Mother’s Day in Afghanistan

Photo by Jodi Cobb

Photo by Jodi Cobb

For a man it is a dream to have a young teenage bride, a wife who is fresh like an apple, a girl whom he can play with, plan her dreams, her future, and her destiny as if she were a toy. But what is it like for the girl? The man who buys a young girl holds her future and destiny in his hands. She must do as he says. It is worse than slavery. – N, Afghan Women’s Writing Project 

One of the things I miss most in Afghanistan is being away from family on holidays, but some of my most memorable times there were on holidays. On Mother’s Day, 2010 I am at Bagram Air Base (BAF) waiting to go out on a mission to a battered woman’s shelter in Kohistan in Kapisa Province. There is a complication with the communication system between the MRAPS in the convoy so we are delayed about an hour. The team leader suggests we go grab some lunch while they fix the problem.

I go over and get in line at one of the dining halls to wait for the doors to open. I haven’t have any breakfast and I am really hungry, almost faint from low blood sugar. Low blood sugar levels can make you very irritable and I am getting more and more agitated as I listen to two large civilan men in line ahead of me. Every other word is the F-word, which I don’t like to hear. Normally I don’t say anything because sometimes obscenities are the way people deal with the stress of being in a war zone, but today it is getting on my nerves and after a particularly long string of “f—s”, I tap the man in front of me on his shoulder. He turns his beefy, tall frame around and looks at me with questioning eyes.

“It’s Mother’s Day,” I say, giving him a stern look.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says, ”I didn’t see you standing there.”

I just nod and go back to waiting. I am not only hungry but the sun is boiling hot and the heat is making me even more irritable. I hear some more “F” bombs behind me and I turn to see two young soldiers in conversation.

I say to one of them, “It’s Mother’s Day. Would your mother be proud to hear you talk that way in front of a woman?”

He looks a little stunned and says, “What did I say?”

I am scathing in my reply, then I just say “Oh, nevermind!” and I stomp off angrily.

When I get back to my convoy I am relating what happened to one of our guys. He looks at me, climbs inside a MRAP and comes back with a packet of grape jelly from an MRE. “Kathy, I think you need to eat this.”

After another 30 minutes our communications are fixed and we are ready to roll. We exit the base and start out on our long, bumpy ride to Kohistan. Along the way we pass by adobe homes that are right out of the Bible. I spot a man riding a camel in the distance and for an instant it is easy to imagine I am living 1000 years in the past, but a look around at the soldiers riding with me in a 1-million dollar armored vehicle dispel that fantasy.

We drive into Kohistan in the hot afternoon. Everything seems to be covered in a thin layer of red dust. We pass by men with pancaked-shaped hats called pakols and scarfs wrapped around their necks who stare at us curiously, a few with ill-concealed hate in their eyes. Children scamper along beside us laughing and asking for treats. We pull through the gate of the women’s compound that has a high wall surrounding it. After climbing down from the MRAP I stretch my cramped legs and look curiously about. I see a neat compound with a small vegetable garden and several buildings.

A regal looking woman wearing a turquoise blue salwar kameze and matching scarf wound round her head comes out to meet us. She introduces herself as Mrs. Kohistani, the center’s director. Except for our interpreter Dr. Najibullah, no men will be entering the shelter. She explains that many of the women have been abused and may be very shy about talking to strangers.

We make our way inside and I see some young girls and small children. I am thinking the mother’s must be in another room and I look around expecting Mrs. Kohistani to guide us to another area.

She is just standing there looking at us and it suddenly hits me. These young girls are the mothers. I am sick at heart as I look at these girls whose eyes are filled with fear, many holding infants in their arms and a few with a small child hiding in their skirts. The oldest one cannot be over 18. One 11-year old is visibly pregnant. We have brought some children’s books and we ask the mother’s if we may give them to the children. As we distribute them I take a moment with each mother to ask about her children. I show them pictures of my grandchildren. They are polite but there is a pervasive atmosphere of fear that I believe has nothing to do with our visit. The women cannot stay here forever and when they leave they know they at best will be beaten and they very likely will be disfigured or even killed.

As we leave the mothers we meet in Mrs. Kohistani’s office to talk about what we can do through our Female Enrichment Program to help the center. We talk about poultry and beekeeping projects that enable women to earn a living and to have food sources. As we finish our talk we linger over tea and Mrs. Kohistani relates to us that the day before two young sisters had come to the shelter to escape their abusive husbands. She had arranged for them to go into hiding in Pakistan. During the night, the families of the girl’s husband went to their mother’s home thinking the wives would be there. When they discovered they weren’t they killed their mother and disemboweled their 12 year-old sister. I am overwhelmed with emotion.

As we put our body armor back on in preparation to return to the base I am praying silently that these women will be able to find sanctuary that will remove them from the brutality to which they have been subjected. On the long journey the jocular banter we had exchanged over the radios on the journey there is missing. My earphones are silent as we all contemplate the horror we have seen today at the women’s shelter. As we near the base the soldier who gave me the grape jelly looked over at me and said, “Happy Mother’s Day, Miss Kathy”.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

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

A Day in the Life

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

War is as much a punishment to the punisher as it is to the sufferer. – Thomas Jefferson.

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

As I settle in to life at Morales Frazier it becomes like any other job. Get up, go to work, come home, have a little down time and repeat. Instead of commuting to work by bus or train as I did in Washington, DC, I can walk about one hundred yards to my office. Instead of a background of horns honking, the screeching of the brakes of a bus, the whirr of a train as it rushes into the station, I hear gunfire, rockets and the chatter of the French and American military as they go about their daily routine. And because you can get used to anything, it does become routine.

I start my day at 5:30 in the morning and I exercise to the sound of helicopters landing and taking off at the helipad. There is not a lot of equipment but enough to get a good aerobic workout. The smaller weights I need are missing, usually taken to use as doorstops and although I ask for more, they never come. In my younger days I competed in body building and weight lifting. I have really strong legs and I just love getting on the legs press after some guy has been straining and grunting and lift more weight than he did without effort. It’s the little things, you know. Once I saw a guy lifting weights incorrectly and offered advice on the correct way. Of course I got made fun of. Who was I, an old white haired lady telling this young, virile soldier how to lift weights? I took the higher ground when I saw him icing his shoulder in the dining hall later that morning. He at least had the decency to look sheepish.

Our dining hall or DFAC, is a small room with tables. We have Army cooks that don’t really cook much. They don’t have a real kitchen to prepare food so they heat up a lot of dinners that look like Schwann’s meals. We don’t have any fresh fruit or vegetables, although on one memorable occasion when a general visited we had a green salad. I just stood in front of it and lifted a trembling hand to my mouth as I whispered wonderingly, “A salad!” We have milk, soft drinks and water to drink. In the morning I have cereal and sometimes there are some stale pastries as an option. We do have good ice cream as dessert or for a snack.

When a RIP/TOA (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority) is in place the departing unit tries to use up all the food allotted to them. Once when a supply truck burned up at Bagram at the same time as a RIP/TOA we had some interesting meals, like seven different kinds of chicken. Nothing else, just seven different kinds of chicken.

The French have a better DFAC, but is on the other side of the base and I am usually too wiped out after a 12-14 hour day to bother going. The few times I ate there I was not impressed with the food so it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Surprisingly there is a small pizza place on this tiny little base and it makes a nice change. We also have MREs (Meals Ready-To-Eat) that can be taken on long missions. I know they must have some heavy duty preservatives because they can last for years.

After breakfast I take my “bath” which consists of wetting a washcloth with bottled water and using camping shampoo. About every four days I trudge through the dust or mud, depending on the weather, and take a real shower. The showers and bathrooms on MF are coed so as I walk up the steps and open the door I go in with lowered eyes because they don’t always explain to newcomers the “coed” part. If I hear a shocked gasp I just keep my eyes lowered until a towel is draped over the appropriate places.

The showers are small cubicles with a tiny space on one side of a shower curtain to disrobe and hang up your clothes. As the water is trucked in and is in limited supply we only get two minutes of water use. I wet my hair and body, turn off the water, lather up, turn the water back on and rinse, all the while trying to not get water in my mouth as it is not potable. It can be done. Just. Then the trick is to try to dry off and get redressed in such a tiny space. While I am in the shower room I brush my teeth and admonish the guys for leaving hair in the sinks. I tell them “I don’t even get this close to my husband at home!” I’ve seen more men in boxer shorts since coming to MF than I have in my whole life. Like I say, you can get used to anything.

One particularly uncomfortable time in the shower was when I found myself in the stall next to our chaplain. He comes from Bagram once a month for a service. “Nice sermon, Chaplain,” I say over the wall. “Well, thank you,” he answers back. Awkward to say the least. After my shower I walk back to my tent in the dust or mud which necessitates washing my feet again when I get back to my room.

If I need to get up in the night to go to the bathroom there is a port-a-potty conveniently located in front of my tent. An Afghan business cleans all the port-a-potties every morning but by night they are disgusting. I cautiously open the door like someone checking for booby traps, which in a way is true. Toilet tissue lies in clumps around the facility and the floor is coated with urine. For goodness sakes, these men are trained marksmen. Are they trying to hit the floor? I sit gingerly on the plastic seats that are cracked trying not to pinch my butt. The Afghans use squat toilets and they don’t understand the concept of sitting on a toilet. They stand on the seats to do their business, therefore the cracks. There is a small sticker in each toilet with a person standing on the toilet with a red line through it, but apparently it doesn’t get the message across.

Privacy is at a minimum as the potty outside my tent also has a bench sitting right next to it. I usually walk to another one if I feel I need a buffer zone. Once, as I was leaving a stall, my boots slipped in the mud coating the linoleum floor of the latrine and I fell to the floor. The latrines are in B-huts sitting on blocks and when I fell the whole place shook and my fall echoed loudly in the confined space. I heard a “Holy shit!” come from another stall. I got up and quietly left the latrine and burst out laughing when I got outside. I know some poor guy is sitting in there with his pants down thinking we are in a rocket attack.

My office is in a concrete block building with plywood walled offices that don’t have an interior ceiling. I share my office with one other person from the military and we get along very well. Dust is usually everywhere so I dust first thing, then check email. I am trying to figure out what was done by the USDA rep before me but there doesn’t seem to be any records or contact information for local Afghan leaders. In the civilian world there is no passing of the baton and we just keep doing the same things over and over with no documentation, no follow-up and no accountability. With the military it is a little better but I come to realize that most of the projects the Civ/Mil (Civilian/Military) Provincial Reconstruction Teams are implementing do not have lasting value. I desperately try to look for projects that I feel can make a difference but I don’t kid myself that I am going to change the world here. The whole point of putting civilians in the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan was to stabilize the economy by creating jobs and sustainable agriculture. The reality is this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to do in an active war zone. It just increases the likelihood that civilians  will be wounded or killed. We will never win this or any war with how much money we throw at people and it certainly won’t be with how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the one-on-one interactions we have with Afghans where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists. I try to take a small measure of comfort in that.

After a day of trying to see a way clear to use my skills and expertise to help farmers in my province I make my way back to my tent where I have about two hours to myself, or as much by myself as you can be in a tent full of women. I put my earphones on and listen to music as I turn to my sketch pad for some relaxation. Soon I am lost in another world and as my pencil scratches across the paper my mind is distracted from the omnipresent noise that permeates our base. After an hour or so, I look down and see a beautiful picture that I can barely remember drawing. It is like a meditation and I did some of my best work in Afghanistan lying propped up in my bunk in that tent on MF.

At about 9:00 PM I brush my teeth, spitting in the trash can and rinsing with bottled water, followed by an Ambien so I can sleep. I wash off my feet again and crawl under the covers on my bunk. I screw in my earplugs that muffle but don’t exclude the noise and in the dark I lay and ponder my being 12,000 miles away from my family. As I say my prayers I hope they know how much I love them. I pray God will show me a way to be useful here; a way to bring some comfort to people who are living under the tyranny of 40 years of war. I pray that soon we all can go to sleep in peacefulness.

Copyright (C) 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

A Moment of Acceptance

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We must then build a proper relationship between the richest and the poorest countries based on our desire that they are able to fend for themselves with the investment that is necessary in their agriculture. – Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK

During my training in preparation to deploy to Afghanistan as an agricultural adviser I learned that Afghan women have a very different place in society than western women. I am told there are three sexes in Afghanistan – Afghan and western men, Afghan women and western women. I wonder if I will be accepted by Afghan farmers, either as an American or as a woman. I receive a lot of advice on how to dress and act, but I make the decision early on to rely mainly on just being myself and letting my agricultural expertise speak for itself. I have worked in agriculture, a male dominated arena, for over 30 years. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to prove I know what I am doing.

Soon after arriving at my post I go on a mission to the compound of the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL) in Kapisa Province with a group of American National Guardsmen to deliver agricultural seeds.  As I begin to mark off the variety and amount of seed, I notice the Afghan farmers unloading the truck are either politely ignoring me or casting quick sidelong glances at me. I know I look strange to them and I am not offended by their curiosity. The men show the signs of a lifetime of hard work. Although they look like they are in their 50’s and 60’s, most likely they are in their 30’s or 40’s. Life is hard here and people age quickly, with the average lifespan being 44. Their hands are calloused, many with injured nails that look more like the yellowed talons of some huge predatory bird. Their nut-brown faces are lined from long hours in the unrelenting Afghan sun, made more searing because of the high altitude.  Many are gap-toothed and their teeth are stained from tobacco use. To me their faces are made beautiful by the honesty of the hard work they must do to feed their families. I come from an agricultural background devoid of massive tractors and combines and I instantly feel a bond with these tillers of the soil. They are wearing dingy white salwar kameze, loose pants with a long tunic, many topped off with western-style sports jackets and vests.   They are wearing headscarves or intricately wound turbans. The smell of stale sweat wafts over me in the gentle breeze that is tickling the leaves of the acacia trees under which we are seeking some shade.

Some of the bags in the truck have split in transit and the seeds have spilled out onto the bed of the truck. The men rake up the seeds with their hands, careful to capture each precious seed. Some of the seeds are bright pick, having been treated with fungicide.

“What kind of seed are these?” they ask in amazement.

My interpreter, Najib, is not an agriculture person and he lifts his shoulders in a gesture that says, “Beat’s me.”  I lean over and say they are sorghum seeds. “Sorghum!” they say and nod their heads.  Having broken the ice, they start to bring me other seeds, holding them out for me to see, waiting shyly for my reply. I identify barley, oats and wheat. They are becoming friendlier and start making eye contact with me.  They bring me a handful of turnip seeds. Najib doesn’t know the Dari word for turnip, so I draw the men a picture of a turnip and they smile with pure delight.

As we get ready to leave, one of the turbaned farmers reaches into his pocket with his work-soiled and hardened hand, takes my hand and gently puts something onto my palm. I look down and see he has given me some dried mulberries and walnuts. I look up and smile, and he smiles back. Although the mix looks less than clean, I eat it with joy in my heart because he has offered me his food. He is letting me know with this offering that he accepts me.

It is a great day.

There and Back Again – Part II

Convoy

When you are in a combat situation, you mustn’t let your mind be polluted by emotions like fear and anger. Simply accept the situation and react, even if you are facing impossible odds. Keep your head clear and you will be one step ahead of your attackers. – Aaron B. Powell

My unit decides to break from our routine and head back to MF during the day. As we repeat the process of preparing our convoy to go back, the skies are sunny and I am almost giddy from the absorption of a few rays of warmth. Deep ravines and steep mountain roads don’t hold the same menace in the day as they did on that nightmare ride three nights ago. We have just about reached the summit of the mountain when we roll up on a firefight. It quickly becomes clear we should have stuck with our routine.

I can see French soldiers hunkered down behind dirt berms on the side of the road firing 50-caliber guns down into the ravine where insurgents are firing back. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire is a constant background noise as I listen to the chatter over the earphones. “Hold up! Hold up!” Our convoy comes to a stop and I can see the gunner’s legs tighten with tension as he rotates the turret rapidly back and forth, trying to see everything at once.  I have a strange sense of resignation although a frisson of fear is making my limbs tremble like a taut wire being strummed by the wind.

“Are you okay, Miss Kathy?” our driver asks.

“I am fine. Don’t worry about me.” I don’t want them to focus on anything but their jobs at this point in time.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Continuous, near at hand from the French and far away as the insurgents return fire from the valley. I know we are relatively safe from gunfire in the thickly armored MRAP. Again I am praying for our gunners. Then I hear over the earphones, “There are two guys on the mountain with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).” Okay, I think, if this is armor piercing, it can take us out. My heartbeat speeds up and the tension can be felt in the silence that permeates the radio. Finally, someone says, “It’s a French guy and an ANA (Afghan National Army).” You can feel the collective sigh of relief over the radio.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!  An F-16 roars through the canyon overriding the sound of gunfire. A French helicopter swoops over, dropping canisters that burst into red and green smoke upon impact to mark the location of the insurgents. Another helicopter fires rockets into the area. Clouds of grayish dust mingle with the colored smoke in a bizarre, surrealistic display of dancing plumes. The loud explosions of the rockets shake the ground, and I can feel the concussion under my feet. My civilian companion in the MRAP is excited. “That’s right. Light ‘em up!” he shouts.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! “They’re still coming!” I hear over the radio. I can’t believe anyone could be living after all this fire power has been thrown at them, but still the guns keep firing. After about 20 minutes we get the word to move on past the firefight. There is a huge IED hole in the road that wasn’t there a few nights ago. It is deep and wide, and I hope the sides don’t cave in as we inch around it and plunge us down into the ravine below. Finally, we are on solid road again and we head away from the firefight. We are close to MF and as we near the FOB I look over to my right. A French armored vehicle responding to the firefight has gone off the road and tumbled down a ravine. I see soldiers removing bodies from the wreck. They are covered with blood and their limbs are broken, some are obviously dead, and I wonder if these are men or women I know on the base.

We pull into MF, our nerves raw. I get out of the MRAP, my legs threatening to give way as I step down on the ground. We are parked next to the big 107mm guns. They are being fired in support of the troops engaged in the firefight, and the booms of their mortars as they discharge are deafening. Every time one goes off I flinch and cover my ears as the earth shakes underneath my feet.

We are told that the mess hall has stayed open for us and after I drop my gear off at my tent, I head on over. Up until now I have been relatively calm, considering the circumstances, but when I lift up a forkful of peas and carrots I notice they are falling off because my hand is shaking so badly.

I find that the day of a hostile action I have an afterglow of excitement fueled by adrenaline. It is all anyone can talk about, and each moment is relived again and again. The day after is marked by a massive headache from the release of adrenaline into my body, and I am sleepy and lethargic all day. This seems to be the norm for most of the people around me.

Before I came to Afghanistan, I spent many sleepless nights wondering how I would react in such a situation. I hoped I would behave honorably and not be a coward. Looking back, I feel like I equated myself well. I was scared, no doubt about that, but I didn’t give in to my fear. The sobering and enduring emotion for me is a deep sadness for the loss of young lives, friend and foe, for there is sadness at the core of every death.  Many of the Taliban are not hardline fanatics. They are day laborers hired for five dollars a day. They can feed their families for weeks on that. I can see no gain in the firefight I experienced, and this was just one of many taking place every day in Afghanistan. This is what war is. Taking this valley, that hill, only to lose it and gain it back again – bodies piling up along the way like cordwood. Families irrevocably shattered by loss and grief.

It doesn’t make any sense to me. No sense at all. But I am a civilian, not a soldier. The grim reality is that I am in a war zone and this is the gig I signed up for. I have to accept conflict as a part of my life or I need to go home. I still have hope that I can find a window of peace to help the Afghan agricultural sector and I can make some small contribution that will make a difference in a farmer’s life who is just trying to make a living in the midst of all this madness.