My Afghan Vacation
by Michele Christopher
I was deployed to Afghanistan from late 2002 to mid-2003. I primarily worked as the editor of the theater newspaper (newsletter, really), but went out to cover stories on occasion. One such occasion was a trip to Fire Base Asadabad. All of my print journalists were female, and this was an infantry outpost. They didn't want any females there. One, they didn't really have the infrastructure there to support any (no real separate tents or showers) and two because a female pilot had been up there a couple of weeks prior and had proven to them it was a bad thing.
So, off I was. No more direction than: find stories. I came out of there with some really good ones, a lot of stuff that couldn't be printed and a better feel for the country I was in. I took away three lasting impressions: 1. Northeast Afghanistan is beautiful. It's not the barren desert terrain that the rest of the country is. 2. We will never succeed in freeing the people of that country from oppression until we free them from a drug-based economy. 3. Until a younger population that escapes the dogma of patriarchy arrives, this country will never pull itself out of the dark ages. If the patriarchy was benevolent, it wouldn't be bad, but they use it to perpetuate the abuse of women. It's horrible.
So, on to the photo show:
This is my obligatory burqa shot. One of the missions the U.S. military does, as part of a mission to reach out to local communities, is to send medical teams into surrounding villages. They can't do more than treat very topical kinds of things. Minor burns, cuts, ear aches, colds, etc. But it's a huge boon to our image there. It's hard emotionally, at times, as you will see in some of the upcoming shots.
Another problem that the U.S. forces faced was the fact the men would demand that they must be the first to be treated. The sheer amount of people that came out meant that if the military allowed this, no female or children would be seen. So, the civil affairs folks would usually work out some kind of compromise where they could get some kind of mix. Or maybe two different lines. But in the few MEDEVALs (medical evaluation) I went to, the men were still given priority. What happened at this one is that a translator, with a civil affairs guy would walk into the crowd and find the women and children that seemed to be most in need of urgent care and would slip them in front of the men. It was interesting.
Earlier I said it was difficult emotionally at times to go to these things. Well, this little girl put a tear in my eye. You can't see well in the photo (even if you enlarge it), but she has pretty bad burns on her left leg. I didn't want to take any shots of "gore" so I didn't get any close-ups of the wound. But it was a scalding burn. The interpreter in this shot, on the left, explained to me that scalding burns are very common to children. Most homes have a pot-belly style stove that serves to heat there home and to cook on. When a child learns to walk, they will be tempted to pull pans off the stove. Sometimes these pans will have boiling liquids in them. He didn't know if that's what happened to this girl, but he said that he would not have been surprised if that happened. He also said that he would not have been surprised if her father had simply thrown boiling water on her as a form of punishment. The interpreters never let us know who the fathers of the children were.
While the medics take care of the wounded, and the other soldiers provide security, civil affairs soldiers speak with villagers and try and make friends. Here, a civil affairs guy spent some time trying to teach some children how to play tic-tac-toe.
They wound up writing all kinds of things in the sand. I doubt these girls had this much fun in some time. I think that girl in the middle fell in love with the Civil Affairs guy.
I guess these girls were going to collect water from the river. I hope it was for washing clothes or something and not for cooking or drinking 'cause these river was filthy. I'd seen folks fishing, bathing, wading their animals in it ... I can only imagine what it's been used for. I know for a fact that many of the homes surrounding the fire base had wells, so I'm eased by that knowledge.
For the sake of anyone else into photography, I was shooting with a Kodak digital camera with a Nikon F5 body. It had a Nikkor 70-300 zoom lens. While I wish we had Nikon D1s (took much better photos and just as rugged) or the Fuji S1 Pro (GREAT PHOTOs, but not very rugged) this camera was very rugged. It survived the environment very well. I didn't like the Kodak menu system. It was difficult to switch from shooting outside to shooting under florescent lighting quickly -- something you have to do often in the military in a field environment. Just my 2 cents. ‘Course, now Nikon and Canon rule the professional digital market and Kodak is just putting out consumer models. Interesting how the world turns.
I should also point out that most of these "farms" exist in a feudal state. A rich warlord owns all the land and leases out land to families to farm. They grow the opium and collect it for the warlord. The warlord makes much bank and lets the families live on his land and throws them a little money to live off of. Poor system.
Here, on the left, we finally arrived at our destination. Notice the UNICEF symbol on the canopies. Also notice the opium fields just off on the right. I have always loved the juxtaposition in this photo.
As an aside, at this event we ran into a local kid who was an opium addict. This was pretty rare because their culture looks down on it so hard. Addicts are usually dealt with quite harshly. We were told by the people around him that they wouldn't hang around him and that he was a very bad person.
I just threw this photo in to prove what a sneaky bastard journalist I am. It's very ... very hard to get shots of women and girls in Afghan villages that are not near the larger cities like Kabul or Jalalabad. To get the pic, you have to be clever or quick or they will look away fast and cover themselves up. Fortunately, one of the neat tricks on these Kodaks is a removable viewfinder. So you can literally remove the top portion of the camera and look down on top like a medium-format camera. It was this trick I used to get this shot and a couple of others. This is actually a small school and the girls are waiting for class.
We wound up leaving the event earlier than planned. The two warlords started to get a bit upset and talks started going downhill. The CA guys figured we'd better get out before they turned their hostilities toward foreigners. It had happened in the past.
Cullen writes the All About the Guitar column for FTTW, which appears on Mondays. He writes daily over here.
Looks like a beautiful country... Believe it or not, I'm envious of your trip and your pictures are fantastic...
Posted by: thefinn | November 2, 2006 12:08 AM
Great pics. Thank you for your service to this country. We appreciate it.
Posted by: Chuck Simmins | November 2, 2006 8:41 AM
cullen these photos and words are beautiful! i so appreciate your sharing them with us.
how beautiful the landscape is. the unicef shot is definitely my favorite. juxtaposition is right.
and yes, thanks for your service to our country. you make me proud.
Posted by: kali | November 2, 2006 8:50 AM
That is a great story. Thanks for sharing it with us and also, thanks for putting it on the line for us Cullen.
Posted by: Ernie | November 2, 2006 9:23 AM
"Putting it on the line" is pretty relative.
I mean, I was there during a pretty sedate period of our time in Afghanistan. It was before we began repatriating Afghans who'd fled into Pakistan. When we started doing that, we fucked up the country again.
I mean, I appreciate everything you guys said, I really do, but I worked out of an office, in the headquarters element. There are dudes who deserve thanks, I wrote about a lot of 'em, but I'm not really one.
Posted by: Cullen | November 2, 2006 9:35 AM
Dude, you went over there while I sat at home and watched it on TV. So as far as I'm concerned, your thanks are well deserved and well earned. You are the man.
Posted by: Ernie | November 2, 2006 9:57 AM
What Ernie said.
Great pictures and stories. Thank you for sharing.
Posted by: michele | November 2, 2006 10:07 AM
It's been a long time since I've seen anyone write anything about that part of the world in this way. Great job, thanks man.
Posted by: Dan | November 2, 2006 11:14 AM
A-bad! A "vacations" to the eternally peaceful Pakistan border region of Afghanistan.
Great pics, man. Great scenery in those parts.
You "put it on the line" just with the bathroom facilities I was told they had there at the time period you visited... unless my friend was putting me on.
Posted by: Kory | November 2, 2006 11:29 AM
Thanks you for sharing.
Posted by: Deb | November 2, 2006 11:44 AM
Depends on what he told you about them. They had shitters, that were port-a-johns, but had big metal pots in the bottom that the hadjis would take out and burn every day.
There were piss tubes set up in different places. For people who don't know what I'm talking about, these are pipes that stick up out of the ground for you to piss into.
What I didn't include were some of the pics I took from one of the OPs simply because it requires too much explanation. But there was a Russian howitzer on top of this hill and when 10th Mountain first took the place, they used to swing that howitzer out over the town just to scare the shit out of the villagers.
Yeah. Civil Affairs put a stop to that.
Posted by: Cullen | November 2, 2006 11:47 AM
For those interested, here's a shot from that OP I just mentioned.
Bonus points if you notice my point of reference for scale.
Posted by: Cullen | November 2, 2006 12:08 PM