In August 2010 I travelled to Kabul as an artist. My intention was to cast Taliban bullet holes. The casts were used to make works of art which formed a record of two very different but equally horrific suicide bomb attacks which had occurred in Kabul. I think of the resulting works as records. They don't take a political position.
The story of why I cast the bullet holes and what the resulting works looked like was turned into a six minute film by David Miller, an award winning film maker:
Having completed the bullet hole casting, I found myself a tourist in Kabul for a few days. It was an unexpected experience and an opportunity which I took full advantage of.
On one of my last days in Kabul a journalist, his girlfriend (both from the UK) and I headed into the mountains to the south of the city to visit a traditional Afghan pottery. The journey took the whole day. On our return as we entered the suburbs of the city the journalist's phone rang. The call was from his editor in London who was requesting that he go immediately to a girl's school in the suburbs. There had been a Taliban gas attack on the school and it had to be written up. His girlfriend was dropped off and we picked up a fixer/translator. I tagged along.
By the time we arrived at the Totia High School, it was closed for the day (it turned out that school had been suspended for the duration of the day due to the mayhem that had followed the gas attack). Local boys appeared as soon as we stepped out of the car and we starting talking to them. They told us excitedly about the gas attack and one of them ran away to find the school's caretaker who lived nearby. The caretaker, who was called Lal Mohammad, arrived after a while and let us into the school. He was a soft spoken man, wearing a traditional Islamic cap and robes. There seemed no reason to believe he would benefit from lying to us or embellishing the story. Through the translator he told us what had happened and his story basically went like this...
The girls arrived as usual in the morning and settled into the classrooms for the start of the day. The building smelled strange and foul but no one suspected anything untoward. After a couple of hours some of the girls in the two storey building started to feel sick and dizzy. The foul smell in the buildings was becoming more intense. The teachers tried to remove the girls from the building classroom by classroom but the girls panicked and a stampede ensued, in which personal belongings and school books were abandoned in the classrooms and corridors. Some girls and teachers clambered out of the windows to get away quickly.
The school consisted of several large two storey buildings on a hillside with a compound wall and a large metal gate. There were several hundred girls to evacuate and once everyone was out about a dozen were laid out on the street outside the school gates. They were unconscious. Some of them recovered after an hour, but others needed to go to hospital and were left on ward beds breathing pure oxygen before waking up two hours. More than half a dozen teachers and almost 50 girls were treated at the hospital.
When we left the school and walked out into the street again an even larger group of boys and a few men had gathered. They spoke to us and we asked to talk to one of the girls who had been affected, so their story could be noted. In Afghanistan you don't ask a man if you can speak to his teenage daughter. It just doesn't wash, so the requests were turned down politely but firmly.
The father of one of the girls who had been affected was running his shop at the end of the street. The shopkeeper started by saying that he wanted to talk to us as he felt it important that the story be told, but if the story was published it would only encourage the perpetrators to gas more girls schools. In spite of his reservations he gave us his thoughts. I stood back at some distance as he was interviewed as small crowd had gathered again but this time they were all men and I felt a slight sense of hostility. The eyes that were cast over us weren't as friendly or enthusiastic as the boys we had spoken to, so I was a little relieved when we moved on
Next we visited the hospital, which was about five minutes drive from the girl's school. There a Pakistani trained doctor told us that he was very confident that something to do with poison gas had occurred. He asked us what other than gas or poison would cause a group of girls to collapse and lose consciousness? I certainly couldn't answer, and I saw his point. He said that not all of the girls he had treated were ill. Some were just scared and dazed by the experience.
To date, girls schools in Afghanistan have been attacked with rockets, students have been shot in seemingly random school massacres, a teacher has been beheaded in front of his students and a number of gas attacks have been reported across the country.
The Taliban view the word democracy as associated with being moderate, which they are not. The New York Times has suggested that the Taliban might be willing to consider human rights and women's rights in negotiations for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. After my visit to Totia High School, I find that suggestion nearly impossible to believe...