An Afghan woman holds a baby during an election rally for Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on February 18, 2014.

Editor’s Note: The chief photographer for Agence France-Presse in Kabul, Shah Marai, was among at least ten journalists killed in a several attacks in Afghanistan on Monday.
Marai, an acclaimed photojournalist, spent more than 15 years documenting conflict in Afghanistan for AFP. He had written about the dangers of reporting in the Afghan capital in a 2016 essay, “When Hope is Gone.”
With AFP’s permission, CNN republishes that essay below, along with a selection of his work that spans his career.
Marai is survived by his two wives and six children, including a newborn daughter.

The time after the American invasion was a time of great hope. The golden years. After the darkness of the Taliban rule, Afghanistan finally seemed to be on the road to a better life. But today, fifteen years later, that hope has vanished and life seems to be even harder than before.

I began working as a photographer for AFP under the Taliban, in 1998.

They hated journalists, so I was always very discreet – I always made sure to put on the traditional shalwar kameez outfit when going outside and I took pictures with a small camera that I hid in a scarf wrapped around my hand. The Taliban restrictions made it extremely difficult to work – they forbid the photographing of all living things, for example, be they men or animals.

Agence France-Presse's chief photographer in Kabul, Shah Marai, is pictured at the AFP bureau in Kabul in April 2012.

One day I was taking pictures of a line outside a bakery. Life at the time was hard, people were without work, prices were going through the roof. Some Taliban approached me.

“What are you doing?” they demanded.

“Nothing,” I answered. “I’m taking pictures of the bread!”

Luckily this was in the age before digital cameras, so they couldn’t check to make sure I was telling the truth.

I rarely put my name on my photos at the time, I just signed them “stringer,” so as not to draw unwanted attention to myself.

An Afghan boy carries a sheep on his shoulders at a livestock market ahead of Eid al-Adha festival in Kabul on September 22, 2015.

AFP didn’t really have a bureau here back then, we had a house in the same neighborhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, that we do today. Special envoys would take turns coming here, and we would regularly go to the frontline on the Shomali Plain, where the Northern Alliance was holding out against the Taliban. Aside from the BBC, only the three agencies, – AFP, AP and Reuters – remained in the city. Then in 2000 all of the foreigners were finally chased out and I was left alone to hold down the fort at AFP’s bureau. I would phone in information to the Islamabad bureau with a satellite phone.

I watched the September 11 attacks on the BBC, not thinking for a second that there would be possible repercussions for Afghanistan. It was the Islamabad bureau that warned me some days later: “Rumors are that the Americans are going to attack.”

Security forces from the Northern Alliance enter Kabul on November, 13, 2001.

The bombings began less than a month later, on October 7, targeting the city of Kandahar near the Pakistani border, that the Taliban had made as their capital.

I was in the middle of phoning in the information to Islamabad when I heard the planes over Kabul. The first bombs were dropped near the airport. I didn’t sleep that night, but I couldn’t go outside.

The following morning I headed to the airport in my car. Not far from it, I came across a group of several dozen Taliban fighters, dressed in black.

One of them approached me. “Listen, I’m nice today so I’m not going to kill you, but get out of here right away.”

I turned around, drove back and left my car at the office. The city was deserted. I came back with my bike, like an ordinary guy, a scarf wrapped around my hand to hide my camera. I took six photos that day, just six. I ended up sending two of them.

Then one morning, the Taliban were gone, vanishing into thin air. You should have seen it. The streets were filled with people. It was like people were coming out from the shadows into the light of life again.

An Afghan boy sells balloons in Kabul in 2013.

Colleagues began arriving in droves. AFP sent a text reporter and a photographer from Moscow right away and before you knew it, there were a dozen of us. Kabul became Journalistan. The office was never empty.

I helped out everybody, be it to find lodging, a car, a fixer, or a best way to get somewhere. My best friend opened the Sultan Guesthouse, the first one in Kabul and asked me to join him in the venture. I should have, he ended up making a fortune!

It was incredible to see all those foreigners after all the years of isolation under the Taliban. They came from everywhere, and groups of children would run ahead of them on the streets. I remember one young man, holding a dollar, repeating over and over: “It’s the first dollar that I’ve ever held!”

Afghan National Army officers are seen at a graduation ceremony in Kabul in 2011.

It was a time of great hope. The golden years. No fighting in the city. The streets were filled with troops from Britian, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Turkey. The soldiers would patrol the city on foot, saying hello, relaxed and smiling. I could photograph them as much as I wanted.

You could travel anywhere, south, east, west. Everywhere was safe.

And then in 2004, the Taliban came back. First in the Ghazni province in the southeast. Then in 2005 and 2006, they began to spread out, like a virus. Then the attacks started in Kabul, targeting places frequented by foreigners. The party was over.

An Afghan man who lost his father in a 2016 attack targeting Shiite pilgrims weeps at the gate of Karte Sakhi shrine in Kabul.

Today the Taliban are again everywhere and we are stuck in Kabul most of the time. T-Walls, those concrete blocks designed to protect against booby-trapped cars and trucks, have sprouted all over the city. People are no longer friendly toward someone with a camera. Often they become aggressive. People don’t trust anyone, especially someone working for a foreign news agency – ‘are you a spy?” they ask.

Fifteen years after the American intervention, the Afghans find themselves without money, without work, just with the Taliban at their doorstep. With the withdrawal of essential Western troops in 2014, many foreigners have left and have been forgotten, as have the billions of dollars poured into this country.

I long for those years, immediately following the arrival of the Americans. Of course the city has changed a lot since 2001. New buildings have been built, large avenues have replaced tiny streets. The signs of war have all but disappeared – except for the old Darulaman royal palace, you won’t see a ruin in the city. The stores are full and you can find almost anything.

A man looks through a broken window at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul in January 2014.

But there is no more hope. Life seems to be even more difficult than under the Taliban because of the insecurity. I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. I have five and they spend their time cooped up inside the house. Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd. I can’t take the risk. So we don’t go out. I remember all too well my friend and colleague Sardar, who was killed with his wife, a daughter and a son while on an outing at a hotel, with only his small son somehow surviving the attack.

I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out. It’s a time of anxiety.

When hope is gone

CNN’s Kara Fox and Sarah Tilotta contributed to this report.