Michael's Dispatches

Some Photos and Captions

22 July 2009
Filed from Sangin, Afghanistan

(This dispatch is from Ghor Province, though I am now with British forces down south.)

Lithuanian soldier on Swedish C-130 from Kabul to Kandahar and finally to Chaghcharan.   On his left are Filipino workers.  Filipinos are like birds; the only place that an American has stepped that a Filipino hasn’t is the moon.  Yesterday was a special anniversary for space travel: man first landed on the moon.  I watched the launch from our family boat when I was five years-old.  Apollo 11 was bright, and loud.  Many people think that the Russians also walked on the moon, but this is untrue.

The Swedish C-130 landed at Chaghcharan “airport.”  Landmines still wait in ambush in the fields around the airstrip, and in fact a legacy mine (previous war) was found just about three feet off the road—just a minute from the base—while I was there.  The mine has been next to the base for about five years and apparently nobody stepped on it.  When soldiers say to you, “Sir, please don’t step off the road,” they mean “DON’T STEP OFF THE ROAD!”  The director of the local hospital told me that mines strike about one person per month in this area.

Croatian soldiers are in Chaghcharan.  Afghanistan is more 'international' than the Frankfurt (am Main) international airport.

Downtown Chaghcharan.

There are more villages in Afghanistan than stars in this photo.  Look closely and see the meteor track in the upper center.

This meteor is easier to see.  The camera captured about ten photos of meteors in maybe forty-five minutes.

For every meteor caught by the camera, at least a dozen more could be seen streaking over.

Another meteor.

An Italian helicopter flew in from Herat and broke down, so the crew was stuck in Chaghcharan for several days.   Lithuanian soldiers guarded the Italian helicopter day and night until the Italians got it fixed and flew away.  In the photo above and below, Lithuanians prepare for guard duty under the glow of the Milky Way.

I thought people at home would want to see this, so I fetched the camera—bought by readers—and made some shots.  These images were made with a Canon Mark II 5d, which has turned out to be superior in many ways to the Mark III 1ds.

The Mark II 5d, with a 50mm f1.2, pulls in a lot of light.

Lithuanian soldiers before mission to village.

Sangow Bar Village.

At first many of the Lithuanian soldiers were standoffish, apparently concerned that a writer would come out and slam them just for the sake of slamming.  Despite the reticence, they were always polite and professional.  I often get similar reactions with U.S. and British forces.  They might be reluctant to talk in front of writers, but 99% are professional about it, and nearly always polite.  (On rare occasions they are impolite.)  After some time the Brits and Americans relax, and the same was true with Lithuanians, Croatians and Ukrainians.  One Ukrainian officer didn’t even want me to go on mission wherein they were teaching Afghans how to use Word and Excel software.  Later he invited me to Ukraine.  Some of the Ukrainians and Lithuanians fought here during the Soviet war, but they seem to like the Afghans.  The Ukraine officer said that there are 50,000 Afghans living in Ukraine, and they are good people and there are no problems.

Some of the Lithuanians want to go down south and join American forces in the fight.  They know they will take losses, but they also lament that this is a perfect time to improve the Lithuanian Army by getting out with our people and fighting.

The base is off to the right, and partially in this photo.  All these homes are new and were built here because the base came up.  Some of the people moved closer to the base for protection, while others came for jobs.

Chaghcharan runway is visible on the upper left.

Croatians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians came to a school to put up a basketball court.  The Lithuanians in particular have some kind of basketball mania.   Like NASCAR in North Carolina.  They’ll talk your ear off about basketball.

Boy at the school.  There were two teachers for 140 students.  One teacher told me she has ten children and she taught all ten how to read Dari.  The other teacher was her fifteen-year-old daughter, who actually spoke some English.  Many of the kids were learning English.

This Ukrainian officer was constantly interacting with Afghan adults and kids.

Front gate at a computer learning center and warehouse in Chaghcharan.

Two Ukrainian officers were teaching Word and Excel downtown.  One student, the one standing in the back with the blue vest, talked with me for about thirty minutes.  He asked about the foods we eat in America.  “Do you eat the pig?”  “Do you eat the cow?”  “The chicken?”  Finally, he asked if I hate Muslims.  I looked at him like he was crazy and he laughed with embarrassment and apologized for the question.   I told him honestly that I like most Afghans.

There is something about Afghans that resonates with Americans.  They value independence and personal strength, and honor is a part of their society.  There is a substantial reservoir of expats—many are Brits or Americans who have lived here for years on end.  Not on bases, but downtown in many parts of Afghanistan.  Despite my personal negativity that we are losing the war, one doesn’t have to look far for sparkles of hope.  Losing doesn’t mean lost.  Difficult does not mean impossible.

On the 6th of July, the Lithuanians celebrated their 'State Day.'  A Romanian policeman working here asked one Lithuanian soldier, 'I don’t mean to be impolite, but how many Independence Days does Lithuania have?'  Both the Romanian and I were surprised that Lithuanians have two Independence Days, though one is called 'State Day.'

Lithuanians are proud of their history but there have been some very dark times.  They remind me of the Polish—I lived in Poland for about two years—freedom loving, stubborn, and independence-minded.  Most of them hated Soviet occupation and dreamed of joining the west.  The Lithuanians now say the long struggle to freedom was worth the heavy price.

The pagan Lithuanians fought off the Christian Jihad, commonly known as 'Crusade.'  The words 'pagan' and 'infidel,' 'jihad' and 'crusade,' are mostly synonymous.  More interesting still, many people believe that the Pashtuns, from which most of the Taliban derive, are actually decended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Some Taliban actually have Jewish names.  There is a Jewish cemetary in Ghor Province.  Some Jews say there were two Jerusalems, and that 'Northern Jerusalem' was in fact Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, but the Jews there were mostly murdered and scattered over the last century, this time not by Muslims but others, including those who shipped them to Siberia.

When I visited Jerusalem earlier this year, the irony was too heavy to lift.  Three major religions collide head-on in the Holy Land.  Jerusalem is not the only Thunderdome; there are others.  For instance, India has a place called Ayodha, which is sacred to the Hindus, and holy to the Muslims, too, and so the Indian Hindus and Muslims have murdered each other in large numbers for tiny speck of common holy land.

The Lithuanians had been sort of bragging about an American soldier who beat them in a basketball competition.  They couldn’t believe that a relatively short American woman, an American soldier, had beaten these tall soldiers so handily, and so they were talking about her for many days.  The Lithuanian commander gave her an award in front of all the soldiers, who cheered her on, and one Lithuanian ask her to come to Lithuania to join the national team.  I wanted to say, 'You go little Sister!'

The Lithuanians are proud to say that Ghor Province is poppy free.

Audience at talent show on base.

The Lithuanians actually have a sauna on base.

Prepping for a night mission.

The Crusaders beat the Pagans, and so now Lithuania is strongly Catholic.  The priest gives a blessing before the mission.

No Milky Way tonight.

Soldiers are blessed and ready to roll.

The roads can be more treacherous than any enemy in Ghor Province.

The CamelBak water bladders replace canteens and our people have been using them for years.  Some Lithuanians have started using CamelBaks, and I have a couple.  The biggest threat to Brits and Americans down south are bombs, but heat is also a major threat and is putting people down.  Especially so given that most of Afghanistan is at least 5,000 feet above sea level.  Combine altitude with heat and it can be difficult to drink enough water.  When soldiers and Marines go down from the heat, the medics will pull down the casualty’s trousers and roll him over and stick a thermometer in his rump, right there in front of everybody.  Needless to say, in addition to getting a temperature reading, this gives incentive for people to drink more water.  Nothing is sacred out here.  I heard a story about a commander who, during a long firefight without a break, finally decided that enough was enough and right there in front of his Marines dropped his drawers and squatted to relieve himself, then pulled up his drawers and got back into the fight.

Lithuanian and Croatian soldiers spent three hours walking around handing out 'propaganda.'  In American patois, 'propaganda' has a negative connotation but it’s important for the military to disseminate its message.  This man squatted for about 10 minutes reading (his lips were moving).  One boy ran up to me to say in English that his photo had been in another such flier.  He was very proud to have his photo published, and whereas I’ve seen people disregard such fliers in some places, here the people seemed to value them.  One man zoomed in with a child on a motorbike and smiled, asking for a flier, which he then started to read.  Whoever is making these fliers seems to be doing a good job.

The local radio station.  Imagine the advertisement:  'This is WAFG, coming at you with 100 milliwatts of power!'

I recognized some of the kids from school.  This girl was at the school some days back and was intent on getting her photo made.  A lot of Afghan kids enjoy throwing a few English words at you.  Would be a great thing to have 10,000 English teachers over here.

This is the base at Chaghcharan where our folks, Lithuanians, Croatians, Ukrainians and others live.  Including some Filipino workers, of course.  One Filipina is from Mindanao, and I said that I just came from her island which made her happy.

They built this catwalk because during the wet season, Afghan mud is horrendous.

At night, it’s important to carry a light because the bases are very dark—but the camera makes it look brighter than it really is.  This invisible soldier had a red lens on his light.  One soldier didn’t carry a light one night, and mangled her shoulder.

A little photo magic superimposes the stars above with the camp below.  This is a single photo.

Practicing more low light shots before returning to combat next week.

There’s more light out there than meets the eye.

Photography is like writing.  Change a few little settings and a picture of the same scene can vary dramatically.

Same conditions.

Same place.

Dramatic differences.

Starry, starry night.

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