Mohammad Nader is about thirty-five years old, bearded, with a stocky build and blunt features. Born in Kandahar, he and his family left Afghanistan in 1985 to escape fighting between the Soviets and the Afghan mujahideen. He spent his adolescence in and around Quetta, Pakistan. His father died when he was three, so Nader’s mother supported the family by working as a cook and cleaner. “There were no jobs for educated Afghani people,” Nader told me. Once, an employer gave his mother 200 kilograms of flour to make bread for a wedding party. She kneaded dough all night, earning sixty Afghanis—a little more than $1. Nader quit school to sell vegetables in the market. “Our great teachers were cleaners there,” he said. “We were very happy when the coalition forces came.”
In 2001, Nader and his family returned to Kandahar. “People were going places and taking pictures,” Nader told me. “I like the camera and I can use the camera. These journalists were trying to be the first to take a picture. I like this—I wanted to take pictures before anyone else.” He began working as a fixer for Al Jazeera’s Arabic news channel. He spoke a bit of Arabic, but mainly he worked in his own language, Pashto, calling in reports. “We were giving correct and confirmed news, not making up news by ourselves,” he said. A friend of Nader’s worked for CNN, and he inspired Nader. When Al Jazeera closed its office in Kandahar, Nader stayed behind with a video camera to document the changing Afghan south.
In the days before I met with him, Nader had driven to Arghandab, a restive agricultural district north of Kandahar, to film farmers harvesting pomegranates. It was high pomegranate season, and Arghandab is a key growing area, but Afghan and NATO military operations and threats from the Taliban and other armed groups were making farmers’ lives difficult. While Nader was filming the farmers, an American patrol passed. He joined the soldiers and filmed them walking through the fields. Three days earlier, he told me, he had been driving through Kandahar when he saw some American soldiers talking to local people and shaking hands with kids they had met on the street. “I stopped to film it,” he said. “Lots of the time, Americans are filmed with a gun, and under the gun’s point, they have local people. I took that picture because I believed it expressed that there is not so much of a big gap. These people can work together, and this is the new strategy of Barack Obama.” I asked if he was covering NATO activities more assiduously now than before his arrest. “I was doing that before and I’m also doing it now,” Nader told me. “For me, the important thing is to get accurate, reliable sources due to the rules of journalism. I’m not a judge to decide who’s doing good or who’s doing bad.”
On the night of his arrest, while Nader was out in the courtyard, soldiers searched his house. Nader’s wife and their two children had been sleeping in one room, his elderly mother and adult sister in another. Several Afghan interpreters in military uniforms led the women and children into a room with cushions along the walls, where the family serves tea to guests. “Don’t worry, sister,” one of the interpreters told Nader’s wife. “We are five Afghans with them. The others are infidels.” The interpreters carried the family Korans into the visiting room and gave them to the women, telling them: “Keep these Korans with you so the infidels won’t disrespect them.” The soldiers searched the rest of the house, collecting Nader’s camera equipment and clearing the family’s money from a safe. “They made a mess everywhere,” Nader’s mother told me, wiping away tears. “They took everything from the cupboards and the mattresses were all messed up.” Outside, before they put the hood over Nader’s head, the soldiers blindfolded him and muffled his ears. His sister, who has suffered for years from anxiety and depression, began to cry. The interpreters told her to be quiet, but she wailed even louder. “What are you doing with him?” Nader’s wife asked one of the interpreters. “It’s none of your business,” he told her.