Trigger Warning: graphic pictures
Darul Aman is a palace in Kabul, which was grand in the 1920’s, but is now falling down after two fires and shelling. Large areas of the roof have collapsed, walls have caved in. There are wide stone stairs, that spiral up the wall and which must have looked gravity-defying even when they were new, and which are now crumbling at the edges. Puddles and piles of rubble and plastic rubbish fill the rooms.
To mark the International day of Human Rights, the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers held a photography exhibition in the palace. Nailed to the crumbling walls were portrait photographs, on laminated A4 paper, of some of those who have died or disappeared in Afghanistan, from the Soviet era until today. Maya, Janey and I visited the exhibition, along with our friend from the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Raz Mohammed.
The ground floor was the gallery of the victims of the Soviet occupation, with grainy black and white photos of grandfathers and fathers, some in old fashioned clothes, and some in rock star sunglasses and hats. Above the faces were the photocopied ‘death lists’ that identified these men as targets.
Under the photos are the names and titles, many begin ‘Osted,’ teacher. Many others are prefaced ‘Shadid,’ martyr. Raz Mohammed explained that these were innocent men who didn’t know why they died. He said that his father had told him about the era of the Soviet occupation, about students at universities being given guns to kill their fellow Afghans, and if they refused then they were shot themselves. The ghoulish representation of Afghan ‘martyrs’ in our media, as aggressors not victims, hides the reality from us, makes us think that the young men who’ve died in the long wars of Afghanistan are somehow different, less worthy of respect, than the young men who died in Europe in the Second World War. The only difference is that here the deaths continue.
The gallery continued up the wall to the first floor, where the black and white pictures now showed the same smiling or solemn faces, but these ones were victims of the mujahedeen and civil war. Up another flight of stairs the laminated sheets started to include colour pictures. There were also, mixed in with the portrait photos, scenes of some of the deaths. This was the Taliban-era gallery, and the pictures became a lot harder to look at.
There were pictures of car thieves hanging by the neck in Kabul, and Hazara people by the feet in the provinces. There were women in blue burqas being beaten by police, and men with guns to their head at the side of a road. The most disturbing photograph was of a child, who at first seemed to have bleeding hands, but a smiling untroubled face. Looking more closely you saw that the child was holding a pair of someone else’s hands, recently severed at the wrist and still pouring blood. In this gallery for the first time women and children were as numerous as men.
Off to the side of this corridor was a circular room, the roof and windows so dilapidated that it was like an open balcony onto the city. Even from the entrance door you could see out, over parks and buildings to the mountains at the edge of the city. For a second it felt like a moment’s respite from the horror of the display. But this room was, for a visitor from Britain, the most horrifying part of the whole exhibition. Downstairs there had been a lot of people, journalists and groups of people talking, this room was nearly empty. I walked around it with Raz Mohammed, who told me what was happening in each picture, although many of them didn’t need an explanation.
There were rows of small bodies, with pale faces and feet protruding from blankets and sacking, looking as if they’d could have been tucked in for the night, except for the brown blood stains spreading out from the torso of each child. These children were among the many innocent victims of a drone strike, half of these remote-controlled murders are committed by the British military. In the next picture, a village going up in smoke.
In the next, the anxious brown eyes of a toddler peering out from a face burnt by sticky white phosphorus. In the next, another child, face made homogenous, the eyes sealed shut by bubbling skin and mouth half burnt away. It went on around the room, adults and children, mothers and babies, families and villages.
The photographs of living victims were almost worse than those of the dead. A woman screaming at the loss of her sight to nerve gas; a prisoner, head covered and genitals cupped, naked behind barbed wire and laughing soldiers; children and babies in whole suits of bandages, only tiny patches of the pink skin of a shallow burn showing between their dressings; women trying to plead futilely with the soldiers violently raiding their homes.
On the far side of the room a picture was nailed up between two gaping windows. A white soldier, in dusty combat gear, holding the bleeding body of an Afghan boy, half his size, if that, trousers dragged down to his knees and head lolling. The soldier isn’t holding the boy as a human holds another human, he isn’t offering comfort or first aid, he is holding him like a trophy kill, grinning at the camera. I couldn’t find any words. Raz Mohammed, who, like many ordinary Afghan people, has lost family members to international forces, his brother-in-law having been killed in a drone strike, was also silent, until we moved on to the next picture, when he glanced back once more at the picture of the grown man making a joke of the broken body of a child to say “And they call us terrorists.”
The Afghan Peace Volunteers, our hosts in Kabul, are launching a campaign to find 2 million voices to remember the 2 million Afghan war deaths, and to make contact with them personally (see the ‘why this is important’ section on the petition page).