Steve McCurry in Afghanistan

Disguised in local garb and travelling with the mujahideen, in May 1979 Steve McCurry crossed the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The rebel militia were fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan government which had seized power during a 1978 coup. Secretly funded by the United States, the mujahideen waged a guerrilla war against the government.

As McCurry remembers: “I was crossing an international border without a passport, going into a forbidden area and then into a war. The army was lobbing mortar rounds that could land anywhere at any time. After about five days I started to gain more confidence, but there were times I wished I were somewhere else. But I figured as long as I’d gotten myself into the situation, I wasn’t going to bail out or back down.” McCurry travelled to Nuristan where he spent three weeks, staying with hosts with no shared language. Travelling at night to avoid detection by Soviet helicopters, he joined the march of the mujahideen across the treacherous terrain, journeying as far as thirty miles a night and surviving on tea, bread and occasional goat’s cheese or yogurt whilst drinking water from ditches. Shooting on black and white, high speed Kodak tri-x film, McCurry photographed the destroyed villages and blocked roads through the country. Living and working in a war-zone, he was in constant danger. Bombs landed a few hundred feet away from where he slept in a barracks one night and he was struck by the quantity of US-supplied weaponry and ammunition entering the country from Pakistan. Travelling with the mujahideen allowed him to achieve a level of intimacy with his subjects that is rare for photojournalists and these early photographs of the Afghan-Soviet War convey the bravery and passion of men gathered in meetings on the eve of war and engaged in combat. McCurry returned to Pakistan with rolls of film sewn into his clothes.

Steve McCurry would go back to Afghanistan over a dozen times in the next two years on assignment for National Geographic, TIME and ABC News. He was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for best photographic reporting in 1980 for his coverage of the war.

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