Published: February 2008
Phil Zabriskie
Interview by Glynnis McPhee
What challenges did you face as a reporter in Afghanistan?

As wintered neared, it was the travel and the quality of roads, particularly west of Bamian. We had shovels, chains for the tires, emergency provisions, numerous maps, and a satellite phone. We had to time everything to the weather and the road conditions if we wanted to get somewhere, and once we got somewhere—especially the further out we went, in Sharistan and Daykundi—we had to do our best to insure that we'd be able to get out before the really heavy snows came. In other parts of the country security is a big issue. In the highlands it wasn't, which was great. But getting from one point to another and then back was no easy task. We made it, of course, but it was close.

Of the people you quoted in the story, who was the most interesting?

Musa Shafaq, who features prominently in the story, because he, in part due to social and historical forces far beyond his control, it at a crossroads—like the Hazara as a whole—where he must confront the fact that while greater possibilities exist for Hazaras, significant limitations remain. In developing and rebuilding societies, knowing these things can be very hard for a certain kind of person, because it forces them to mitigate their ambition—when that ambition is very much about getting out of the situation they are in—and then to manage their frustrations when things do not turn out as they hope.

Additionally, there were some cart pullers in Kabul and one in Bamian, Hussain Ali—who lived in a cave, an honest-to-goodness cave—who oriented their lives around earning whatever they could so they could send their children to school. This is in a place where a lot of children work—and some of these children did to some extent—and where wages are very low. It was especially poignant to meet men and women who were willing to bear a certain burden—in this case, a physical burden, and a very heavy one at that—if it might help their kids have something they themselves were denied.

Who was the most difficult person to find?

Once we got a certain distance out into the central highlands—three days out from Kabul, I'd say, if we had driven straight—the convoluted part of the traveling was completed. Then it was largely a matter of chatting up people in their fields as they farmed or in their homes as they ate or stayed warm. There were some instances where people we'd met in Kabul had relatives in the central highlands in Hazarajat, and finding them involved going to a village, asking whomever we could find, getting directions along the lines of "turn right at the big rock and left after the third stream," and piecing it together from there. With patience, it usually worked out.

How safe was it for you to travel in Afghanistan? How safe would it be for our readers?

My frame of reference is a bit skewed, having traveled in the south before, where security is not good. Kabul is fairly stable but seems to be getting less so, and the use of roadside bombs and suicide bombers is increasing. In Hazarajat things felt very safe, and there are now tour guides who offer trips into that area, around the Buddhas and such, and in some other parts of the country. Anyone who wishes to go should thoroughly research the conditions of different regions and the conditions along any roads they might use to get there.

What help did you have while you were traveling?

We were myself, a driver I have worked with several times in the past and trust, and a fixer/translator, a young man from Kabul. We had, basically, our collected knowledge about the place and our collected list of contacts, people who were either in or could advise us about the places we were going. We took a longer route to and from Bamian in order to bypass a dicey region west of Kabul and checked in with a number of people along the way about what we should expect. I also made sure I had a Thuraya sat phone so we could have communications when outside the range of the country's mobile phone networks, as we were for the majority of the trip.

What would you recommend people see in Afghanistan?

It's an amazing place, truly captivating in many ways. There are regions that should be considered out of bounds, including, the provinces that border Pakistan. Crime can be a problem in other areas as well. There are some troubled areas on the fringes of Hazarajat, especially in southern Daykundi province and in parts of Ghazni and Wardak. But in and around Bamian, it's possible to move relatively freely and comfortably, and that's where you find the place where the Buddhas once stood, where you find Band-i-Amir Lake, where you find the purplish cliffs atop which once stood villages and sentry posts, where you find these phenomenal swaths of terrain that bring to mind some kind of mix of the Canadian Rockies and streams in New England, all on a grand, almost hypnotic scale.

Did you have an interesting experience that didn't make it into your story?

In Nili, a main town in Daykundi province, we sat with a number of students who'd come in from the countryside to attend school. They spoke of their hopes of attending college, learning a trade, finding a job. Another teenage boy, who'd just returned from Iran, where he'd gone to work to earn some money for his family, listened forlornly. Eventually he said he felt like he had far fewer prospects for improving his lot because he'd missed out on education, that he'd wind up being nothing, just another shopkeeper. The sense of possibility has increased, but so has the awareness of what else is out there, and thus just how much is still unattainable.

In the same town we stayed with a local district council member who was also hosting a colleague from another region, farther south, where there had been some trouble with Taliban infiltration. This second man was Baluch. He had a big, bushy beard, a big belly, and was missing a finger on one hand. While we spoke, he got a call from elders in his village, who had just been visited by elders from a neighboring Pashtun village known to be sympathetic to the Taliban. They'd been told that Mullah Omar himself was demanding that Taliban fighters be allowed safe passage through the village and threatening trouble if they weren't. The district council member was, naturally, quite worried, since the local police had only a handful of guns and little hope of defending themselves if the situation worsened. All in all, a pretty clear indication of what local politicians have to deal with in these parts of this country.