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Sunday, 01 January 2023

Freedom’s Last Days: A Young Tourist’s Journey to Afghanistan Just Before the Taliban Takeover

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“Max, I want you to know that I think this is incredibly stupid.” I was looking at the message I had just received from my mother while finishing my cigarette. I was standing in the smoking area outside of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. It was Thanksgiving Day, 2021, and I was going to Afghanistan. As a 25-year-old American tourist.

My decision to travel to Afghanistan had been a long time in the making. As a child growing up in early 2000’s America, Afghanistan was almost a staple of life. On the news, talked about in class, and debated in politics. I remember being about ten years old and watching combat footage of soldiers in Afghanistan. I was intrigued enough to grab a book from the library about the country and see exactly what the deal was with this place that everyone couldn’t seem to shut up about. In the book, were countless pictures of vast mountain ranges, tribal villages, and ancient ruins. From that moment on I had decided in my head that one way or another I was going to see Afghanistan. My mother’s text message was one final attempt to dissuade me from doing something that was incredibly stupid. I had made up my mind though. I boarded the plane in Phoenix, Arizona. The next time I would step out of a plane would be in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul was surreal. I could see military helicopters lined up next to the runway and the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains in the distance. Nine months after my trip, Kabul’s airport would become a scene of desperation and horror. I had no idea.

The customs procedure in Kabul’s airport was like any other. After a brief mix up with airport security, I exited the terminal and entered Afghanistan. I met my guide, a young man named Sardar and his friend who would be our driver, Sharzai. The drive from the airport to my guest house in Kabul was one of the strangest moments of my life. Private contractors with military-grade rifles roamed the streets. Ornate wedding halls contrasted sharply with the surrounding poverty. The most poignant image from this drive though was a man wearing a ski mask driving a motorcycle with colorful balloons attached to the back. Whenever I think of Afghanistan this image always comes to mind. I believe it’s because it exemplifies the contrasts. Afghanistan is after-all, an entire nation of dynamic contrasts.

Kabul Graf

My accommodations throughout my time in Afghanistan primarily consisted of guest houses. Kabul boasted two resort-style hotels, the Kabul Intercontinental and the Serena Hotel (which secretively housed the embassy for a Western country). Both were massive bullseyes for terrorist attacks and therefore deemed unsafe. I don’t believe I ever had hot water during my entire two weeks in the Heart of Asia, as the country is called. After unpacking at the guest house in Kabul, Sardar and I sat down for the “security briefing”. I would have to wear local Afghan clothes in order to blend in. I was not to speak to anyone about my itinerary or where I was staying. Sardar explained that things such as suicide bombings and terrorist attacks were simply out of our control. There was nothing that could be done to prevent such things. For one last time, the gravity of exactly what I was doing dawned on me. I was in a country engulfed in a vicious civil war. There was no turning back though. We left the guesthouse to explore Afghanistan.

Kabul is a bustling city that holds several points of interest as well as a very special place in my heart. Certain memories stand out especially well. Kabul’s Chicken Street comes especially to mind. A long avenue filled with artisan, souvenir, and textile shops; Chicken Street is an experience in Kabul that cannot be missed. Sardar and I walked into a small antique shop and got far more than we had asked for. After looking over the small selection in the shop’s front room. The storeowner cautiously waved for us to follow him into the back. On the other side of this door were three or four rooms filled with antique weapons, shields, swords, and furniture. Rifles from the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 18th century, tribal swords, and old oil lamps filled the shop. Never did I think a trip to an antique store of all places would be quite so exciting.

One day we decided to make a day trip to the Panjshir Valley. The Panjshir had become almost mythic in Afghanistan as the stronghold of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the most well-known Mujahedeen commander in the Soviet-Afghan war and later, a fierce opponent of the Taliban. Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda members two days before the September 11th attacks. I was especially excited for the Panjshir as it was one of the highway trips in the country that had been deemed safe. Domestic travel within Afghanistan usually required flights.

Young boys riding their donkeys, flowing blue water, and abandoned Soviet weaponry personified the Panjshir. Massoud’s tomb, a white, tower-like structure, stood as a sort of lighthouse, watching over the valley. The Panjshir is a place of contrasts as ruined Soviet artillery dotting the landscape stand opposed to tranquil creeks and Central Asian mosques.

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Last modified on Saturday, 04 February 2023

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