LORD OF THE FLIES |
June 10, 2009
LORD OF THE FLIES
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 6/10/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged
The Cougar MRAP rumbles to a stop. The trailing dust cloud washes over the vehicle, temporarily obscuring the outside world to us. The AC is broken and the group stuffed into the armored behemoth is sweating profusely; you can see it soaking through the sleeves and collars of our uniforms. Underneath our vests is worse -- I feel it dripping down the back of my pants, not a pleasant feeling.
The gunner is the only one spared. He sits with his head out of the vehicle; a dangerous job, but at least you’re cooler. The one and a half hour drive to this location was along a rocky, rutted “road”, jolting us violently with every foot. The Cougars were designed for the paved roads of Iraq not the rock-sewn trails of Afghanistan. I’m confident I’ll survive an IED but my back and kidneys may be destroyed by safety.
The purpose for us coming here is a shura -- an afghan term for a gathering or meeting. This shura is in honor of opening two schools in the area. Much has been made of the supposed destruction wrought by US forces in the towns and villages, but very little is ever said about the good that’s been done.
Just in our operational area we’ve built four schools, numerous wells, water retention walls and various other projects. We’ve also treated over 700 cases in nine months.
Today though we’ve come for the opening of the schools. We dismount from the vehicles, get security set and head to the shura. As I walk across the field I see the school, white-washed and pristine, a snowball sitting in the brown dirt of the valley. Its partner sits about four kilometers to the west; easily visible due to the contrast. Part of me wonders if that’s such a good idea, as I’m positive it can be seen from the Pakistani mountains five kilometers to the east -- easily within range of rockets.
We enter the school and meet the local elders. They are the staples of the community. We meet them in order of age and precedence. In the beginning I didn’t realize this but I’ve now become aware of the rigid hierarchy these introductions follow. I shake hands with about 20 older looking men.
Older looking is the correct phrase here. My internal American age estimator isn’t calibrated for Afghanistan. Several times I’ve met people I thought were 60 years plus, and it turns out they were my age -- 39. It’s a hard knock life.
Post-introductions we tour the school, entering each classroom and seeing the desks, books, pens and pencils. There’s a small select group of students here; large gatherings are discouraged for security reasons. The ACM* often IED them or use suicide bombers. The reverence with which the Afghans treat the school is amazing.
The small group reaches the final room, where sitting mats are spread on the concrete floor shaped in a U. It’s filled with the ubiquitous flies of Afghanistan and smells of the diesel fuel used to cut the paint. If you have a weak stomach Afghanistan is not the place for you.
I’m placed at the head with the oldest elder. What many Americans fail to realize is that just by being an American soldier you’re honored and revered. That’s why any form of disrespect is such a crushing blow to the Afghans. When the men you thought could do no wrong have insulted you, that’s hard to take, for anyone.
We sit down and the senior elder begins to speak. The speaking order is key. You speak in the order of your importance. Generally, I’m given the second position. At the beginning of my tour I usually spoke toward the end, or at the end.
Now here’s a little more insight to American vs Afghan ways: Afghans are verbose and like to talk; I mean they really like to talk. So a shura can go for a long time. You’re expected to speak even if you feel that everything’s been said. In America we strive for short concise meetings. In Afghanistan it’s as if the sheer amount of talking wills things to happen. The more talking, the more likely it will happen.
Conversations and meetings in the US are a single thread going from point to point. In Afghanistan it’s a woven rug with muted tones, subtle patterns and held together with an intricate base layer. The pattern you see in the rug may not be what you think it is.
Obviously, I don’t speak Pashto so I’ve got to have an interpreter. My preferred method is to have my terp sit next to me and translate in a low voice what being said as they say it. Some prefer to have breaks where the terp translates. I find my method keeps the flow going and makes it more like an actual conversation. I can participate more actively with gestures and facial expressions.
The group talks for a long while, drinking chai, and then we adjourn to another room for lunch. As I come into the room, I’m hit with dread. The walls of the room are covered in flies, as is the food. One of my no shit rules is that I never refuse any food or drink given to me by an Afghan. It’s insulting to them. So, I’m going to have to eat.
I do, and pay for it two days later with violent vomiting and diarrhea that makes a claymore mine seem like a fire cracker. Ten pounds and six bags of IV fluid later I’ll be fine, and my relationship with the elders is intact. A small price to pay for good relations.
After lunch we pose for pictures. Again this is a hierarchy; the most important elders get their picture taken with me first. Yes, all of the pictures have me in them. You would think I was the President of the US and not just some dumb ground pounder. They all want a picture with me. This goes on for about 20 minutes and I’m quickly smiled out.
The final event is the students, male and female, singing the Afghan National Anthem. A touching moment. About 100 girls go to this school every day. A far cry from the Taliban days. The elders are very happy about this fact but are concerned that the ACM will try to stop the trend.
We shake more hands and start to move back to our vehicles. I reach mine and prepare for the back-pounding patrol back to our FOB, the time bomb of the chow ticking in my stomach. But it's been a good day in the history of the Bermel Valley.
* ACM: Anti-Coalition Militia