On the back cover of this impressive book we see a family trekking across a snow-covered mountain pass near Banian, returning to Afghanistan. It is a trek Zalmai and his brother made, aged 15, when their family packed them off and they fled this same country. Back then – 1980 – the country had declined into war and walking out across the mountains, Zalmai promised his brother that one day he would be a photographer and would return.
He found refuge in Switzerland, and later became a citizen. But it was to be 16 years before he went back, as a photographer, on assignment for a French language newspaper to chronicle the further destruction of his country under the Taliban. After 11 September 2001, then the ensuing war and fall of the Taliban, he says, he saw the beginning of a new chapter for Afghanistan. By 2003 with some 2.5 million of the Afghan diaspora returning home, he says he began to see the colour coming back.
Zalmai’s experience and knowledge of the Afghan people grants us a privileged view of their lives. Clinging to the ruins of a house in deep winter against the backdrop of the unforgiving snow-covered mountains or crawling amongst the ruins of the great Buddhas of Banian, which the Taliban destroyed, the Afghan people in his photographs display a proud hope. The life they have returned to is uncompromisingly harsh, and the means to survive and rebuild frustratingly absent, yet the faces we see look at us with desire and determination.
The sweeping panoramic format of the book and the warm hues of the colour prints pull the reader in. Zalmai’s camera provides an unsentimental glimpse of an Afghanistan emerging into the light after decades in darkness. “And so I set out to find this hope, with – for the first time – colour film in my camera” says Zalmai. With these photographs he cements the second part of that promise he uttered all those years ago, to return.