Photography

Fighting Season

LOUIE PALU

In the summer of 2008, Louie Palu photographed Canadian troops, Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. Marines on the front line in Afghanistan. He focussed on two areas in the south where the fighting was most violent: Zhari District in the province of Kandahar, where Mullah Omar formed the Taliban, and Garmsir District in Helmand, the province east of Kandahar and the world's largest opium-producing region. These districts, inhabited mainly by Pashtun people, are the heart of Taliban activity and Palu photographed both the fighting and daily life there.

During the fighting season in Afghanistan, which unfolds each year through spring, summer and fall, the lush landscape of grape fields, trees and irrigation canals in the south provides essential cover for guerrilla warfare. The villages and farmers’ fields serve as temporary battlefields, where the Taliban insurgents clash with the U.S.-led coalition, which includes the Canadian Forces, Afghan National Army and British troops. Once the fighting ends and the insurgents and soldiers break contact with each other, life for the villagers returns to relative normalcy: the insurgents murder and intimidate civilians, place land mines and roadside bombs, and hamper the reconstruction efforts of the Canadian troops.

Afghanistan has been in a state of war for so long—the Soviet intervention in the 1980s, then civil war and the Taliban regime, and now this standoff—that the people have grown accustomed to the cycle of violence, but they always know it is fiercest during the fighting season. They have adapted to the conflict and it has become a part of their daily lives.

Many civilians ask who I am and why I don’t carry a gun, and I have visited villages where they don’t know what a photographer or journalist is. My Afghan nickname is Mustafa, which I got in Pakistan in 2004 from Afghan refugees moving to Canada. The name stuck and an Afghan soldier wrote it on my helmet, but most civilians can’t read or write so they don’t understand what it means. Apart from basic religious studies, schooling in rural Afghanistan is a low priority—the villagers are so poor that most of the children and adults must work the fields and tend the flocks of sheep so their families can survive.

On days when it’s quiet on patrol, children run up to me and the troops from their homes and the fields, yelling “Hello! Hello!” They giggle and gesture with their hands for pens and candy. None of the children know their age—few Afghans do—because record keeping in Afghanistan is scant at best. On the way to one village we frequented on patrols, I always picked wildflowers for the girls. The sun wilted and dried them within minutes, but the flowers made them smile. We usually toss handfuls of candy to the kids. Candy is rare, and I love giving it out, especially because American soldiers in Italy tossed candy to my father when he was a child during the Second World War.

One day as we marched back to base after an intense battle, we reached an irrigation canal where some boys were splashing and diving, less than two kilometres from where the fighting had just occurred. Only minutes earlier we had been in the midst of combat: artillery pounding the field and rattling the earth, dust billowing from rubble, and the cracks of gunfire everywhere, and then there were those boys, jumping into the river and having fun. Back at the base, the soldiers and I had to be rehydrated intravenously.

Since the beginning of Canada’s combat mission, there have not been enough soldiers to contain the insurgency. Now Canada will realign its positions and the U.S. military will face what could be the bloodiest fighting season in years. The longer I stay in Afghanistan and the more I see, the fewer answers I have about what is going on there and what the future holds. Back in Toronto I can’t even talk to anyone in a bar, because conversations with people who think they understand Afghanistan just end as heated arguments on the sidewalk.

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LOUIE PALU

Louie Palu is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in numerous books, catalogues, festivals and international exhibitions.


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