History teaches those who care to listen that a war led by a foreign force in Afghanistan cannot be won. Not surprising then that the cliché of the “graveyard of empires” is often applied to that country. Referring to the disastrous Second Anglo-Afghan War, Rudyard Kipling, wrote: When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

I first visited Afghanistan in the fall of 1994 when civil war was raged between Mujahadeen factions after the withdrawal of Soviet forces five years earlier. The world into which I had stumbled while on assignment gripped my imagination immediately. It has yet to let go. Back then, the capital, Kabul, was fragmented into fiefdoms ruled by warlords whose well-armed Mujahadeen forces were reducing much of the city to rubble. Thousands of civilians fled to swelling refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan; and those who could not flee, or who chose to stay, were subjected to daily bombardments, human rights abuses and hunger. While photographing the pure savagery of that war, I thought, naively, that I understood what Kipling meant. I did not have a clue. My brief assignment completed, I left Afghanistan to photograph other wars and life elsewhere in Africa. I did not return until 1999, this time on assignment for The New York Times.


In those five years, Afghanistan had changed in many ways, but war remained a constant. An oppressive Taliban government ruled much of the country with an iron fist gloved in Islamic rhetoric. In the far north Ahmad Shah Massoud, the spiritual and military leader once called the “Lion of Panjshir” for his role in driving the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, held onto his sliver of territory along the Panjshir Valley. Photographing Massoud was fascinating, almost blissful, for he simply ignored the camera, rendering it invisible, but never denying access. I shot his planning sessions and prayer times. I captured Massoud conducting an artillery battle from behind a huge set of binoculars. Massoud’s forces were slowly advancing toward Kabul, exchanging volleys of artillery and rocket fire with their mortal enemies. As the Mujahadeen forces closed on the capital, small towns became front lines, their residents forced once again to abandon their homes for fear they would be killed. The fertile Shomali Plains, framed by majestic snowcapped mountains in the far distance, became a no man’s land. Any forces trying to cross the open plateau were exposed to enemy fire. This little noticed war became front page news around the world soon after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. It was soon evident that Afghanistan would once again be invaded by a foreign force, and the world’s media descended on its borders. In late 2001, hundreds of journalists converged on eastern Afghanistan to watch and record columns of dust rising from spots where hundreds of United States warplanes had dropped their payloads on Taliban positions on a mountaintop overlooking Tora Bora. Somewhere in the caves there, Osama Bin Laden was in hiding. Further access to the mountain was controlled by local Mujahadeen fighters, now allied with the United States, who did a good job keeping the media hordes at bay. A few of us made sorties to various points along the mountain to photograph war-scarred trees, corpses, empty caves. There was little else to document. Certainly not the money shot, Bin Laden himself. The war in Iraq drew my focus away from Afghanistan until 2006 when the Taliban once again asserted their presence and the kinetic activity of war seemed at times to consume both countries. I bounced between the two until 2010 when, with the war in Iraq quieting down, I decided to return exclusively to Afghanistan. That return was temporarily interrupted on the morning of October 23, 2010. The day began routinely enough, with a cigarette or two during a pre-mission briefing for a patrol I was going on with a 41 D platoon in the Arghandab district of Kandahar province. We set off, and I settled into the familiar patrol routine: stare at the backs of soldiers’ helmets as you work and try not to stray too far off line lest you step on a land mine. Or walk until someone shoots at you, which is when the real pictures happen. The combat pictures I was taking that morning were the opposite of dramatic. They were standard, everyday pictures of soldiers stomping ground, the kind that barely registered anymore on those who saw them. They were boring, and I knew it. Maybe that explains why I kept taking pictures after my foot connected with a land mine — because deep down I knew I had nothing. I learned, though, that time has changed some things about Afghanistan. Unlike Kipling’s soldiers, I was not left to the knives of Afghan women. A medic took care of my wounds before a dust-off (medevac chopper) landed nearby and took me to safety. I am alive.

Joao Silva
Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Joao Silva

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