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Photographs from Life in Kabul

written by Holly Pickett
on October 18, 2010

kabul_a.jpg Fried cow liver, anyone?

Coming back to Kabul has been a little like seeing an old friend. The traffic, the dust, the children begging on the street, even the annoyingly cheerful jingle played by the street vendors — all are strangely familiar. The way people stare at me, the strange woman with the camera. And when I smile at them, they smile back.

I first came to Kabul in 2008. A photojournalist friend picked me up from the airport and took me under his wing. I felt completely disoriented and was thankful to have someone show me the ropes. He taught me how to dress to blend in, how to watch my surroundings carefully and how to mix up my routine for safety. I came back to Afghanistan for two extended stays in 2009, leaving most recently last November.

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Not having been to Afghanistan in nearly a year, I didn't know what to expect this time around. As I arrived and began to reacquaint myself with Kabul, I found it calmer than I remembered. Traffic is worse, and the place is still feels chaotic, but I haven't felt the frequent big bombings of last year's presidential election. The streets and markets are alive with people.

The number of foreign journalists, humanitarian aid workers, NGO employees, contractors and businessmen here is staggering. Expats go about their business, navigating Kabul's streets with the help of car services, eating out in restaurants and sometimes even attending parties in this housing compound or that. One could almost, almost, forget that this is a country at war.

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But then, after dark, the streets empty and police man checkpoints in the main squares. Helicopters fly in two's overhead. And the occasional email message from the U.S. embassy or the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, warning of kidnapping or a possible suicide bombing, finds its way to my inbox.

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For most Afghans, the war is much closer. North of Kabul, at Chahari Qambar Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp, Chenar Gul washed her 2-year-old daughter Naghma's hands from a plastic container of well water. Naghma was born in the camp, a burgeoning collection of mud huts and tents with no sanitation or electricity, home to hundreds of refugee families from the south of Afghanistan. Chenar Gul came from Helmand two-and-a-half years ago, fleeing the fighting in Sangin District. Her husband stayed behind.

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For most Afghans, war is an ever-present fact of life. At a cemetery in Karte Sakhi, a Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, an elderly woman named Hallia approached me. She explained that she was a widow, around 70 years old, and lived alone. Her husband was killed during the Soviet war and occupation, which means that she had been a widow for at least 20 years. She lived through the Soviets, the Afghan Civil War, and the Taliban to see her country once again embroiled in conflict.

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All photographs by Holly Pickett

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