21 August 2010

Forced Personal Growth and Some History

I have to admit that patience has never been one of my virtues, and over the past few weeks, I've had to learn quite a bit.  At the very least, I can take solace in the knowledge that Afghanistan is making me a better person. 

So what is it that is compelling me to self-improvement?  In-country travel.  Travel of any sort here, whether by road, air, or presumably by boat, were it avaliable (and we expect the refugee ships from Pakistan any day now), is an exercise in patience.  It is also an amazing sensory experience; leaving the base normally means that I will experience some combination or extreme heat, cold, dust, wind, and a general sense of discomfort.

These truisms of travel in Afghanistan became a reality to me during a recent site visit to Camp Dubs, a small installation south-west of Kabul (I was interested to discover that everyone - my company, the DoD, even the military - calls it Camp Dubbs, except for those actually there.  I decided they knew best).  Lamentably, my site manager was unwilling to drive me, I suspect because I was traveling with the ever-popular DCAA auditors.  I was therefore obliged to take the local bus.  Technically, the bus is an up-armoured personnel carrier known as a Rhino, but bus is a more fitting description.  As with other forms of mass transportation, the seats are uncomfortable, you have no personal space, it takes forever to get where you want to go, and it smells a bit...ripe.  This last was mostly because everyone was marinating in their IBA and Kevlar.  Although I have to admit to being a little excited to don my body armour for the first time in theatre and set off to a new site.
The lead hummer in the convoy approaches the Tajbeg
Of course, a journey that would have taken no more than an hour with my site manager even in heavy traffic took the better part of four in the Rhino.  In order to get to Dubs, we first went to Kabul International Airport (KAIA), then turned around and drove past Phoenix in the opposite direction to hit another two drop-off points.  We then drove past Phoenix again, went back to the airport, and made several additional stops at the myriad bases surrounding Kabul.  Between the departure and return trips, I went to eight different bases, to KAIA three times, and drove past Phoenix four times.  By the time I returned home, over 11 hours after I'd left, I was neither looking nor feeling my best.

The upside of the trip was that the linguists did beautifully during the audit, and that Dubs is gorgeous!  The base sits at the foot of the dramatic and tragic Queen's Palace.  The downside, next to the trip itself, was that I forgot to charge my camera!  These photos are courtesy of one the DCAA folks.  Someday I'll have to go back, as there were lots of things on this mini-road trip I wanted to capture (but not any time soon - the Rhino memories are still too fresh).  On the way to the base, we passed the zoo, a massive shanty town built into the side of a cliff, and a series of stately mansions, complete with that new home smell and front gates begging to be blown up.
The Tajbeg from Dubs

But most of all, I wanted to share with you the melancholy beauty of the Queen's, or Tajbeg, Palace.  We had the good luck to meet some COIN specialists who were kind enough to take us on a tour.  The palace was built in the early 1920s by King Amanullah for his wife.  Since then, it has been used as a residence for President Hafizullah Amin, who was assassinated there by the Soviet Union during their invasion in 1979, and the headquarters for the 40th Soviet Army during the occupation (we had the good sense to only put our base next to the Tajbeg, rather than inside.  What?  We're seen as an invading force bent on colonolization?  How could that be?).  The Tajbeg was destroyed as the factions of the Mujahedeen fought over Kabul following the Soviet withdrawal.  The potent impression of Afghans destroying their own history really stuck with and quite depressed me.
However, as our tour continued, I noticed an ANA guard on duty just outside the Palace.  We came upon him as he prayed, and it almost looked like he was venerating the beautiful ruin before him.  Our ever-helpful tour guides spoke rudimentary Dari, and were also able to translate some of the graffiti scribbled on nearly every wall.  In additional to the universal need to affirm one's existence ('Ajmal was here'), and what appeared to be some plans in Cyrillic (my linguistic contribution on the day), there were a number of prayers and some truly lovely artwork.  I have since discovered that both the Tajbeg and its neighbor, the Darul Aman or King's Palace, are intended to be renovated and used as houses of Parliament.  Maybe there is some hope for building a future here, even over the scars of the past.
Looking down at the ANA guard post