Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kabul is a Different Universe.


There was a huge thunderstorm on Thursday night. At around midnight, lightning actually struck the main building of the Embassy, and the resulting flash and concurrent roll of thunder was loud enough that the Marine on duty thought we were taking incoming and hit the duck and cover alarm.

I was long since in bed by that point but the thunder had woken me up, and I dutifully followed the instructions posted on the back of the door:

"If in hooch, stay there!

Get under your bed!"

So I rolled on to the floor of the converted shipping container I call home and skittered under the bed. But the hooch I'm in is a temporary unit, meant to tide me over until enough people have cycled out of Kabul that I can get a permanent shipping container to call my own. And since I'm just there temporarily, I haven't bothered to clean the place since I arrived.

It's been three weeks since I moved in and my hooch is filthy, a fact underscored by the ocean of unidentifiable crunchy bits that stuck to my body when I rolled under the bed. And it's firmly autumn in Kabul, so the floor was freezing in addition to being unpleasantly hard.

The duck and cover alarm stopped and I crawled back into bed, but ten seconds later the Marine came over the loudspeaker (referred to, in the MilSpeak lingua franca of Embassy Kabul, as the Big Voice) and told us to continue ducking and covering. I rolled back under the bed, but wisely took my blanket, tacoing myself inside of it against both the cold and the crunchy things on the floor.  The all-clear sounded 15 minutes later.

The next morning, I ordered a yoga mat to keep under the bed: I want something soft to lay on should meteorological phenomena -- or incoming fire -- make us take cover again in the future.

I still haven't cleaned, though.


The Embassy was closed today for Columbus Day. Holidays were not a luxury we indulged in at the PRT, and I guiltily slept in until almost 7. I didn't make it to the gym until after 8, some four hours after my regular time.

There were a fistful of other people there when I arrived. One of them was staring down at the gym's gun-metal grey dumbbells, a prison-esque collection of chipped and rusty iron bars laid out in disorganized rows in front of the cracked wall mirror.  While I was futzing around with the bench press, the gentleman in question was strapping his head into a skull cap apparatus that had metal chains coming down the sides of it, terminating in a metal holster somewhere below his chin.  It toed the line between neo-electroshock therapy chic and, courtesy of the chains, something you might see at a heavy metal concert.

He hoisted one of the gun-metal colored dumbbells into the holster and began a series of head raises that seemed to be aimed strengthening his neck.

"There's something about this place that makes people act in ways that they would never act at home," one of my female colleagues had told me on Thursday. She was talking about the licentious atmosphere at the on-compound bar, where the primarily married but geographically single clientele are often overly forward in their drunken advances towards the very few females on compound.

The gym at 8 a.m. on a holiday is not the same as the compound's bar at midnight on a weekend, but as I watched a fellow gym goer sling around a dumbbell in a traction harness using only his neck, I couldn't help but think that she's maybe she's right.


On Friday, I went to play frisbee on the helicopter landing zone at the military base adjacent to the Embassy.  The HLZ is actually just a large empty field, and on Fridays (the Islamic weekend and our one day off), it hosts a bazaar and a series of sporting events throughout the day.

Few people turned out for frisbee, and I ended up just tossing the disc around with a friend from Pol-Mil (J. Fundraiser, who currently runs humanitarian demining programs but once ran Obama's campaign in the state of Idaho) and a couple of Afghan kids from the bazaar. They were both maybe 12 years old.

We were eventually joined by a trio of military guys -- a Polish soldier and two Americans, one of whom was an enormous and solidly-built full bird Colonel who easily weighed over two hundred pounds -- probably closer to 220 or 230.  With seven players, we started up a makeshift game of ultimate.

At one point, I threw the disc down the field to one of the Afghan kids, and he and the full bird both charged hard for it. They jumped and collided and ended up collapsing in a heap near the end zone, with all two hundred and thirty or so pounds of Colonel falling directly on top of the Afghan kid.

The Colonel dusted himself off and got up, but the Afghan kid continued to lay crumpled on the ground, crying and clutching the shoulder that had just been crushed by a guy who was twice as big as him.  I tried to check him out to see if his collarbone was broken from the fall, but he wouldn't let me touch him, and after waiting a bit to see if he'd shake it off, I asked the other kids if his father was around in the bazaar.

Someone ran to get him, and shortly thereafter the father appeared on the other side of the field and began making his way over to us. He was an amputee -- one leg cut off below the knee -- and was using the kind of crutches that have loops you can put your wrists through.  He eventually made it to the side of the boy (still clutching his shoulder and crying) and poked at him with his crutch.  He growled in gravelly Dari: "WHAT did you do?"

One of the other boys tried to respond for him -- "we were playing a game..." -- but the father cut him off. "Crying like a WOMAN! You are bringing shame on your family and tribe!" And then he slammed him in the head with his crutch.  He went in for a second hit, but Fundraiser grabbed the bottom of the crutch as we both tried to calm him down. Intervention seemed like the right approach, but it was hardly a long-term solution since it's not like you can take the crutch away from the amputee, even if he's using it to beat his kid.

By that point, the kid had managed to get to his feet and was limping across the field, still holding his shoulder and crying for all he was worth. His father hobbled after him at a surprisingly fast clip, continuing to shout at him.  Fundraiser and I watched them both run off, feeling for all the world like our attempt to do the right thing was absolutely the wrong thing.

"I meant to tell you," one of the other boys said to us. "His father is kind of crazy."


Slick said...

Someday, that kid will look back, with a smile, to the day his collarbone was broken by a fat American soldier and his father beat him at the insistence of the bearded American. COIN in action.

Dakota said...

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. (I am wracked with guilt, yes).

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