Small Communities, Big Mountains: The Future for Afghanistan’s Rural People

January 30, 2014

By Lizzie Kendal

On Wednesday 29 January, the Frontline club hosted another packed Afghanistan-focused event. Journey to the Roof of the World was a photography event hosted in partnership with Port Magazine and featured a discussion between French photographer Frédéric Lagrange and Rory Stewart MPchaired by The Independent’s defence correspondent, Kim Sengupta. 

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Lagrange presented some of his breathtaking photographs and described his trek through the Wakhan Corridor and his encounters with the Wakhi and Kyrgyz people in the late winter of 2012. Beginning at the city of Ishkashim, Lagrange took the Soviet road eastward, then after this dissipated, he continued on rough mountain terrain following the old silk trader’s route towards Lake Chaqmaqtin.

“We crossed high on the pass and I remember . . . being there on this exact spot when the sun rose, and being able to actually see the sun rising over the Hindu Kush, . . . being able to see the entire trek and path we had come from, it was pretty amazing.”

Stewart, author of The Places in Between, also spent a month walking alone across Afghanistan back in 2002. He described to us his experiences of hospitality in the small villages he encountered along the way, and shared some of his thoughts about the successes and failures of western intervention in the region.

“The West tends to be better at things that don’t require a deep cultural knowledge . . . whereas the West tends to be pretty catastrophic at doing things that require a deep understanding of complex local societies [for example starting an independent central bank as opposed to ensuring the rule of law].”

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The discussion turned to local peoples’ fears of what will happen when NATO terminates its presence later this year:

“I think people are fearing a lot about the NATO retreat,” said Lagrange. “They are questioning a lot what the Afghan government in Kabul can do for the country at large. There is no confidence in the ability of the army, there is no confidence in the military.”

Stewart added his thoughts on the huge variation in tradition and local governance in Afghanistan:

“In Afghanistan, the movement from one village to another is almost a movement you can feel between one universe and another . . . social and political structures can vary in two hours. . . . What the affect of 35 years of conflict has been is to force people back in to their communities, back into their traditional identities. . . . When things begin to go wrong people become much more traditional.”

Both agreed that this traditionalism and a remote environment contributes to the beauty of regions like the Wakhan Corridor. Lagrange said:

“I think Afghanistan has been this mesmerising part of the world. . . . What I am looking for are never-seen images, and places like Afghanistan offer that still. There is an adventure that goes with it.”

However, these bring with them many issues, for example lack of health care, education, and prospects for the young. Stewart said:

“If you were looking for a way to define Afghanistan today it would be fundamentally in terms of a rural/urban divide . . . particularly young people do not want to live in a rural area. . . . Most of us would rather be able to get a pizza and a hot bath!”

Watch the event online or listen again here: