South Asia

Photo journal: The best and worst of 10 years in Afghanistan

The BBC's Bilal Sarwary reflects on the highs and lows and a few of the more surreal moments over the last 10 tumultuous years in Afghanistan using some of his own pictures and other memorable images.

The return of music and shaving of beards

When the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in 2001, the first thing I noticed was a flurry of barbers rapidly set up stalls and got out the unused tools of their trade. Their first calling was to shave off those unwanted beards the Taliban made compulsory. Men queued up to divest themselves of their facial hair. Suddenly, music was also back on the streets of Kabul. People brought out pots and pans and started beating them with joy. Music and dancing reappeared in people's homes and in the picture below, a man dances to celebrate the birth of a baby boy in his home just a few months later in February 2002.


In one of the stranger moments over the last decade, I was travelling down the precarious Salang pass and came across these boys laughing and having a great time despite the fact that the truck behind them had flipped over in the midst of an avalanche. Nobody in the truck was hurt but in this perilous district 15 people were killed that day by landslips. The boy at the front is called Hamid and he told me that this sort of thing happens every year, vehicles are overturned, people die. It is a reminder of the harsh and precarious conditions many Afghans live in. But it clearly doesn't scare these boys.

Militants in a mosque

They don't look like they are taking a break, but these Taliban fighters are actually relaxing in a mosque. This picture was taken a few years ago in Ghazni province, an area which has seen considerable violence. Although they were driven out in 2001, the Taliban made a comeback and continue to fight wherever they can. The fighter on the far right is a Saudi citizen - he was not happy being photographed. All these fighters wanted to do during this particular interlude was wait in the mosque and ask people to bring them food to eat.

Inky fingers of democracy

This woman's thumb is stained with the ink from Afghanistan's first real exercise in democracy in 2004. It almost became a cliché: government through ballots not bullets. But people were genuinely excited and hopeful. Afterwards, though, there was vote rigging and it appeared to many as if very little had changed. Next time round, there was much less participation.

'Enough is enough'

This bus driver makes his living going up and down the Kabul-Kandahar highway. His hands are raised in sheer frustration. "Enough is enough," he said. He was sick of being stopped on the highway by corrupt officials wanting money. He said that many villagers only ever encounter the government when taking the bus and when they see corruption it is no wonder they turn to the Taliban. "We are living through the tremors of the earthquake that was the war," he said.

Phone contact

In 2002 I went on a trip to a volatile and remote district of Zormat in south-eastern Paktia province with a BBC cameraman. In those earliest days after the war, we struggled to make contact with the outside world. All we had was a satellite phone. The explosion in the media is one of the major achievements of the last 10 years in Afghanistan. Now, mobile phones are everywhere and Afghans use Twitter, Facebook and many own several mobile phones.

Ice cream parlour ladies

Ice cream parlours are a place where Afghans meet, talk and relax. Under the Taliban, women couldn't go into them but now they are colourful, brightly-lit places where women can be found and indeed romance has been known to blossom. Schoolgirls frequent them and talk: they are happy and sociable places - Afghanistan's equivalent of cafe culture.

Drug addicts

This drug addict used to be a Northern Alliance fighter who fought alongside the US in 2001. In the town of Charikar, where he comes from, about 15,000 people out of a population of approximately 70,000 are drug addicts, local officials say. Many parts of Afghanistan are carpeted in picturesque poppy fields but Afghanistan now has a new and growing problem with drug addiction.

Different masters by day and night

This farmer in Kunduz province is sitting on his wheat and considering his options. Life for him was about putting food on the table. He says that he has no choice but to heed whoever was in power: government or Taliban. His biggest problem, he said, was that by day he has to do what the government says and by night he has to do what the Taliban say. In 2009 when this photo was taken, militants were fast encroaching on daily life in this district.

Walk to school

It may be the kind of image that one sees quite often but the sight of young boys and girls going to school really does fill many Afghans with hope. It is true that life is insecure for many, but children still do try to get an education.

Funeral etiquette

Most Afghans know that "see you next time" is a phrase you cannot say in good faith. There may never be a next time and funerals are a regular feature of people's lives. In the West when a tragedy befalls you, there is time to heal. In Afghanistan there is no time to process it because it just keeps on happening: relatives, colleagues, classmates. Everyone accepts death. At funerals, people don't bother to ask questions. They attend, watch and wait for the next one. This is the funeral earlier this year of a man who was very important for the north of Afghanistan, General Daud Daud. The grief was etched on people's faces. There was not much talk.

Bilal Sarwary (seen in the above photo on the far right) was born in Afghanistan and spent many years as a refugee in Pakistan. He has been covering the conflict in Afghanistan for the BBC since 2001.