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Why I’m staying in Afghanistan


Yasui’s garden is a shady escape from Kabul’s dusty, frenetic streets. A fountain sits among fig and mulberry trees, and two giant guard dogs given to her by nomad families loll on the lawn, longingly eyeing a small aviary.

“It’s comfortable to have a house of your own,” says Yasui, a photographer who was first drawn to Afghanistan by its wandering tribes of livestock herders. She had been captivated by an old book of photos of the country’s Kuchi nomads, and in 1993 she hitched a ride on an aid truck to the eastern city of Jalalabad. After a sheltered childhood in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto, she was shocked by the violence she found.

“I crossed the border and I was so excited, thinking, ‘This is Afghanistan.’ I only knew it from the book. I thought there would be caravans of nomads, and I looked and looked but couldn’t see a single one. There were just burning trucks and tanks, and then I realised: there is still a war here. I had never seen war,” she says. “I had to report these facts to Japan, instead of the Kuchi.”

After two weeks covering a sprawling, squalid refugee camp, Yasui travelled to Kabul, crossing the frontlines between several warring factions. Undaunted by her inexperience, or by the horrors she had already seen, she joined a handful of other journalists in the city’s dilapidated German Club and became a war correspondent almost overnight. “It was so surprising, so sad,” she says. “I was crying a little bit at the beginning… It was not necessary for so many children to die. But I was not frightened. It looks very dangerous being at the frontline but the [other soldiers] were a long way away.”

She returned to Afghanistan every year after that first trip, eventually photographing nomads in the Panjshir valley, and then befriending one of the war’s most famous commanders, Ahmed Shah Masood, known to his admirers as the Lion of the Panjshir.

“When his bodyguards introduced me, saying, ‘The Japanese female journalist is here’, he would joke: ‘She’s not a girl, it’s a boy.’ If you see the pictures, I have very short hair and I’m wearing men’s clothes for my work.” She laughs.

Masood gave her a Persian name, Mursal, which means rose. “After the war finished, all the mujahideen came to Kabul, everyone knew me. Every street, passing by, I’d hear ‘Mursal’ – someone calling to me.”

In 2002, after both her parents passed away, Yasui moved to Kabul full time. Months later she fell in love with an Afghan colleague, but dating was a challenge in a city so conservative that many couples don’t even meet until they are engaged.

“It’s difficult to secretly be boyfriend and girlfriend in this country, so in the end we decided to get married. We went to Turkey,” says Yasui, who converted to Islam for the marriage and sometimes worries that she is a “lazy Muslim”.

A decade later she has become famous in Afghanistan with a new generation, this time for her cooking and hospitality. Encouraged by an unconventional Japanese tour firm keen to invest in Afghanistan, she opened a small but immaculate hotel in the historic Bamiyan valley, looking out over cliffs studded with ancient Buddhist caves.

“At the beginning it was quite difficult, because I’ve no experience of being a hotelier,” she says. “But I have been a customer, so I try to put in what I think is comfortable.” That included introducing Japanese and Chinese food to a once-cosmopolitan valley that had fallen off international trade routes centuries earlier.

The Hotel Silk Road became the closest thing Afghanistan has to boutique accommodation, booked out for government retreats, charity workshops and diplomats’ holidays. Guests told her that, once back in Kabul, they missed her teriyaki chicken and tempura, so she opened a restaurant in the capital, and a handicraft business to provide jobs for local women whom the small hotel could not support.

She still works as a journalist, but her side projects now employ nearly 100 people. Security worries have already affected her business: roads into Bamiyan have been periodically cut off to foreigners and most government officials. But having endured one Afghan war, she is prepared to ride out another – and is still hopeful she won’t have to.

“I am ready to fight for things to go the right way,” Yasui says. “Sometimes I’m a little bit tired, but still I want to stay here. This is my home. We believe the future will be bright.”



The Afghan girls raised as boys





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