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Afghanistan On Assignment

Afghanistan On Assignment

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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By Edward GirardetPhotographs by Steve McCurry

A nation shattered by wars, droughts, and earthquakes looks for signs of stability amid an uneasy peace.

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

In late March I was forced to cancel a trip to Kandahar when I learned that Islamic radicals were preparing to attack expatriates in the region. Several days later armed men hijacked a humanitarian convoy near the city, executing the only foreigner in the group, a Salvadoran water engineer with the international Red Cross. The militants allegedly included representatives of the Taliban.

Yet despite the resurgence of violence, much of Afghanistan is safer today than when I trekked its mountains and valleys as a reporter during the Soviet war. In snowy Paprok, where my latest travels began, all was quiet. Since my first visit in 1981 the town has been improved with a new road and, astoundingly, electricity. Small hydroelectric generators have been installed by Afghanaid, one of the three nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, in the region, as well as by villagers themselves.

The role of NGOs in rebuilding Afghanistan is crucial: As Mohammed Ali, a robust man with a ruddy outdoor look, pointed out, "So much has been destroyed by the fighting that few real support structures are still in place." But most of the hundreds of NGOs set up projects in and around Kabul, where it's easier to operate, ignoring rural areas where conditions are most dire, such as the central highlands and the north.

Exceptions include Afghanaid and a handful of other experienced aid groups, notably Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Save the Children, and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. Afghanaid first began providing clandestine humanitarian relief to villagers struggling to survive Red Army aerial and ground assaults during the Soviet war. It now relies on skilled Afghans who know the land and people in communities far removed from the capital. Ali himself often spends months away from his family, working on projects to improve basic health care or provide women's groups with small loans to start their own businesses, such as handicrafts.

For the NGOs that do operate outside Kabul, the agenda is daunting. The northern province of Badakhshan suffers from one of the world's highest rates of maternal death during childbirth—6,500 out of 100,000. A health center run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in Keshem in western Badakhshan is the only facility for a population of 70,000. Zudaidah, the clinic's head nurse, said: "If you live in the mountains, it can take days to get here. Sometimes people don't have money for transport, or women with birth complications are brought in far too late. So there's nothing we can do."

"How does one rebuild a country where no one questions when a woman dies in childbirth, and a fourth of the children never reach the age of five?" asked Loretta Hieber, a senior communications officer with the World Health Organization. While I encountered few starving children, I saw many with the gaunt look and limpid skin that are the signs of inadequate nourishment. In fact about half of Afghanistan's children suffer from malnutrition, making them more susceptible to dying from diseases such as measles.

Because most Afghan health workers lack proper training—and clinics, where they exist, are often bare-bones affairs—barely a third of Afghan children are immunized against childhood diseases. Late last year in Badakhshan a local leader walked for more than a day to the nearest town to report an outbreak of whooping cough that was killing scores of children. A medical team was finally dispatched from Kabul by helicopter to treat 40,000 children.

In June the World Bank gave President Hamid Karzai's government 60 million dollars to extend health services to the provinces. Even so, Hieber said, "It will take years to extend even the most basic services to the rural areas." In a country where nearly two in three people have no access to health care, about half the hospital beds are in Kabul. The capital has one doctor for every thousand people; in Bamian province there's one for every hundred thousand. And it's believed that in the northwest province of Ghowr, there isn't a single doctor for any of the estimated 300,000 people.

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

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Online Extra
Learn about Parvaz, the first full-color magazine for Afghan children, and how it balances serious issues with the lighter side of life.

VIDEO Hear photographer Steve McCurry's perspective on changes in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

AUDIO recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Armed warlords and other factions continue to undermine the efforts of Afghanistan's central government. How can the peace desired by average Afghans be achieved? Join the discussion.

Adorn your desktop with the intricate elegance of the Hazrat Ali mosque in Mazar-e Sharif.

Sights & Sounds
Follow the search for Sharbat Gula, the woman who cast an adolescent gaze from our cover in 1985 onto the world. Now we can tell her story.

More to Explore

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?
In the two years since the Taliban rule of Afghanistan ended, life has slowly begun to improve, including for women and girls. Some women have begun going back to work, girls are going to school, and women, in theory, can go outside their homes alone, wearing what they choose. However, the fundamentalist ideals that kept women suppressed for so many years still exist, making this new freedom fragile. Girls' schools are attacked and burned almost as quickly as they are built. Pamphlets are left at the attack scenes declaring, "Stop sending your women to offices and daughters to schools. It spreads indecency and vulgarity. Stand ready for the consequences if you do not heed the advice." Women who choose not to wear the burka are being harassed and attacked. Those who speak out for women's rights receive death threats.

The effects are dramatic. In areas where girls' schools have been attacked, attendance has dropped by as much as 50 percent. Some parents say they will not allow their daughters to attend classes until the security situation gets better. Many women have not been allowed to return to work, and those who have often face hostility.

In June 2000, as a response to Taliban repression, a group of Afghan women from around the world and within Afghanistan along with representatives from several countries including Algeria, France, Spain, and the U.S., gathered in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for the Conference for Women of Afghanistan. There they came up with the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women:

1. The right to equality between men and women and the right to the elimination of all forms of discrimination and segregation based on gender, race, or religion.

2. The right to personal safety and to freedom from torture or inhumane or degrading treatment.

3. The right to physical and mental health for women and their children.

4. The right to equal protection under the law.

5. The right to institutional education in all the intellectual and physical disciplines.

6. The right to just and favorable conditions of work.

7. The right to move about freely and independently.

8. The right to freedom of thought, speech, assembly and political participation.

9. The right to wear or not to wear the chadri(burka) or the scarf.

10. The right to participate in cultural activities including theatre, music, and sports.

Now, three years later, this document is still in draft form, but many Afghan women hope it will soon be adopted by the new government of Afghanistan.

—Marisa Larson
Did You Know?

Related Links
A Life Revealed
Learn more about Sharbat Gula, who cast an adolescent gaze from our June 1985 cover and captivated the world. Zoom In on photos of Gula today and enjoy a multimedia show about photographer Steve McCurry's search for her.

CIA World Factbook: Afghanistan
Read general background on the people, government, and history of Afghanistan.

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan
Read press briefings and get links to key organizations involved in Afghanistan.

Find facts and figures on one of the poorest countries in the world and learn how you might help.
United Nations Children's Fund in Afghanistan
Read an overview of women and children's health and education issues in Afghanistan.
Save the Children in Afghanistan
Learn more startling statistics on the status of women and children in Afghanistan.


Adamec, Ludwig W. Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan, 2nd ed. Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997.

Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of its People. Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.

Girardet, Edward, and Jonathan Walter, eds. Essential Field Guides to Humanitarian and Conflict Zones: Afghanistan. Crosslines Communications, Ltd., 1998.

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

Tanner, Stephen. Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban. Da Capo Press, 2002.


NGS Resources
Girardet, Edward. "
A New Day in Kabul," National Geographic (December 2002), 90-103.

Edwards, Mike. "Central Asia Unveiled," National Geographic (February 2002), 108-23.

Belt, Don. "The World of Islam," National Geographic(January 2002), 76-85.

Belt, Don. The World of Islam. National Geographic Books, January 2002.

Girardet, Edward. "Eyewitness Afghanistan," National Geographic (December 2001), 130-37.

Miller, Peter. "Afganistan: Land in Crisis." National Geographic (December 2001), map supplement.

Edwards, Mike. "The Adventures of Marco Polo," Part I, National Geographic (May 2001), 2-31.

Junger, Sebastian. "The Lion in Winter," National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2001), 76-86, 88, 90, 135-39.

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

Sarianidi, Viktor Ivanovich. "The Golden Hoard of Bactria," National Geographic (March 1990), 50-75.

Denker, Debra. "Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier," National Geographic (June 1985), 772-97.

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), 334-45.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Afghanistan: Crossroad of Conquerors," National Geographic (September 1968), 297-345.

Williams, Maynard Owen. "Back to Afghanistan," National Geographic (October 1946), 517-44.

Williams, Maynard Owen. "Afghanistan Makes Haste Slowly," National Geographic (December 1933), 731-69.

Hussein, Haji Mirza (Oscar Von Niedermeyer), and Frederick Simpich. "Every-Day Life in Afghanistan," National Geographic (January 1921), 85-110.

Huntington, Ellsworth. "The Afghan Borderland, Part I: The Russian Frontier," National Geographic (September 1909), 788-99.

Huntington, Ellsworth. "The Afghan Borderland. Part II: The Persian Frontier," National Geographic (October 1909), 866-76. 


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