How art can heal Afghanistan

Written by Byby, an Afghan-American, special to CNN

Peshawar-based photographer Rafia Sarwar lost her right leg in a horrific attack during the peak of Afghan resistance against Soviet-backed Afghan communist government in the early 1990s. But now, she finds solace in the latest imagery in her collection of photographs “Who Has the Guns Gets the Land?”

The series delves into Afghan villages defying the conflict, projecting a bright, hopeful future for rural towns across the war-ravaged country. Its optimistic message is timely, as the new Afghan president, who takes office today, has committed to peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

“I had to stop working on the project shortly after I lost my leg and I returned to Afghanistan, fearing that there would be no work at all — and that’s when I decided that I needed to do this project, I needed to prove that art could heal,” she said.

“I saw the (Taliban) were doing a lot of killing, a lot of suicide bombings and just terrible stories. That’s why this series is such a big thing in our country.” -Rafia Sarwar, photographer

Sarwar said she was inspired by the success of her work, titled “Space,” a previous project which pitted military occupation, poverty and environmental crises against an awe-inspiring landscape of red earth, grasslands and mountains.

“I visited ‘Space’ and it was just beautiful, to this day it’s still the most beautiful and the one I always travel back to, but it’s also a very painful time,” she said. “I can remember seeing these people who were under Taliban and remembering how much they suffered, especially children. They had nothing and they were getting killed.

“I came back and you could also notice that my pictures were a little more dark. It took me a while but I felt that I need to show the bigger picture.”

Smoking penstring pikes is the entry I’ve never forgotten. I was introduced to the boy who was the person who taught me to do this by taking my jacket in the mountains and passing the boy my cigarette after searching for his lighter in the rocks. I also recall this feeling of looking for the cell phone … I later learned that the boy was one of the rebels’ boys. This journey was unforgettable. -Sarwar

A lot of major incidents over the years in Afghanistan had their significance, according to Sarwar, pointing to the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul city in April 1996, the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and more recently, the failure of peace talks with the Taliban in February 2018.

“The thing I know that I have to find words for is just this heartbreak that happened between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And then here is the peace process … I just felt it’s going to happen — and now it’s happening, and all of these things that happened before are coming out again. So I just thought, how do I get out there, how do I write, and how do I share these images that so many people would find it difficult to look at?

“I’m a visual artist who does photo-essays, so my work is specific. So people would say ‘What is the body language?’ or ‘What is the beauty in the table? What is the beauty in the tractor?’ — they get to know the people, the places and the landscapes.”

“So I decided to pick these three (villages) where every year I would visit. I would call the village leaders and ask them: ‘Please allow me to do this. I’ll pay for it. I’ll pay for security because I want to keep a positive image of Afghanistan. And that’s what is happening there. They said: ‘Yes, please come and we will help you. We will help you.’”

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