19 November 2010

Baby It's Cold Outside

I love winter.  It entails so many delightful things: snow, mittens, hot chocolate, cuddling.  It’s finally gotten cold enough here that I can legitimately bust out my winter hat and vintage ski sweater, making it feel even more like home.  Of course, in Colorado, I would have expected a few big snows by this time, and in DC endless days of icy, chilling rain. 

Here in Kabul though, it seems that fall is reluctant to go quietly into that good night and winter to take center stage.  The early mornings are deeply frigid; my father would describe them as brass monkey cold.  The days warm up nicely, enough even that I’m usually able to shed my jacket, before tapering off into crisp evenings, only to start the whole process over again.  I’m eagerly awaiting the first snowfall, though my enthusiasm for it is a bit dampened whenever I go past the wire and see some of the impoverished living conditions around me.  I have a difficult time believing the stone shanties carved into the mountain sides have great central heating.  They remind me of a haphazard and overbuilt pueblo; like a massively urbanized Sandia or Acoma, only more rundown and with fewer amenities.
Winter is not, however, all bad news for Afghans.  I’ve recently come into an all-new and sobering reason for liking winter : Afghans don’t work in the cold.  At first blush, this might seem an odd thing to celebrate.  Sure, it translates to a slower bazaar and my local co-workers coming in later.  More importantly, however, it means there are fewer insurgent attacks.  Fighting, like molasses it seems, slows in January (not to mention November).  More personally it means that I don’t have to worry quite as much about my friends, both the military guys on patrol and the Afghans that risk their lives and that of their families by coming to work on an American base every day.

Company-wide, winter sees fewer KIAs/WIAs among our linguists (killed and wounded in action, for those not familiar with the tersely unemotional abbreviation), yet another reason to love the cold.  The stories of these individuals are truly heart-wrenching.  In an appalling case late this summer, one linguist suffered severe burns and had his eyes badly damaged in IED blast.  His doctor urgently referred him to a specialist in India, a trip that required both insurance money and a passport.  Of course, most linguists carry their important paperwork with them, as they often have to present it at gates in order to get on to different bases even when traveling with their units.  In a given IED explosion, say one that impairs your vision and causes burns over much of your body, it’s a good bet that your passport was destroyed.  In order to get a new passport, as well as claim the work-related injury insurance, you need your national identification, or Tazkera (basically just a computer printout the really savvy persons laminate) and your military orders.  Guess where those were?  Probably the same pocket as the passport.  So the government declined to allow him to leave the country at the same time as the insurance wouldn’t pay up.  In the meantime, this man is going to be blinded for the rest of his life.  I hate bureaucracy. 

Of course, a creeping blindness isn’t the only outcome of experiencing an IED.  Not everyone is able to endure loss of faculty due to red-tape; some are lost completely.  I interviewed one linguist today who explained matter-of-factly that he came to work for the company last February after his older brother, also a linguist, was killed in action.  It now fell on him to support his family.  Naturally the job he would choose to take to do so would be the one that killed his brother.  Why not?  This story is better, I suppose, than the linguist who was killed when his plane crashed as he was returning from leave.  The insurance outright refused to pay the death benefit because he wasn’t killed on the job.

Early in my time in Afghanistan, there was a blackly funny moment when there was a mix up during the delivery of several remains of KIAs.  Four bodies came up from Kandahar, two to Phoenix, and two to Bagram.  When the linguists’ fathers and brothers arrived to claim their loved ones, it was discovered that one of the Phoenix remains needed to be swapped for one from BAF, while another never should have left Kandahar to begin with.  To top it all off, at least three of them were named Mohammad.  What followed was possibly the world’s fastest and grisliest shell game ever, as we scampered around to make sure the remains mix-up was sorted out in time to bury everyone in accordance with Muslim tradition.

Occasionally, because Corporate cannot be bothered to do it for everyone, we hold a nauseatingly pathetic memorial service for family members of the KIAs.  The theatre director usually makes it down from Bagram to thank them for their sacrifice, and certificates of appreciation and Corporate medals are awarded post-mortem.  The service is held in the same classroom where new linguists are trained, lending it the ambiance of parent-teacher night in elementary school.  I hate these services, and am upset as much by the chintzy setting as the obvious pain of the survivors.  Even as tears prick my eyes, I know they won’t spill.  These pageantries come with little more than the veneer of grief and appreciation.  Real emotion is out of place. 

Each time I attend one, I reflectively compare them to the memorial wall for fallen soldiers in the dining hall.  At Phoenix, as with most bases, there is a prominent case with photos of those killed, as well as a table always set in memorial.  We have no such mechanism for honoring our dead, whether local or US hire.  It should be noted, however, that recognition for service persons is also found lacking.  Several of my Guard friends were furious at base command for taking several months to post the images of their comrade who was killed in action.

I am very much hoping that the (American/Christian) holiday season sees fewer of these events, for linguists and Coalition forces alike.  Even with the chill, though, incidents do happen.  A recent VBIED attack occurred on the south side of Kabul (no Coalition casualties – just the driver of the VBIED), along the bus route of one of my favourite local national co-workers.  Rather serendipitously, it happened on his day off; otherwise we might have lost him.  The winter does not guarantee safety.  Nevertheless, blow, blow, thou winter wind.  I’m looking forward to the green holly and cocoa.  And suspect that the tooth of spring will be much more keen, its breath ruder.