The Digital Journalist
On the Kuchi's Path
October 2006

by Véronique de Viguerie

It was very difficult to find a tribe that a journalist, Marie, and I could follow to make the trip from Pakistan into Afghanistan. They all thought it would be too dangerous for them.

Eventually we found one while we were buying a tent. There we met with two men from the Kuchi tribe. We were to meet them the following day in one of the tribal areas of Pakistan. Because foreigners are not allowed in Pakistani tribal areas, we went and bought ourselves 30-year-old authentic Kuchi dresses to blend in.

KUCHI NOMADS: Led by the oldest tribe member, 80-year-old Baba Ahmat, a convoy of Kuchi nomads migrates on the route to Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Their journey skirts the treacherous Pakistani border.

Véronique de Viguerie
The next morning we awoke at 5 a.m. and put on our smelly old dresses. To go through the police barracades, we had to put big black veils over our heads. We finally found the tribe after hours of driving around in the tribal areas.

Just to get to the border of Afghanistan, it takes the Kuchis 24 hours of walking through the dangerous mountains of the tribal agency. It is so dangerous that the tribe cannot take the risk of stopping on the way. So, the women, children, old people and even the baby goats go on a bus to cross the border. Once there, they put up the camp and wait for the men with the camels, goats and sheep to walk without stopping.

The journalist and I went on the bus with the ladies. As we crossed the border, the police stopped the bus and found us hidden under our veils, disguised as Kuchis. They took us off the bus. The ISI interrogated us for many hours before letting us go to rejoin the tribe.

We broke the ice with the women of the family by offering them and their children chocolates and other sweets. Most of them had never tried it before and made funny faces as they discovered these new tastes.

KUCHI NOMADS: A convoy of Kuchis on the road to Tora Bora passes through a field of opium-producing poppies in Ghani Khel, Afghanistan. The area, near the Pakistani border, is one of the world's largest drug markets, with opium sold as openly as onions.

Véronique de Viguerie
Once we arrived, we put up our tent as the others did. The people shied away from us and did not seem to know how to react. They could not understand why we were there.

Our camp was really close to the American Special Forces Camp. Suddenly, we heard a loud explosion. One of the kids had thrown a rock that had exploded a land mine. Luckily nobody was hurt.

A few hours later, the Special Forces surrounded the camp. Somebody had told them about two strange foreigners, probably spies, who were pretending to be Kuchis. Panic all around—babies crying, women rushing under their tents, etc. We had to explain why we were there. The soldiers promised that they would not bother us again. We got a lot of strange looks from our adopted family after that. Then, a few hours later, three pickup trucks filled with Special Forces troops rushed into the camp for the same reason. Fuming, we had to go through the same explanation and beg them to not come back because they were compromising the trust we had developed with the Kuchis.

KUCHI NOMADS: The Kuchis are the nomads of Afghanistan, migrating from Iran to the Pakistani frontier. They live in tents and, for centuries, have raised herds of goats and camels. Often put at the back of society, they are rejected by the Afghans. The Kuchis have suffered enormous hardships from a drought that has ravaged the country over the past eight years and killed their animals.
In the village of Tajak, 34 destitute families of the Niazi nomadic tribe struggle to survive. They have lost most of their animals and have only enough drinking water for a 2 km (1.4 mile) migration. They will remain in the village all winter before setting out again towards Iran.

Véronique de Viguerie
After a quick meal shared with our nomads, we finally got to bed. In the middle of the night we heard frightening gunshots. In the morning we realized they had come from the SF camp.

We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to meet the men and the herd at the border. They avoided the border illegally by going through the mountains. It was a magical vision to see all these camels, goats, sheep and men approaching in the foggy morning.

In the beginning, the Kuchis did not want us to stay with them because they were afraid that we would cause them a lot of trouble. But we were determined and insisted on staying. We went to buy for each family in the tribe some sugar, tea and oranges. We asked the chief of the tribes to call a shura, a meeting, including every head of family and us. We gave our gifts and tried to explain why we were there and that we needed to follow them over several days.

Marie, the journalist, and I decided that we were going to cook a dinner for our family—Farook, his wife and children. On the menu: eggs, onions and tomatoes prepared together in the same pan. We went to fetch some wood for the fire and to borrow a big pan. Soon we had everyone watching the two white females cooking. Proud of our mixture that actually smelled rather good, we served the women in their tent and the men in our tent, chatting with our 'fixer.' We liked it, they didn't…. After a session of smoking cigarettes, looking silently eye-to-eye with the three males of the family sitting in our tent, we immediately went to sleep when they finally left us.

We left with the tribe at dawn after breaking camp—taking the tents down, packing, loading the camels, then running after the baby goats to give them some milk for the long walk.

Because we were going to go through many villages with bad reputations we had to try to melt into the tribe. We wore our uncomfortable dresses, plastic shoes similar to theirs and walked with the women. The illusion did not last long; our white faces among their tanned faces were noticeable and attracted much unwanted attention. Our family was very tense. They knew that the other families of the tribe would be angry with them because of the problems we were creating for them. We kept a very low profile during the evening and went to bed early.

KUCHI NOMADS: Bibi-Zorak (right), who estimates that she is about 45 to 55 years old, is the mother of three boys and two girls. She lost her first husband about 15 years ago and remarried the brother of her late spouse, a traditional practice in Kuchi society. Her second husband, Zahir Khan, is approximately 85 years old.

Véronique de Viguerie
The days began at 4 a.m. As usual, the women did all the packing and loading. The men, meanwhile, were more or less—resting! We walked through many opium fields. In the middle of the vibrant blossoming fields, the women in colorful dresses and the animals were very beautiful. Because the group set up camp near a little village, Marie and I had to hide in our tent to remain unseen by the unfriendly villagers. During the evening many men of the tribe came to see us, to watch us and to ask us many questions: "Do you have families like us? What do you eat? Is it true that you can fly on airplanes?" It was like we were from another planet.

For a few days all went smoothly, each day a new camp nearer to the south of Kabul. Every night we had more and more men join us under our tent for what now seemed the traditional chatting session. This was fine until the women got jealous and forbade their husbands to come to see us. Everything plunged into hell: the women refused to give us food, to talk with us or even to have their pictures taken. The men got angry with their women, and a few slaps were exchanged between the men and women. Things continued to get more and more tense as the days went on.

The Kuchis were now close to Tora Bora, which has a reputation of being one of the biggest opium markets of the country. We often heard gun battles in the distance as we were going to sleep. The families were getting more upset because all of us could easily have been targeted by the Taliban or some thieves. Even so, the people had Kalishnikovs with them and anyone would have to be really crazy or desperate to attack this Kuchi tribe.

Marie and I had to fight everyday to stay with them just one more night, one more day. Then one day, Farook, our protector, came to see us and asked us to leave. The other families of the tribe were, apparently, planning to steal everything we had and abandon us with nothing in the middle of nowhere in this unfriendly area. We had no choice but to go. We shared an emotional last lunch with Farook's family. And then we left.

I will remember this trip all my life. Sharing the life of these nomads, some of the last ones on the planet, was a real gift, unforgettable.

© Véronique de Viguerie

Véronique de Viguerie was born in 1978 in France. After a master's degree in law, she went to England to learn photojournalism. As a photography student, she was named "Student of the Year" at the 2003 Picture Editor Awards and was one of the finalists at the Paris Match young photoreporter competition. She got a job in a regional newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo. She went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2003 and moved there in 2004. At the Visa Pour l'Image 2006 in Perpignan, she won the Canon Prize for the Young Female Photographer of the Year. Also this year she received the Bourse Hachette-Lagardere for photographers under 30.

Véronique de Viguerie is part of the World Picture Network agency and her images are regularly published in Newsweek, The New York Times, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, Paris Match, VSD, etc. A book covering her work in Afghanistan will be published in November 2006 and next year there will be an exhibition of her work on the Maoist rebels at Visa Pour l'Image in Perpignan, France.

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