The boy driving the bus is Latifullah, or ‘latif’ for short. He was one of a gaggle of children whose families lived beneath the King’s Palace in Darulaman. Some had returned from Pakistan, after seeking refuge during the civil war and Taliban era. Others had resettled from other parts of Afghanistan, sometimes resulting in tribal conflicts over land and grazing for their livestock.
I photographed in the area for over a year, returning again and again because of the constant state of flux as families came and went and as the seasons affected who played which sport when and where. Nothing stood still and nothing stagnated. Life was extremely hard for these families, which eked out an existence in mud brick homes, often living with their livestock. Cohabitation with animals often results in disease and Kabul is no different; many children suffer from a disease called Cutaneous Leishmaniasis, which is caused by a parasite transmitted between animals by sand flies. Humans are ‘accidental hosts’ and infection results in lesions that normally heal, but leave permanent dark welts in their place (Kabul has the highest rate of infection of anywhere in the world). In quite a few of my photographs you will see thistles and this is because, for me, they became an important symbol of the attrition and hardship faced by everyone who lived here. No matter how buoyant the football match, or angelic the smile, it was always there, lurking, poised to strike (see story here).
This photograph was taken on a hot, dry day in late sprint/early summer (2009?), I recall. The shepherd boys would drive their sheep through a hole in the wall just behind Latif, bringing them in search of green shoots in the otherwise dusty fields surrounding the palace. Latif and I had a developed an unspoken bond. He was quieter then the other children and never started fights, although he would fight like the devil in self-defence. He had an incredible serenity about him that was quite unique. While they moved across the old parade grounds and gardens like a pack of African hunting dogs, with fluidity and purpose, he would often be off to one side, in his own little world, enjoying the relative peace he clearly sought out.
One day, he decided to let me into his world. He tugged at my sleeve and spoke to me in Dari, knowing full well I could not understand, but I knew from his body language that he wanted to show me something. It turned out to be the crumpled roof of an old Russian jeep, which he had discovered was a surprisingly comfortable perch, from which he could watch other boys playing cricket, reclining back like an emperor. I have a 9.5 x 12” print somewhere of this smug little boy trying hard to look not smug, but ‘entirely at ease with a peerless view of the game’. And so it became our little routine: he’d tug on my sleeve, nod his head sideways and off we’d go. On this occasion we walked across the football pitch, the main road and into a small piece of land than contained a number of ruined vehicles (and where the below photograph was taken).
I winced as he climbed on top of the vehicle, dodging the sharp slivers of metal sticking out of the side of the metal skin caused by bullets and fragmentation. After parading around for a few seconds on top of his conquered bus, a group of children recognised the ‘good idea’ and joined him. It became wild and I could see the children were playing up for the camera, which made me feel uncomfortable. Latif was clearly ‘non-plussed’ and waited for them to run out of steam, which they invariably did, leaving him alone once again. The bubble was burst for Latif too and he climbed down behind the bus and slipped in through a window (hole). He made his way to where the driver’s seat had once been and within seconds entered into the world of child play that we all recognise, but is often absent for such children. They run errands and they work. They don’t attend school and they are constantly competing for anything that could possibly be interpreted as a resource. They are survivors completely occupied with the business of surviving. I had already taken a frame when the sheep began to walk through, followed by the shepherd boys. I waited for Latif to look up once again, eyeing an imaginary horizon, and fired the shutter a second time.
This photograph – this moment – touches me deeply. It is the moment of delightful abandonment of circumstance. It is the buoyancy of the human spirit. It’s also a moment in which any compassionate person feels fear and the desire to nurture and protect. I wonder how many of the children I used to know will not reach adulthood. Too many, that is certain.
Technical notes: Mamiya 7 II, 80mm lens, f16 I recall. Tri X, Rodinal 1:50, 20×16 print.