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A Path with Heart—Afghanistan, part 14
Posted By Staff On November 11, 2009 @ 12:00 am In News | No Comments
By Sergeant Thomas Bauschke
November is already upon us here in Afghanistan. Nights grow cold as my time here gets shorter. Home is but a faraway dream.
Strangely, Afghanistan somehow feels like home now. I’ve gotten used to some things. Local foods are tasty, especially goat meat. Chai (Afghan tea) is excellent. I’ve grown accustomed to sequestered women, but I do miss women.
The sound of “call to prayer,” sung five times a day, is eerily beautiful echoing over loudspeakers through these remote and ancient valleys. Hectic work-sleep schedules keep us pretty busy. Huge, frightening dust-ball boogers never cease to amaze. And familiar danger is always over my shoulder. I seem desensitized to this crazy lifestyle, and wonder if I’m even the same person I was back in January when I got on the plane.
Afghan society is vastly different from our own. This country is a large conglomeration of local tribes and valleys. The thread that binds this loose tribal tapestry is Islam. Across Afghanistan, five times a day, call to prayer is heard in every single city, town and tiny village. And yet, political alliances are forged and broken at will for any temporary local advantage, especially money.
Many tribes that aided us in our fight to defeat the Taliban were simply bought off by us in 2001. These tribes, in turn, had been bought off by the Taliban (with Saudi money) before us; by the Russians; and finally, the British before them. Even when Afghan kings reigned, allegiances were maintained with bribes to warlords and tribal elders rather than by fear or loyal submission.
Pashtuns (posh’toons) are by far the largest ethnic tribal group in Afghanistan—occupying all southern and eastern provinces. They remained loyal to the Taliban, right up until their defeat. Privately, many still support them. I am posted in Kunar (Konar) Province in eastern Afghanistan; a Pashto province near Tora Bora (black dust), where Osama bin Laden had his last stand with the Taliban.
A couple weeks ago, we were at a Shura (meeting of elders) to discuss the upcoming run-off election between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah (which has now been canceled since Abdullah dropped out). Both men were personally involved and risked their lives in the fight to defeat the Taliban in 2001. Abdullah was foreign minister for the Northern Alliance. Karzai, a Pashto, formed and led his own army in the south. One of the elders boldly announced anyone voting for Abdullah should be killed. Another elder responded: “No! We should charge them two oxen.” So much for casting an anonymous ballot, I guess.
Everyone wants something. In the past, many Afghan warlords and tribal elders repeatedly sold out their country’s future to gain local advantage. I realize I’m being overly dramatic, but it’s frustrating to deal with on a daily basis. Shuras to discuss elections that decide their country’s future often get bogged down with details. Who gets contracts for security? Which elders get their cut of the money? Why this tribe and not that? Why this valley and not that one? I have heard Afghans generalized as “carpet salesmen.” Every transaction is mired in endless negotiations, until all concerned parties gain some advantage. Like anywhere on earth, it always comes down to the money. I sense little concern from local people for any greater good of Afghanistan. But don’t insult Afghanistan, or you’ve got a big problem on your hands…
Afghans are a very proud and hardy people. Pashtuns live by a code called Pushtanwali. This includes melmastia (extending hospitality and protection to every guest), turch (bravery), mamus (the right to defend the honor of one’s women, by killing, if need be), nanawati (the right of a fugitive to seek refuge in a tribe, bin Laden for one) and badal (the right to start blood feuds and exact revenge). Feuds and grudges last for generations here.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, U.S. and U.N. efforts have built many wells, clinics, schools, roads, irrigation and power systems. In offering villages money for these projects, requiring labor by local residents, we are very careful not to slight the authority of tribal elders. Appearing to have diminished power or loss of control would insult the honor of an elder. How many sons would elders sacrifice to defend their families’ honor? ALL of them.
To my Western eyes, this seems like only dog-eat-dog. But in all fairness, Afghanistan is, in fact, a very harsh place to live; always has been. Afghans have adapted a lifestyle to match, and thus have survived many wars and even more invaders spanning thousands of years. Children fend for themselves from an early age. What better way to prepare a child for a difficult life that lies ahead?
I witness many gentle moments of simple Afghan life, though. Not all moments here are bleak. One day, a very old woman came tottering by us on her way to a village. She seemed to be in her 80s, which is very old for an Afghan. She was arthritic. Her back was markedly hunched with terribly bowed legs. She had a heavy bag over her shoulder. I thought her body would crumble under the weight of it. A cute, young girl of 8 or 9 came running 100 yards after her, wanting to take the bag. The old woman bent down and lightly threw a pebble at her. The girl backed up a little, and then they both smiled at each other. It was a touching moment as the old woman continued more than a kilometer to town.
I’m sure larger cities in Afghanistan are bustling with music, culture and media. But out here in these remote valleys, life remains simple. Governments in Kabul may change, but the rest of Afghanistan perseveres at near-poverty levels. But there is visible hope for a brighter future. With stability gained at the fall of the Taliban, slowly the Afghan economy builds. It’s human nature to strive for better days.
The problems we Americans argue about don’t even compare to naked children running around the villages here. We debate health care coverage, when even in Afghan hospitals, let alone rural clinics, health care is nowhere near Western standards we take for granted. Watching the news sometimes startles me. I see bans on flavored tobacco; banned nativity scenes at Christmas; we shut off water to whole valleys leaving many, many families destitute, to save a fish. How spoiled we are to nitpick issues that have no real importance in our lives.
Home seems like a faraway dream. Some days here seem like waking nightmares. I can’t ever pinch myself hard enough to wake up. Can I ever look at America the same way again? I don’t know. I can’t wait to get back there, but don’t really know what to expect or what will be waiting for me. War has changed me. I’m tired of being miserable in a s—ty place when I feel there’s little I can do to make it better. I have come to accept that some people don’t like us. Some people just don’t want to live like us. And I can only hope that seeing all this has made me a better man—a wiser human being. I hope for better days, realizing what’s really important to me in life: family, friends and health. Nine weeks and home, dear reader. I’m counting the days.
From the November 11-17, 2009 issue
Article printed from The Rock River Times: http://rockrivertimes.com
URL to article: http://rockrivertimes.com/2009/11/11/a-path-with-heart%e2%80%94afghanistan-part-14/
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