Untouched by the mainstream media and cut off from the rest of the world, time seems to have stopped in the Wakhan Corridor, a region in north-eastern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China. The rest of the country is still suffering from conflict and violence, and the mainstream media keeps focusing on events generated by this war rather than the nation itself.

When we say Afghanistan, most of us are actually talking about the Afghan War and do not mean the country or culture itself. For the last four decades, the mainstream media has created this picture of Afghanistan that largely consists of bombings, bloodshed, devastation, and a seemingly hopeless case of never-ending violence. 

Of course, there is no denying reality. Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. In fact, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office even advises either “against all travel to all districts” or “against all but essential travel” to some provinces of Afghanistan.

“The current migration crisis is unsolvable without focusing on the root causes.”
 Lauryn Oates

Yet, there is some positive progress happening in regards to the nation, to its education system, and even the government itself. This progress, however, remains unreported. Afghanistan is still seen as merely the Afghanistan War.

Remote regions such as the Wakhan Corridor and its people have become even more isolated as all the attention is given to the war.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of violence in Afghanistan, four decades of instability and the country is still struggling with a significant amount of challenges due to this ongoing conflict. 

This is not an anniversary that has much to do with the Wakhan Corridor and its people though. Here, people live in peace and the headlines, if they existed, would not be about explosions and violence. 

At times when Marco Polo still used this route to reach China, a branch of the Silk Road ran through the Wakhan Corridor connecting the region to the rest of the world; during the so-called “Great Game” when the British and Russian Empire were battling for control in central and southern Asia in the 19th century, the Wakhan Corridor acted as a peaceful buffer zone. The Wakhan Corridor had its role in world affairs at least to some extent. 

“Real change will require wider cooperation and contribution in order to improve the futures of the vulnerable Wakhi people.”
– Dr. Mohammed Hakim

Today, the region is cut off from the world, leaving it peaceful on the one hand, and on the other hand one of the most underdeveloped places on the globe.

In 2016/17 the Business for Better Society, an organisation which matches corporations and individuals with the most suitable and credible non-profits, collaborated with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan – a non-profit organisation founded in 1998 to advance education and educational opportunities for Afghan women and their families and has since  been dedicated to human rights and the improvement of the lives of thousands of Afghans – on a project called “The Peaceful Afghanistan,” a picture book to promote peace and reduce poverty in Afghanistan. 

“We were driving 7,500 km non-stop from Germany to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, mostly dirt roads and waiting at border checkpoints for hours making the journey seem endless. But after we had crossed the border in Tajikistan, we were basically driving through no-mans-land between the two countries, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,”  photographer Stefan Alfons told Artefact.

Dirt road on their way to Afghanistan [Stefan Alfons]

We meaning Nereida Flannery of the organisation Business for Better Society, photographer Stefan Alfons, his mentor Armin Eberlein and graphic designer and producer Davis Pahl.

They were not sure whether they would even get a visa for Afghanistan. They did not get one back in Germany, obviously, as this is not a trip to just some country. If something happened to them, it would be quite embarrassing for the Afghan as well as the German government. 

But still, they wanted to give it at least a try once they were at the border. Arriving there, it was not apparent immediately who is actually part of the border patrol as they do not have consistent uniforms. 

One was wearing black and blue camouflage, the next one green and black, one was wearing jeans but still carrying a machine gun. This is quite unlike African military dictatorships for instance where all the money is put into military purposes, in Afghanistan you cannot clearly differentiate who belongs to which faction.

detail of Afghanistan Visa

Visa 449, an indication that barely anyone ever travels to Afghanistan [Stefan Alfons]

“We got some funny looks when we arrived at the border to Afghanistan. Of course, this rarely happens but we eventually got our visa, and my visa number was only 449 truly showing how uncommon it is that someone from another country travels to Afghanistan.” 

Their final destination was the Wakhan Corridor. But before their journey, they still wondered whether the Afghanistan described in newspapers and shown on TV screens would match what they will find once they actually arrived. 

The Wakhan Corridor was supposed to be this peaceful place where the Wakhi people, a nomadic community, live and where political ideologies, war, and the Taliban have no place.

It is rare that anybody knows about this corner of the world where the people still live on a barter economy. 

“Once I took some pictures of children, more and more got curious and approached me when suddenly one of them ran away and came back with a lamb he wanted to slaughter for us,” said Alfons.

“It is probably one of the most peaceful places I have visited,” he continued. “And in order to understand why the Wakhan Corridor remained so peaceful, you have to consider its geographical position. When we were driving along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border towards Wakhan, we were already at an altitude of 4,000 metres, and the mountains there get even higher. For people, this is already a quite critical altitude especially if you’re not used to it. So the one side of the region is naturally shielded by the mountains, and the other part is militarily secured as it was former USSR territory.”

mountainous landscape showing Tajikistan on the left and Afghanistan on the right hand side, separated by a river

The mountains are part of the reason why the Wakhan Corridor remained so peaceful and cut off from the conflict. [Stefan Alfons]

Nevertheless, life there is hard, people suffer from malnutrition, limited access to education, and health care. They live well below the poverty line, and as a result, more than one half of the population will die before the age of five.

According to Dr Mohammed Hakim, Deputy Head of Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the Wakhan Corridor is one of UN’s top priorities and “while great efforts have been made to aid the people and their land, the challenges are complicated, and change occurs so slow it exists undetected.” 

He explains that real change will require more extensive cooperation and contribution in order to improve the futures of the vulnerable Wakhi people.

The situation there is different to most other developing countries. People are not wearing old Adidas sweaters but traditional, self-made clothes, which demonstrates how little international help gets there.

man with beard and turban sitting in his truck, smiling

The people of the Wakhan Corridor [Stefan Alfons]

 

 

five children wearing traditional Afghan clothing standing in a field, with mountains in the background

The people there are not wearing any clothes from donations but self-made traditional clothing [Kelly Brantner]

“You could even leave your keys in the car because nobody would have much use for it. There is no gas station, not to mention electricity. No one was begging for anything. The kids only wanted some attention, maybe take some photos of them or lift them up,” says Alfons.

One of the issues affecting the development of the Wakhan Corridor as well as the peace process in Afghanistan, in general, is the negative media representation. When you google “Afghanistan” and click on the news section almost exclusively stories about the country’s never-ending war pop up.

Partially, this is because political leaders are more interested in the development of the war itself, and their own motivations, and not so much in anything else regarding this country. The media responds to this relevance rating of politicians by moving this event to the top of their agenda and by implication this moves to the top of the public agenda as well.  Whether this so-called agenda setting happens intentionally or unintentionally, the responsibility for the consequences remain.

As a result, the media “may not tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about” and consequently also what not to think about. 

We might think about all the violence, the war there and even consider it from all kind of perspectives. However, it is rare that anyone thinks about what other problems this country and its people have, about the more concrete, local issues that should be dealt with parallel to the conflict to improve the living conditions gradually and eventually find peace.

Such war-torn countries are depending on international aid and therefore how they are perceived by this international community becomes quite relevant, according to Lauryn Oates, CEO of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, 

“A focus on the negative means Afghanistan is depicted as hopeless and not worth investing in. As an Afghan journalist friend of mine says, the media know how to tell the story of events, and not so well how to tell the story of a process, and the change and development in Afghanistan that has occurred in Afghanistan post-Taliban is a process rather than an event; whereas, a kidnapping, a bomb, a battle, etc. is an event and so is an easier story to tell.”

In December 2011 at the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, the Afghan government and the international community declared 2015 to 2024 as the “Transformation Decade.”

2019 marks the second half of this decade of transformation, and, still, in September 2018 the BBC reports that Afghanistan has never been as insecure as it is now. Today, the Taliban control even more territory since they were overthrown in 2001. In fact, during the declared period of transition, from 2011 to 2014, before the transformation decade, the numbers of civilian deaths and injured decreased only slightly (in 2012) and then increased again to even higher numbers than before.

The question is, how does this international community interpret those rising figures? Do they really reflect that we are on the right path to peace in Afghanistan? Or do they mean that the global society – the media included – is focusing on the wrong side of the story?

image shows bar graph depicting the number of deaths and injured from January to September 2009-2018

Increase in deaths and injured during the declared period of transition and transformation [UNAMA]

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan hope for a more balanced news report which also focuses on the achievements they and other organisations have already made and which show that the situation is anything but hopeless.  

Some of the gains are an increase in schools UNICEF estimated that Afghanistan had about 3,600 schools in 2001 and by 2016 the Ministry of Education reported 16,400 public schools. Moreover, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan state that “Afghanistan’s representative government is gradually growing” and that “28% of Afghanistan’s parliamentary seats are held by women.” There is more in the full report.

Although progress is being made, many challenges remain, but further investment in growth is in the interest of both Afghanistan and the international community as paying attention to Afghanistan’s development goes beyond the well-being of one country.

Such fragile regions are often the origin of extremist and terrorist movements in the west. The Taliban in Afghanistan of course, but also the Islamic State in Syria. Both of them had lethal impacts on countries across the world.

“The media know how to tell the story of events, and not so well how to tell the story of a process.

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan say that one of the most effective ways to prevent terrorism and extremism includes “expanding equitable access to high-quality public education that nurtures critical thinking and prepares citizens with 21st-century skill. This includes the most vulnerable, such those who live in remote provinces, internally displaced people, female-headed households, and people living in extreme poverty.”

However, terrorism is not the only global issue connecting Afghanistan’s development and countries around the globe. The worldwide migration and refugee crisis is another result of not enough or effective development aid due to – among other things – insufficient informing of the international community.

“The current migration crisis is unsolvable without focusing on the root causes: those conditions that are leading people to flee their homelands in the first place. In Afghanistan, people migrate out of the country both due to war but also (and in fact more so, according to the statistics) for better economic opportunity,” Lauryn Oates told us.

“So this suggests that Afghanistan needs the international community’s support for both addressing the humanitarian and conflict situation, as well as addressing the underlying poverty and lack of opportunity that is fuelling the conflict.“

 

 

 

 

The book The Peaceful Afghanistan sells for $75, all proceeds are donated.


Featured image by Stefan Alfons, courtesy of Business for Better Society