A Path with Heart—Afghanistan, part eight
By Specialist Thomas Bauschke Infantry Medic
Happy New Year from Can’t-tell-ya-where-I-am-istan: where everyone means well, nobody smells bad and the food—is to die for. I just got off guard duty, so I’m celebrating with an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat): Pork Rib, Boneless, Imitation; followed of course by a Macanudo cigar.
We saw fires and heard drum beats into the evening from Kudu, a nearby village, and expected gun fire (in the air) from locals in celebration as well. We weren’t invited to any local festivities, of course, but as it happened, we had to interrupt the mood a little.
About 1930 hours, through our thermal night sights, we spotted a group of nine people making their way up the Kowtgi Ghar (mountain) to our west, carrying packages the size of ammunition or weapon crates on their backs. This particular area is prime real estate for weapons and ammunition smugglers.
A couple of Kiowa Attack Helicopters happened to be in the area, so we called them over. One pilot opened up with his .50-caliber machine gun showering tracer rounds across the mountainside near the “suspects,” but not at the suspects. Our rules of engagement (ROE) prohibit us from firing on anyone unless they fire on us first or we have positive ID (PID) that they are carrying weapons. The star-filled night sky over my head was filled with thunder and red tracer rounds.
The “suspects” split into three groups, then scattered and hid behind rocks, in small caves and fled back into the Kowtgi Village (good luck finding it on any map). The crates were left behind on the trail. The pilot then hit the area with missiles containing white phosphorous. Whoosh! Kaboom! This set an area the size of a football field ablaze on the barren mountainside, burning the packages. I watched all this with a grin on my face. Fourth of July fireworks have lost their charisma forever.
We could see exactly which homes (walled in compounds) the men fled to on the north side of the village through our sights. A platoon of The Afghan National Army (ANA) went into the village and began house-to-house searches. We heard much commotion all through the village. The Afghan National Police (ANP) were involved by this point, and they aren’t exactly gentle in the fulfillment of their duties.
The ANA would climb the mountain in the morning to retrieve the crates, or what turned out to be evidence of the crates. Needless to say, once the village and local farm animals calmed down after the searches were complete, the evening remained quiet. No more celebrations. The dogs were even quiet. Only stubborn donkeys continued their bellowing into the night.
At first light, we set out on foot with the ANA up the mountain and found only charred remains of wood. We called it Operation Morning Wood. Come to find out, this valley is known for its smuggling and had two recent run-ins with the ANP specifically over wood smuggling. A few decades ago, Afghanistan’s mountains were perhaps 33 percent forested. Forage for building materials and firewood have reduced that number to below 2 percent. Since wood is now very scarce in these dry, barren mountains, lumber is commonly smuggled in from nearby Pakistan. Our logic in pursuing any and all smugglers is that the same money and networks that smuggle wood also smuggle opium, marijuana and weapons. So now we are wood police.
This was an odd time to ring in a New Year. Only Vegas could rival it with Christmas in July. Afghans are familiar with multiple calendars. Urban Afghans know the Roman names of the months that we use in the West, probably from British and Russian occupations. Rural village dwellers, however, follow Muslim lunar months, which would seem strange to us as the dates of Muslim holidays are about 12 solar days earlier every year. For instance, The Prophet Mohammed’s birthday was April 21 in 2005; this year, I was told it was celebrated March 10. Some Muslim holidays begin at the first sighting of the moon in a particular phase, which can be hidden behind clouds or sandstorms. Thus, Muslim holidays are often celebrated at different times in different locations, sometimes days apart.
Dates for the solar months, used in the Afghani media, correspond to the signs of the Zodiac. Hence, the Afghan year begins March 21 in Aries (Wray), then Taurus (Ghwayay), Gemini (Ghbargolay), Cancer (Chingâsh), Leo (Zmaray), Virgo (Wazhay), Libra (Tala), Scorpio (Laram), Sagittarius (Lindëy), Capricorn (Marghomay), Aquarius (Salwâgha) and, finally, Pisces (Kab).
Time here in these rural mountain villages is measured differently to be sure. Years of events are described in vague terms. Calendars and clocks are rare (except on ubiquitous cell phones). No one here is in a hurry, dear reader, not even the enemy. If a meeting time is set, including, say with the Provincial Governor, the meeting begins whenever all the parties eventually arrive. Most of the meeting would then involve pleasant conversation and the drinking of excellent Afghan tea (Chai).
Muslims believe that whatever happens is the will of God (Allah). Business and political meetings, or even major national construction projects, begin and eventually end according to the Will of God (Insha Allah). So when I ask the local villager, Ishal (Izzy), who does our laundry, when my uniforms will be done, the response is always the same, “Insha Allah,” with a grin and a shrug—and then we drink Chai and laugh in the spring shade while my uniforms remain contently unwashed.
Next time: Mission No. 40—Vehicle Patrol Base at Karamâr Ghar.
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