On 16 October 2010, around 9 a.m., my boss, Nabil and I are standing with our vehicle at the “Main Gate” to pick up our guest, Batuz. He is accompanied by a former general of the freedom fighters, General Wasiq. Batuz is the founder of the “Société Imaginaire,” “cultural response to globalization”. Known also for his anti-wall project in Berlin in 1984 and an art project linking Germany and Poland in 2002, and finally for “no más Fronteras”, a cross-border art project in 2007.
Back when I got the order, I thought to myself, “Wow, what a special and untypical project here in Afghanistan.” I couldn’t imagine anything concrete about his art, because I didn’t know him or his works until then.
At a later stage, I understood that Batuz’s messages to people were genuinely unique because of his art.
The first installation of the gigantic work by Batuz, measuring 18ft x 37ft, was designed with helmets of dead soldiers and, like all his works, it is dedicated to peace. However, I received this information much later, when Batuz had already arrived at the camp.
When we stood at the gate of the camp during his arrival and waited for his visit, I asked him how our guest would influence our life in the camp. Nabil and Cheffé held back their opinions and only shrugged their shoulders. I, on the other hand, am curious to see who is coming towards us. Since I already knew his face from the Internet, I just wondered, does he still look the same or has he already changed a lot? Moreover, the important thing is, what can I do for him to help make his dream come true?
Before I can think about it too much, the guest in question arrives at the gate. The driver’s door opens, and General Wasiq gets out of his SUV and walks around the car to help Batuz get out. After the welcoming, I load the luggage into our vehicle and ask Batuz to get in. We drive directly to his accommodation so that he can rest from the long trip and freshen up.
After about 1.5 hours I pick him up for dinner and show him the dining room where all the soldiers, except the American ones, eat their meals. We enter the large dining room, and I briefly explain to him how the food is served. With the food on the trays, we go to a table where already Hungarian comrades sit over their meal and take a seat with them. During dinner, I introduce myself in more detail and report on some of myself, because after all we are supposed to work together for a while. He listens to me with great interest, and I am amazed at how quickly I can relate to him. I suddenly realize that he is a sage man who has had to endure many difficult times in his life so far. More I am now impressed that he was almost always able to achieve the goals he had set himself. He is a person who, despite all the obstacles that have stood in his way, has lost nothing of his joie de vivre, and that is quite impressive for me. Also, I am already sure that the next days and weeks will be exciting.
The very next morning we sit together again and discuss the procedure and the tasks for today. I quickly realize that Batuz has a very perfectionist disposition. He immediately makes detailed notes of everything that comes to his mind and later elaborates on them in detail. So is his plan on how we can get people excited about the project and pull them to our side. Whether it’s a German, a Polish or a Norwegian comrade. What is essential in this first phase is that we get many helpers and supporters not only from our ranks but also from Afghan employees. The latter is particularly crucial since the artistic performance is primarily intended to draw attention to the freedom of the country or the population.
To make this project public in the camp, we first create a draft of a poster that will serve as a call for the project on November 4 and announce the message in different languages like English, German, Dari. This poster is then placed at all prominent points in the warehouse so that as many comrades as possible can see it. Wherever comrades from all nations are and spend their time together, a poster is to be affixed.
In his book, Batuz shows me his previous works of art, which impressively presents the topic “No màs Fronteras”, in German: “Keine Grenzen mehr” (no more Borders.”) and how he wants to connect this topic with the Afghanistan project. As a background image for the poster, we take a picture from his book that reflects the border on a mountain slope and a border structure on a rough surface. It should symbolically reflect the topic of “overcoming borders.”
After the first steps of the new project Afghanistan has started, I now try to design a sketch with the help of our construction office, since the data inserted there, we later draw the border lines on the Afghan soil. After scanning, a large plotter is used to print out the plan, which will help us to measure the boundary line. In addition to the project, we also need measuring tapes, package string, light spray and black cloths for the participants, who will then represent the boundary. I can get most of it from our hardware store. We will have one of our Afghan language mediators get the clothes outside at the Afghan market. What is still missing are people to help us prepare and implement the Afghanistan project. However, this should turn out to be more difficult than initially thought. It’s not quite as easy as I thought it would be to get interested or even approval for the project, because many people smiled about it and didn’t understand the purpose of this action at all.
One evening Batuz and I sit together in the atrium in the oasis of our bar, having a drink and talking about this and that. A Hungarian captain approaches us and sits next to us on the sofa. He greets us friendly, and although we seem to be somewhat separated by the language, Batuz immediately begins a conversation with the Hungarian captain in his national language. So already the spell is broken, and there is no more talk of distance. At least not on the part of the captain and Batuz, because I couldn’t understand a word by any stretch of the imagination. Shortly after the conversation has ended, he tells me that the Hungarian captain will provide us with five comrades to support the preparations. Moreover, with that, we have our advance party together: Stephan, Nabil, me, the five Hungarian comrades and the artist. In total, we are now nine people who can get the project off the ground. Also, from the construction office comes the OK, that a comrade at least at the beginning can help and support us. The foundation stone has already been laid; what is still missing is the place where the event is to take place.
To generate enough media interest, a place that would attract as much attention as possible would, of course, be ideal. And such a position would, in any case, be found outside the camp, but of course, such a project is not feasible in this warlike region. Due to the security situation, Batuz’s wish to provide a human chain at the foothills of the Hindu Kush is therefore also denied. In a personal conversation with Major General F., he was informed that the planned action could only take place within the camp, and only with the Afghan staff in the camp. When Batuz returns from this conversation with the General, he is slightly uncertain whether the Afghanistan project can be sufficiently effective in the media at all. He had wished for a large contingent of various media representatives from all over the world to transfer the images to the whole world so that the message of peace could be spread as widely as possible. With the limitation to the limits of the camp, this is no longer possible in this way.
He seems quite disappointed, and I understand him very well because when you have such a big idea in mind, it’s not always easy to have to reduce to smaller formats. However, on the other hand, I also understand our leadership, because after all, they are responsible for the lives of the soldiers – and Batuz as well. It is difficult to do justice to both sides here. I try to explain the circumstances to him and of course he also sees the need for the safety of all involved. Nevertheless, I promise him that we will make the most of the situation.
The next morning after breakfast we meet in front of the Shelter, that’s what we call the containers in which we live, in beautiful weather. The view of the Hindu Kush is once again breathtaking. High mountains, which today look quite different than yesterday. The day before there was still a light fog over the mountain range and today, they shine like pure gold. You’d think it was golden sand, but it’s a real rock. When I arrive at the Shelter, Batuz is already sitting over his documents again and is busy taking notes about which tasks still must be done. From buying the textiles to not yet finished telephone calls with all sorts of people. I am always fascinated anew by the wide-ranging contacts this man has. It is interesting to listen to him when he begins to tell where and when he met this or that person, especially in the military field. And just as much as I like to listen to him, I notice that he likes it and it does me good to tell about it.
In the meantime, Stephan and Nabil are in the process of finding the tool we will need later. First, we will try today to locate a suitable place where we will place the human chain on November 4th. For this purpose, we drive by car to the outer area of the camp, where the first construction measures for the resettlement of the Americans from Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, to Mazar-e Sharif are already in full swing. From there you have a good view of the Hindu Kush, which will later fill in the background of the photos. However, it will still take a little time until we have found the optimal place, because Mr. Batuz is very picky, which becomes very clear to me after 1.5 hours of searching at the latest. However, we don’t give up and finally, find what we’re looking for. We mark the place immediately with the brought barrier tape so that the boundaries are well visible.
So now we have found a location and can start the next days with measuring and drawing the imaginary borderline on which people should form a chain showing how peace can connect.
Meanwhile the day “X” is approaching.
It’s Monday, November 1 now. At 9 a.m. all the helpers arrive at the site, which will help us with the preparations. With map material, route tape and lots of spray cans, we set to work on drawing the planned borderline on Afghan soil. The Hungarian comrades are also on site and support us actively. The beginning is a bit difficult because we don’t quite agree with the beginning of the borderline. However, by the time it is clear, things are getting better and better, and at the end of the first day, you can even see where our efforts are going. At the end of the second day, our work is finished, and I think it can be seen. Now all that is missing are the people who are to line up along the imaginary borderline. Batuz is also visibly relieved that the work was completed so quickly, and all preparations could be completed without any further problems.
Now it can come the day of the experiment “Human Chain in Afghanistan.” Quite satisfied with our work we all sit together in the evening for a drink in the OASE and hope that the next day will be crowned with success. And above all, that enough soldiers and Afghan employees will come to form a closed human chain.
The great day of the experiment has come.
It’s 4 November 2010 in Afghanistan. The big day is here! I’m at the office early this morning to make the final arrangements. Stephan and Nabil have already arrived. We’re curious to see how many people will come today to make up the human chain. Despite the initially rather critical attitude towards the project, in the meantime, some people have contacted us who would like to support the project. Even General K. and his staff service officers have signed up so that we can be sure of the support from the management level.
The last two days were still very labor-intensive for everyone involved, even in the warehouse. After the preparations at our fixed location had been done, we had to cut several 100 meters of fabric rolls together in cooperation with the Afghan warehouse workers. For each soldier and Afghan employee, a piece of cloth of one meter is planned, which he will later carry over his head and shoulders. Now it starts, and it will show itself; whether all this was worth it.
At 9 o’clock we have a short briefing with our boss. After the briefing, I leave together with Nabil to pick up the artist. Stephan and the boss drive directly to the square. When we arrive in front of the accommodation of Batuz, I get a somewhat unusual picture. He is no longer as calm and serene as I usually know him, but you can see his nervousness. I’m trying to reassure him with the prospect that everything’s going to be all right. However, I don’t think that’s much use right now. I’m quite excited and tense myself, so I can’t blame him for his nervousness. Well, it was still worth a try.
Today other guests invited by Batuz for his performance, for example, General Wasiq, arrive at the camp. He brings with him baskets full of freshly baked, white flatbreads, which are later distributed as a sign of friendship and are supposed to represent the overcoming of borders between people.
When we arrive at the prepared place, we get a great picture. Numerous soldiers and civilian employees, as well as police officers, have already entered, and more and more people are coming with the camp shuttle. Batuz greets people with a megaphone, so everyone can hear him well and what he has to say. After a short greeting, we start to put the people along the marked borderline and equip everyone with a black cloth. In the meantime, the first Afghan employees are also arriving by bus, which we are integrating into the chain.
About an hour later, the human chain is finally ready for the air and ground photographs. The megaphone is used to convey the tasks and give precise instructions on how people should stand in the chain. Without cloth, with a towel spread overhead, taking their right and left neighbor by the hand.
Everyone is ready, but unfortunately, the helicopter, which is supposed to take the aerial photos, is not prepared. Due to bad visibility in Termez this morning, he could not even start and is therefore not available for this day. However, as always, necessity is known to be the mother of invention. Also, that’s why we’re merely taking the San truck, which is on site anyway, to be ready for a possible deployment. We place a camera operator in the driver’s cab who films from the roof hatch while the truck drives past the human chain. A second photographer takes pictures from the ground.
After the first running pictures and photos are in the box, the pita bread comes into play. It is meant to symbolize how enemies can become friends. One of them breaks bread and hands it to his neighbor. Later, they embrace and eating bread together. Seeing these peaceful pictures live on location is very impressive, especially when you have seen the situation of Afghans out in the country and the city.
At this moment I can only think of why it can’t be like this all over the world — people who work and live together without being separated by intolerance or irrational hatred. Then there would be no more wars or violence against minorities. We are merely living together without conflicts. Too good to be true? Well, at least today, we made it on this project!
At the end of the experiment, General K. addresses a few words to the artist and to all those who have made this project possible as well as to those who have prepared it. Thus, another project “no más Fronteras” in Afghanistan has been successfully implemented and documented for eternity. And I am thrilled that despite the smaller – and sometimes more significant – obstacles, the project went so smoothly.
A few days later Batuz leaves us again. He thanks me for the great support and thinks that he has found another friend in his life. Hoping to meet again, he invites me to Berlin, and I gladly accept this invitation. I feel very honored to hear these words from the mouth of such a motivated and successful man, and I am already looking forward to it, accepting the invitation soon.
The book “Sterben kann man a jedem Tag” by Andreas Meyer was published in 2016 by tredition Verlag. A German, as well as an English translation of the book, is currently in progress.