Reporter's Notebook: On Assignment in Afghanistan

By Max Block, Producer
National Geographic Today
September 5, 2002

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National Geographic Today sent producer Max Block, photographer Charles Walter and soundman/video editor Charles MacDonald to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, to create a portrait of this city, plagued by continuous conflict for almost a quarter century. Their challenge was to understand how a city in a country, so isolated and unknown could, in the span of one week in September, suddenly occupy the world's center stage. What happened there? Why Afghanistan? And why now?

I have never felt so far from home as I did the first morning I awoke in Kabul. I suppose I had been farther away, at least in a geographical sense. But this was a different measure of distance. This was miles measured in smells and tastes, in the sounds of a stranger in sandals walking past my hotel room door, the feel of the air which was hot and stale that morning, the rough texture of the hotel blanket that I'd pulled up to my chin.

In one of those useless, early morning fits of thought, I wonder who else might have slept in this bed. I run through a list of possible characters—journalists, foreign aid workers, spies, Chechens or Pakistanis who had come to fight alongside the Taliban. I search for another distraction and it becomes the flies that have moved into the room overnight—big, fat healthy flies that come to a rest on your toes, on your water bottle, on the food that you eat.

These are the very first thoughts running through my head that first morning. Chechens and flies and sandals and spooks. And I know that it is nothing more than a procrastination; the only way I know to delay pulling back the sheets, getting dressed, and walking out the door and into a city that I know next to nothing about.

There are three of us in Kabul—myself, Charles MacDonald, our soundman who will also edit the hour and Charles Walter, our photographer.

We've come here to shoot a documentary about the city, which is roughly similar to barging into a stranger's apartment just as they're stumbling out of bed after a horrible night's sleep, snapping a picture and then bandying the photograph about as if it were a fair portrayal, mussed hair and all.

Afghanistan is only now emerging from twenty-three years of almost uninterrupted war and it would hardly be fair to write home about the horrid state of affairs and leave it at that. The trick would be explaining how Afghanistan had arrived at this point.

We spent virtually all of our time with Afghans, listening to their stories, watching them at work and at play, hearing their concerns about what was to come and their regrets about what had passed.

Until the late 1970s, Kabul was doing just fine. There were universities, hospitals and libraries, electrical grids, scheduled garbage pick-ups and treated water. Men wore slacks and women wore silk dresses. There were summer homes, picnics, music festivals, record stores and fashion boutiques.

But then something happened. Afghanistan found itself caught up in a chronology of horrible behavior, from within and without.

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