4 Oct
War Gardens - Lalange Snow

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Uncategorized archive


Hope in the face of horror: The people tending to gardens against a backdrop of war


By Alexandra Fisher for Sunday Extra


An Afghan man stands behind barded wire in a garden, with a ruined palace in the background. PHOTO: Mohammed Kabir works as a gardener in Kabul’s old Darul Aman Palace. (Supplied: Lalage Snow)

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An Afghan commander once showed Lalage Snow an oasis in the middle of a war.

It was 2010 and Snow, a photographer and journalist, was embedded in Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Helmand was the only area she’d been to in the country, so the commander decided to show her something other than war: his garden.

He led her through an Afghan military base, to a place where she could smell “damp earth, sweet grass and flowers”.

“The domestication of nature in an environment intent on destroying it is curiously paradoxical,” Snow writes in her book War Gardens: A Journey through Conflict in Search of Calm.

Paradise amid ruins

An Afghan man watering his plants in his garden in Kabul. PHOTO: Kaka Khalil in his garden in old city, Kabul. He says “flowers bring you peace”.  (Supplied: Lalage Snow)

Snow has covered conflict in Afghanistan and across the world since 2007.

Along the way, she documented the lives of ordinary people tending to their gardens, against a backdrop of war.

One of her favourite gardeners was Mohammed Kabir, who claimed to be 105 years old.

When she met him in 2012, he told her he’d been working in the ruined quarters of Kabul’s Darul Aman Palace, which was built in the 1920s.

“Over the years it had been destroyed and set on fire, and people have been hanged from different beams in the rooms,” Snow says of the palace.

“It really stood as a symbol to what Afghanistan is for many, on the outskirts of Kabul.”


AUDIO: Lalage Snow speaks about the gardeners creating beauty in the midst of destruction. (Sunday Extra)

Mr Kabir tended to a kitchen garden for the Afghan Army, which had a small base at the side.

“[It] was quite common for the Afghan Army to have their own little gardens on site,” Snow says.

“Unlike Western soldiers who live on preconditioned ration packs, Afghans grow and kill their own food basically.”

But Mr Kabir went one step further, Snow says, and brought flowers from his own house to grow.

“It was just a lovely thing to do and it was to create a paradise in the quarters of this ruined palace. It was sort of metaphorical in so many ways,” she says.

He also told her some far-fetched stories — including that he met Queen Soraya in the 1920s and elephants were brought in to help move trees around.

“Given that elephants aren’t really indigenous to Afghanistan, it raises a few eyebrows,” Snow says.

When she met him again five years later, he was still claiming to be 105 and his stories had become even more outrageous.

“But he still had… these two enormous greenhouses that must have been as big as two tennis courts back-to-back, full of geraniums and trumpet flowers and roses and a lot of succulents,” Snow says.

‘A different side’ of life

Snow also visited people and their gardens in Gaza, Israel, Ukraine and the West Bank.

A woman in her balcony garden behind a cage, there to stop rocks being thrown. PHOTO: Zleika’s garden in Hebron is caged in, Snow says, to prevent Israeli settlers throwing rocks, shadows of which are on the wall.  (Supplied: Lalage Snow )

For them, gardening was an escape from conflict, a way to find peace, maintain normalcy, and stay focused.

For Snow, it allowed her to break a barrier between journalist and civilian.

“The bottom line was, ‘well, you journalists always come here, you take our stories and then nothing happens’, which is completely true and something that is rather shaming I suppose in terms of our trade,” she says.

She remembers one man who grew hundreds and hundreds of cacti on his rooftop in Gaza.

Portrait of Lalage Snow looking at the camera and sitting in front of a bookshelf. PHOTO: Lalage Snow has covered conflict in Afghanistan and across the world since 2007. (Supplied: Lalage Snow )

She and a trusted local fixer knocked on his door one day.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to talk to you … you guys come here, we’re stuck here, you leave. I’ve got nothing to say to you,” she recalls.

“And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to talk to you about your cacti, not about the war’.”

The man chatted with them for two hours on his roof, revealing details of his life in Gaza, why he grows cacti and what it symbolises.

Snow says he saw the cactus as a “Palestinian metaphor”, partly because of its ability to sustain itself with little water. 

“In Gaza there is very, very little water at the moment,” Snow says.

“He was just one example of somebody for whom speaking about his life and the war was just absolutely anathema but get him talking about the garden and a different side opens up.”

Under your skin

A man sits with his granddaughter on a military cot bed in his hospital garden in Helmand.PHOTO: Daram with his granddaughter in his hospital garden in Lashkar, Helmand.  (Supplied: Lalage Snow)

Snow returned to Afghanistan time and again.

“There’s a very funny thing about Afghanistan,” she says.

When she first visited in 2007, embedding with a British unit in Southern Helmand Province, she was captivated by the country’s rawness.

“There was a moon one night, the largest moon I’ve ever seen, it was bright orange and it seemed to hang over the world like a pendulum,” she says.

“I just remember walking around the forward operating base beneath this moon at 10 o’clock at night and looking at the stars, and then hearing the sounds of Afghanistan outside the compound walls.”

Unravelling and coming back together

That year she met British soldiers who became part of her photo series titled We Are the Not-Dead.

She photographed young British soldiers just before they deployed, in the middle of their deployment, and when they returned home.

“The one thing that struck me … was how much these guys had changed and how they changed emotionally as well,” she says.

The journalist experienced her own change over time, becoming disillusioned with the trade.

“The real unravelling happens when you [lose] empathy with people,” she says.

“If you start to get a bit apathetic about things and you start to get a bit hysterical … either hysterical or deadpan, then you are losing sight of humanity and you are losing sight of who you are.”

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She says her unravelling happened about three years after living in Kabul, when she’d seen too much.

“Seeing children in trouble and seeing young girls at the age of 13 facing recriminations for having been raped by a policeman, and then seeing young boys die in operating theatres after IEDs have exploded,” she says.

“You know, you filter through a lens, you filter through your camera and then afterwards it hits you.”

Snow, who now lives in the English countryside, says it takes a long time to “re-ravel”.

“I think the gardens and the project probably helped me to not unravel quite so much and to ground me a bit and to see something more positive,” she says.

Topics: unrest-conflict-and-war, gardening, gardens, arts-and-entertainment, photography, journalism, information-and-communication,afghanistan, ukraine, israel, united-kingdom, england