There are roses in Kabul. Renowned for their fickleness and difficulty to grow, it is hard to imagine a place more unlikely for a rose bush to grow.

Lying at an altitude of 1,800 metres above sea level and sprawling among the mountains, Kabul is dry and arid. Dust blankets the city, making it difficult for even the fittest of people to breathe.

And yet, in the midst of this city of an estimated three million people, where it is hard to imagine anything thriving, there are roses blooming everywhere.

Kabul is unlike any other place I have ever been to. In many ways, it is like stepping back in time to another century. There are few buildings more than three storeys high.

There is a central power grid but it is ill-prepared to handle the demands of a large population — which means that electricity is unreliable. Open sewers line the edges of the streets, funnelling waste and garbage.

Driving down the roads in the centre of the town is a little like navigating the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, swerving around large holes and bumps.

Ancient taxis, painted white and yellow, which could well date back to the Soviet era, crowd the roads along with donkey carts, bicycles, motorcycles, cars and trucks. You can even spot men on horseback a couple of times a day.

Vendors hawk their wares on wooden trolleys and flat, oblong bread is available fresh in small bakeries from before dawn until long after night has fallen.

In some ways, however, Kabul has changed a great deal since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. You can still spot blue-burqa women out and about, running their errands and going about their daily lives.

These blue ghosts are far outnumbered now by women who simply cover their heads with scarves and shawls, regaining the appearance of humanity.

Freedom of choice

The images of covered women wired around the world somehow justify the US invasion as an effort to liberate Afghan women. In truth, however, the women of Afghanistan were wearing the burqa long before the Taliban invasion and will continue to wear it.

Afghans from the city say it is a tradition that comes from the countryside, where attitudes are far more conservative. The men I spoke with, university-educated and English-speaking, told me that their wives and daughters did not wear the burqa and were content with the freedom to choose how much of themselves they could show to the world.

Men who come from the countryside to work in the city say that when they go home, they must change from their jeans and button-down shirts into the traditional Afghan tunic and pants, and let their beards grow. Values in the countryside have changed little.

Security is still not great in the country. The latest statistics tell us that the year 2007 was the bloodiest year since the fall of the Taliban. Locals are torn in their attitudes about the political situation.

On the one hand, they are happy to be free to conduct their lives as they please. On the other, they are aware that they have lost the freedom that stable security provides. Nobody likes the instability and insecurity of not knowing when the next attack might happen.

The greatest risk is being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Since the police and the military are the usual targets of suicide bombers, their vehicles get a wide berth on the roads and drivers take pains to avoid being stuck beside a military convoy in heavy traffic.

An attack took place a few days into my visit, at an intersection I was due to pass 15 minutes later. The US contractors who were apparently targeted were saved because their vehicles were armour-plated. Many people, including a local guard outside the World Bank located next to the blast site, were killed.

One man, nearly two kilometres from the explosion, said he was almost knocked down by the force of the blast.

Charm in chaos

Corruption is endemic in Kabul, where the rule of law has long since fallen by the wayside and public servants are woefully underpaid.

It can take either a few short hours to get papers processed at government offices or it can take weeks, depending upon how much money you can give to bribe the officials.

Downtown, the police direct the hectic traffic moving in all directions. When night falls, the presence of the police takes a slightly sinister turn as they stop vehicles and collect ‘tax' from motorists and taxi drivers in particular.

And yet there is a beauty in the place that can't be denied. In part, it is the old-world charm; of lives being lived in much the same way as hundreds of years earlier.

Afghanistan truly is the place where East meets West. In a crowd, you can find people with European features, blue eyes and pale hair, as well as others who could be Chinese, Indian, Iranian or descendents of Genghis Khan himself.
For me, the charm is in the roses.

If roses can manage to grow in a place that has seen almost 30 years of war and instability, then anything can. Covered in dust, high up in the mountains, threatened with death and destruction, the roses keep blooming.

Dispatch from the field

Of the many photo assignments I have done, this was one of the most difficult. Most photos were taken from the safety of an armour-plated SUV.

Security is still poor in Kabul and the risk of kidnapping remains high. The few times I had the opportunity to get out of the car and shoot, I was either in an area controlled by the International Security Assistance Force, up in the mountains, or in the company of men whose responsibility it was make sure I was safe.

My inability to go out on my own was a source of frustration, though I had no desire to put my life at risk.

This means most of the photos are only glimpses of a dynamic city. I have included the window frame in some of shots to reflect this.

I was, at first, doubtful that I would be able to shoot anything of relevance. Luckily, a lot of the daily life of the Afghans takes place in the city, allowing me to document what I saw.