This image is part of the Russians and Royals documentary photography series.
As was so often the case, I arrived at the Darulaman (or ‘King’s) Palace without an agenda. I would enjoy strolling around the grounds watching the youngest children play, while the older boys practiced their cricket, or football. It was a location that changed substantially from season to season and I had not visited in three or four months. Russians and Royals was drawing to a close and I could feel it, but I was still drawn to my old haunts in the hope of seeing familiar little faces.
I stepped from the vehicle and passed through a gap in the old wall, then made a beeline for the base of the palace. I’d made no more than twenty paces, when a child broke away from the cricket gang on the hard-standing and ran towards me. As his form took shape I was surprised that a boy I did not know would be running towards me with such enthusiasm. I was not aware of any boys who had lost both arms, but as he drew nearer, I sensed a certain familiarity. A dozen yards out a stray football crossed his path, which he gave it an almighty and jubilant ‘boot’ back towards it owner, then continued bounding towards me.
By this point I was feeling a little uncomfortable. I recognised something in his facial features, but he was taller than the boy he might have been and again, he had lost both arms. He stopped right in front of me grinning, jabbering away in Pashto and was soon joined by a number of other children who had recognised me. I found myself asking out loud, ‘how do you know me…. I am confused!’ when the smallest boy in the group, responded ‘of course you know him. We have seen you here many times.’ At this point I was sure that he must have been the older brother of one of the other children I’d grown to know.
I looked back to the boy with no arms, whom I would later refer to as ‘Zmarak’ and could see that his right arm had been removed at the shoulder and the left at the elbow. I then noticed a slight purple hue to the scars. Through my little interpreter I asked, ‘what happened to your arms and when?’ and was told that the accident occurred only three months prior.
Zmarak explained that he had been sent out to collect firewood from a log pile and leant down to collect an armful. Unbeknown to him, someone breaking logs there earlier had damaged an electricity cable and it had just rained, meaning the logpile was now electrified. As his arms made contact, I was told that they ‘burst into flames’ and were in part ‘blown off’.
By now the gang of children had erupted into a tussle over something or other and they laughed and kicked up dust, before falling to the ground. At this point I knew that I wanted a photograph of them all together. There was a great energy and a story to be told, which was only just beginning to take root in my mind. As they writhed around at the top of a shallow bank (which you cannot really see in the photo), Zmarak kept slipping down and struggled to right himself. I could see him wriggling like a snake trying to elevate his torso and ‘pack in’ with the other boys, but failing each time. I leant down to give him a hand and he shook off my contact with a frown. Point taken, Zmarak; you’ll do this for yourself, I thought.
The boys were still laughing and joking when Zmarak finally managed to get comfortable and there was a short pause in wriggling all round. I do not know if it was my imagination, but I felt this was a moment when the gravity of his predicament pierced the vigour of his independent and buoyant spirit…. the moment when the difference in his childhood and future made itself undeniable. The light in his face had quite simply faded. I fired the shutter and this is the photograph. I look at it with a sorrow and joy that cannot be reconciled and in this respect it perfectly represents my feelings towards the country as a whole. This was my last photograph from the Darulaman Palace to find a place in Russians and Royals and perhaps fittingly so.
Some time later, I entered images from the series ‘Russians and Royals’ into one award or other and in looking through the other successful entries my eyes fell across a familiar face. The story was of a little boy – the same boy – undergoing treatment and having prosthetic limbs fitted. The other photographer had done a great job and it was wonderful to see the same bright and determined face staring back at someone else’s camera. It’s not all ‘bombs and bullets’ in Afghanistan…. most suffering has far more banal origins, although of course the former breeds the latter. To me, this image is indicative of that story; a more basic struggle for survival that lacks immediate evidence of military activity to explain the suffering. And it is perhaps all the more painful because of it.
When deliberating over the title for this photograph, I happened to be looking up the meaning of some Pashto names for boys. My eyes fell across ‘Zmarak’. It means Little Lion and I’m sure the choice needs no further explanation from me.
Technical Notes: Leica MP, 28mm Zeiss Biogon, f8, Kodak Tri-X. Probably developed in Xtol 1+2.