When I was back in Atlanta a few months ago, I was discussing my thoughts about the changes I’ve seen in Afghanistan since arriving full time in 2008.
The editors of CNN’s Afghanistan Crossroads blog asked me if I could write up my feelings for a blog entry. I’m doing that now and aware there will be people living in Afghanistan that agree with these thoughts and others who feel differently. But this is purely based on my observations.
I’ll be honest when I say the vulnerability feels stronger now than it did last year. I’m not sure if it is due to the increasingly perilous security situation or because the reality of it all is sinking in.
I’ve noticed some small changes that in the end can be seen as big changes – something as insignificant as my headscarf.
I remember in 2005, when I was here to shoot a documentary, I was driving in a taxi with my headscarf covering my hair.
An Afghan woman I was riding with turned to me and said, “What are you doing?” She then yanked the scarf off my head.
“They need to get used to hair again. When you’re in the car keep it off!” she demanded.
I thought I was respecting Afghan culture by keeping it on but I also understood her stance. This was a woman who remembered Kabul in the 1960s and 1970s, where she didn’t have to wear a headscarf or dress in a certain way – and she missed that Afghanistan.
When I came back in 2008, I would wear my headscarf when we were walking outside. But I figured what was the harm in keeping it off inside the car?
[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/21/story.atia.abawi4.jpg caption="With TV’s ‘Afghan Star’ contestants in December 2008 (no headscarf)"]
I remembered what the woman said to me in 2005 but I also had a hell of a time trying to keep the scarf from falling off; I just couldn’t get used to it – and I’m still struggling.
I didn’t get very many stares, it seemed like people didn’t care; and they were now used to the hair on a woman’s head; a relief and a good sign.
[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/21/story.atia.abawi3.jpg caption="With an Afghan general in Khan Neshin, Helmand province in July 2009 (no headscarf)"]
Fast forward a year later, I keep my headscarf on because I now do get more stares if I don’t wear it. Sometimes angry stares. When it’s off it feels like it screams, “I’m a foreigner!”
And with the growing disappointments Afghans have faced after so many failed promises, sometimes the frustrations are directed toward the international community.
[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/21/story.atia.abawi2.jpg caption="At an internally displaced person camp in September 2009 (with headscarf, as I was also in the photo, at top, later last year with school girls in Kabul.)"]
There is still a mindset of hospitality in Afghanistan; most Afghans are very friendly to foreigners. And it doesn’t even feel like the frustrations stem from fundamentalist ideology. More so the fact that the over 40 nations have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and the majority of the Afghans I speak with say, they have yet to see a positive change – something they were promised. But instead they say they are living through more and more negative changes.
But the hope of a better future is still there among the majority of the Afghans I’ve encountered – mostly because it’s really the only thing they can hang on to.
But the trivial headscarf is just a small example of change in city life. Rural life has also seen a lot of changes; a life most journalists are not able to see without embedding with the military.
I can’t even count how many military vehicles I’ve ridden in. It just became second nature when you were out with coalition forces, and you never really thought too much about it.
2009 was the deadliest year for the troops in Afghanistan and the majority of those deaths were due to roadside bombs. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) have also killed countless civilians throughout the country.
In a span of 10 days, two journalists, Canadian Michelle Lang and Rupert Hamer of England, were both killed in what were described as routine patrols.
Riding along some of the roads in Afghanistan now feels similar to a game of Russian roulette with more rounds in the chamber.
But it’s not a game.
The troops have to do this on a daily basis as a part of their job; the villagers have to continue to live their daily lives and provide for their families.
But it’s us journalists who choose to make these trips. We are not forced. We base our choice on the people we cover and the stories that need to be told.
Some may agree with our choices, others may not.
But what we need to remember is that most media organizations forgot about Afghanistan for many years – as did the world. Making it into the forgotten war.
But it also made it into the Afghanistan we see today – a challenge much greater than it was just a few short years back.