Having never been to Afghanistan before, I expected a more palpable sense of fear. What quickly became apparent -- at least in the capital city of Kabul where I was based -- is that the violence of a war zone is controllable, similar to sandbagging a rising river.
High, barbed wire-topped walls act as levees against insurgency, protecting a fully articulated society: girls and boys at school, health clinics, restaurants, couture fashion houses, rug retailers, jewelry makers, beauty salons, gyms and family life. When frequented by foreigners, such places have the added security of armed guards at the perimeter and snipers perched in small lookout huts above locked metal gates, alert for potential kidnappers and suicide bombers.
The threat of kidnapping becomes more real upon leaving the protection of Kabul. Last year, my creative partner Tallulah Photography and I were in the Central Asian nation to cover the work of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
We drove with the NGO's projects director Lauryn Oates into Panjshir province north of Kabul to assess its teacher training program. To get to Panjshir, we had to motor through Charikar city in Parwan province, where the Taliban had a presence. We locked the van doors and hid behind drawn curtains to ensure we weren't seen by roving gangs, who would commandeer the van and sell us to the Taliban. The schools that we visited were also not alerted beforehand of our arrival, lest local Taliban somehow find out and waylay our vehicle.
In Afghanistan, the key to personal security is to stay a moving and elusive target: never stick to a routine, move quickly and unobtrusively. This was not only for our safety, but the safety of those we met. Fraternizing with Westerners can draw the wrath of local Taliban -- members recently beheaded two children in Kandahar province to warn citizens of the danger of collaborating with the Afghanistan government.
See some of Tallulah Photography's images of Afghanistan
Part of this journey was also to see first-hand the reconstruction of civil society following the United States-led invasion of NATO troops one month after 9/11. The ousting of the Taliban from Kabul, and the massive efforts to secure the country, allowed Western governments and NGOs help rebuild a society shattered not only by five years of Taliban brutality but a civil war that began with the 1979 invasion of the Soviet Union.
This regeneration of civil society will be part of the multimedia event, "Afghanistan Rising," that Tallulah and I are presenting this Thursday in Vancouver. By illuminating what has been achieved, "Afghanistan Rising" will show what might be lost should the withdrawal of Western troops in 2014 leave room for the Taliban to return.
Afghanistan's future hangs in the balance, and it would be a cruel fate for its populace -- especially women -- to lose what has been gained. Under the Taliban, women were flogged, executed and prevented from going to school, the market or the doctor. Now there are female MPs, teachers, police and military members, physicians, midwives, fashion designers, international athletes, clothes makers and artisans.
Groups such as Young Women for Change have also arisen. After being taunted and having stones thrown at them in the street by men and boys once too often, young women began holding street marches, created a documentary for TV about gender persecution, and launched social media campaigns to try to change entrenched misogynist attitudes towards females. YWC co-founder Anita Haidary continues this work despite death threats. It's women like this who would be the casualties of a new Taliban regime.
As a freelance journalist, it is my intention to return to Afghanistan next year. Like any freelancer, I will scramble to find the resources to do so -- contractors rarely cover foreign-reporting expenses. The cost of travel: airline, translator and driver services, food, accommodation and insurance, is high. Large media corporations cover such costs when their reporters travel abroad. But foreign bureaus have shut down to ration newsroom resources. Yet there is still a need for the Canadian public to know what's going on beyond our borders, including stories about the work of NGOs like CW4WAfghan, which is determined to stay in Afghanistan no matter how the political winds blow.
For me, Afghanistan was a short-term stay; any danger I was in was fleeting. For Afghan citizens, and especially women, danger is always threatening to burst the security banks. As journalists, it is the least we can do to ensure that the Canadian public stays informed of these struggles. At home, the danger lies in ignorance.