• Some things can never be unseen: preparing to report on PTSD in Afghanistan

Some things can never be unseen: preparing to report on PTSD in Afghanistan

23 November 2015

by Magda Rakita & Mark de Rond

Our Journalism competition winners introduce us to their Afghanistan story plans

Paris brought into focus yet again (as if we needed it) the importance of politicians to appreciate the consequences of wars fought far from home. While the relationship between terrorism on our shores and the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars isn’t straightforward, there is no denying that they left a power vacuum from which such organizations as IS benefited. And, of course, these wars have had other consequences too. The one that’s most likely to have caught the public imagination is PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) among returning soldiers. Think of The Hurt Locker, for example, or American Sniper. As many as 400,000 US veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are thought to suffer from psychological injury. Yet scant attention has been paid to the psychological injury inflicted on local populations. It estimated that some 40% of the population suffers from PTSD, with 68% (or 19 million people) exhibiting signs of severe depression.

What applies to veterans also applies to host nations: those suffering from psychological trauma are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours and domestic abuse. More than half of Kabul’s children have been exposed to violence within the family on a regular basis, the incidence of which has increased with each war. Furthermore, trauma begets trauma: civilians who suffer from PTSD are more likely to favour violent means to end conflict than those who do not.

Clearly, the effective treatment of psychological injury among Afghan civilians is critical to preventing further violence, including domestic abuse, and to aid peace building and developmental efforts.

Thanks to BAAG’s competition, we are due to depart for Afghanistan shortly to produce a feature and photo essay on psychological suffering among its civilian population. Who are we, you may ask. We are:

Magda – a documentary photographer who focuses on social and health-related issues, particularly among women and children. I am based in the UK, but work on assignments and self initiated projects worldwide including, most recently, in Uganda and Liberia. Much of my work focuses on people affected by conflict, sexual based violence and illness. In the many places where I have worked, the emergency response was always one of focusing on the basics – physical shelter and survival – with less interest in mental wellbeing, however important to individuals and societies as they seek to move forward.

Mark – an academic who studies people the old-fashioned way: by living with them full-time for long periods of time. My past work has included long stints with elite rowers, military surgeons (in Afghanistan), and adventures in the Amazon basin (I'm a Guinness World Record holder for being the first to scull the navigable length of one of the world’s biggest rivers).

So there you have it: an ethnographer and photographer about to parachute into Afghanistan to produce a meaningful feature on psychological injury: to try and understand (and visualise) the lived experience of war from the viewpoint of ‘the other’.

We are partners in our private life too, and have been looking for an opportunity to collaborate on a project together – something that would allow us to combine our experiences. When we learned about the competition organized by BAAG in August this year, we decided to apply without giving it a second thought. Mark has some experience of working in Afghanistan but for Magda it will be a first in this region. We proposed an idea for a feature that was meaningful to us: the under-reported psychological suffering sustained by those ‘left behind’ when the troops come home.

We are thrilled that BAAG’s judges decided to support our idea and we hope we will shed a little bit of light of how Afghans cope with the extreme adversity of recent conflicts. We look forward to collaborating with local doctors and community leaders to try and learn as much as we can in the time we have available.

So there we are – preparing for our trip to Afghanistan. Please do follow this blog for updates on how this project develops. We will be post photos and updates during the entirety of our trip – follow us on @magdarakita on instagram and twitter.


Photo credit: Magda Rakita. Detail of bed at the safe house for survivors of sexual and gender based violence. Monrovia, Liberia 2013.

The Afghanistan Journalism competition forms part of our Media4Development programme, funded by the EC.  It aims to bring under-reported development stories to the European public in the 2015 European Year of Development.