The following is a guest post from Miyu Suzuki, a Japanese journalist and world-traveler that I met in Morocco. Miyu and I shared a lovely evening sleeping on the cold sidewalk outside of the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat, in order to secure our visas the following morning!
Backpacking in Afghanistan?
This was a common question from all the border police, people, and even Afghan citizens. Even I didn’t expect to be able to go traveling through Afghanistan.
Most people around the world know Afghanistan as a “country of terror”. First, it was invaded by Soviet armies. Then, the Taliban took power and conquered the country. Now, fighting between Taliban and the government, and between Taliban and foreign troops, is still going on.
I was scared before going to Afghanistan. However, the fact that “there are still many people living in the country” was a constant motivation throughout my travels.
People in Afghanistan
I used CouchSurfing twice in Afghanistan. YES, CouchSurfing exists even in Afghanistan! Most CouchSurfers are men, but they really did everything for me: they picked me up at the border, they took me for sightseeing by car, they fed me traditional food. CouchSurfing in Afghanistan also became news on Time magazine.
I met many educated people who speak good English and have graduated from universities. They usually have housekeepers and chauffeurs. However, these people represent only about 30 percent of the Afghan population; the rest are not educated and live in poor conditions.
Many women still wear burqas, an Afghan dress that covers the whole body—eyes included. A burqa suggests that its owner is not educated nor wealthy: all beggars on the streets were covered by burqas. I would wear a casual Afghan dress which extended down to my knees, and put a thin veil on my head. It was not mandatory, but foreign women on the streets in foreign clothing attract a lot of unwanted attention.
When I was in Mazar-e Sharif, the northern city of Afghanistan, there was a suicide bombing in Samangan, about an hour away. I was planning to take a bus to Kabul, but buses were not allowed to pass due to security concerns.
For the first time on my journey, I took an airplane. Onboard, there were some victims from the suicide attack lying on back seats of the plane.
I don’t know how to express what I felt. The victims were covered in blood. I remember that I turned my eyes away from them. I thought that I was accustomed to seeing bloody people on the news, but after that day, I’m not sure it’s something one could ever get used to.
People in Afghanistan are always living next to death. They don’t know if they’ll survive tomorrow—they don’t know when they’ll be the next victim. Praying for Allah to live for one more day is all that one can do.
Meeting a Taliban
When you hear the word “Taliban,” what do you think of? Terrorists? Assassins?
The Taliban own many NGOs in Kabul, which help to improve education for women and provide working opportunities. The number of educated people is in Afghanistan still low, especially among women, who are forced to stay home and do housework for their husbands. Now, Afghanistan is trying to modernize its way of life. Women go to school, study for their future, and have the same rights as men.
I met a Taliban member in Kabul. He was a father of nine children, had one wife, and could speak very good English. He had organized two conferences in Kyoto, Japan, between the Karzai government and The Taliban, purposed for peace.
“When something happens, it’s always reported as a Taliban attack,” he said. “There are Taliban inside the government, and when they want to attack or kill someone, they wear turbans and pretend to be a ‘Taliban’.”
The suicide attack in Samangan, mentioned above, was also reported as a Taliban attack. The suspect was a Taliban, but he was also a member of the government.
Two days before I came to Afghanistan, a 22-year-old woman married to a Taliban man was shot, by him, nine times in front of villagers. The killer worked in the government, but the media reported that he was simply part of The Taliban.
While it may sound stupid, Taliban is just a name of a political party, and its members are the same human beings as we are. Of course, many of them have killed innocent people, but not all are terrorists; some really do hope to make a peace within their country, and provide a brighter future for its children.
Afghanistan was not your traditional backpacking destination. Predictably, it follows that my experience was simply unforgettable.
Miyu Suzuki is a 23-year-old journalist from southern Japan. Recently, she returned from a massive overland trip from Japan to Africa, to explore gaps between media and reality. She worked in Kyrgyzstan during the first three months of her journey, then headed for the Middle East, Europe, and eventually Africa. This summer, she’ll be traveling with foreign soldiers to Syria, to discover what the conflict is really like on the ground. You can follow her adventures here (currently in Japanese, but English coming soon!).