The Age, July 4, 2009
News editor captures 'the real thing' in Afghanistan
Shukra was showing Salmon how the Taliban were swapping opium for guns with their enemy, the Northern Alliance
FRIENDS said he must have a death wish, going to Afghanistan.
Last year the Government destroyed only 3.5 per cent of 157,000 hectares of poppies, with eradication teams either attacked or bought off by drug lords.
But online news editor Gregor Salmon was sick of watching disjointed images of the place on CNN.
He wanted to find the truth behind the labels: the Taliban, warlords, guns and opium. And he was up for an adventure.
With the help of local translators and "fixers", he spent eight months criss-crossing Afghanistan, interviewing hundreds of ordinary Afghans.
The result is the book Poppy, an open-minded but down-to-earth look at life in the catastrophe-plagued, fledgling republic.
As he arrived in Kabul in 2007, farmers were harvesting what would become a record crop of 8200 tonnes of opium. Ninety per cent of global supply comes from Afghanistan — an inexplicable statistic at first, given the presence of democracy, ultra-conservative Taliban enclaves, thousands of foreign troops and billions of dollars of foreign aid.
Poor Muslim farmers told Salmon they knew growing poppies was haram (forbidden) but said they did not have a choice. Water was expensive, and poppies did not need much. Smugglers picked up the crop, saving farmers from having to take it to market on poor roads.
Since opium was cleared up in Asia's Golden Triangle, traffickers have turned to Afghanistan with its thousands of kilometres of porous borders. Salmon, 43, from Sydney, found that almost everyone — from corrupt police, to regional governors to the Taliban — profits. Salmon's requests to learn more by being "embedded" with British or US troops fighting the Taliban were rejected, but it was a blessing in disguise as he followed his own leads.
One week he would venture to Jalalabad in the east to watch farmers harvest poppies; the next to Helmand in the south-west to visit a doctor treating opium addicts.
He rode a horse for three days on treacherous mountain tracks to reach the Kyrgyz people of the Wakhan — a remote mountainous wedge of land between Tajikstan, China and Pakistan in Afghanistan's north-east.
There he met Hamidullah, a former police captain who was slowly selling his sheep and yaks to feed his opium addiction. He said his flock would be gone within a year and he expected to die. Salmon's photo of Hamidullah's shy daughter is on the book's jacket.
One of the more bizarre episodes was a road trip to the northern province of Kunduz with a Taliban commander from Helmand called Shukra. Shukra was showing Salmon how the Taliban were swapping opium for guns with their enemy, the Northern Alliance.
One night in a motel, Shukra was mesmerised by the movie Grease, and was dancing "like this little kid, just so gleeful", even though the Taliban had banned pop music when they ruled Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's problems are monumental. Last year the Government destroyed only 3.5 per cent of 157,000 hectares of poppies, with eradication teams either attacked or bought off by drug lords. This week, US envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, said the US would stop funding eradication because it drove poor farmers to join the Taliban.
Salmon said foreign forces had used Afghanistan for their own political ends and it was time to act "first and foremost to help Afghanistan".
He calls for a ground-up approach and said a new program, where councils of locals manage their own aid projects, was a step forward.
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