in this part of the world, you always divide by two. If it held true, then it might be key to probing deeper once we got out.  We tried to get a story published but there was no interest. I knew two days after he was killed, bingo, it was a brand new page, a clean slate. Anything from the past was no longer relevant.

HANNAH: You’ve said you think the years before the 9/11 attacks were even more important than the years since. A lot of us who covered Afghanistan in those years would agree.

ROBERT: A lot of forces came together then. All the countries that allowed their so-called religious volunteers to go into Afghanistan [in the 1980’s] weren’t so responsible in taking care, once the Soviets retreated, of what would happen to those people. A lot of the veterans of the mujahideen days went back to their own countries and no one really had any idea in what direction a particular country would go. It just turned into a Frankenstein for countries that had no idea how to handle them on return. All the small fires that were brewing were building in intensity and importance. The rivalry between India and Pakistan intensified in those years, they came close to war. Jihadi groups were being nurtured and sent out into the world. The blowback from that was important. Those dates and that part of history are an anchor for diplomats and journalists who go in. If you don’t have that background, it could be that much more difficult. People want it in short bursts. But while you’re thinking about today and tomorrow, you have to educate yourself about the past. And I don’t see that happening much anymore.

View more of Robert Nickelsberg’s work on his website.

Follow Hannah Bloch on Twitter.

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