War exacts a toll on everything. Everything.
As Bertrand Russell said, "War does not determine who is right - only who is left." This applies to everything from the people and their hope, the wildlife that is annihilated, to the infrastructure that crumbles to dust. Nothing of much survives intact.
It was never my plan to photograph any of this, it was my plan to express the true human condition that along with its evil, can extol the best of virtues. There is a well-known photograph taken by Simon Norfolk of a collapsed building on the Darul Aman Road in Kabul. That building was at the end of my street, I passed it every day and every day I was reminded of that photograph - so much so that I could never bring myself to shoot it.
But along the way I would photograph some of these things, more by happenstance than by design. From burned out Soviet tanks torched in a final retreat, to mud walls pitted with the scars of the AK47. This was never meant to be a portfolio, but in piecing it together it shows that twenty years on, the scars still remain.
The burned out carcass of a room in the former Russian Cultural Centre in Karte Seh, Kabul. Built during the Soviet occuptaion, it was a place of elegance that held theatre and opera productions, even having its own cinema. It was damaged during the Mujahideen onslaught of Kabul, finally being laid to waste during the years of factional fighting that followed the Soviet occupation.
An external view of the Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul
The Darul Aman Palace was built in the early 1920s as a part of the endeavours of King Amanullah Khan to modernise Afghanistan. It was to be part of the new capital city (also called Darul Aman or Darulaman) that the king intended to build, connected to Kabul by a narrow gauge railway. Darul Aman Palace was gutted by fire in 1969. It was restored to house the Defence Ministry during the 1970s and 1980s. In the Communist coup of 1978, the building was set on fire. It was damaged again as rival Mujahideen factions fought for control of Kabul in the early 1990s after the end of the Soviet invasion. Heavy shelling by the Mujahideen left the building a gutted ruin.
The gutted former ball room of the Darul Aman Palace.
A view of the Darul Aman Palace through the bent and rusted frame of a vehicle destroyed during factional fighting. On wasteland surrounding the old palace, dozens of vehicles from cars to buses form a transport graveyard - untouched and unmoved since they day they were destroyed.
A view from the upper atrium of the Darul Aman Palace towards the city of Kabul. It was intended that old Kabul would be connected to the new city of Darul Aman by a railway line. Instead it is connected by a six-lane highway, passing embassies and the new Afghan Parliament Building, and is a notorious place for suicide bombs.
Darul Aman Palace must have been a place of extraordinary granduer in its hey-day. It is all too soon forgotten, that Afghanistan was the must see 'bucket list' entry for the post war generation of the 60's and 70's - a place of peace and prosperity and tolerant western sensitivities.
Vehicles destroyed by years of factional fighting fill waste ground by the Darul Aman Palace.
Burned out buses set against the backdrop of snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains.
Taken from the roof of the former Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul. After the overthrow of the Taliban, the building became the notorious province of Kabul's heroin addicts. I visited in 2009, the darkened floors occupied by injecting Afghans. It was an intimidating place. In 2011 the Afghan Government cleared the building and erected a fence preventing further occupation. After I left Kabul in 2012 the government began to tear the old concrete monolith down with grandiose plans to replace it with a new Cultural Centre in the syle of the original. With Afghanistan in political and security turmoil, it seems unlikely this will ever happen.
In Wazir Akbar Khan, in the east of Kabul, the Russians built an olympic sized swimming pool on a hill that overlooked the city. It became notorious for it's executions under the Taliban, people either pushed from the concrete diving boards into an empty pool, or lined up and shot against its walls. There is an old Soviet tank there, burned out and rusted, a legacy of the Mujahideen routing of the Russians. The tank has become a meeting place for local Afghan boys to chat with friends.
If you head north out of Kabul, you head through the Shomali Plains. At Charikar you can continue north to the Salang Pass and onto Mazar e Sharif in the north, and finally to Uzbekistan, or you can turn left into the Panjshir Valley, the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud led the fightback against the Soviets, supported and funded by the C.I.A. Before you turn left to Panjshir as you head across the Shomali Plains, you drive along what is called 'The Red Road'. It was so called because in their final retreat, the Red Army was destroyed, their blood turning the mountains red.
An old Soviet era tank stands look out across the Panjshir Valley, on land that is now the official tomb of Massoud, a redolent reminder of who won.
At the height of fighting after the fall of the Soviets, 500 rockets a day fell on Kabul as factions fought for supremacy. The Russian Cultural Centre, along with other notable government and Royal residencies were razed to the ground.
Afghan's have a passion and feel for graffiti - their way of expressing the horrors they have endured. The walls of the Russian Cultural Centre are home to many examples, at once painfully sad and curiously witty. In their darkness, Kabul's heroin addicts left their lasting legacy.
An internal view of the once spectacular Darul Aman Palace, great corridors connected by lavish spiral staircases.
Destruction applies to much more than just the fabric of buildings - it applies to the livelihoods and communities of those who have to endure the concequences of war. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002, NGO's flooded Kabul, reaping the rewards of the billions invested by donor nations. But all too often those programmes would close down having run their course or reached the end of their funding - and what was left were boarded up compounds and now 'unemployed' Afghans, who once again suffered the short term indifference of foreign policy blunders.
An old Afghan bus reduced to a decaying sculpture.
In 2010 the Afghan Government began grand renovations of the former Russian Swimming Pool in Wazir Akbar Khan, in the east of Kabul. Builders patched up the holes made by executioner's bullets, and painted the whole thing in a glorious blue. But the pool is a folly, the pumps that serve it unable to supply water to the top of the hill. Mostly it lies empty, as the land around is washed away by the brutal Afghan climate.
I walked past this shot up burned out building more times than I could count. Boarded up and empty, I tried to imagine the terror of living inside as fire rained in and the flames grew higher. I couldn't.
Everywhere in Afghanistan, but none more so than in Kabul, the mud built walls of traditional adobe buildings are pitted with the scars of internecine war - the patina of the AK 47.
Destroyed buildings on the outskirts of Istalif, a small town off of the Shomali Plains - laid to waste during the great Soviet Red Army retreat.
The former cinema within the Russian Cultural Centre - a canvass for the dark arts of embittered graffiti.
Back to Top