Kites And Canaries Forbidden
By Terry Pitzner
Sitting in Study Hall, 9th grade, 1956, at Washington Jr. High School, I intensely studied my newly acquired “Afghan Hounds” book I’d bought with my paper-boy earnings. This was the beginning of my life long infatuation with Afghanistan. Here, unbeknown to a snot-nosed, 14 year old kid, began his quest to merge his destiny with Afghanistan. As I devoured this book, my obsession for Afghanistan peaked. I discovered Afghan Hounds were bred to hunt large game by running it down, grabbing it by the throat and with its pivotal rear hip joints, stop and snap the neck of its prey. So much for our illusion of the grand, hair flowing, arrogant, prancing show dog.
Eventually, I bred, showed and coursed Afghan Hounds. People would say “Afghan Hounds are really dumb. They are strong-willed and unable to be trained.” Now, this seems to be the same assessment that the world makes of Afghans in general. I do know that Afghan Hounds are proud, devoted and cooperative if they’re respected and not forced into submission—as are all the Afghan women and men I got to know, live and work with, for seven years.
I bit the bullet at the age of 44, I left the laid back life on Cape Cod and I moved to Boston. I applied to the New England School of Photography (NESOP) and was accepted into their full time professional program. I majored in Documentary/Art genre, Black and White photography. While working on finals, my interest in Afghanistan came up and a classmate said, “Oh, my father just came back from Pakistan, where he worked for Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with Afghan refugees. Would you like to talk with him?” Well … yeeeaaa!”
Four months later, the door to my dreams opened. I would be in Peshawar, Pakistan, working as a volunteer for the NGO, International Medical Corp (IMC). My job, among many, was to organize triages for volunteer US Orthopedic Surgeons and photographically document the war injuries and compile patient records for referral to doctors and hospitals from all around the world and who were willing to provide medical and surgical service to the war injured, at no cost.
For the first month, I felt I was living a movie. This was my first foreign experience, except for Mexico and I was in my element. There were exotic people everywhere. I could drive through the Old Khyber Bazaar; look, or should I say gawk, at the mysterious, beautiful and antique treasures in the Old Peshawar. Carpets and gold were everywhere. Now, this was a street photographer’s fantasy. I began my kick- ass portfolio.
After two extremely rewarding years playing a role in healing hundreds of war injured children, women and men with IMC, I returned to Boston. I was in culture shock for a month and finally decided I really needed to go back to Provincetown, to focus on my photography and try to re-adjust to a capitalist culture again (just the cereal isle at the Stop & Shop, overwhelmed me).
In Provincetown, Jessop Gallery offered me my first Gallery Exhibition. These photographs led to my first position for the UN, as a UN Volunteer (UNV). My job? Develop and manage Saki Camp in Mazar I Sharif, Afghanistan. The refugees fleeing Tajikistan’s civil war were beginning to cross the Emu River under gun fire from the rebels. They were running for their lives, the elderly were shivering and blue, babies were being washed off their parent’s shoulders and lost in raging waters. The temperature was well below freezing and they were finding their way to Saki Camp, which had only been in the process of developing for a few days. Supplies, food and clothing were just beginning to trickle in. This was my first experience of receiving refugees on the front line. The weather was brutal. Thirty mile an hour winds at sub-freezing temperature, blowing snow and sand, made all aspects of receiving, sheltering and feeding the thousands of Tajikistan Refugees, horrific.
There were two small satellite camps that were developed to provide assistance to the Tajik refugees on their way to the major Saki Camp. These camps were too close to the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border and Tajik Rebels were regularly coming to these camps and forcing boys and young men to go to Tajikistan and fight the government troops, against their will. I went to the camps to inform the refugees we would move them in three days. As I was about to leave the second camp, with my Administrative Assistant, Qadeer, our vehicle began to be barraged with rocks. My first reaction was to floor it and then … there he was … a boy, about 14-15 years old, squatted in front of my vehicle, with a Kalashnikov aimed at my face. I paused, but reading the fear on his face, “Do I … don’t I … do I … don’t I?” I stopped the car and took our chances. They hauled us out and shoved us into a tent, while pushing guns in our faces. The major Tajic Rebel, Abdul, was pissed because I was drying up his source of young fighters. Qadeer was rattled. I saw the fear in his face and his attempt to maintain his composure. Headlines would be sensational and we all knew it. Qadeer explained why we had to move the camps and how it was moving refugees out of harm’s way. After five hours, I suggested “don’t kill the messenger”. Still under guns, I told them we were only delivering my Chief’s message. They asked me if it was possible to talk with my chief. I said, “I could arrange a meeting Tuesday.” Abdul said he’d be back from fighting in Tajikistan by then and unbelievably … they released us.
It was scary, but I never really thought they’d kill us. Later, when the Taliban held me hostage, I was never sure if they were going to kill me or not … more later.