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Afghan Odyssey
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Long Road Home

By Lois Raimondo

An American photojournalist and her Islamist translator forge a friendship on Afghanistan’s front lines.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Late at night I sit in my apartment in Washington, D.C., watching U.S. leaders talk on television about the war on terrorism. Afghanistan moves in and out of these conversations, as it does with the headlines. One day there’s a lethal flare-up in a mountain stronghold. Later the situation is “controlled,” and newsroom pundits move on to other hot spots like Iran, Kashmir, or Somalia. Then my phone rings. The call is from Afghanistan.

It’s my former translator, Ahmad Zia Masud, now a negotiator for Afghanistan’s hastily formed Ministry of Defense. He calls me often by satellite phone from mountaintops, villages, and caves where he is meeting with resisters to reform—Taliban fighters, independent warlords—who, after decades of war, are reluctant or unwilling to lay down their guns. Sometimes Masud and other negotiators are threatened and forced to retreat. Soldiers then move in, and the hills resound once more with war.

“This is a very dangerous time for my country,” Masud tells me. “Every day I see disaster. The young boys, they know only war, nothing else. What will happen to them? I believe food will come, factories will come, but now the people are suffering. Even if peace comes, so much has died.”

From last October into December, Masud and I worked together day and night in the parched hills and plains of northern Afghanistan, where I was on assignment as a photojournalist for the Washington Post. Masud was in his eighth year of forced exile from his home in Taliban-controlled Kabul, working mostly for Northern Alliance leadership. When hundreds of foreign journalists began descending into Khodja Bahauddin, site of the Northern Alliance’s government headquarters, the foreign ministry assembled an army of translators. Masud, with halting English but well connected, wound up with me.

He is a devout Muslim and father of three; I an unveiled, single Western woman. Neither of us imagined how our minds and lives would mingle—and be forever changed.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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VIDEO Author and photographer Lois Raimondo describes her weeks with the Northern Alliance. Click here.

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Afghanis struggle to recover from the chaos of war.  What should the U.S. and other countries do to help them?  Share your thoughts.

Final Edit
A photograph from this story is this month’s Final Edit.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Afghanistan is home to more than a dozen ethnic groups; Pashtun and Tajik, the two largest, together make up over half the population. Both peoples are from Mediterranean stock and practice Sunni Islam. Most Taliban are Pashtun and most Northern Alliance fighters are Tajik.

Pashtun are the largest group and have traditionally held most of the political power in the country. Their lifestyle has been mainly nomadic and tribal. The Pashtun are known for their fighting prowess. Pashtun culture is based on Pashtunwali, "a legal and moral code that determines social order and responsibilities." Values such as honor, solidarity, retaliation, and hospitality are held in high regard. Elements of this code are often in opposition to sharia law, the Muslim code of ethics, which the Taliban has attempted to impose. The resulting processes of detribalization and Islamization have led to a weakening of the practice of Pashtunwali.

Tajiks, the second largest group, speak Dari and live mostly sedentary lives as farmers, traders, and government clerks. Not organized by tribes, Tajiks refer to themselves most often by the name of the valley or region they are from. As a community Tajiks tend to be better educated and more modernized. While Tajiks are sometimes referred to as "men of the pen," Pashtun are known as “men of the sword.”

—Marisa Larson

Did You Know?

Related Links
Interactive Central Asia Resource Project
Discover the culture, history, and current news coverage of Afghanistan through the links on this site.

Afghanistan Kiosk
This site has a large collection of links to informative and diverse websites dealing with Afghanistan.

Library of Congress: Afghanistan
Learn all you want to know about Afghanistan at this "Portals to the World" site.


Elliot, Jason. An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. Picador, 2001.

Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics. HarperCollins, 2002.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press, 2000.

Schulties, Rob. Night Letters: Inside Wartime Afghanistan. Kirkus Associates, 1992.


NGS Resources
Newman, Cathy. "Special Report: A Life Revealed," National Geographic (April 2002), unnumbered.

Edwards, Mike. "Central Asia Unveiled," National Geographic (February 2002), 108-125.

Zackowitz, Margaret. "A Kid's Life: Afghanistan," World (January/February 2002), 26-27.

Girardet, Edward. "yewitness Afghanistan," National Geographic (December 2001), 130-137.

"Afghanistan: Land in Crisis," National Geographic map supplement (December 2001).

Junger, Sebastian. "The Lion in Winter," Adventure (March/April 2001), 76-86, 88, 90, 135-139.

Belt, Don. The World of Islam. National Geographic Books, 2001

Mackenzie, Richard. "Afghanistan's Uneasy Peace," National Geographic (October 1993), 58-89.

Denker, Debra. "Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier," National Geographic (June 1985), 772-797.

Edwards, Mike. "Kabul, Afghanistan's Troubled Capital," National Geographic (April 1985), 494-505.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Islam's Heartland, Up in Arms," National Geographic (September 1980), 334-345.


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