As the 15th year anniversary passes of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, officially launched on 7th October 2001, it is worth recalling the circumstances in which it took place. As food aid agencies warned at the time, the US and its partners were attacking a starving, desperate population, in the midst of terrible droughts and ruled by a fanatical Islamist regime. The story of young Afghan girl, Mah Bibi, captured by photographer, Nick Danziger, and videographer, Laura Ashton, and presented early in 2016 at IWM London, provides just one personal insight into many, many thousands.
The Afghanistan invasion took place following the September 11th 2001 attacks in the US that killed nearly 3,000 and injured many thousands more. The majority of the hi-jackers were Saudi nationals and the responsibility was placed on Osama bin Laden, another Saudi national, and his extremist group, al Qaeda.
The US government demanded that the Taliban regime of Afghanistan hand over bin Laden, where he was thought to operate from. The Taliban regime’s response was to demand evidence from the US establishing bin Laden’s connection to the attack. They suggested that should evidence be provided, they would consider turning bin Laden over to a tribunal organised by states in the Middle East.
President George Bush’s response was that there would be “no negotiations.” Bin Laden was thus given a “free pass” to escape into Pakistan as the US began a bombing campaign with no strategy for capturing their supposed target. Nearly 10 years later, an unarmed bin Laden was captured and assassinated in Pakistan by a team of US Navy SEALs.
It has been suggested that the US did not have sufficient evidence to prove bin Laden’s connection to the attack. In June 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, could say only that “investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan.”
By failing to investigate the Taliban offer, the US and its partners failed to explore, let alone, exhaust, non-violent means to apprehend bin Laden and his accomplices before they launched an attack on Afghanistan. The rush to war in that country and, two years later, in Iraq, was followed by lengthy and bloody occupations that have caused to strengthen the hand of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and now, the even more extremist, so-called Islamic State or ISIS.
Moreover, the US-led rush to attack Afghanistan in 2001 targeted a population already suffering from immense deprivation. A UN estimate suggested that millions of the population relied on food aid for survival. A few days after the 9/11 attacks, the US demanded that neighbouring Pakistan end its food truck envoys into Afghanistan. International aid workers began to evacuate in anticipation of the bombing. “The country was on a lifeline,” one evacuated aid worker reported, “and we just cut the line.” “It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people,” an evacuated emergency officer for Christian Aid informed the media: “We can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths.”
Just before bombing commenced at the start of October 2001, the UN warned that military action would likely cause a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Over 7 million Afghanis faced starvation if an attack was not called off, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization warned.
A month into the US-led attack, by the end of October, over a million Afghanis were estimated to have had fled their homes into the countryside where they were exposed to the elements and without meaningful food supplies. Pleas by aid agencies for the US to call off the attacks fell on deaf ears and rejected by Tony Blair.
It is in this context that, in 2001, photographer, Nick Danziger, and videographer, Laura Ashton, captured the images and testimony of a 10/11 year old Afghani girl, Mah Bibi and her two brothers that she cared for. Mah Bibi was living in the Ghor Province of western Afghanistan. In 2001, the region was experiencing the effects of a long-term and devastating drought with some people resorting to eating animal fodder to survive.
“(A) young girl,” Danziger recalled, “simply pushed her way through a massive crowd of men and started telling me her story; it seemed incredible. She grabbed my hand, pushed her way back through the crowd and marched me past all the men to where she was living – a kind of tent cobbled together with disused rags.”
Mah Bibi was trying to claim food as head of the family but was refused as a minor. In her testimony, she explained that she was an orphan, her mother having died in childbirth. Her father had at four years previously gone for food and disappeared. Mah Bibi was caring for her two younger brothers and begging and eating grass to survive.
“We had two cows, ten sheep and land. But since my father went missing we were hungry. So, I sold all of them. For the past four months, I have been begging. This morning, I had no food for breakfast and I ate grass. I don’t have other clothes. These shoes I wear, I have begged for… It is hot during the day and when we are here sitting in the sun, it is unbearable. But at night, we shake from the cold.” Mah Bibi told Danziger and Ashton in a testimony in 2001.
Working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Nick Danziger went in search of 11 women caught up in conflicts that he had photographed 5 years before to see how their lives had changed and to take new portraits. He found 10 alive – but he found no trace of Mah Bibi. He was told by locals in Ghor Province that she was thought to have got married but died, aged 16.
Photographs and video footage that Nick Danziger and Laura Ashton took of Mah Bibi in 2001 were put on display at the Imperial War Museum in early 2016, in conjunction with the ICRC, in an exhibition called, “11 Women Facing War,” part of the IWM Contemporary series of cutting-edge war art.
A record number of civilians were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in 2015, according to the UN. The over 11,000 killed and wounded was a 4% increase on the previous high, in 2014. One in four of the casualties were children and one in ten was female. Deprivation haunts the population; doctors said in 2014 that over half of Afghani boys and girls were suffering irreparable damage to their brains and bodies due to malnutrition during the first two years of life.
– Video testimony of Mah Bibi for “Eleven Women Facing War” (dubbed in English, video by Laura Ashton, 2001) presented by Canadian War Museum Youtube channel)
– Interview with Nick Danziger about 2016 Imperial War Museum exhibition, 11 Women Facing War – with Pressreader, 2016.
– Interview with Nick Danziger about Imperial War Museum exhibition, with Amateur Photographer, 2016