"Afghanistan's elections present an opportunity for the country's citizens to create a future of prosperity and peace for their children.” – LTG Karl W. Eikenberry, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
"There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state to another.” – Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Tuesday, August 11, began like many others. I woke at 6:30a.m. and banged around in the still-dark barracks, a narrow-beamed headlamp my only guide. I clumsily kicked my legs into a clean set of uniform pants, then fished around for the fire-retardant gloves and ballistic sunglasses that would be required for the day’s mission. Once I’d suited up – helmet, armor and all – I stepped out into the bright morning sun and headed to the assembly area.
Earlier the previous day I’d caught wind of a planned foot patrol through an Afghan village that hugged our base’s southwest wall. It was to be the first of several planned patrols through the village, and I volunteered to record the event for posterity. After all, I don’t have the chance to get out much. This seemed like a good way to become acquainted with our less fortunate neighbors. Or maybe I just miss being a reporter on assignment. Either way, it was a welcome break.
Called “Kuchi Village” by the soldiers here on base, the collection of mud and straw structures next door is more a squatter settlement than an organized municipal entity. (Despite some of their claims to the contrary, the residents of Kuchi Village are not affiliated with actual Kuchis, who are nomadic herdsmen that annually traverse the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in search of seasonal grazing land.) As recently as five years ago nothing existed in the space that the settlement now occupies. But as the joint American-Afghan army base here has grown, so too has Kuchi Village, like barnacles on wet wood.
The village’s residents were and continue to be lured to the base by the prospect of steady work. For a few dollars a day they clean latrines and construct barracks needed for the ever-increasing influx of soldiers here. As a result, Kuchi Village’s population has ballooned to an alarming 2,500 by latest estimates, a stunning number given the slum’s abhorrent living conditions. Our patrol that day was an attempt to survey the infrastructure – there is none – and to project some sense of security to the people who live, work and sleep right outside our gate.
So after test-firing our rifles at the local shooting range, we Americans awaited a rendezvous with our Afghan army counterparts who would join us on the patrol. As we loitered on a hillside adjacent to the base I spent a few minutes by myself taking pleasure in the opportunity to finally be outside away from my desk. Dry, barbed grass, crunched beneath my boots. Lizards scurried away as I paced about in the dirt. I miss simple pleasures like this: the freedom to roam along a dusty mountain road, unhindered by barbed wire and guard towers. When you live in a world of electrical generators and gravel, just the sight of prickly desert vegetation has a way of lifting the spirit.
The desert hills reminded me of my impromptu trip to Argentina with Molly a few months ago. Soon after I’d gotten the call to return to duty we’d thrown together a plan for a short vacation – destination: Anywhere.
“Let’s go somewhere neither of us have ever been,” I said, as we spun the world around like a top on Google Earth.
“Let’s go somewhere where it’s summer,” Molly added. Excellent idea, I thought.
In Argentina we spent several days exploring the villages and vineyards of the country’s arid northwest. On one particularly hot day we’d ridden rented bicycles up a punishing mountain road, far above the provincial wine town of Cafayate where we were staying. When we could go no further we dropped our bikes next to a stone wall in a vineyard overlooking the one-time Spanish garrison. We collapsed on a covered stone well in the shade of a solitary tree and had a picnic of salami, goat cheese and fresh bread. For dessert we ate sweet Malbec grapes that I’d broken off a vine nearby.
“You can’t do that,” Molly had told me as I gnawed at the stiff stem.
“What are they going to do to me?” I replied, looking up at her. “Send me to Afghanistan?” Molly just shook her head and laughed.
That was in March. But it felt like another lifetime.
Now, I sat down on a large rock, my M4 rifle resting across my knees. A gentle breeze carried away the sounds of distant gunfire. Then my eyes turned to the west, and I strained to get a view of the mud hovels that made up Kuchi Village below. From my vantage point it looked tiny and deserted.
“I don’t see how twenty-five hundred people can even live in there,” I said out loud to one in particular.
“But they do,” chimed the battalion sergeant major, as he thumbed a wad of tobacco into his lower lip and spit.
I brought my arms across my knees and rested my chin. How miserable, I thought.
I was eager to see the settlement up close. Many years have passed since I was a young lieutenant leading similar patrols in communities along the Euphrates River in Iraq. In the weeks since I’d arrived in Gardez I had formed an image of Kuchi Village that mirrored the poor but functioning villages of rural Iraq. Until Tuesday morning, the only interaction I’d had with the “Kuchis” involved rocks hurled over the wall at me by children, a typical response to refused demands for candy and chocolate.
As we began our patrol down a long dirt path toward the village, 10 or so children were alerted to our presence by a herd of goats that swarmed our formation. As the children careened toward us down the hill, I noticed they were smothered from head to toe in dirt, just as they probably were most of the time. We ignored them, however, and continued to a row of low-slung mud huts that formed the settlement’s southern boundary. Then we paused for a moment for one last personnel check before continuing on.
What I encountered in Kuchi Village shocked me to the core. Hundreds of filthy children played in trash-filled courtyards that were concealed from the road by torn, dirty linens that swayed in the wind. Women reflexively darted into the nearest entryways to avoid the scrutiny of soldiers’ wandering eyes. As we walked I was taken aback by the pervasive stench of animal and human excrement, a dried mix of which littered the village’s dirt roads. A dead chicken that looked as if it had been crushed by a passing car lay rotting in the sun, its blood-soaked feathers and bulging eyes providing a temporary feast for dozens of flies. Plastic wrappers and soda cans floated in gray, fetid water that filled huge potholes in the alleyways. Beyond one wall I caught a glimpse of a mother washing an infant boy in a metal bucket with water of the same color.
I have witnessed extreme poverty many times in various parts of the world – in the Indian villages of northern Argentina, in the gypsy encampments of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains and in the isolated desert towns of Iraq. But this was a level of squalor I had never seen. It made Iraq look like Western Europe, I thought. There was something almost Biblical about it. I imagined that invading armies from the Greeks to the Mongols to the British must have been greeted with images not unlike this one. Only now, people had cell phones.
After about half an hour we at last came to the end of the narrow road. Here the village opened up into a dirt-filled space enclosed by a couple of small stores selling bare necessities. To the left sat a squat brown mosque. With broken windows and pile of cinder blocks out front, it was distinguishable as a place of worship only by two loudspeakers elevated by a pole cut from raw poplar wood.
We chatted for 15 minutes or so with some adults in the village who had greeted us with caution. Their chief complaint was the lack of clean water available to them for cooking and bathing. The mosque, too, was inadequate, they said. As we talked children swarmed the gathering. They competed for our attention, yelling and shoving one another. At one point during the commotion a disheveled, black-haired man stumbled by the assembled group showing no apparent interest in our visit. With a wild, bushy beard and popping eyes, I thought he bore a terrifying resemblance to a mug shot of Charles Manson.
“How do you like that?” one soldier said to me smiling. “They have their very own Grizzly Adams.”
I thought the man must be the village idiot, judging by the laughter of several children who were amused at our reaction. “He is crazy man,” a boy said in English as his friends curiously inspected my gear. I remembered to button my back pocket, where my wallet might be easy pickings for a quick-handed thief. But I felt sorry for the man and for these children to whom such disturbing scenes were a normal part of life.
Soon, our mission complete, I and the other soldiers headed back to base where a hardy lunch and a hot shower awaited us. Just before we crossed through the steel gate I turned back for one last look at Kuchi Village. The women had emerged from hiding and were again moving briskly down the crumbling streets. They balanced red plastic jugs, presumably filled with water, atop their covered heads. The jugs were similar to the kind I once used to fill the family lawn mower with gasoline each summer as a boy.
Then oddly, I was seized by other childhood recollections. Of muggy New Orleans summers when I would ride my bike barefoot along the banks of the Mississippi. Of eating pina colada snowballs on the curb of a quiet, oak tree-lined street. And of barbecues and fireworks on the Fourth of July. I felt privileged to have such memories of my youth, of a classic American upbringing.
As I marched quietly back to my room on base I thought about the children of Kuchi Village. Disease, hunger and fear will surely plague them for much of their young lives. The Afghan national elections next week are being promoted as an opportunity to bring democracy, and with it prosperity, to this sorrowful land. But what chance do they really have? When they become my age - if they make it that far - what memories will they cling to?