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Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

BACK IN THE STAN |

October 14, 2008

BACK IN THE STAN
Name: Scott Kesterson
Posting date: 10/14/08
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog url: c/o bouhammer.com 

Editor's Note: Late last year, after returning from Afghanistan, frequent Sandbox contributor Troy Steward posted this piece about embedded journalist Scott Kesterson's award-winning documentary AT WAR.

From the windows of the India Airlines Airbus A320 the barren dusty hills surrounding Kabul came into view. As I watched, the brown haze that I remembered from my last trip blocked a clear vista of the city. Kabul is a dirty city; Afghanistan a dry and unforgiving land that somehow finds a kinship within your soul. It is a country that grows on you, offering its strange if not desolate beauty, amongst the war, the poverty, and its ancient ways, to every traveler that crosses its lands. What develops is a relationship of extremes, the proverbial love and hate, as if to emulate the culture of war that has found refuge for so many years within its borders. In an odd sense, I felt like I had returned to visit an old friend.

People and faces speak an unspoken language. The two Americans, husband and wife, I had met during my layover in Delhi were now sitting in the seats across from me. They were UN workers; as we got closer, she put a shall over her head to blend in more with local customs. In the seat in front of me was a young man, black hair greased back, wearing a black leather coat and smelling strongly of cheap perfume, curled up in his seat, sound asleep. The stewardess tried to wake him for a snack and drink. He woke for a moment and waved her off. Ahead of the Americans were three men seated side by side. The plane had plenty of empty seats, but they remained in their assigned place, one asleep, the others sitting motionless for most of the flight. They each wore slacks, slip-on leather shoes and long sleeved button up shirts with open collars. All these images were of a collage called Afghanistan.

The first time I flew into Afghanistan I came with the soldiers on military aircraft. There were no customs, only in-briefs, threat advisories, and directions to the various things we would need on the base while we waited for transportation to Kabul. This time I entered like every other civilian. We exited the airplane greeted by both Afghan National Police and Afghan Army soldiers directing us all to a waiting bus. As we packed in, there was the normal verbal excitement of orders being giving, an argument with the bus driver and finally the bus began to move.

Framed_kesterson_stan


Walking off the plane and back into the Stan.


Afghanistan is a developing country trying to find itself. It reminds me of young boy who wants to be an adult, who then emulates his father by reading the paper that is nearly as big as he is, offering opinions as if backed by years of wisdom, or dressing up in his best clothes to leave the house for his day at the playground. As I sat on the bus I could see the terminal. It was so close that I figured that we were being taken to another location. Instead, we were driven a distance of no more than 25 meters. The Afghans were offering the service expected of any big country’s international airport, even though Kabul International was neither big nor busy. The ride on the bus fulfilled the expectation regardless of the fact that I could have walked to the terminal with greater ease.

Once inside we waited while passports and visas were checked, and pictures taken. I then moved to the baggage area just behind the customs entry point. The airport has one baggage carousel surrounded by eager baggage handlers waiting with their carts. You don’t rent a cart, you rent a handler, paying him enough to gain his loyalty to get you through the maze of gates, police, and refugees and to the parking lot where my ride was waiting. In the end I paid two handlers $60 to do what I could have done in the US for $3. Then again, this was Afghanistan.

Kabul is a safe city. Our media reports tend to highlight the incidents of IEDs or the like, but those events are more the exception than the rule. Kabul is also the center for NATO / ISAF command. Our allies have sold this war as a peacekeeping or policing action to their respective publics. As a result, NATO / ISAF goes to great lengths to over ensure safety, even in the city like Kabul. The US now falls under NATO/ ISAF command, so for me that meant that the rules imposed on the US military were so strict that it was nearly impossible for them to guarantee a military pickup from the airport. I knew this before I came and therefore arranged to be picked up by an interpreter that had worked for a close friend of mine who was also a Major in the US Army National Guard.

With my bags now successfully moved from the customs point to the parking area, the two men I had hired waited. I used their phone and called my ride. He was on his way. Since I had never met him, I described my clothing and waited. As the time passed, the baggage handler called him again, speaking to him in Pashtun. A short time later my ride arrived. He greeted me, along with his friend, and we began moving my bags to his car. It was then that I discovered that he was not the interpreter but the interpreter’s brother. I found myself suddenly cautious, recounting my steps since I had arrived. I had spoken to the interpreter only twenty minutes before. He had assured me he would be there. Now I was being told that he was in Kandahar, not even in Kabul. My mind was racing, as I began to strategize my options.

I began asking questions through casual conversation as we loaded my bags into his car. I didn’t want to seem suspicious, only a bit overwhelmed with the trip. I chose questions that would be difficult to answer if he was not in fact related to my interpreter. He opened the passenger door, and asked me to get in. His responses to my questions were beginning to allay my caution, but I still wasn’t sure. As we drove from the airport, with his friend seated behind me, he handed me his phone, “It is my brother. He wants to talk to you.”

Traveling in a country like Afghanistan you have to accept that everything has a price. Rooted in tribal loyalties and individual survival, it is a place where trust can be swayed by threat or by monetary bribe, especially if you are a Westerner. I took the phone from the brother and was greeted by the voice of the person I had spoken to when I first arrived. “Hello, brother. How are you? I am so very sorry for not being able to meet you. My mother is sick in Kandahar. I sent my brother in my place to welcome you to my country. I hope your arrival was without issue and that my brother is treating you well.” I could feel myself relax as we continued our drive to the brother’s office for tea.

Framed_kesterson_stan2

On the way from the airport.

In the traditions of Afghanistan, a guest is seen as a gift from God. Once a guest is taken in, no matter if he comes from an unfriendly tribe, it becomes the responsibility of host to protect him for the remainder of his stay. The confusion at the airport began to make sense. The interpreter had promised to pick me up prior to my arrival. Though he had been called away the day prior, to say that he could not pick me up would have been an insult to God. So he sent his blood brother in his place. In the Afghan way, this was a gesture of great respect; as I would be told later by the interpreter’s brother himself, “I do not know you, but as a friend of my brother, you too are my brother, and I will protect you the same.”

We arrived at the brother’s office at the edge of Kabul. I was led to the upper floor, through the open stairwell; a dusty corridor of white walls and grey steps. At the top we followed the edge of an inner balcony that looked down into an interior court yard. The building was run down, covered with the fine talc-like dust that becomes part of everything you wear and own. As we entered through the last door on the right, I was directed to a sofa where I sat as additional friends came in to say hello. If there is one element of Afghan culture I admire it is the simple elegance of the ancient ways of hospitality.

We talked. Tea was made and served. We moved to the adjacent room, as more tea and small snacks of dried dates and nuts were brought in. I was asked if I would like to share in lunch, and I agreed. As I nodded yes, I suddenly realized that all that were present were in the middle of their annual fast for Ramadan. I quickly recanted and told the brother that I could not eat out of respect for their fast. He simply smiled, “You are our guest, I have already sent for food. Please have some more tea.”

We continued to talk and get to know each other. After an hour or so, a lunch of stewed lamb, rice, the traditional flat bread and fresh grapes was served. I sat and ate awkwardly, fully aware that all of this had been prepared solely for me. The others smiled, and reminded me that they would eat after sunset.

With another serving of tea, we closed the afternoon. I was given a cell phone as a welcome gift so that I could remain in touch and let the brother know I was safe. I called the Public Affairs Officer at Camp Phoenix to inform him I was on my way. We descended the stairs, returning to the car loaded with my bags. The brother wished me well, but stayed behind to prepare the evening meal. Guided by two of his friends, we drove to Camp Phoenix where they parked, each carrying one of my bags to the front gate. As I said my goodbyes, I was handed a large bag of dried nuts and dates. “Take care my brother. Let us know if you need anything.”

We shook hands, and I entered through the turnstile gate, welcomed by two New York Army National Guard soldiers waiting on the other side.

Comments

Great post. I recognise completely that feeling of insecurity when arriving in a foreign country, although I have never been anywhere so unstable as Afghanistan.

I wish you a successful trip.

I'm happy to hear that they drank tea with you. Sometimes fasting includes liquids. A young man I knew from Bangladesh practiced that version. His fast training began at age six.

This post just brought a smile to my face. My family is Indian and similarly, we treat any and all guests as if they are God. It's amazing from a Western perspective but truly beautiful.

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