Michael's Dispatches

Jurassic Trailer Park

Road from Kabul to Jalalabad
20 October 2008

Afghanistan is like time traveling.  Vast expanses of rugged landscape, mostly unadorned by man-made structures, all framed by stories of savagery and conquest, create a picture of forever.  A sense that human and geologic changes occur at nearly the same pace.  Many of the people remain arguably “pre-historic” in the sense that illiterate people do not chronicle their knowledge and experience into writing or durable art.  Moving around the countryside, a man could half expect to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex come stomping over a ridge.

My friend Tim Lynch, a retired infantry officer who has lived four years in Afghanistan, had mentioned there are caves near Jalalabad, and when the sun sinks, bats take flight by the thousands.  That sounded fun to watch; I did some caving (amateurs call it “spelunking”) in North Carolina and Tennessee, and was always amazed at the swarms of bats down in the bowels of earth.  In Florida, I would sometimes venture onto the campus of the University of Florida, just as the squawking flocks of white ibis were settling into their rookery on Lake Alice.  The night shift would come out and tens of thousands of bats would take flight right over my head, then over the lake, while the alligators began their evening hunt.

Wildlife watching is to war correspondence what a body massage is to a hundred lashes with a bullwhip.  I was ready for a bat-adventure.

Horsed meets horseless in Jalalabad, Afghanistan’s second city.  In “Jbad,” one feels transported back only a century or so.  For thousands of years, the area been a thru-way between empires, where the wonders and caravans of distant civilizations, some long forgotten, passed through.

Leaving friendly Jalalabad, the billboards are modern.

A greater adventure than the travesty of war would be to travel along with linguists, historians and archeologists into far reaches and hidden crannies here.

Predator

We drove out of Jalalabad through a few small villages.  A Predator UAV flew overhead.  This Predator was actually lower than it appears in the photo, but a wide-angle lens happened to be on the camera when the warbird prowled over.  The three flapping birds at the top are very close.  The Predator carries Hellfire missiles and the pilot is back in the United States, studying the landscape through the eye in the plane that relays video to anywhere in the world that the military chooses, and often to several places at once.  I used to watch those feeds hour after hour in Iraq, as the modes switched from black-and-white, to color, to infrared, at the flick of a switch.  Sometimes I would watch people die through that eye, and then hear the nearby rumble of the detonation.  Unfortunately, in the type of warfare we face in Afghanistan, high tech is just a tiny fraction of what we need to succeed.  But the Predators are useful and important tools, and we need a lot more of them here.  When the plane detects terrorist activity, the pilot is able to order precision attacks before the enemy combatants know that they have been observed.  SWOOSH… the Hellfire’s eye is locked onto the laser reflection, and follows the stream of photons to the end.  BAM!  White and black pieces of man and earth blossom onto the live feed.

I’d rather be bird watching.

The Kabul River flows through Jalalabad and off to Pakistan.

The area around Jalalabad, in Nangarhar Province, is a temperate, well-watered and fertile plain.  Before the war the area was famous for producing the bitter oranges that mark traditional Afghan cuisine.  Poppies are now the crop du jour for Afghanistan, although much of the opium production has been curtailed in Nangarhar.

The Village

The bat caves were near “Little Barabad,” a village on the outskirts of Jalalabad.  When we parked in Little Barabad, villagers came out to greet Tim, who knew the names of some of the kids and elders.  The village head-man treated Tim like an old friend.  Kuchi people are nomadic and semi-nomadic herdsmen, ever in search of pasture for their animals.  I’ve seen their camel caravans in numerous provinces, but there were no camels around Little Barabad.  Tim says these are “reformed Kuchis” who have settled down.  Ken Kraushaar, an American I got to speak with for many hours on many occasions, says he has been visiting Little Barabad for over a year.  Ken comes out here paying from his own pocket and rolls around without security.  Lots of people come to Afghanistan on big budgets and heavy security, yet they hardly leave their guarded compounds.  Ken goes out alone.  Ken said that the 80 families of Little Barabad actually call their village Sak, and that the elders’ names are Ghani and Koko.  He also said that perhaps another 100-120 families are expected to arrive due to a refugee crisis.

Henna hair coloring is widely used by Afghan men, in many cases to denote religious status.  Some of the kids have dyed hair, too.  The red-headed and blonde children among the mostly raven-haired population might be descendents of Alexander's invading armies, more than two thousand years ago.  Of course there have been recent invasions.  Maybe genetic scientists will one day reveal the secrets of these people’s ancestral roots, like archeologists digging up precious artifacts in an attempt to piece together the shards of 'pre-history' into a plausible 'history.'

Little Barabad/Sak is on the Kabul River.  This is the village boat.  The inner tubes represent a great advance toward modernity. Until recently villagers used the inflated skins of dead water buffalo for flotation to cross frigid rivers.

Some American organizations are working hard to build the locals a bridge, which could help get the kids to school.  On numerous occasions I saw Ken Kraushaar don a shawal kameez and head out to do prep-work on the footbridge, construction of which has not yet begun.  Ken said that the organizations involved include Rotary Sister Cities Foundation, Engineers Without Borders, and Footbridges.org.

In all the crazy places I travel, I’ve seen first-hand on countless occasions how these footbridges, schools and clinics built by foreigners, improve people’s lives.  Next thing you know, foreign teachers are parachuting in, and the kids go to new schools, where they learn English or other important languages such as British, Canadian or Australian.  Okay, French or German…  In any case, their worlds start to open into a brighter future.  I think of Nepal.  It’s working there.  Heck, I think of places in America where it’s working (although we could still use some more help).  It’s amazing how much the world is improved by volunteer teachers, doctors and nurses, engineers and just regular folks, who decide to do something worthwhile.  A wise and experienced man put it best when he called them: “A thousand points of light.”

While the war has brought many westerners to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country, the fact is that many are happy to help the Afghans.  For all their fierceness, many Afghans are a charming, engaging and likeable people.

That day the river was low, as it is most of the year, but the distant traffic bridge is sized to accommodate the power of melting snows.  In a land where running water is scarce, people pull their cars into the lakes and rivers to wash them.

Caves have long provided shelter in this harsh landscape.  These caves are just below an old British fort.

I wondered what this means.

We had set off from Little Barabad /Sak and some boys came with us.  Tim said that when the girls try to follow, the boys throw stones at them.

These caves might have been part of the network of Ghandharan Buddhist monasteries that reached across parts of Afghanistan from the 2nd Century A.D. till the 7th.

This is where Alexander the Great’s Hellenic culture met and merged with eastern Buddhism.  Some of the oldest known Buddhist texts and relics were found not far from here.  Also, sculptures of the Buddha (said to have lived here in an earlier life) looking like a Greek god.

If these stones could speak…

To the bat cave!

We scrambled up the rocks.

The boys were having a blast.  That’s Shem in the green shirt; he’s an ex-Aussie paratrooper.  Shem told me that he once barely missed being blown up by two suicide car bombs that detonated 20 minutes apart.  He showed me the sites in Kabul, saying it happened on 14 November 2005.  The BBC reported that eight people were killed.  He was so close that each bomb knocked him down.  Luckily he didn't get fragged.  A common terror tactic is to pack ball bearings in the car bombs, which makes them like giant hand grenades and increases the lethal range.  I’ve seen a lot of people who survived very close encounters with car bombs, and a lot of people who didn’t.  In another incident in Zabul Province, down by Kandahar, Shem’s group was ambushed and two of his buddies were killed.  Yet Shem keeps going with a good sense of humor.

Bat hunting is much more fun than all those bombs and bullets.

The bat cave was large and smelled of guano, but the bats were gone.

Rats, there were no bats. But Tim had timed our arrival excellently; the sun was in a perfect position for a top-notch photo. We wondered if the bats had migrated.

These relatively shallow caves were part of hundreds of small monasteries, inhabited by monks and pilgrims, in the area between our location and Bamiyan Province where the famous, huge, carved Buddhas stood for 1500 years until the Taliban blew them up in 2001. It is possible that these caves and others like them were used by local inhabitants to hide in when Genghis Khan's armies marched across the plains, pillaging and destroying everything in their path. In some caves it is reported that you can still see traces of frescoes.  Centuries of war and plunder have left them empty.

We scrambled some more.  I asked one of the boys to carry my long camera lens, which made him happy. He liked having a job to perform during our little expedition.

Rock doodles.

We scrambled up to the old British fort where, in a different war, things had gone very badly for the British. (In the First Afghan Campaign, an entire British regiment was wiped out not far from here).  There wasn't much left of the fort.  Tim had told me a story about his first visit to Little Barabad/Sak and the caves.  "The old men in the village told me the caves were built by the British when they built the old fort.  When I first came, they would ask "Have you come to see your grandfathers' fort?"  I explained to them that at the time the British were here we were fighting them too.  That's not precisely true of course.  We had finished our revolution 20 years before the Brits entered Afghanistan. But telling the old men that brought instant delight -- shared enemies does that -- and I was pressed for details.  When I told the Brits burned down our capitol they smiled even more saying it is a good thing to burn down the capitol and kill the King every now and then.”

I wonder if these boys go to school.  Most Afghans are still illiterate.  The last 30 years of war wiped out whatever progress the country might have been making toward more widespread education.  Even without reading and other academic skills we take for granted, they do keep crushing more advanced armies.  There remains something to be said for character and fierce determination.  After all, this kid was sitting on a British fort that his ancestors had destroyed.  The acclaimed author Tom Ricks, whose dad was a university professor here when Tom was a kid, wrote this: “Louis Dupree mentions in his massive book on Afghanistan that many illiterate Afghans have memorized hundreds of poems, stories, lists of proverbs, and other cultural icons.  Arguably, some of these guys who can't read are better ‘read’ than most westerners.”

Still, it's time for these people to have a government that can provide schools.  Lacking the ability to read, write and calculate in the 21st Century will have an even greater cost than it has had heretofore.  Maybe one day these kids will read about themselves here, either in translation or in English.

Afghans love having their pictures taken. The kids kept asking… even though they rarely get to see the results.  They are wonderfully photogenic.

The Afghans say that the “Russians” were better fighters than the Americans, which is strange.  They killed 30,000 Soviets and sent them packing.  They will likely never kick us out unless we grow weary of the feral side of their nature, and decide to go home.  But some of the other NATO members are ready to say goodbye.  If we grow weary or distracted by something else, it is the Afghans who will suffer most.

These boys might be old men before this current war is over.  Their fathers were born during an earlier phase of it. It is hard to imagine how the nicer parts of their culture can survive a multi-generational war, and how the country can advance when its resources go to basic self-defense.  Yet here they are, seemingly ready for change.  The British tell me it will take 10 years to “win” the war.  Some Americans say 25.  Both seem like gross underestimates.  Perhaps the fighting will end.  But it will take a century for Afghanistan to become modern.  Today, Afghanistan is spiraling into the abyss.  To us, progress is a given.  To others, it is an elusive dream, if they dream at all.  Here, the march of time can go forward or backwards.

The war doesn't seem to directly affect their village now.

Ruins of the British Fort.  So little remained that it mostly looked like a bunch of rocks.

The sun was setting, so it was time to go.  We traipsed back down to the village.

Beata is a German aid worker who lives and works in Jalalabad.  She came along and was having as much fun as the kids.

The girls, with their smiling faces, were waiting back at the village.  They wanted their photos taken, too.

Beata soon had an entourage.

The village head-man and some others came out again.  He and Tim exchanged warm greetings while the kids crowded around as though the circus had come to their village.  Then we drove away.

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