Features | Society | Central Asia

Fifteen Years on the Frontline

Award-winning photojournalist Stephen Dupont reminisces about his life on the frontline in Afghanistan.

By Stephen Dupont for

Robert Fripp wrote a piece of music called Cycling to Afghanistan. He must have been on some ’60s acid trip when he wrote it. It’s a mind-altering track–a chilling, guitar-grating composition about cycling across the Hindu Kush Mountains to Chicken Street and beyond. I was born in 1967, the year of Aquarius and a time when it was considered safe to travel through Afghanistan. No landmines to worry about or fundamentalist checkpoints to talk your life through.

My Afghanistan inspiration began during the Soviet war in the 1980s, and it was the Mujahedeen whom I saw as the heroes. They were the classic underdogs fighting the ‘guerrilla’ cause for their civil rights, their homeland. Outgunned but not outmanoeuvred, they fought the Russians and sent them packing in 1989 after 10 brutal years of occupation.

It may have been Charlie Wilson’s war back then, but in 1993 I saw it as my war. This god-forsaken rock of a country, which had witnessed hundreds of foreign invasions and never once been conquered, had awoken in me a desire for adventure that nothing else compared to.

My first trip to Afghanistan was in the winter of 1993. This is when the affair began, and the affair became a very dangerous game over the years as I grew to love and hate the mindless civil war around me. Being a photographer gave me a good enough reason to go and capture the horrors and beauty of this sad and alien land. I wanted to be the eyes and ears of the Afghan people. Back then, I struggled to get my pictures published in a world that had turned its back on Afghanistan. This made me more determined than ever to make an impact for Afghanistan’s sake, and to mould a career for myself in the meantime.

This was no joke, no place for weaklings, and I don’t mean the freezing winters where the temperature drops to -20°C. I mean, you need to have eyes in the back of your head and you need to be crazy and fearless. You need guts of iron to pass by Hekmatyar’s boys and the roadblocks and you need to pray for each time you make it out alive. You need to be in control and you need a sense of humour. You need to know when to stand up for yourself and when to back down, and you definitely need to know when to run.

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My arrival in Kabul coincided with multiple rocket attacks from the mountains surrounding the city. Hekmatyar was pounding the forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud and President Rabbani with his lethal rocket launchers, otherwise known as ‘Stalin organs.’ General Dostum was bombing from the air and if you were lucky enough to not be hit by flying shrapnel, there was no way out of the thunderous pounding from explosions that you felt inside you and made you want to throw up. My doctor’s disguise had worked well in getting me this far, but my hangover and lack of sleep from an all-night game of Risk was pushing things.

Afghanistan is a complex place and is best explained in a simple and personal approach. My diaries may entertain you and offer an insight into some of the adventures I had over the past 15 years. At times they may shock you and at times, I hope, bring a smile. But photography is my strength, not writing, and through these images I hope you’ll learn as much about the people and history of Afghanistan as you will about me, a nomad with a Leica. I love photography and each photograph within this collection was chosen by me. It’s not always my best work, but it is a story–and I’m really just a storyteller with pictures.

Diary Entry – February, 1994

What am I doing here? I’ve been sitting on my bags on the Kabul Airport tarmac for hours now. I’m waiting for my Ariana Airways flight back to Delhi. Ariana.more like ‘Inshallah Airways’! What am I doing even catching this plane–there’s no way I’ll make it back to India. I’ve spent weeks here in Kabul dodging bullets and now I’m going to blow it all away and go down in tin pot air ship. Why did I come this way, was it the cheapest option? What an idiot! The air traffic control tower is blown up and there’s one guy up there with binoculars waiting for a visual on the plane. He’s spotted it and starts waving his arms with excitement.

‘The plane, the plane.it’s coming!’ he’s yelling to nobody. I see it, I see it, I wish I could get excited, but this just quickens my overwhelming horror that I’ll never get off the plane alive. The plane corkscrews downward so as to avoid any incoming anti-aircraft gunfire. I loose visual on the plane and spot a plane’s wheel fly right past me along the runway. A wheel, what the fuck.? Then the plane rolls up towards us stranded, bewildered passengers. An old man then comes out of the terminal rolling a new wheel for the crippled plane. Only in Afghanistan!

Diary Entry – October 25, 2001

Commander Malak read my papers over cups of tea, handing me new letters and documents–my right of passage for the journey. Afghanistan doesn’t function without the delivery services of small scrunched-up pieces of paper. These notes can cross great distances and can sometimes be the only form of communication. Having the right signature can be the only thing holding you between life and death. With my new papers I set about finding reliable guides. Language became a problem until I drew a horse and stick figure on a piece of scrap paper and moved it in the direction of Pakistan.

Climbing a narrow trail along the Tagab-i-Mongan River, we hug the cliff faces, the horses sure footed, the riders grateful. Our shadows caress the natural walls, swaying with the rhythmic motion of the horses, creating a peaceful space, and I start to dream. The silence broken only by the steady clip clop of the horse’s hooves sends me into a light hypnotic state, a meditation. We ride on, swallowed up into the belly of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Emerald green waters below us turn to black, as the moonlight becomes our guide.

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I was led inside the ancient Silk Road teahouse. Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Star Wars, extra-terrestrial and primitive, low-lit oil lamps almost manage to reveal faces from another time, hard, brutal, strange and beautiful. A silence greeted me that was as tangible as mud, eyes from within dark and unfamiliar faces remained fixed on me, I was the alien, not them. From within, wafts of smoke, the acrid smells of cooking fats, the pungent and unpleasant sour stench of sweat from a thousand years, the familiar blanket of sheep’s piss on human skin, and the unmistakable sweet fragrance of hashish crowded my nasal passages.

Diary Entry – September 30, 2005

AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells is blaring out of a loudspeaker above my head as I rumble out of Kandahar Air force Base. I’m nervous, excited and crammed inside a Humvee. After six weeks of missions with American soldiers in Afghanistan, the flak jacket and helmet I’m wearing are starting to feel very much a part of my body. I’m travelling with the PSYOP unit in a large convoy of American paratroopers, Afghan and French Special Forces.

Music is playing as we drive north, Johnny Cash, Rage Against The Machine, the theme to Star Wars, even Fleetwood Mac; it’s a soundtrack to war. John says he plays the music because it pisses of the Taliban (they banned music when they were in power), and announces to the enemy the Americans are coming! ‘It’s the only way we can find the Taliban,’ John says. ‘If they attack us first, then we can fight back.’ Otherwise you just don’t see them. One marine described it perfectly to me: ‘It’s like chasing ghosts – these shadows pop out of caves and attack you, and then they drop their guns and run away.’

Diary Entry – October 1, 2005

I’ve just woken up in a rocky dry riverbed. I arrived last night with Legion Company, the unit I’m embedded with. I’m eating MREs [meals ready to eat] looking out at a beautiful sunrise over dusty moonlike mountains. I’m digesting the drive up here and last night’s patrol inside the village. Yesterday another platoon ahead of us was ambushed a few hundred meters away, one American and one Afghan soldier were killed, and two insurgents were also killed in the battle. Some wounded locals are coming toward us. John, who is also a trained trauma nurse, heads over to investigate. It’s a biblical scene with four men carrying the wounded man on a homemade stretcher above the river bed. A young boy who is also wounded is walking beside them. The man says the Americans shot him. It’s impossible to know, but they were both injured during yesterday’s fight. John and another medic attend the wounds and prepare them to be evacuated by US helicopter back to Kandahar.

I go out on a patrol with Lft. Nelson and his platoon, along with Afghan Special Forces and their two French advisors. We spend the morning searching all the houses in the village for weapons or any Taliban that might still be hiding out. The local villagers are incredibly frightened and after a full morning of eyes and ears, nothing much is achieved. I ask Nelson for permission to see the two dead insurgents up on the hill directly above us. He gives me two escorts and we walk up the rocky slope. As we approach the crest I see a group of American soldiers and I notice one soldier lighting something. As I move closer I see that he has just set fire to two corpses. I film video and shoot pictures quickly so I don’t miss anything. I talk to the soldiers about the battle they’d just been in and the scene before us. I can hear broadcasts in Pashto, which I know are coming from the PSYOP guys. It‘s all very surreal! A soldier tells me they’re burning the bodies for hygiene purposes.

The most inflammatory spin on the grisly act didn’t come from Muslim fundamentalists, but from a loudspeaker attached to the roof of a US Humvee near the smouldering corpses: ‘Attention, Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs. You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned.’

This incendiary bit of propaganda, implying a deliberate defilement of Islamic burial practices, was the brainchild of the army’s little known Psychological Operations unit. Intended to ‘smoke out’ Taliban rebels, it instead sparked an international outrage, prompted a cessation of all ‘PsyOps’ in Afghanistan, and provided a rare and disturbing look behind the basic psychology of psyc war.

Diary Entry – May 6, 2008

We sat around for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, when I heard a loud bang, then felt this huge pressure come through the car we were in. It was like a suffocating blanket of heat and pressure inside the cabin and the car lifted. Then everything went black and silent. It felt like the world just vanished. I don’t know if I saw black smoke or dust or whether I was unconscious. My head was throbbing, my ears were ringing. I had no idea what was happening. But even as I write days later, my memory of the blast is so vivid I can almost feel it all over again. It’s become a very surreal but frightening thought, and God knows how many times I’ve rerun the moment of impact and its aftermath over in my mind. The force of the explosion, the loud bang and the darkness come to me regularly. It was as though the world stopped, like time somehow stood still.

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I began to take pictures of the chaos and of the police under fire taking cover. I remember asking the Afghan cameraman if I was okay. I could feel blood in my hair and I had no idea if I was badly injured or not. The cameraman looked terrified and was probably in shock too. He was filming me. I looked back for the first time to the car I’d been sitting at the time of the explosion. I saw many bodies strewn around the car. There was one large pile of bodies about five metres away from where I’d been sitting.

I took pictures frantically. It helped me distance myself from the bloodbath and reality – seeing the destruction through my lens was like a shield that lessened the impact. Everywhere I pointed my camera I saw mangled bodies, people shredded like mince meat, their clothes ripped away from their bodies, body parts all around me. I saw one completely severed leg at the knee and another leg by the police boom gate. There was a man with his head blown apart and he was actually holding what looked like his entire brain intact. Streams of blood flowed in every direction, making patterns in the dirt. I saw one young boy, his body face up and his face down in the dirt, but there was nothing really there, it appeared to be only skin still holding a face intact. It was carnage all around me, wherever I looked there was horror.
I read that the bomber was a 12-year old boy selling papers. A fucking 12-year-old boy. Has Afghanistan sunk this low?

I hope my pictures help to illustrate and illuminate both the individual suffering and the important socio-political stories of Afghanistan. It is a complex place that defies easy answers, but if my photography can reawaken a sense of responsibility to anyone out there that will listen, then I feel I’ve achieved something.