Michael's Dispatches

Village Boys


Easter Sunday, 2010
Anywhere, Afghanistan

Back in December, C-Co  1-17th Infantry battalion had been in about the worst place in Afghanistan.  There is stiff competition for the position of actual worst place, and I am sure there are many contenders that remain unknown, but the Arghandab was one of them.  The battalion had lost more than twenty soldiers, and C-co alone had lost 12 with more wounded.  In December 2009, C-Co was moved north into Shah Wali Kot and has been running missions here for more than three months.  I’ve only been at Shaw Wali Kot for a week.

Charlie Company headed on a mission to visit villages that had seen no formal western guests for at least the past five years, according Company Commander Max Hanlin.  The soldiers drove to an area maybe two kilometers from the first village, parked, and walked in.  The surrounding desert was so dry that only the hardy and small plants survived—often with thorns, and probably foul-tasting (and poisonous).  How else can a plant expect to survive when the favorite Afghan meat is mutton, and foraging isn’t easy for the lambs?  There was the occasional brown lizard or grasshopper, but on the whole it’s simply rocky desert.  The place is barren but not entirely lifeless.

Charlie Company was heading into the Baghtu Valley.  The general area is said to be among the most religiously conservative in Afghanistan, meaning soldiers were unlikely to stumble across any undiscovered steeples, stupas or synagogues.

Some Charlie Company soldiers are multi-tour combat veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Captain Max Hanlin, the Charlie Company Commander, is on his sixth combat tour.  Captain Hanlin explained how Dutch convoys had been hit near the Baghtu Valley and how fights had raged. Captain Hanlin said the four villages we were to visit are a black hole.  We know where they are, their names, and little more.

We knew nothing, really, about the villages ahead.  We didn’t know whether they are friendly, enemy or neutral.  In fact, the villages could be in another category: beyond neutral.  Just out of it, living in a knowledge vacuum, maybe hoping not to be dragged into a fight.  That would describe much of Afghanistan.

With the Battle for Kandahar kicking off, and our troops surging in for the counteroffensive, villages previously beyond the periphery of our effective reach are becoming more accessible.  Many of them have been Taliban-controlled.  We don’t always know whether these isolated, dusty mud-walled places support, provide sanctuary, or are the native home of Taliban fighters.  The Afghanistan government remains absent from most Afghan villages.  The central government hidden away in Kabul still offers zero.  Not juice, justice or security.  The Taliban at least offers justice in some areas.

And so Charlie Company, some Afghan police, and Haji Oboyadulah Popal (the governor of Shah Wali Kot district), headed to the hills.

Veterans watch the kids.  If the kids don’t like you, or are afraid: bad.  The adults can lie all day and might get away with it, while kids are a collective polygraph.  If the kids disappear suddenly, it’s a good idea to prepare to fight, and it’s always great to see a bunch of young ones return a smile.  Children also see the enemy just like everyone else does, though the children can be more likely to say something.

The soldiers walked into the first village.  One kid looked as if he had been whacked in the head.  A medic bandaged him up.  I asked what happened and through an interpreter the kid said he fell but he seemed to be lying.  The boy just behind him has a slingshot hanging around his neck, as did many of the boys.  Probably got whacked in the head during a slingshot battle and lied to his dad about it, the way we used to lie about BB gun wars.

Does he look innocent?  The boys use the slingshots to hunt birds, which they say they eat, but it’s difficult to imagine that boys with slingshots would not shoot at each other.

Boys catch birds.  And they kept shoving this one up so I would keep looking at it.

An interpreter said they will hold the bird until it becomes accustomed to being held.  When the boy fed the bird, he would slightly release it.

Numerous villagers had watches, and they had shoes.  All the shoes seemed to fit.  In truly poor areas (“poor” being subjective on many fronts),  Afghans often wear shoes that are too large or small.  It’s good to watch for men wearing running shoes, which can be a sign they are fighters.  The British teach this in their man-tracking school that I attended last year in Borneo.  The village was lush with this year’s first crop, including fig trees, and poppy which mostly had not yet flowered.

For the first hour or so, no girls were to be seen, but the boys wanted their photos taken.  Many villagers have never had their photos taken.  The boys didn’t seem to know what the camera was until they saw their images.  Soldiers and Marines sometimes carry Polaroid Cameras to villages.  The villagers love to get the shots which often are the only photos they have ever owned.

Finally a lone girl came out.  She wandered around for some time and a boy showed her to me, and when I lifted the camera he even shielded her eyes, but a moment too late.  This was the first instance I saw anyone care if a young girl was photographed.  Even the girl is covering her face.

There was a meeting going on with Captain Hanlin and the elders and the boys were well-behaved with them, but they were angling for attention.  The boys would have been fun if there were no meeting.  We could have started a slingshot competition.  But they were getting to be a pain.  They magically disappeared and soon were crowded around the mortar team maybe 30 meters away.  The crowd of boys began laughing so loudly that the meeting stopped a couple times to see what was up.  The British will designate a soldier to be the comedian during missions.  When kids disrupt soldiers, the comedian can distract them away from business.  Our folks were borrowing that good idea.  I walked over and asked our guys how they had lured the kids away.  Why were they laughing so loud?  A soldier answered that they didn’t try to entertain the boys.  He continued, “I just farted and they went crazy.”  So he did it again and so on.  The soldier boys with the mortars were getting along famously with the village boys.  Who knew that public corporeal depressurization is a great taboo in Afghanistan, but incredibly entertaining when done by Americans?

Unfortunately, the circus de flatulance ended and the village boys came back to the meeting.

And kept being boys.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Adamson · 11 years ago
    Great article and proof that no matter where in the world a person is, boys will be boys.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Claudia Tynes · 11 years ago
    Great piece, Michael! The pictures are so wonderful. Puts a face/reality on the country.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave Clark · 11 years ago
    Great Pictures, Michael. Whatever happened to Hershey bars? Keep up the great work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leslie Hammond · 11 years ago
    Awesome photos, as usual! Gotta love the children no matter what and wish we could hug them all.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    GW Midkiff · 11 years ago
    I am sure you have heard this before, but you are our modern day Ernie Pyle - and unlike Ernie...keep your head down! Keep up the good work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Maggie E Leclerc · 11 years ago
    As usual you report the soft side of the war is really enjoyable. I really like the stories about children.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peggy Kane · 11 years ago

    Thank you for all your wonderful stories and pictures. You truly give us the birds eye view of what is really happening in Afghanistan. You cover and report what is the real stuff with our troops and those other countries who work side by side. And, yes boys will be boys!
    You are awesome Michael! Hope you were able to enjoy Easter with some our very best.. God Bless.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Susan L. Satterly · 11 years ago
    Happy Easter Michael. Lucky you get to spend the holiday with our boys! Enjoy!
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    Leonard Hartley · 11 years ago
    May the alive and risen Lord Jesus Christ bless you and all the troops there with you in the fight against evil. You mentioned Michael in a dispatch a few weeks ago that many young boys are abused sexually by Taliban "men". Knowing their prophet was a murderer of those who did not adhere to his "faith" as well as a child molester with his 9 year old "wife" I would not be surprised with the actions of his followers. I know most moslem can rape and murder women and get away with it but is the goverment doing anything to address this problem targeting children?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SALMA · 11 years ago
    kids are innocent....no matter where on earth they are....
    to peace...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    rose Burkhart · 11 years ago
    As a child in the early 0s, I joined the family around the radio to listen to Lowell Thomas. Sometimes when no new news was forthcoming, Mr. Thomas would relate stories of his adventures from "Beyond the Khyber Pass into forbidden Afghanistan" and from his current travels. He loved these courageous people who just wanted to be who they were. They asked for nothing but would share whatever material goods they had with you. Michael Yon, are you related to Lowell Thomas physically? You certainly are related to Mr. Thomas in heart, soul, and spirit. I am convinced that there is a higher purpose for our being in Afghanistan. And - - you, and those about whom you write, are part of that purpose.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    KarlinPhoenix · 11 years ago
    I have followed some of your work and find it all enlightening. Thank you for your efforts at educating those of us who
    have not seen these things and been to those places.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Determined · 11 years ago
    As a mother I could grab everyone of them and just hug them and love them.They are preciouse and caught up in some mess when they should be playing and enjoying their childhood.I always keep them to my prayers.It's amayzing what all us parents do to our kids sometimes without realizing it sometimes we do.GOD BLESS THEM AND YOU MICHAEL AND OUR TROOPS.Wonderfull pics and thanks for giving me a smile for today it warmed my heart.Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Juanita Williamson · 11 years ago
    These are Great photo's !!! They are refreshing, especially when one hears of so much bad news coming out from over there. Kid's are a product of their environment, The Soldier's are making a positive impact,... But hey thats why they are the Best of the Best !!! Have a Happy and Safe Easter !!!
    AKA Army Infantry Mom
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Toni Knight · 11 years ago
    I love your stories and the mission you are on. May God bless you and keep you safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SSG Rivera, Jose · 11 years ago
    Great story Michael. As you know i was there on that patrol. Thanks for telling the people back home the story of what we do as soldiers day by day and how proud we feel to continue to do our job.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nana & Pop PoP · 11 years ago
    God bless you Michael you have the gift of telling stories with your camera!
    Children are children no matter where, so great to see great picture stories, like yours.
    BTW we're with you on the sling shot war theory, Thank God it didn't hit him in the eye!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Caleb · 11 years ago
    Keep up the great work Michael. Stay safe. Our prayers are with you. Happy Easter and may God Almighty continue to bless you!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Proud parent of a Sc · 11 years ago
    I am surprised that you didn't volunteer to have them pull your finger.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    LadyLiberty · 11 years ago
    Whenever I look at children my mind immediately thinks of the promise that is born in them. I would like to see such promises fulfilled by wise adults who meet their responsibilities to the young. I heard on radio today that a gentleman in Australia, I think, is selling pomegranates to farmers in Afghanistan so they'll grow them instead of poppies. Poms contain the highest amount of natural estrogen of all fruits, so they're definitely marketable to a worldful of women. That's just one practical promise that the tribal elders seemed willing to support. What makes a human being and a people determined to fulfill the promise of their humanity?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Christine · 11 years ago
    Great photos....the eyes of those children have to move you....they seem to tell a deeper story all on their own...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Anderson · 11 years ago
    I enjoy your commentary and photos. I am praying for you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    maxlperry · 11 years ago
    It is great to see the interaction with Afghan kids who perhaps have never seen a soldier, but are we truly helping the Afhans? Can we afford to stay there long enough to truly assist them into the 21st century? Do they want to come into the 21st C. ?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mad Dog · 11 years ago
    Another wonderful story that helps to personalize the Afghans. I had a fellow reservist who felt the only way to deal with them and the Iraqis was to nuke 'em! Yeah, right. On another note, what lens do you generally use for your face shots. With the Canon you use, is the CCD the same size as 5 mm or is it smaller like in my EOS . Just trying to get used to digital after years of film, but lens calculations are a part of the game for me. Do you set at 5.6 1/60 for your sunlight shots.
    Stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PeterGunn · 11 years ago
    Terrific pictures of the children! The innocent faces tell the story of hope and success of trust and our troops. Keep up the good work and stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dorothy Roush · 11 years ago
    Thanks again Michael for your outstanding work that brings such great information.Some so terribly disturbing, some so outstandingly informative, heartbreaking, a real roller coaster of motions.You can show beauty in pain, love when theres hatred, ultimate perspective that keeps us holding on to faith that all this will come out right somehow, some way.Your a real life line, bigger than life itself.God Bless you,Our Troops and all of you stay SAFE! Blessed are the children for they will see God.We need a Good support campaign to keep you going.... bringing the food for souls we all desperately need and its in the working trust me! We all love you & Our Troops God Bless All of you!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Gornell · 11 years ago
    (or sooner) many of these boys will take up arms. The question is: for which side? It's good that they have positive interactions with American soldiers.

    By the way, love the depth of field you captured on the third to last photo.

    Happy Easter. Keep up the good work and God Speed.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Voodoo 6 · 11 years ago
    Always loved my time with the kids over there...didn't appreciate my nickname of Hrosh Prosh (Shrek), and never managed to come back off of a patrol with any pens....they love pens...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Syed Rahimuddin Agha · 11 years ago
    They are Tigers because religious blood is Boiling in their Hearts.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    seven degrees · 11 years ago
    This pics remind me of those I have of boys and girls in Vietnam who loved to hang around and joke with GIs where ever we went. This was one of the many observations I made that belied the falsehoods of the Washington Post, NYT and the television networks that the "people" hated us. Thank you Michael for showing us the truth on the ground, where few mainstream journalists ever tread.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Maddy · 11 years ago
    Ha! A fart has always gotten a laugh, whether it was in a movie, or someone slipping up suddenly in a crowded room, or elevator! Some families just do it for the humor of it, others feel it is crude and obscene, but still laugh when one is heard in Church....Confucious said, "Man who fart in Church, set in own pew!" Still funny, even today! Another old saying my Dad always recanterdwhen he passed a little gas, "I didn't hear your Whistle, but I sure Smelled your Smoke! He passed in 1994, but that still makes me smile when I think of it. Thanks Michael for bringing back some memories! So, why wouldn't a bunch of Afghan boys laugh when they heard the body sound that is taboo in their public places! lol Even in War there is a little time for humor! Be safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dona L. Griffin · 11 years ago
    Our son, Sgt. Dale Griffin, was one of the many soldiers lost in Arghandab Valley who was a member of Charlie Company and the 1-17. He spoke Arabic and Pashtu and learned much from the children. We still keep in touch with many of his friends. It was good to see these pictures and to hear a little about where they are and what they're doing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dori · 11 years ago
    I really like these pictures. Kids can bring a smile to your face no matter where the kids are from. As I looked at the young faces I thought about how all of us looked at one time...even the terrorists who desire to take lives. It's the children that we need to reach in any culture because they are the future. Thanks Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Karen Mulhollem Mrs. · 11 years ago
    I noticed that many of the boys had small 'injuries' one even had bloody teeth! What is going on here?
    Is there NO parental care at all? I was shocked to read that the boys are sexually abused by the male adults who
    are revered! at least the girls are spared this (I assume)
    It sounds like a 'backward' disgusting life for kids.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SALMA · 11 years ago
    be safe Michael.keep sending us your always outstanding dispatches...
    God bless you and the men in around you.
    to peace...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave1000 · 11 years ago
    Are these guys heroes?

    Enough said
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Skart · 11 years ago
    Dave1000: No, those Jaish al Mahdi militiamen and their embedded media are not heroes.

    Thank you for what you do, Michael. Keep showing images of the conflict zones without other agenda or propaganda.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 11 years ago
    In the first link, you can clearly see the RPG carried by one of the men.

    and updated here
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 11 years ago
    Yeah, despite what Wikileaks is claiming, *their own video* shows that our troops were more than justified in opening fire on that group of *armed insurgents*. The death of those journalists was, at worst, a tragic workplace accident.

    By the way, why are they called Wikileaks? They don't seem to be a wiki.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 11 years ago
    It is my understanding and Michael could probably verify but if you were not embedded, you were to wear a distinctive jersey identifying yourself as press if you were out and about on your own.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 11 years ago
    It seems like they *were* embedded, just with the other side.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tommy · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael for sharing. My nephew is a medic with the 1-17, he has been working the aid station at their FOB Frontenac (sp). If you get by the aid station say hi to Sgt. Matt Hadden from his uncle Tommy. I have him your web site and he wrote the other day he really enjoyed your writings and pictures. You are a Great American!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PWith · 11 years ago
    I was reading a book about the initial invasion of Afghanistan and determined the lat/long of this town:
    1.77885 77485088
    65.7565411444 2
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Abdallah · 11 years ago
    Here is a famous Afghani story: Rashid is getting married, and the middle of the celebrations, he farted. Covered in shame , he left his bride and his village immediately to live far far away where noone knew him. Many many years later he met a man who was from his village, and, as a stranger asked him about news of his village. "Nothing much has happened" said the stranger, "since 5 years ao, when Rashid Khan farted on his wedding day
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Weak · 11 years ago
    This is to Leonard...way to show how Jesus taught you to speak like that...bravo. I'm just glad that this mystical Jewish Carpenter who got nailed to a cross because his own followers were cowards is probably spinning in his grave knowing the way you Christians are getting all touchy and feely with little boys in those Churches of yours. Yeah, good thing I'm an Atheist who doesn't give two shits about mystical brain dead religions like the one you profess to follow. Anyways, keep up the great work Michael...too bad you got all these Fundamentalists from the Pro-Jesus group banging their kettles and drums around your website...because then perhaps you'd have serious discussions and worthwhile comments. Oh well.
  • This commment is unpublished.
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