Ghosts of the Past

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The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins? – Edgar Allan Poe

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

One bright, sunny day I have the opportunity to go on a mission with the Kentucky Agricultural Development Team to the Shirizar Research Farm, a 1500-acre farm originally established in Kapisa province by the Russians during their occupation. The ADT is partnering with Al Bironi University (ABU) to establish fruit and vegetable plots, two reservoirs and a network of irrigation ditches to move water to the crops.  About forty assorted fruit and vegetable plots have been planted by local villagers and a recent ABU graduate serves as project manager.

The farm is mostly level and the soil is much better than any I have seen so far in Kapisa. As with all soil in Afghanistan, it lacks organic matter, but it is the richest soil I’ve seen here. A towering mountain creates a boundary on one side of the farm, resting like a tired giant, its gray face overlooking the farm.

We meet up with the Kapisa DAIL (Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock), his assistant and the farm manager. I have met the DAIL many times and have a cordial relationship with him. He always greets me with a big smile and a swinging handshake, which is the best greeting I can get as a woman. If I were a man I would be hugged and he would hold my hand as we walked to the field.  On one occasion he asks me to eat a meal at his house, anxious for me to meet his wife. I would have loved to accept this invitation, but I am not allowed to do this because of security concerns. I notice that today he and his assistant are strangely subdued.

We take a walking tour of the farm with three elders from the nearby village to get an idea of where the best location for the reservoirs should be. The three elderly men have wrinkled faces, looking more like hide than skin from years of working in the hot baking sun and the lines around their eyes are deeply etched. They have bad teeth, are bearded, and smell of stale sweat and tobacco. Each one has a different headgear; a pakul (a flat pancaked-shaped woolen hat), a turban and a kola cap (a small round hat). As they walk along, their gnarled hands clasped behind their backs, wisdom and strength resonate from them and I am filled with respect.

The farm manager shows us a large hole on one end of the field that can serve as one reservoir. The elder with the kola tells us the hole was made by a bomb the Russians dropped and he wonders if the Americans can drop another bomb at the other side of the field for the second pond. We tell him we can’t do that, but we will help provide equipment so they can dig the pond.

As we walk across the field I notice shards of pottery all over the field; you literally cannot take a step without stepping on artifacts. I pick up some of the shards and examine them. They are pieces with lips on the top so large that if you extrapolated their size to an actual pot, they would be at least one foot across the opening. Some of the pieces are charred on the bottom, indicating they were used over fires. One piece has a Greek design with an exquisitely flowing pattern. I later describe it to one of our interpreters, Dr. Najibullah, who has a doctorate in archaeology, and he tells me it is from the period of Alexander the Great. As I walk across the field I am stunned by the amount and the beauty of the shards. Some have beautiful patterns around the rims and one has a tiny flower baked onto the surface. The field is obviously an important archaeological site. I show a large shard with a design etched onto it to one of the elders.

“Oh, that is no good. It is two thousand years old,” he says dismissively. I cannot believe this significant treasure trove of artifacts hasn’t been studied.

I hold the artifact in my hand and say, “If this was in America, it would be in a museum.” He takes it from my hand and looks at it with more interest, then puts it in his pocket. Intrigued by the site, I ask if there was a village here at one time. He says a long time ago many people lived here.

When the Taliban took over the government in 1996, most of the artifacts in the Kabul Museum were destroyed, denying future generations of Afghans the opportunity to look proudly upon these reminders of their rich heritage.  The world reacted with horror when the Bamyan Buddhas were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, after the government declared they were idols. The two monumental 6th century statues of standing Buddha, the largest in the world, were carved into the side of a cliff in the beautiful Bamyan valley.  In one infamous day, 1500 years of history was lost, the serene gaze from the Buddhas faces obliterated by intolerant religious fanatics.  The larger Buddha was painted carmine red. One day Dr. Najibullah brought me a piece of stone with faded red paint on it. He had found it in the gravel used to line the roads of the FOB. With a deep sadness on his face he says, “This comes from the Buddha. “ He holds it reverently in his hand, and then offers it to me. I thank him but say he must keep it. Dr. Najibullah worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for the saving of a few precious artifacts, hiding them from the Taliban. He nods his head and gently places it in his pocket.

As we continue our walk across the field we are approaching a cemetery. Afghan cemeteries are dotted with stone or wooden markers, with some of the taller plinths having a green or red piece of cloth waving in the breeze. A few may have a fence around the grave, but most of them have no more than a flat stone to mark the final resting place of a loved one. Brightly colored plastic flowers adorn some of the graves. The nearer we get to the cemetery, the more I sense an invisible, but palpable presence. It is so strong I stop, unable to go any nearer. The only times I have felt this sensation is when I have been at sacred Native American sites. The only way I can describe this feeling is to say there are still people “at home.”

One of the elders points across the field and says, “There used to be an old cemetery over there, many, many years ago. He tells me that soldiers under the British occupation looted the old cemetery, taking jewelry, pots, tools and other funereal items. I am saddened by this desecration of the final resting places of long dead Afghans. As we head back to the other side of the field I can almost see and hear the hum of activity of the vanished people who lived here so many years ago. I see the shadows of women cooking over fire pits and I hear the hiss of water as it boils over onto the hot stones surrounding the fire. The echoes of children’s voices at play and the baaing of sheep float in the air and I feel like if I turn my head quickly I can catch a glimpse of those who lived, loved, laughed and suffered here. Someone asks me a question and the ghosts of the long dead slip back to their ethereal existence and I am once again walking with my little delegation on the modern-day Afghan field.

We stop for a moment as the elders talk about the irrigation system. Two ANPs (Afghan National Police) have followed us all over the field in their ill-fitting blue-gray uniforms, armed with rifles. They have a small post at the edge of the farm, which consists of a hole dug in the dirt and covered with a dark green tarpaulin. A large shaggy guard dog has a little tent set up for him and he is lying underneath it asleep. Something is “off” about the ANP’s behavior. We have our own security, but I think maybe they are just curious about us. I notice them looking at my chest and for a moment I think they are being rude, but then I see they are trying to read my ID badge. I turn around and slip it down the neck of my tunic. They follow me so closely that when I stop suddenly they bump into my back.

I love unusual rocks and as I walk along the field I begin to pick up stones with pretty colors and textures. I pick up one grayish stone with crisscross striations on it. The turbaned elder looks at it and points to the mountain and then to the stone. I understand the stone’s origin is from the mountain. Although we can’t speak each other’s language, we are communicating. He begins to bring me other rocks that catch his eye and soon both of my jacket pockets are sagging with the weight of the rocks.

We ease on up to a small rise overlooking the field and take some group pictures, each one with an ANP photo looking over the shoulders of the others. We sit on the pebbly red dirt in a semi-circle in the shadow of the mountain. As I gaze up at the high ridges I can see curious mountain goats peeping over the edge at us. As discussions ensue, I watch a herder guide his red-brown sheep to graze on the scant grass located at the base of the mountain. Being an animal scientist by degree I am interested in learning about the livestock of Afghanistan. I ask an elder what is the breed of the sheep. He says they are just local sheep, no particular breed.

“Do you want to see a sheep? We will get him to bring you a sheep!” he says excitedly. I tell him no, that we don’t have time, but thank him for the offer. I find the vast majority of Afghans eager to please, giving generously of their time and of themselves.

As we head on back to the MRAPs, our ubiquitous ANPs are following close behind me. I have had enough. If they are trying to intimidate me, it isn’t going to work. As I put my body armor back on, I turn around and look into their stony faces. I make a motion of sagging under the weight of the armor and touch my knees, a play grimace on my face. I touch my white hair as if to say, “I am old and creaky.” I smile at them. With their rifles slung over the shoulders they glance at one another and I see a hint of a smile lift the corners of their mouths. The oldest one points to his grey hair and indicates his knees hurt as well. I give them a farewell wave and climb into the MRAP.

About a month later, in an intelligence briefing, we learn the two ANPs were forcing the DAIL and his assistant to put their commander and four of his men on the payroll for the irrigation project. Corruption in the ANP is rampant. This explains why the DAIL and his assistant looked so glum the day of our mission. The feeling of something not quite right about the day suddenly makes sense. They wanted to intimidate the DAIL and to eavesdrop on the conversations involving the project. I print copies of the pictures I have with the ANPs in every shot and give them to the intelligence officer. The young farm manager risked the real possibility of brutal retaliation by telling the ADT of this attempt at racketeering.

I still think highly of the DAIL. He is an educated, kind man who has made a genuine attempt to improve agriculture in Kapisa province. He has an extension agent in each district in the province, working to make agricultural sustainable. It is too simplistic to call him corrupt. In Afghanistan you never know what a person has been promised or what he has been threatened with. I know the DAIL has five children, the youngest a five-year old son with a congenital heart defect that will likely prevent him from being six unless it is repaired. Members of the ADT are actively trying to coordinate with their churches to raise funds to bring the boy to the United States for the lifesaving surgery. Maybe the DAIL was promised money to get his son medical care. Maybe the lives of his family were threatened. I only know that his eyes on the last day I saw him were filled with despair. I saw many ghosts on our trip that day; the shadowy presence of the long dead, lingering in the shattered pieces of pottery and the very real ghosts of lost dreams and honor reflected in the eyes of men who want to do the right thing, but cannot in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear born of violence and greed.

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Copyright © 2015 Kathy Gunderman

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