It was the moment when a Taliban soldier stopped Muzafar Ali’s car and asked where he was going that the young father decided it was finally time to leave his country.
Had the soldier recognised the former United Nations worker and photographer, Mr Ali and his wife and daughter would have been in grave danger.
“I said to myself: ‘If he allows me to leave, I will leave Afghanistan’.”
Mr Ali’s role with the UN Development Program between 2005 and 2007 was to negotiate with regional commanders, “to disarm them, to work with local communities to tell them the war is over, and that they have to play their role to convince these commanders to give up their weapons”.
“I was receiving a lot of threats from these commanders because I was making a database of their weapons and the crimes they did to the villages.
“These commanders were part of the government, they were against the government, they were in a position [of power] and they were everywhere.”
Women celebrate Afghan New Year’s Eve in Bamyan Centre, Bamyan province. (Supplied: Muzafar Ali)
It was during this time vising remote districts, his own minority Hazara people in central Afghanistan in particular, that he bought a camera with the intent of showing a different “face of Afghanistan that was hidden from the world”.
He posted his images on Myspace and, later, Facebook and Twitter.
“I wanted to share that the Hazara people are a bit different to other ethnicities in Afghanistan,” Mr Ali said.
“Where people live it’s mostly peaceful; they respect women’s rights, they value education, there is no restriction for a woman to get education, they don’t need to wear a burka, and so that got a lot of attraction from people.”
Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling book, The Kite Runner, had been released a few years earlier, followed by a film adaptation of the Afghanistan-based tale in 2007, all of which brought further attention to Mr Ali’s photos.
“People from Finland, from Sweden, I don’t know what countries they were coming from, they were all sending me friend requests because I was sharing the photos and telling the stories of the Hazara people,” Mr Ali said.
“I realised how important it is to tell these stories and to share photos that are mostly hidden from the people.”
Some of those photos are currently on display at Ginger’s Coffee Studio in Adelaide for a dual South Australian Living Artists exhibition with local John Hemmings — who’s presenting photos of India — entitled Unseen Afghanistan and A Darker India.
An ancient Theyyam ritual takes place over three days in rural Kerala in India. (Supplied: John Hemmings)
Locals ‘entertained’ by Taliban blockade
Mr Ali’s work was also dangerous and his car hit a landmine in 2005.
He later worked for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which aimed to stabilise and assist the government, and contributed to a transitional justice program that he hopes one day will bring commanders to justice, much like what happened after the Bosnian War of 1992-95.
He worked with a United States development program to build a runway where he lived with American forces and also joined the UN’s food and agriculture program as a media consultant.
Photographers John Hemmings and Muzafar Ali at their exhibition in Goodwood. (ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)
So when in 2012 he was stopped at a Taliban blockade while driving from Kandahar to Kabul with his family and three members of the majority Pashtun ethnic group, his heart was in his mouth.
“I was thinking: ‘Why did he point to me directly and why did he not ask these questions of the Pashtuns?’,” Mr Ali said.
“And the second thing, which was really heartbreaking, was to see the villagers watching it all like a movie.”
He said it was almost as if the villagers were “entertained” by the Taliban as they stopped cars and took passengers out of their vehicles, and was dismayed that the people were not “challenging” them.
“I thought the situation had totally changed since 2005 and could see that more and more people were complying with the Taliban.
“More and more people had accepted Taliban as part of their communities, part of their lives, and I realised I cannot continue working in Afghanistan.
“My photos are all over the internet, I donated them to the education department, they have been printed broadly and my names are on all those.”
To Mr Ali’s relief, he was not recognised and, after telling the soldier they were driving to Kabul to seek medical attention for his daughter, he was allowed to continue his journey.
Cameras were confiscated by the Taliban, but some older devices have survived. (Supplied: Muzafar Ali)
Pakistan bomb blast kills hundreds
One day after arriving in Kabul, they crossed the border into Pakistan as refugees with all Mr Ali’s photos and official documents.
Mr Ali had grown up as a refugee in Pakistan before he returned to Afghanistan in 2004 to work with the UN because he could speak English.
But about a month after they arrived, there was a “huge bomb blast close to my home”.
“I went to the blast with my camera and that was the worst blast I could have imagined with more than 100 people killed and hundreds injured,” Mr Ali said.
Muzafar Ali’s photos of the Pakistan bomb blast captured the anguish of its victims. (Supplied: Muzafar Ali)
“Everywhere there were dead bodies, and it was dark because the blast had damaged the power supply so people were using their mobile phone torches and, wherever they were going, they were coming back with a dead body.
“I realised Pakistan is not the same Pakistan I grew up in in the 1990s, so I got together with all my family members and decided we would have to leave Pakistan too.”
They travelled to Indonesia in July 2013 where they started a school for refugee children.
“I realised we had interpreters, teachers and doctors, so why not use all these resources?”
They started having meetings with refugees and, with the help of an Australian family from Adelaide, started refugee learning centre in a house near Cisarua in Indonesia.
“We started the school in August 2014 and we just celebrated its fourth year,” Mr Ali said.
Their ongoing organisation, Cisarua Learning Ltd, is an Australian public benevolent institution that aims to give hope to 5,000 mainly Hazara refugees living in Indonesia.
Mr Ali, who was recognised as a genuine refugee in 2013, also became good friends with the Australian family and moved to their home city of Adelaide in 2015, where he works as an interpreter and is a student at the University of SA.
Photographers who crossed the world meet in Adelaide
It was in Adelaide that he came to the attention of John Hemmings through the most unlikely circumstances.
Mr Hemmings, who had previously exhibited photographs of Iran, had been asked by the St Vincent de Paul Society if he had photographs of Afghanistan — they were having an Afghanistan dinner for charity and wanted the photographs for the tables “like place mats”.
Blacksmiths of Bamyan Centre, Bamyan province smile for Mr Ali’s camera. (Supplied: Muzafar Ali)
Mr Hemmings had never been to Afghanistan but said he would help them out.
“There was nothing on the internet that wasn’t full of war, Americans, and burnt-out tanks or burnt-out Kabul,” he said.
“So I went onto Facebook and found a site called See You In Iran, which was run by young people and was about bringing people into Iran to explain to them their world to those who’d never been there.”
He then found a similar Facebook page relating to Afghanistan and was advised to contact Muzafar Ali.
It was only after Mr Ali arranged to send him photos that Mr Hemmings realised the refugee was living in Adelaide.
“I said: ‘Bloody hell, he’s about 20 minutes from me’.
“The charity wanted the photos just for placemats, but they were so nice and good … I gave them over to a printer and he too thought they were too good just to make cheap prints, so he made some quality-looking ones.
“Anyway, it all went to the charity and the place mats went under the plates, and then I watched all these people take the placemats out and stick them in their bags because they were such good photos.
“This is the world people don’t see; no-one sees Afghanistan like this.”
A Darker India in print
Mr Hemmings was also preparing an exhibition of photographs from India and was looking for something to complement his series.
He had been travelling to India since the 1980s and had become familiar with its poverty and hardship.
Over the decades he had noticed it change “quite drastically” economically.
“But India is still in a conundrum because there’s 1.3 billion people, and of that there’s 500 million people who’ve got an income similar to us and similar to the American middle class,” Mr Hemmings said.
“However, there’s still 800 million people living in a sense of poverty.”
Mr Hemmings said a lot of people who visited India would visit its iconic sites, “catching buses to the hotel, to the Taj Mahal, walking out on the street and catching more buses, and they become oblivious to what is still half of India”.
“I thought I would re-present the same thing they’re seeing and take the colour out of it a bit, emphasise that actual grittiness … the poor and that sort of dark area.
“It’s the people who are living in the same world you’re travelling as a tourist, but you don’t see them because you’re too busy going off to have your cocktails and have your dinner.”
Knowing his exhibition was going to be somewhat dark, Mr Hemmings wanted something colourful to complement it, and Mr Ali’s photos became the perfect contender.
Mr Ali said it had been an amazing experience to have his photos displayed in his first exhibition and to realise that both he and Mr Hemmings lived so close by.
“For me, that is the magic of the modern world, the magic of connection and its power; that we can be friends no matter which background we belong to.”
A printed photo of a woman and child taken late in the day at Jaisalmer in India. (Supplied: John Hemmings)