Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 June 2019

Growing a better future: the war-torn gardens of Afghanistan

The photojournalist Lalage Snow describes her exhibition Modern War Gardens: Paradise Lost, in which she captures a greener side of Afghanistan.
Jolyon Leslie's garden in Kabul. Lalage Snow
Jolyon Leslie's garden in Kabul. Lalage Snow

The 21st century has seen conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revolutions across the Middle East and Africa spiralling into civil war and continued unrest, while the fringes of Europe are destabilised. As we mark the centenary of the start of “The War to End All Wars”, the world is teetering on the edge of an abyss, staring down the barrel of unending conflict. But behind the headlines and violence are everyday people just trying to live, adjusting their existence to survival in a hostile world.

My exhibition Modern War Gardens: Paradise Lost uses the cultural significance of gardens to understand what life is really like for those living in the shadows of war. Gardens symbolise permanence, longevity, triumph in adversity, hope, growth and paradise. They also provide food, shade, peace, fuel, protection, privacy and escape. Nurturing gardens is an integral part of defiance, resistance and therapy in a time of war.

Combining powerful images and sensitive interviews, Paradise Lost shines an empathetic light on conflict and is a fresh way of looking at the narrative of war through the personal stories of those living through them. These photographs examine the importance of gardens in war-ravaged countries as a means of creativity, therapy and hope, and for the common bond of humanity they instil.

The war in Afghanistan started in 2001 – although some would say it hasn’t stopped since the Russian invasion of 1978 – and indeed, historians could argue that the country has been a battleground since time began. Yet gardening is an intrinsic part of Afghan culture. Once considered to be a “City of Gardens” nestled in the breadbasket of Central Asia, Kabul is struggling to define itself as a developing city in a maelstrom of pollution, traffic, road construction and security checkpoints – not to mention the occasional insurgent attack and continuing instability. But behind the razor wire and 10-foot-high walls of private residences are verdant serenities, a world a way from the bedlam ­outside.

Mohammad Kabir, 105, began reviving the Darulaman Palace courtyard in 2012. Originally employed to work on the vegetable garden belonging to the Afghan soldiers stationed there, he decided to make them a mini pleasure garden. “I brought whatever seeds I had at home and the soldiers helped plant them. Everything you see is from paradise. I’m in paradise when I’m here,” he smiles toothily, half leaning on a spent shell. “I’m a poor man and can live without food, but I can’t survive without seeing leaves and flowers,” he explains. One of the young soldiers stationed at Darulaman Palace agrees: “Green is happiness. Green is peace. Who doesn’t like that?”

Mohammed Payab also lives in Lashkar Gah, Helmand: “I built a private hospital a year ago but made this garden outside it at the same time. Patients sit in it and enjoy the flowers. I have always been a nurse in Helmand and worked with the communist party back in the day.”

Jolyon Leslie, a South African architect, has lived in Kabul since 1989. “There is something about the climate. It’s a very special place. The mujaheddin were more interested in their gardens than the checkpoints they manned in the 90s,” he remembers. “And later, the Taliban running the airstrip were the same.” His garden in the upmarket area of Qualla-e-Fatullah would originally have been part of an orchard on the outskirts of a much smaller Kabul, and he’s fortunate to still have old fruit trees – but he admits that keeping them alive is a challenge, with the soil quality affected by open sewers just outside his compound.

Sayed Habibullah lives in Lashkar Gah, Helmand: “I’ve worked on this military base for some years now. Why do I garden? Everyone needs green space and flowers in their life. The foreign soldiers based here, when they want to relax or are tired or want to speak with their friends, they come here and it makes me happy to see them. But I am worried. When the foreign soldiers leave, I will be in danger.”


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Updated: October 30, 2014 04:00 AM