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Credit: Afghanistan – gettyimages

Hopes were high

There was a time when the international media reported daily and at length on Afghanistan. That was the case back in 2000, when Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, and his Northern Alliance were defending a final tip of the northeast of the country against the Taliban. He was killed in 2001 by assassins disguised as journalists, shortly before his troops were able to victoriously enter the capital Kabul with the crucial support of the US military.

Back then, hopes were high that this war-torn territory,

this playing field of the major powers, this victim of its geographic location might finally find peace after years of civil war that was primarily driven by the interests of the USA and the Russians, even if the protagonists within the country bore names like Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Abdul Rashid Dostum.

It must have been in this brief moment of hope that Zabihullah Tamanna decided to focus on photojournalism instead of law, which he had studied at university. It would have been wonderful if he could have documented his home country’s breakthrough to a peaceful future, a future linked to a past that this country, with its wildly romantic, barren mountain regions and its rich cultural heritage, also has. It was at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s that Zahir Shah, the King of Afghanistan, modernised the medieval tribal structures and opened up his country to the outside, granting women the vote and enabling them to attend schools and universities.

At the time there were actually female students in summer dresses studying medicine at the university in Kabul, and Chicken Street was one of the cool locations among hippy travellers en route to India. For older Afghans, this is the time of their last positive memories of a halfway peaceful life – for young people it’s nothing but a fairy-tale. Three generations have since grown up bearing weapons – or with the fear of death caused by one of these weapons.

Zabi – as his friends called him – was a friendly, warm-hearted man who placed great value on getting his accreditation as a journalist through legal means instead of the usual bribery. His weapon was his camera. Yet instead of a new beginning, he found himself documenting his country’s descent into the next deadly conflict. He talked to old, corrupt politicians and to young women, who were suddenly wearing the burqa once again.

He photographed young men who wanted to make it to Europe, and the people smugglers who made fortunes from their suffering. For one report he accompanied young boys who earned a few coins by wafting the fumes of scented herbs at motorists at road junctions, supposedly to offer protection from evil. How wonderful it would have been if the spell had worked here. 

For Zabi it did not. He was carrying out research with the prizewinning American photojournalist David Gilkey for the broadcaster National Public Radio in the south of the country in Helmand Province. Here, in the heart of darkness, the Taliban rule in their own, cynical way. Here, on half of all Afghanistan’s arable land, they have farmers sow and harvest opium poppies. This brings ten times more profit than cultivation of wheat, for example, hence ten times more money for weapons. The fact that Allah does not endorse the cultivation of drugs is something they dispute: war is holier.

It was with one such weapon funded by drug dollars, a grenade, that Zabi was killed as he accompanied the Afghan army close to the city of Marjah, on the trail of the opium poppy.

The economic factor of opium is so important to the Taliban that they will do everything in their power to defend it.

Ninety per cent of Afghan opium comes from this province, and the radical Islamists earn millions from taxation on poppy cultivation and drug smuggling. The Afghan army has as good as given up on the region in the last year, and even the American special forces could not prevent the most well-armed jihadists from overrunning the province. So is there a solution? Not in sight. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.       

written by Barbara Jung, Deputy Director of the Culture and Life department at Focus magazine

  • Credit: picture alliance/ap

    Zabihullah Tamanna

    The Afghan Zabihullah Tamanna was a man of many skills: He had studied medicine and was a trained lawyer but applied himself to journalism. Tamanna was a photojournalist for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, wrote for the Turkish news agency Anadolu and was lastly active for the well-known National Public Radio. Finally, he was killed at an assignment for NPR through an ambush. He leaves behind three children.

    Find out more about the story of David Gilkey.