KABUL — When I entered Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, I was surrounded by young men who had been fighters in anti-Taliban militias and whose older commanders had fought against the Soviet army. One of them stood guard all day outside my hotel in Jalalabad, his worn Kalashnikov rifle cradled in his arms. He was about 18. I asked him if he had ever been to school. He shook his head ruefully and said, “No, I grew up carrying this gun. I never carried a pen.”
In the years since, I have lived and worked in Kabul for long periods of time, watching a new generation of Afghans come of age in very different circumstances than those raised in a time of war and destruction.
Money has poured in from abroad, funding schools, literacy classes and scholarships. Civilian rule has returned, and Afghan leaders have struggled to build a democratic system on the ashes of conflict, warlord predations and religious repression. Public universities have reopened, and private ones been founded, including the highly rated American University in Afghanistan.
The Internet arrived, and more recently so did social media, exposing once-isolated young people to a universe of ideas and information as well as temptations. It raised hopes that Afghanistan could leave behind a might-makes-right culture and mature into a more open-minded, inclusive and peaceful society.
One of those young people was my friend Samim Faramarz, a television news reporter who died Wednesday in a suicide bombing in Kabul while reporting live from the site.
Samim was 28 years old, and he earned $400 a month covering politics, news features and insurgent violence. Wearing a flak jacket, he was on camera, describing the horror and death around him, when a second blast detonated nearby, killing him and his cameraman instantly.
Several frantic hours later, when I heard someone use that adverb “instantly,” I was flooded with grim relief, because I had often seen bomb victims, still alive but with horrible burns and wounds, being brought to hospitals in Kabul from identical scenes.
In some ways, Samim was a product of his time and place in the urban youth culture of postwar Afghanistan. He was addicted to high-tech gadgets, with a smartphone permanently nestled in his palm and a laptop full of downloaded films and music.
He posted constantly on Facebook, sending out a stream of comments on whatever he was thinking about. He had recently let his beard grow a bit long, but he dressed in casual Western style, usually jeans and boots and untucked shirts. He had a university degree in journalism and switched easily among Dari, his first language, fluent English and several other languages.
But Samim was very different from many of his contemporaries, an all-too-rare embodiment of the qualities Afghanistan needs to become a humane, open-minded and modern society.
He was an iconoclast in a culture of often-suffocating conformity, a questioner of traditional dogma whose ideas of modernization went far deeper than the latest gadget or fashionable haircut. He was low-key rather than aggressive, but in a place that has long championed hardfisted heroes, his quiet, persistent probing made people uneasy.
At informal gatherings, he challenged conservative attitudes toward family life and religion, both still taboo topics among most of his outwardly hip peers. He loved animals and often rescued orphaned kittens or injured puppies, an unusual avocation that touched some Afghans but made others recoil. He was generous and straightforward in a hypocritical society of elaborate politesse and cruel backstabbing. He was unpretentious and indifferent to luxury in a postwar boom era when anyone with an ounce of ambition went after Western aid or military contracts and started buying SUVs.
What Samim yearned for above all was knowledge. After earning a solid university degree in Kazakhstan, where his independent spirit blossomed, he had come home to be close to his family. But he dreamed of going to graduate school in America, and he was studying for his English-language admission test when he died. “I want to learn about everything,” he once told me, “and then I want to bring it back to make my country better.”
While many Afghans craved Western money but shunned Western ideas, Samim was the opposite. He scoured websites for every creative and thought-provoking scrap of foreign literature, journalism, cinema and music he could find.
I am proud to say I played a small role in this pilgrimage, introducing him to Victor Jara and Joaquín Sabina, Ta-Nehisi Coates and “Sophie’s Choice.” Samim, in turn, introduced me to Persian poets, the Kurdish laments of Ahmet Kaya, and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Whether we were traveling on news assignments or talking over coffee in a Kabul cafe, every one of our meetings became an intense cultural and intellectual exchange.
And then came the night of Sept. 5, when the culture of death met the culture of competitive war journalism. A car bombing, claimed by the Islamic State as an attack on “apostates,” took the life of a wonderful man who had many years to live and who could have become a catalyst for intellectual creativity and social progress in his impoverished, tradition-bound homeland.
Others were killed that night, others who also did not deserve to die and would be mourned just as deeply by their families. But to me, his death was a fresh reminder of the senselessness and horror of the violence here.
How could this have happened? How could a mad Islamist cult, bent on sheer human destruction, manage to attack the same urban community over and over, last month killing 48 promising students at a college-exam prep course and then three weeks later killing 18 young athletes at a wrestling gym and two journalists nearby? How could the leading Afghan television news channel — part of a still-grieving media community in the capital that lost nine journalists to twin suicide bombings in April and then demanded better protection for the press — have decided to quickly deploy a crew that night to report live from the first blast site? How could the local police, who apparently overlooked a parked car containing a jammer and explosives, have been so negligent?
The answers to these questions point to how little has changed despite 17 years of Afghan and international efforts. Conflict has invaded daily life in Kabul, government efforts to contain it have failed repeatedly, and young men are being trained and paid to shoot, kill and chronicle deadly mayhem.
Since the fall of Taliban rule, insurgent violence has taken the lives of more than 40,000 Afghan civilians, and Samim was hardly the only one with great promise. The 2016 attack at the American University killed a brilliant young assistant law professor, Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak. The 2017 attack at Kabul’s military hospital killed a skilled army surgeon, Behroz Haidary, on his 37th birthday.
Samim was also not the only good friend I have lost in this and other wars. Kamel Hamade, the gallant proprietor of La Taverna du Liban in Kabul and a fellow animal lover, died in 2014 along with all his customers when the Taliban assaulted and bombed his bistro, a haven from stress and conflict where I had spent many evenings over the years. Elizabeth Neuffer, a childhood friend in New England and an intrepid journalist whose career as a foreign correspondent paralleled my own, died in a tragic car accident in Iraq in 2003.
When Samim died, he was still a young, restless soul with a dark, brooding side who had not yet found his ultimate calling. But he was also a rare spark of compassion and independent thinking in a country short on both. I will miss my friend very much. Afghanistan will miss him more.