Afghanistan: Between Life and War

Attiullah,7, is seen posing in front of an x-ray of the bullet that entered the small boy's back coming out through his chest standing by his bed at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar. The small boy was shot by U.S forces as he was walking in the field near his home in the village of Sangissar watching the family's flock of sheep. The soldiers apparently shot at a vehicle that was supposedly Taliban and the boy got hit in the cross fire. Photo by Paula Bronstein

Attiullah,7, is seen posing in front of an x-ray of the bullet that entered the small boy's back coming out through his chest standing by his bed at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar. The small boy was shot by U.S forces as he was walking in the field near his home in the village of Sangissar watching the family's flock of sheep. The soldiers apparently shot at a vehicle that was supposedly Taliban and the boy got hit in the cross fire. Photo by Paula Bronstein

Forward by Kim Barker

Afghanistan is our longest war. Ten years into this conflict, the U.S. now spends about $190 million a day in the country or about $2,200 every second. Every year a record amount of foreign troops are killed in Afghanistan, with more than 1,800 perishing so far. More than 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have died. Civilian casualties are far harder to pinpoint, but by most counts, more than 10,000 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the fighting, all seen as collateral damage. Yet despite this, despite the tremendous cost, many people are tired of hearing about Afghanistan, tired of this war. The numbers – thousands killed, more than $380 billion spent – are so large, they seem to lose any meaning. Statistics are bloodless. Many people have stopped paying attention.

Photographer Paula Bronstein forces them to. She first visited Afghanistan in late 2001, right as the Taliban was being driven from power after the Sept. 11 attacks. Afghanistan worked its magic, just like it does too many journalists. The country got under her skin. Harsh mountains, a wide sky, craggy faces, turbans and burqas — the country is so different, so foreign, photographs are almost the only way to prove what life is like. Words do little justice.

As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who covered Afghanistan for five years, I should know, both about the pull of Afghanistan and Bronstein’s work. I worked with her as she painstakingly followed the story of how Afghans had become hooked on their own chief export: heroin. We even sat in the same dark room with a mother and her two children as they smoked the drug. It was not easy, but it was important, to show what was happening, how the drug was infecting the country. Yet Bronstein is not some impassive journalist – after finding the family, she helped get them into rehab. Bronstein was continually adopting Afghans she met while on the job, always trying to help in some small way.

That’s not the only thing that makes Bronstein different than most other journalists who have spent time in Afghanistan. She made the country a mission, returning frequently over the years, choosing to spend most of her time with Afghans rather than on embeds with international troops. And while she has certainly documented how people die, she also shows how they live. Some of these pictures are difficult – a 9-year-old boy who suffered brain damage in a mine explosion, a 5-year-old girl with vacant eyes lying on the cold concrete floor of a mental institution, the aftermath of different bomb blasts. Bronstein’s photographs of Afghan women who set themselves on fire to protest their treatment – because they’d rather suffer agonizing burns than stay in their agonizing lives – are particularly tough to look at.

But Bronstein also captures the small moments that show how Afghans live, how they vote, how they laugh. She captures the straight lines of new soldiers in the Afghan army, the nervous moments before a wedding, a father and a son in a burqa shop, and a woman in a tattered burqa begging on a snowy, muddy street. She tells a story with every picture – just the eyes of the older woman carrying a pail of water on her head seem to say: “Is this all there is?”

Some of Bronstein’s images are arresting – a NATO soldier in camouflage against a beige background, wearing oddly purple gloves as he looks at the scene of a suicide bombing, or a woman draped in a pink scarf and covered in white bandages, or a ghostly beggar girl in a blue headscarf looking through a frosted window into a warm room with red plastic flowers. Others are inspiring – Afghan girls all raising their hands to answer a question in English class, or a particularly defiant Afghan girl on a skateboard, her hands shoved in her pockets.

Together, the photographs and their individual stories illustrate the larger narrative of Afghanistan over the last 10 years. Bronstein has put together one of the richest portraits there is of modern Afghanistan — complicated, conflicted, contradictory, but always compelling. Just try to put down this book without looking at every image, without feeling each person in your gut, in your heart. It’s impossible.

— Kim Barker, author of “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” former South Asia bureau chief, the Chicago Tribune.

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