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The Afghanistan You Never See

January 16, 2015


You may not associate Afghanistan with autumnal woodlands and snow-dusted valleys, but maybe that's because those images aren't in the news. This is what makes Afghan journalist Bilal Sarway so unique. While most photographers are foreigners there to record conflict, Bilal is a local who posts pretty landscapes across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the tag #AfghanistanYouNeverSee. Taken with his smartphone, his photos are of the people and places coexisting with the war, but pleasantly removed. Here's what Bilal thinks of foreign perceptions of his home, and of trending on the internet.

VICE: Hi Bilal, can you quickly give me your life story? You're a local?
- Bilal Sarway: Yes, I was born in Kabul but left as a refugee. Until 2001 I was a salesman in a hotel antiques shop in Pakistan, but then 9/11 happened and I got some work as a fixer for international news companies. I worked as a translator and then as a producer. I became an accidental journalist and I've now been back in Afghanistan since 2009.

So how did the #AfghanistanYouNeverSee idea come about?

- When I started this back in 2010 it was just a premature idea. I realized I had access to photos that no one else did because I traveled. I started putting my own personal photos online and then over the next four years I've been surprised at how much people care. I get emails from all over the world and it's really nice to think I've made a difference. I can't take credit though. I was just lucky that I had the tools and the access.

Is traveling dangerous for you?

- There are risks. I use roads most of the time, which carry the risk of roadside bombs or getting caught in a Taliban ambush. The roadside bombs and sticky bombs are the biggest risk these days. We've lost a lot of journalists in Afghanistan but one way to minimize risks is to take photos on a smartphone. A professional camera draws a lot of attention.

Most of the West sees Afghanistan as a mess. Do you think that's accurate?

- Well there are different levels of expectation. If you look at Afghanistan from [the West] then it does seem like a mess, but not to us. Ten or 15 years ago we didn't have a country. We had to go to neighboring countries to make a cell call. The Kabul airport wasn't connected to Dubai and we didn't have thousands of kilometers of paved roads. The whole place was a ruin for 30 years but then suddenly there was all this international effort at rebuilding. Is Afghanistan at war? Yes. But we also see this as our journey to peace. It's also not fair to say that Afghanistan should be a perfect place. It will always have its problems.

What else should Westerners should know about the country?

- That the terrain is so diverse. Mountainous for the most part, but you've got deserts and lush valleys. And the more remote you get, the more pretty the landscapes become.

What's your favorite region?

- Nuristan in the east. It's a province of pine forests and extremely remote mountains. It's beautiful but then it's also very poor. That's always a moral dilemma for me. If you look at my Twitter handle I always try to highlight these juxtapositions. If I share a beautiful picture I try to mention that, for example, today a bomb also killed 20 people.

Would you say you're a patriot?

- I call it Afghan pride. I can't deny that it's in my blood and in my DNA. After my time in Pakistan, where passports and visas were basically toilet paper, maybe I became too patriotic. Even if you came to Afghanistan I think it would get under your skin. I've seen it happen many times. It's weird how this country stays with everyone who comes here.