Don's diary: Minefield Memoirs

March 7, 2003

March 2002
Radio 4 announces that I am going to Afghanistan as an artist commissioned by the Imperial War Museum. I am still struggling to find a way into the country, let alone plan an itinerary. It would be easy to jump on a military flight and hole up with the Royal Anglians in Kabul, but the project's success rests on access to minefields and battle sites in every corner of the country.

June: Saturday
Kabul is no ordinary airport. Under military control and devastated by allied bombs, it feels more like a film set. Twisted helicopters and planes, huge bomb craters and partially demolished buildings are bathed in the famous golden light of the East.

On arrival, I find myself in a security briefing with some visiting Cambodian politicians. The advice is simple: never go out alone; respect the 9pm curfew; always travel in United Nations or non-governmental organisation vehicles; read the mine-awareness literature; read it again.

I take the introductory "journalists' tour" to Bagram, where I photograph my first minefields. As an artist it is important to avoid the direct or the simplistic, although I feel inevitably drawn to the exotic otherness of bombed buildings and military vehicles.

Photographing in the minefields is exhausting. Body armour and visor make it difficult to manoeuvre, it is 45C and I am working in 60cm wide, mine-swept corridors. Looking out on barren landscapes, the danger seems remote, but crossing the line of painted red stones at my feet would almost certainly mean disaster. The camel bones are a constant reminder.

The drivers are desperate to reach Kunduz, but we leave camp too late. By nightfall we are in the middle of nowhere, driving illegally after curfew. The radio operator cautions us that bandits have been hijacking UN vehicles in the hills. As the sun falls, we stop and both drivers clamber down and unfold prayer mats. I photograph them kneeling in the pink light surrounded by wild horses. The war has never felt more distant.

Kandahar is hauntingly beautiful, but I don't feel safe. At night there is gunfire and shouting. Groups of armed men appear from nowhere when I am photographing and my guide seems to encourage confrontation. Walking through the vast refugee camp, the sounds of children coughing and crying leave me feeling powerless. At the camp boundary, I photograph the last three tents, separated from the stunning mountains by yet another silent but deadly minefield.

February 2003
It's exhibition launch day and the Iraq crisis has brought the press to the museum in search of a story. The images on the wall have gradually replaced my memories of Afghanistan - my time there has become abstracted after months of preparation. I am on autopilot during the numerous interviews. However, I am returned to the reality of last year when BBC Wales plays a segment from my radio diaries. I am in a tiny house near Kandahar surrounded by unexploded bombs, my voice is anxious as I try to erect a tripod without touching the dull metal cases at my feet. I walk back to the museum hoping that I have transferred some of that anxiety to the gallery wall.

Paul Seawright is professor of photography, University of Wales College Newport. His exhibition, "Hidden", is at the Imperial War Museum until March 30.

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