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

There and Back Again-Part I

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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft

Going to Bagram Air Base from Morales Frazier (lovingly nicknamed MF) in MRAPs is an hour and a half of sheer hell. We leave at 11:30 p.m. in the hope that the bad guys will be asleep and won’t shoot us or blow us up. There is always the grim knowledge that one fanatic nightowl is out there waiting to do just that. One particular mission is burned into my memory in nightmarish clarity. As we prepare to leave MF, soldiers are loading our gear on a trailer and scurrying around checking out the vehicles and equipment. You definitely don’t want to break down in Taliban country, and that includes the whole route we will travel on. It is raining and I huddle in my rain gear, miserable and cold. MF is either dusty or muddy. There is no in between. It sits in a valley at 6,000 feet and in winter it is frigid. I can see my breath curling in the air and the exhaust fumes of the idling MRAPs burns my nose. The commander comes down and gives us a briefing and we load up.

MRAPs are armored vehicles designed to minimize the damage humans sustain if we hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), but they are not designed for comfort. The seats are hard, with no padding that could catch fire in an explosion. Six people can fit in the back, not counting the gunner, who is standing between the front and back, half inside and half out, manning a 50-caliber automatic rifle in the turret. I am sitting next to him and it is my responsibility to feed ammunition belts to him if we come under fire. If we have a rollover, we all shout, “Roll over! Roll over! Roll over!” and brace our arms on the roof of the MRAP. It is also my responsibility as the closest person to the gunner to grab him (or her) by the legs and hold on for dear life to prevent ejection as we turn over.

There is not a lot of legroom in the MRAP and our legs are interlaced like a zipper. I strap myself into my harness and put on earphones, which fit underneath the flaps of my helmet. Everyone in the convoy, which is usually five or six vehicles, is connected by the communications system so we can hear all the conversations as we get ready to go. There is always an undercurrent of tension until we get the word to go – then there is nothing to do but go. The die is cast. We bump our way out the gate on the rutted dirt road in the drizzling rain.

The road to Bagram consists of a series of steep mountain switchbacks with hairpin curves. My MRAP is pulling a trailer loaded with luggage, and as I look out the back window I can see a rooster tail of mud flying over the bags as the trailer sways back and forth.  The night is pitch black and the rain is coming down harder, lashing against the windows like an angry demon. The navigator sits next to the driver and watches a monitor. The turret ratchets around with a screech as the gunner rotates it, scanning for anything that doesn’t look right. I am always tense on this trip and I try not to think about the French gunner who was shot in the forehead just underneath his helmet and killed on this same road today. There is a crack marksman out there somewhere, because this is the second French gunner to be killed this way in two weeks.

We work our way tortuously up the mountain–sharp right, grind on up, sharp left. I hear our driver shout, “I can’t see the road! I can’t see the road!” The navigator replies “Move a little over to the left!” I can see there is a ravine with a 200-foot drop to the right. Solid lines of rain are streaming down, reflected in the lights that are dimmed to keep a low profile as we move farther into enemy territory. The visual range for the driver is only a few feet.

“A little to the right. Too much! Go left! Go left!” The words echo through my earphones. My nerves are stretched taut and my muscles are hurting from being contracted in sustained fear. Finally, we reach the summit of the mountain and start down. I can hear the brakes engage as the driver balances braking and accelerating. Sharp left, go down, sharp right-back and forth on the switchbacks that surely must have been designed by a sadist. We hit a particularly big pothole and a box of 50-caliber ammunition bounces off a shelf and lands on my knees. It weighs at least 30 pounds, and I am in agony. For a few minutes all I can do is take shallow breaths and fight back tears of pain.

Over the earphones I hear that we are coming up on the place where the French soldier was killed. You can feel the tension in the silence that permeates the earphones. I am praying for our gunners, who are the most vulnerable. I hold my breath and my senses become hyperalert, expecting any minute to hear the crack of a high-powered rifle and see my gunner slump down in his harness. We round a curve and I can see the lights of Bagram in the distance. So close. So close.

The last MRAP passes by the kill zone and I breathe a sigh of relief. Although we are not out of danger, the lights of Bagram are steadily getting closer and beckoning us with their siren brightness. At last we reach the checkpoint and are cleared to go inside the fences topped with razor wire. The tension eases from my body, and I am physically and mentally shattered. I unstrap myself, hang up my earphones, climb out of the MRAP, turn around and back down, stretching to meet the ground with my boot from that last high step. The rain is coming down hard now, and I don’t know if I have ever been more tired. It has taken us two grueling hours in the rain to reach Bagram, and it is now 1:30 A.M.

I pull my mud-encrusted bag from the trailer and begin to make my way to the billeting office to arrange for a place to sleep. I dodge mud puddles and wade through water that is flowing across the roads. My bruised knees are aching, and each step is an exercise in sheer mind over matter. Rain is dripping off my helmet, running down my back and dripping off my nose. My hair is hanging in dank strands and feels like snakes crawling on my face. By the time I reach the billeting office my feet are soaked inside my boots and I am shivering with the cold.

I pull out my travel orders to show the billeting clerk. Rank definitely has its privileges in the military, and my civilian pay grade allows me to have the same accommodations as a lieutenant colonel. For me that means a bed in the VIP tent. This is a large tent with rows of bunks on each side and plywood walls and floors. Bare light bulbs strung from the ceiling cast dim light on the room. Each bunk has a single wardrobe to hang clothes in and store gear. My favorite bunk is just inside the door. It has a wall and so it is like a single room. Privacy is a luxury I don’t enjoy often, and this little space gives me a feeling of much needed isolation. It houses a big blower tube attached to a compressor that shoots heated air into the tent. It is loud, which is probably why it is in a space by itself, but the noise seems like a small price to pay for a few hours alone. Earplugs are a way of life anyway as the roaring of F-16 jets taking off day and night overrides any other extraneous noise.

The billeting clerks are civilian contractors and as I show her my orders, she writes up my bunk assignment.  I grab a plastic garbage bag filled with bedding from a closet next to the desk. She hands over my orders and says, “You’ll have to take this over to the mayor’s office and get him to stamp this.” She shows me is the location on a map, and it is quite a distance from where we are, with a lot of left turns, right turns–in the dark and in the rain. Then after I get the stamp, I will have to walk all the way back to the VIP tent–in the dark and in the rain.

“I’ll get that first thing in the morning. I am too tired to go over there tonight,” I tell her. I am drooping with exhaustion, weighted down by my 50 pounds of body armor.

“No, you have to get it tonight.” At this point it is the thin end of the wedge. Something in my rain soaked, flagging body snaps. I tap my finger on the counter emphatically and say, “I have just experienced hell on earth for two hours in an MRAP. A box of 50 cal. ammunition bounced off my knees. I am cold, wet and in pain and I’m just before lying down in this floor kicking and screaming. Now I am going to sleep somewhere tonight if it is out there on your front porch. I need a place to sleep, and I need it now!” The clerk looks into my demented, glazed eyes and backs away saying, “Let me check with someone.”

She goes behind some filing cabinets that separate the desk from office space in the back. I can hear her urgent whispers, and I expect MPs to swarm out at any second and put me in flex cuffs. At this point, I don’t care. At least I’ll get a nice cell to sleep in, and I bet I don’t have to get a stamp for that.

The clerk comes back and says, “That’s okay. You can get it in the morning.” I can tell she just wants to see the last of me. I thank her, pick up my pack and sling my bag of bedding over my back like Santa on his way across a rooftop. I plod in the rain to the VIP tent–right foot, left foot. Just keep going.

Finally I stagger up the steps, maneuver myself through the door trying to be as quiet as possible and (Joy!) my little space is vacant. I tiptoe in, put my bag and backpack down, pull out a sheet and a blanket and throw them on the bed. I roll up some of my clothes to make a pillow, pull off my sodden shoes and socks, strip down to my underwear and slip under the cold blanket. I screw in my earplugs and fall into the deep sleep that only the truly weary can appreciate.

I spend the next two days going out on missions with the Agricultural Development Team, National Guardsmen who have expertise in agriculture and engineering. At the end of the day I enjoy nesting in my little space. It is a haven to collapse into at night and for a few restless hours it is the place I call home until we start our long journey back to MF.