21 March 2011

New Year's Baby

Happy New Year!  Rather, sale naw tabrik!  We’re observing Nowruz, or the vernal equinox, the new year of the solar Persian calendar.  It’s now 1390.  So, for those of you in the States, I’m both in the future and the past.  Crazy go nuts.  Kabul will be celebrating with the Jashn-e Dehqan, or parade of farmers, and Buzkashi tournaments (one of the few things past the wire I’m not dismayed that I’m missing, even for the cultural experience.  I skipped bull fights in Spain, and those seem tame in comparison).  Traditionally speaking, there are festivals around the country this week, all with common themes of winter finally receding, renewal, agriculture, flowers…all that good springy stuff.

Our office will therefore be very quiet this week, as most of my co-workers are taking both Monday and Tuesday off in observance of the holiday.  This means they’ll only have a three-day work week, President Karzai having announced in December that the official Afghan weekend is Thursday and Friday.  In fact, if I see anyone before Saturday, I’ll be a bit shocked.

The local linguists frequently poke fun at the national penchant for declaring holidays.  One explained to me that Afghans take off Fridays as a day of rest and observance; then Thursdays, because it is close to Fridays; Saturdays, because after two days off, they’re too tired to work; and Sundays, because all the foreign guys seem to get those off, so no work will be done until Monday, anyway.  Add to that the official holidays declared for inaugurations, jirgas, and memorials of every time someone captured or was kicked out of Kabul, and he estimated a fourth of the year to be made of holidays.

Maybe it is because of the influx of holidays, or perhaps it’s the Nowruz-induced spring fever, but we are having something of a baby boom around the office.  One man’s wife just delivered, two others are expecting, and a fourth is trying for his first child.  Another linguist is furiously attempting to push his Visa package through and get his wife to the states before she delivers here.   Anchor babies away!    

Unfortunately, pregnancy and child birth in Afghanistan is not a joking matter.  The fertility rate here is estimated at over five children born per woman, one of the highest in the world.  That pregnancies occur so frequently is an indication of both infant and maternal mortality; the result of the one and cause of the other.  Indeed, Doc did not disclose that his wife was pregnant until he had to scamper out of the office after her water broke.  Per the World Bank, almost 134 in every 1000 live births will result in death before the child reaches a year. 

Children are not the only ones in danger.  The maternal mortality rate, though not quite as high, remains 1400 per every 100,000 live births.  Happily, this statistic has dropped from 1800 a decade ago, yet it is still higher than every other country ranked by Human Development Index, including Somalia.  Afghanistan further enjoys the dubious honour of being one of the few states in which adult female mortality is higher than that of men, in part due to dramatic failures in reproductive health care and an extremely high adolescent fertility rate.

Himself an OB/GYN, the Doctor had a unique insight into the role of the health care system as a substantive contributing factor to female morbidity and mortality.  He was unable to take wife to a well-equipped private due to the prohibitive costs.  Instead, they went to a public hospital, where she began hemorrhaging.  The nurse charged him a progressive fee for every bag of blood she hung.  Apparently, she was kind enough to offer the blood at a discount, seeing as how Doc trained at the very same hospital himself.  Otherwise he could not have afforded it and his wife might have bled out.

Doc was not unique in his reticence to discuss his wife’s pregnancy.  Indeed, it was only because we razzed him for not telling us that the three other guys in the office even fessed up to expecting children.  One already has six and another four.  Matullah, he of four daughters, plans to continue having children until he replaces the son he lost in infancy years ago.  He truly seems to love his daughters, but can never manage to hide his disappointment at being denied a boy.  I might have teased him about ending up with a softball squad rather than a baseball team, were I not quite so perturbed.  When is his wife going to bleed out, I wonder, and will he have the money to buy all of the blood she will need to survive?  To his credit, another of my co-workers is kindly waiting for his teenage wife to finish high school before they try for kids.
Incidentally, the States is 44th on the HDI’s list, with a maternal mortality rate of 24 deaths per every 100,000 births.  This is significantly lower than Afghanistan, to be sure, but it is also behind every other developed country, including Bosnia.  Conventional wisdom, while always a dubious font of knowledge, suggests that this startling mortality rate results from the lack of universal health care.  But, by all means, let’s get rid of the job-killing health care act.  The supposed demise of jobs matters infinitely more than those of expectant mothers.  They were probably all on welfare, anyway (the link is to a fairly lefty site.  It was not the only place I found it these statistics, but I liked this article the best).

16 March 2011

A bit out of order

But here are some of the photos from my drive down the Pech River.  These are likely the last photos until I get back out on the road, so enjoy!
An ANA fort guarding the mostly theoretical border with Pakistan

There were a startling number of cemeteries


Outside of Joyce

Crossing the Pech

11 March 2011

To boldy go...back to Phoenix

As on so many of my field trips, this trek out east saw its fair share of oddities with regard to all things airborne.  For example, I found out that the base at Jalalabad boasts a drone crossing.  Upon my late-night arrival, we were paused during our poorly lit tromp from the flight line at the Predator cross-walk.  Seriously; there was an actual cross-walk light with an X and .  Apparently, the drones always have the right of way.  Not terribly pedestrian-friendly, if you ask me. 
A few more photos from the Korengal Valley
Meanwhile, up Asadabad way, the observation blimp was struck by lightning, resulting in a general computer meltdown in the TOC.  I was surprised at how well they took this setback, and was informed that they were used to it.  This was the fifth blimp they had lost in the last year alone.  The other blimps were casualties of weather, RPG, small arms fire, and a clotheslined Chinook, in that order.  One of the image analysts sighed as he confessed to me that Wright was leading the country in downed blimps. 

As I write this, I’m two-thirds the way through my trip back to Kabul.  It amazes me that it will take me at least three days, three flights, and many more hours logged in terminals to cover 184 km.  It would be both easier and faster to just catch a cab.
Heading down to Jalalabad
 On the upside, when I finally left Jalalabad (at quarter to five in the morning from a 1am show time), I did get to sit in the cockpit for the flight back to Bagram.  It was filled with green lights, radars, guns, and Little Debbies wrappers.  There was also a wedding ring hung in the window like a talisman or beacon.  The pilots’ chairs were set on a raised dais that swiveled, leading me to fervently hope that one of them would ask if the course was laid in and call to engage, but no soap.  My own seat was an improvement from the cargo hold, given that it wasn’t a canvas jump seat and actually faced forward, mitigating the g-force of takeoff and landing.  It was actually very difficult not to fall asleep, but I felt that would have been discourteous.
I just couldn't get over how green everything was
It was quite spiffy to watch the mountains I had so recently been photographing materialize on the radar.  The crew let me lean over their shoulders to look out the window at the sea of blackness, the quiet countryside lit only by eternity of stars.  Out of that dark ocean rose the sprawling island of light that is Bagram, noticeably messier than JAF, which is precisely as long as its airstrip and looks like a blackened hotdog in a B-Hut bun.  As we came in, I amused myself by trying to discern the base’s features from their light signatures: walls versus runway versus B-hut.  This might be my best memory of Bagram, painted with textures of brightness.  To add some icing to my exhaustion-addled cake, the crew was based in Colorado, so we all shared some home state love while waiting to disembark.
There we are: barren and desolate.  That's the Afghanistan I know and love
 What other random thoughts can I spew out, running on fumes of exhaustion and boredom?  The Jalalabad DFAC bouncer was in full battle-rattle, which I found only a bit ominous.  Ten months in theatre, and your tolerance for such things gets surprisingly high.  Additionally, I absorbed a new bit theatre-speak to my lexicon: fobbit, or one who never ventures outside the wire.  I didn’t inquire as to the relative furriness of their feet.

10 March 2011

So, life exploded

And I haven't had time to edit the posts I keep meaning to put up.  To distract you in the meantime, photos from my flight up the Korengal Valley.
The 'castle' above Camp Wright
The glorious Korengal Valley on cloudy day
The farmers along the Pech River have a unique tiered structure to their fields
Villages along the Pech River
An Apache (I think?  I'm not good with these things) landed right after we did

06 March 2011

Driving, top down and wind in my hair...or not

Yet again, I found myself turned loose in the eastern-most outreaches of Afghanistan, FOB-hopping through the ever lovely Pech Valley.  If I had to live somewhere other than my own Phoenix, I would without hesitation choose this area.  Even so, I have to fess up to a bit more trepidation this time around, as I was going to some smaller bases and engaging in a bit more ground travel.  The site manager at Jalalabad, which served as my jumping off point, could sense my disquiet and enjoyed harassing me about it.  Indeed, as I was packing up to catch my flight, he queried whether I had a red lens light (rather than the standard white) and the neck guard fixed on my IBA.  Yes, I answered cautiously.  Why?  Because if you don’t use a red light, he answered matter-of-factly, they will shoot you in the neck.  Have a good trip!

In fact, allow me to take this opportunity to reflect a bit more on the joys of black out FOBs.  I’m aware that I have kvetched about them before, but the ante was a bit upped this last week.  There was no moon to speak of and it was rainy for the vast majority of each night.  While I love rain – the sound pattering me to bed, the fresh smell of the mornings, the heavy clouds shrouding the mountains – it was really a bugger in terms of visibility.  Crimson lights were constantly creeping out from behind corners like Cyclops cats, cars and buildings rising up out of the ground to spitefully smack you in the nose.  Moreover, the radius of the red lens is quite restricted, and if you don’t figure out where you’re going during the day, you are more or less SOL.

The truth of this was reaffirmed my first night at Asadabad, when I discovered that the women’s showers had been moved since my last visit.  Not being able, at 11pm in utter darkness, to wander aimlessly until I found them, I followed some new, lovingly handcrafted signs and stumbled around the corner into the narrow alley between the shower cabin and FOB wall.  It turned out the boiler room had been repurposed as a female latrine, and it was there I commenced bathing in the sink.

So it was looking and smelling my best that I set out the next morning for a joy ride through Afghanistan’s most dangerous province.  Actually, ground travel proved not to be so bad.  I wrapped myself cap-a-pie in what I assured my mother was a bullet-proof woolen blanket, probably marking the closest I’ll ever come to sporting a burqa.  It proved successful as personal protective gear, in that it keep the stares to a relative minimum, though I’m still decidedly Western-completed.  That said, I managed to bitch the entire 30 minute drive to FOB Joyce about amping up the air conditioning.  A woolen body sack is not the ideal way to travel, even if the Local National Assistant was a bit scandalized by the whiny woman.  He was kind enough to highlight several points of interest, including the ANA guard station that marked the entrance to the Pakistani border. 

Our stop at Joyce was quiet abrupt.  Really, I only had time to note the fluency with which their ECP unit spoke Pashto and that the bazaar boasted the most intricately stacked sandbags I’d ever seen.  They looked like waves or delicately textured bricks.  I suspect that the Joyce units have altogether too much time on their hands.

The following day, I returned to the skies in my more traditional means of travel and flew well up the valley into the northern boonies.  After I had completed my training, I settled into the MWR, curling up with my Vanity Fair and watching the clouds amass over the mountains.  As the cadence of outgoing munitions picked up throughout the morning, I became increasingly concerned that my flight back would be canceled.  Initially, the howitzer rounds were so loud, I thought they were jets and was shocked at how they were taking off without an air strip.  The Big Voice announcement that the range was running hot was a bit delayed.  Once I became used to them, I appreciated that the rounds did indeed sound like jet engines, but only were the sequence reversed.  They opened with the powerful concussive impact of a take-off, and faded to a sort of idling engine noise as they flew over the mountain.

I am happy to report that my flight did eventually arrive, even if take off was a bit emotionally rockier than those to which I’ve become accustomed.  All of the army folks abruptly began running around as though they actually had something to do, jaws clenched, rifles gripped, and shoulders set with tension.  It transpired that three unidentified Afghan men with some sort of tubing had apparently crested a far ridge.  Someone then started muttering something about a RPG team and taking aim at the helicopter.  I found myself hoping that the OPI snipers were pretty good at their job as I boarded.

Since perceived Afghan enmity seems to be the theme of the day (I didn’t really plan it that way, but I seem to have been fairly stressed this week), it might be relevant to note that even the ANA personnel were more overtly hostile and decidedly less lecherous than I’m used to.  Getting sized up as a meal?  Totally par for the course in Kabul, by soldiers of all nationalities.  As a kill?  Very much less so.  I suppose that both metaphors make me hunting prey, but I found the latter infinitely more disquieting.  Indeed, some of the nicest views at Asadabad can be found at the ANA installation, but I never did muster up the courage to wander over with my camera.  Of course, this is the Pech, were the only burning desire of the locals to be left the hell alone.

01 March 2011

Rainy days and snowy nights

Clichés abound about weather.  There are apparently no competent meteorologists in the world, and every small town boasts a sage local to murmur at tourists to wait ten minutes and the weather will change.  Kabul is no exception, with equally capricious weather that fluctuates throughout the day.  Despite this, the weather here is surprisingly predictable.  It is less a question of looking out a window and more of asking the time.  It is a true desert here, and it’s fascinating what daily dramatic temperature changes inflict on steady precipitation.  I’ll wake up to a dusting of snow, go to lunch huddling in my jacket against a steady rain, run to the gym through freezing, slushy sleet, and walk home through puddles as they begin to ice over, snow once again clinging to my eye lashes.

The puddles really aren’t anything to joke about.  The drainage in Phoenix is atrocious; on any given day, fully a third of the camp is either underwater or a poorly maintained ice rink.  I’m not certain that my pants will ever again be dry, and late-night walks to the showers have become an obstacle course worthy of early Nickelodeon (Legends of the Hidden Temple, anyone?).  I slip between the hesco barriers, hop across the rocks jutting from the glacial bog, scamper across some slippery wide-set wooden slats, and try to avoid the mud pit on the other side.  Every night.  Getting frozen mud on my clean toes is not my idea of a good time.  On the up side, after the clouds disperse the skies have been are uncommonly clear, affording a view of some stunningly snow-covered mountains.  It feels deeply like home and makes me happy even as I pine for another craggy range in another part of the world. 

Actually, for all my whining, I haven’t seen much of a downside to the snow.  There is something indescribably delightful about snow that inspires playfulness.  e.e. cummings was perhaps in a less charitable mood than I when he determined that snow didn’t give a “soft white damn whom it touches”, but I see that as a part of its joyful nature.  Even, or rather especially, here, it has the power to strengthen fraying relationships or give respite in hatred. 

For nearly the past month, a team lead for one of the PRT teams has been simmering with anger at his ANP mentees for their seeming inability to help themselves: they ‘forgot’ their weapons for a range class set days in advance, refused to partake in any training at all because the local Iman was due sometime during the day for a religious class, and took all of their American-gifted MREs home, leaving none available for missions.  Platitudes about not being able to force a horse to drink were not helping, and tensions were running high.  The day after our first serious snowfall, however, the PRT and ANP seemed to call a truce.  They apparently spent the entire day playing in the snow, pummeling one another with snowballs, building intricate societies of snowmen and then mowing them down with the MRAPs… The team lead resolved that perhaps they didn’t need range time, as they could probably manage to take out the Taliban with ice-laced snowballs.  As good as the snow day was re-establishing rapport between the Americans and Afghanis, though (they haven’t missed a class or mission since), it was perhaps less successful for building a sense of camaraderie among the ANP.  The trainees apparently wasted no time in diming out their brother who nailed the American Lieutenant upside the head.

This sort of behavior is apparently not unique to Afghanistan.  Our site manager, in his past life a NATO linguist in the former Yugoslavia, told me how he once saw Serbs and Bosnians pause during an active engagement to have a snowball fight.  Of course they eventually resumed killing each other, but even a day of shared humanity in war counts as a snow angel, I think.