story by Lois Raimondo '81 photos copyright Lois Raimondo/Washington Post
It was only a 10-week assignment for Lois Raimondo ’81,
but the experience transformed this award-winning Washington Post
photojournalist for a lifetime. Now, through her camera lens and her own
words, Raimondo shares her thoughts on Afghanistan after 9/11 — the
people, the culture and the connections that changed her forever.
I sat in a circle with 35 sixth-graders at North Andover Middle School in Massachusetts,
seeing them - each one - for the first time face-to-face after months of
sporadic long-distance communication between their homeroom class in America and my
satellite phone calling out from Afghanistan. I was now two weeks back
from 10 weeks in the field, my head and heart still roaming the hills of North Afghanistan,
and America felt foreign.
In wartime Afghanistan, days are measured in segments of survival: a person falls sick, loses a limb to a landmine, can’t find food or water in
the drought-stricken north — that person most likely dies. Lives marked
by degrees of desperation; eventual outcomes interrupted, altered,
determined by random acts of brutality, courage and kindness. Life is not
Of course, suffering and deprivation are not limited to Afghanistan and its
people. But, still, after living and working for almost 15 years in various
parts of the developing world, many of them zones of conflict, nothing I
had seen compared to the devastation that more than two decades of civil
war and centuries of foreign invasions had brought to Afghanistan. What
surprised me most, as it always does, was finding individuals whose
personal integrity and character had withstood all the corruptive and
corrosive forces of poverty, pain and war. When you meet these people,
enter their lives — their families, close-knit communities — to know their
stories, everything else that once mattered dissolves into a different
perspective. Coming home to America then is not easy. For me, in 20
years time, "coming home" has never gotten any easier.
But these sixth-graders, sitting now in front of me, were fully focused,
engaged, wide-eyed with wonder, and asking really good questions. Their
teacher, Dan Quigley, had guided them to daily Web searches for news
from Afghanistan while I was there, and they had prepared well for my visit
to their school. I had to turn on quickly to catch up with their readiness.
My connection to these kids was made late one night last October, as I
was packing critical gear to leave for Afghanistan. I stood before a
towering stack of "absolute essentials" and knew that half of what was
there needed to be eliminated.
My basic working gear for this remote assignment weighed in at more
than 30 pounds: satellite phone, compass and satellite locator maps;
flashlight; laptop computer; digital and film cameras; an assortment of
short and long lenses; digital discs; 300 rolls of film;
multiple strobes; extra battery packs for every item; jumper cables to get
power from car batteries to run the equipment, power the phone; and a
dozen or so cables and connectors to make the system work. I had to
assume I would be mostly mobile with this and more on my back. I would
be gone for at least two months, probably longer. Being re-supplied in the
field was not an option. And I still hadn’t packed a toothbrush.
Two hours later, the clock now turned to midnight, the stack was two feet
taller. I welcomed the distraction when the phone rang. My sister Cheryl,
an assistant principal at North Andover Middle School in Massachusetts,
was calling long distance pleading with me not to take this assignment.
She had always supported my choices in the past, even the high-risk
ones, but insisted this time it was different; she had bad feelings about
this one. My plane was leaving in seven hours, and any chance of sleep
was quickly slipping from my reach.
I reassured my sister as best I could, saying I would stay safe, my goal
not to go to war, but to find the average Afghans — shattered families
surviving in the conflict zone — and bring back their stories as balance to
the bombs. My sister has a huge heart, but she wasn’t buying it. She knew
I would disappear inside the story as soon as I connected with the
people. My energy was fading fast, and I needed to get off the phone. So I
hatched a totally unripe plan on the spot.
I asked my sister to choose an appropriate class from her school, assign
them Afghanistan, and I would find a way to communicate from the other
side. We both knew a classroom of expectant kids was the best way to
keep me from falling out of touch. The obstacle would be the fact that
Afghanistan at War — no phones, no electricity, no safe overland route out
of the country — was effectively cut off from the rest of the world.
For the next two and a half months, I covered war and its cost — "collateral
damage"— amongst the civilian population. I worked, daily, the
land-mined mountains and drought-stricken deserts of North Afghanistan
where there were no roads, water and very little food. In early November,
the UN estimated that close to eight million Afghans were food-dependent
and facing starvation if the situation did not change. My Afghan translator,
Ahmad Zia Masud, and I spent our days climbing mountains to the front
lines of battle and passed nights taking down stories from refugees
displaced from their homes on these same frontlines.
On first arriving in Afghanistan, I wandered through dust-covered food
stalls at the local bazaar — looking for trace signs of what had been, what
might once more be. I found one stationery vendor, with small Russian
examination notebooks and Chinese pens, lined up neatly beneath a
tattered piece of plastic held in place against a raw wind by rough stones.
The Taliban had effectively ended education for most of Afghanistan’s
children when it rose to power. Paper and pens, even in non-Taliban
controlled areas, were now mostly surplus materials. I bought the small
notebooks and a few pens, returned to my room made of clay, and began
my first of many letters to the sixth-grade class back home.
Eventually, these letters were carried out over Afghan borders by departing
journalists and mailed back to North Andover, Mass. Dan Quigley
photocopied them and sent them home with each student. The circle of
understanding widened. The students went to The Washington Post Web
site every day, checking pictures and text stories to see where I was and
what I was doing.
Now, 14 days after my return to the States, I sat before this energetic and
engaged sixth-grade class in middle America, my life’s course
irrevocably altered for having been to Afghanistan, and one shy girl off to
my right asks softly, "Were you afraid?"
To answer that question, and do her justice, I had to make two worlds
meet. So I smiled, looked into her eyes, and said, "Sometimes I got
scared, but I wasn’t ever really afraid. Because when we are there, ‘war’ is
not a machine or a gun, but instead a place — a village, a mountaintop, a
road, a teashop or a father who left his home to protect his family; a
hungry child who loves to laugh and play tic-tac-toe in the dirt; a mother
combing her daughter’s long jet black hair; a brother who brings you tea.
I explained that after I met soldiers, and they became my friends, they
protected me in underground bunkers when American planes were
dropping bombs very near our positions. When these same soldiers
chased Taliban troops from their own hometowns, they took me to their
homes and introduced me to their sisters, wives and mothers.
I explained to the students that working as a woman journalist in a
gender-segregated society, I had access to both worlds in a way that no
male journalists ever could.
The men saw me first as a foreigner, then a journalist, and somewhere
down the line the notion of woman came into play. A woman working,
especially one climbing mountains and documenting soldiers’ lives at the
frontline of battle, was completely outside most Afghan men’s notion of
female lives. Women did not work under Taliban rule. Women who went
out in public without burqa, without male escorts, risked beatings, jailing
and even death. Women, in general, are not permitted to speak to men
outside their immediate families.
The women related to me instantly as a woman, pulling me physically into
their orbit, feeding me, combing my hair, placing their babies in my arms
and only later asking me about what things I had seen outside the walls
of their compounds. I showed them pictures of Afghanistan I had filed
onto my computer, and they were amazed; none had ever seen the
mountains and rivers just one mile from their home.
I explained this to the little girl in Massachusetts now sitting next to me,
leaving out the violent parts, but not the joy or sorrow. I think Afghanistan
came alive for this sixth-grade class. That day at North Andover was one
of the most memorable I’ve had since returning to America. I am still
getting packets of letters and cards commenting on my time in their
school, filled with questions that probe now the countries at Afghanistan’s
borders. I answer them as best I can.
Like anything else, experience banked in one’s trade makes doing daily
work — in my case, stories — at once both easier and more complicated.
There are certain formulas that investigators apply to similar situations. I
might think I’ve found a comfortable rhythm in which to work, but then a
statement, a look in someone’s eye, a heartbeat — leaps out from my
subject’s life, kicks me in the stomach, takes my breath away. And then I
am at Ground Zero once more.
Afghanistan was the first assignment in a long time that took over my life.
And I am far from finished with the story. Life in Afghanistan is rugged, raw
and lovely. And nothing there is as simple as it seems. A cup of warm tea
can chill. An averted glance becomes a complimentary gesture. A person
grown accustomed to convenience must shed that slick skin and learn
once more to feel deeply minute to minute if he or she is to survive and
I will return to Afghanistan. I would like to write a book, and possibly
volunteer my time — as a teacher, editor, a hospital worker — anywhere I
might help. Afghanistan is no longer at the top of my newspaper’s
front-page budget, so I will take leave from my job to pursue the project.
Now, however, I’m preparing to leave for Central Asia — Kyrgyzstan,
Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — to work a story
on drugs and terrorism in that region. Afghanistan is just a short chopper
ride from any one of these countries. In 1999, 75 percent of the world’s
heroin flowed out of Afghanistan and through these countries, most of it
eventually destined for Europe and some to America.
The human consequences of drug use was sadly brought home to me
recently while covering an all-day all-night concert at RFK Stadium in
southeast Washington, D.C. Eminem was headlining, and the place was
packed. At one point I ended up engaged in what began as bewildered
observation and then, eventually, strange conversation with a young
concert-going couple — Steve, 17, and Beverly, 21 — both pretty people
stoned out of their minds on heroin and crack cocaine.
After some long and somewhat fascinating observation inside the
stadium, I walked outside to wander the perimeter (the space where most
interesting things happen). Beverly was sitting on the edge of a parking lot
curb, sobbing uncontrollably and frantically trying to coax one more call
from her cell phone running fast out of battery power. I was on location
one night earlier when more than 30 concert-goers were pulled from a
stadium stampede, medi-vaced and bused out to local hospitals with
more and less serious injuries, and my first thought was that this woman
might need help. I asked if she wanted to use my cell phone. My one
question put me right in the middle of a rapidly deteriorating "he-said,
she-said" of bizarre proportions.
The hysterical woman politely thanked me, big blue eyes swimming in
oceans of tears. Steve, the man at her side, explained that his girlfriend
was just having a bad trip. She screamed that it wasn’t true; she wanted
him to go away. He added quickly that she didn’t mean it, he loved her
with his life, but she kept running away from him. She said that was
because she hated him. She wondered out loud about her younger sister,
14, tripping on the same bad mix alone inside the arena because the two
supervising "adults" had been tossed by stadium security. Why? Because
Steve was hitting Beverly on top of her head with a Super Soaker and
causing a disturbance at the Eminen concert.
Turns out Steve, just released from jail, is still in love with Beverly, but
she is no longer in love with him. He says he went to jail for selling heroin,
which he claims he only did to support her habit. She says, once again,
that she hates him. Steve now starts to cry, spinning the black lock box on
his ankle as evidence of his affection, "I’m under house arrest, and in four
months, I just get four days off. I want to be with her, and she keeps
running away from me." I had the sense of being caught in a heartache
house of mirrors.
Heroin possibly processed from poppy plants growing in Afghan soil, sold
for cash used to buy guns for warlords in both sides of the border —
small plastic packets eventually finding their way to Steve and Beverly in
our nation’s capital.
I leave the lovers bickering in the grass and head back to my car. Pager
goes off. The photo desk wants me to cover Duke Ellington’s band playing
for Memorial Day down on the Mall. A slight twist of the carnival mirror, and
the juxtaposition makes perfect sense.
When I arrive on the Mall, pockets bulging with film laced with wild scenes
and signatures of cultist ravers doing their thing at RFK, Tony Danza is
tap-dancing on stage. Decked out in a tux touched at the collar, cuffs and
cummerbund with decorative touches of red, white and blue. I think he
was singing a hipped-up version of "God Bless America." A mostly older
white audience of thousands is waving little American flags with the dome
of the Capitol as the backdrop for the performance. Ozzie Davis stands on
a podium waiting to read his speech. American soldiers readied for
deployment to Afghanistan occupy a row in the VIP section. My eyes scan
the audience for possible pictures, note where the television cameras are
to keep out of their lens, and settle into a space on the grass, right in
front of tap-dancing Tony.
I watch for a while to get some physical feel of the place before working
pictures. Every piece of this performance is crafted to cues. Less than
one-half mile from this spot, Steve and Beverly are singing their own
At one point a professional actor comes up on stage and reads from a
letter that one New York City career firefighter wrote after losing two sons
— also firefighters — in the World Trade Center bombing. A father’s
simple, loving words cut the audience to silence. Shake them from their
Something makes me look left, and I see a row of gray-haired men,
professional firefighters, all of them fathers of firefighters whose sons
died on Sept. 11th. My eyes roam over their uniformed body language:
proud, burdened, somehow surviving day after day despite their hearts
being torn from their chests.
A young man rises from the back of the audience carrying a small boy,
walks to where the firefighters sit, and places the child in one of their
The boy, 3, buries his head in his grandfather’s chest while keeping a
tight grip on his small American flag. The grandfather pulls the boy close,
kisses the top of his head, nestles his cheek up against the boy’s neck
and closes his eyes. I pulled that moment into my camera and finished
my day’s work.
To read more about Raimondo’s experience in Afghanistan and to see
more pictures, check out the June 2002 issue of National Geographic
where Raimondo’s work is prominently featured on 28 pages.