Michael's Dispatches31 Comments
- Published: Monday, 13 July 2009 01:10
13 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan
The wake-up alarm sounded at 0345, and by 0430 the Lithuanian soldiers were ready to roll. The Lithuanians had always arrived early, prepared for action before every mission, but this time we relied on an Afghan guide. The first part of the mission was to find the Kuchi. Normally, Lithuanian soldiers perform a reconnaissance before a mission, but they decided to skip the recon to find the Kuchi nomads because, well, they are nomads. Even if the recon were to locate the camel caravan in a specific location, the Kuchis would likely have moved by the time we got there. So we were relying on the local guide who had a cell phone number for the Kuchis. He was 21 minutes late and held up the mission by 27 minutes. One guy holding up about three dozen soldiers and a mission should be flogged.
The base at Chaghcharan sits at nearly 7,500 feet above sea level, so at night the Milky Way hovers in magnificence above the clean, dry air. But come morning, the stars fade as the sun rises with blinding vengeance.
As we rolled to find the Kuchi nomads and their camels, the six vehicle convoy kicked up “moon dust,” which reflected the bright sun, causing instant blindness as if driving through white clouds. The convoy had to space out, else the vehicles would be driving dangerously close through the arid fog of dust. As we passed villages made of stone, mud, and straw, the white smoke from their cooking fires hung low, just above the villages, lightly blanketing their dwellings, as farmers were already heading to the fields. The Afghans are a hard-working lot. The cruel mountains must have killed off the lazy ones a long time ago.
About 45 minutes into the journey, the guide got a call that the Kuchi nomads had moved, and there was some confusion as to where they were. This treeless terrain might look wide-open, but its vastness is like the sea and extremely difficult to search through. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Kuchis might know their way around here, for generations gone, few locals have use for maps or know how to use them. They couldn’t just give a grid reference to us. They might have known where they were, but not where that was in relation to where we stood. And so we kept going, stopping, and asking many people along the way.
Lithuanian soldiers are good with maps, but nobody else was, so there was much confusion as to where the Kuchis might have gone. The grass cutters were of little help. The man closest on the left is a Pashtun from Chaghcharan and is the Kuchi representative. He’d never heard of Michael Jackson though the interpreter (pointing) had, and knew he had died. We turned around and headed off in a different direction.
The Lithuanian soldiers had brought four doctors along to examine the Kuchis and offer simple medicines, and despite that the Kuchis actually wanted to be found, they were nowhere to be seen. In regard to the war, the Kuchis have a reputation for neutrality, and there are said to be about 5 million in the region. I see them in many places, but they are standoffish and have giant dogs that are called, not surprisingly, Kuchi dogs. Kuchi dogs look like they could rip a door off a Humvee.
The man in the middle is an Afghan doctor who studied medicine in Kabul. In my Humvee were two other doctors. The first was Vitaly, from Ukraine, and he was a laugh because every time we stopped, he wanted his photo taken several times in various poses with different cameras. The second doctor was from Georgia and I called him “Georgia.” The gunner and driver were Lithuanian soldiers whose English was only slightly better than my Lithuanian, so we didn’t talk much.
We came to a steep hill, with the road we wanted down below. The directions we were given to reach the Kuchis would lead us through a known minefield, so the Lithuanian PRT Commander, Colonel Alvydas Siuparis, radioed from base to find a new route.
And so we headed higher, because that’s where the grass cutters said the Kuchis had gone. Up, up, up, the road ended and we drove through high meadows, eventually coming to the end of a small stream that disappeared into the soil. The higher we climbed, the higher the grass. And we came into an area with many butterflies, but within just a couple of minutes we were through the butterflies and came straight into an area of thousands of baby frogs, for here the little stream was still flowing and had not yet reached its end. Thousands and thousands of baby frogs were hopping about. And just as quickly as the butterflies ended, the frogs were behind us and we came to a small field with many small birds, and there was a hawk. Just through the other side of the small birds, we came to another field, this one was filled with plants, from one to two feet tall, and each of them looked like a giant golden pipe cleaner. Now the grass was higher and there was a small field with a many plants, each blossoming with white and gold flowers, side by side. Each plant had both white and gold blossoms growing on the same stems. Amid these flowers were many small birds and butterflies at the same time. Then we drove through and the land opened to a village, which we did not expect.
Please click on the above image for a larger view.
There were no power lines or satellite dishes, but there were three turkeys, a cow, a donkey, four horses, a crazy man and several kids running around. The crazy barefooted man ran out to the lead vehicle and stared. The kids neither waved nor ran. They didn’t smile or frown. The place looked fairly stone aged.
And there was a fairly well marbled cat. The GPS indicated that the village was about 8,800 feet above sea level, which means we were high up in the middle of nowhere, and it seemed curious that a cat this far up would be so healthy looking. Not that I know much about cats, but it seemed noteworthy.
About half a dozen men came out. They were unarmed and friendly and wondered why the Americans were here, but in fact it was the Lithuanians. Just about everyone in Afghanistan is seen to be Americans. It doesn’t matter if there is a giant Canadian flag on your forehead: many Afghans have never heard of Canada, nor other places. Down in Chaghcharan everyone knows the difference between Lithuanians and Americans, but not out in the villages. Luckily, the Lithuanians have been giving Americans a good name.
The women did not hide and the men were good with the kids who hovered around but only out of curiosity. The kids never asked for anything, although some smiled at the Lithuanian soldiers when the soldiers smiled. But the kids didn’t seem to have any idea what a wave meant. If you waved, they just looked at you, but if you smiled they smiled back. After a few minutes of talking, the Lithuanian Captain asked the headman if he’d seen any Kuchis around here, and the man said they were about 1.5 hours “that-a-way.” If the last few hours were any indication, this man had no idea where the Kuchis really were.
He said the village had been in this location for fourteen years, and its name was Karbasha Qalat. There are about twenty families in Karbasha Qalat, and by now I had counted six men, seven women, twenty-three kids, two Kuchi dogs, three strong horses and a foal, a healthy-looking donkey, a mangy cow, three turkeys, about seven scrawny chickens, and one fat cat. There were huge piles of dung that was formed into cakes for heating and cooking, but there was far too much dung for the meager inventory of animals (listed above) to have produced versus the consumption of these people. There were some goat and sheep prints on the ground, so likely there were shepherds still in the high pastures.
The Lithuanian commander had to make a decision: push on and maybe not find the Kuchis, find them too late to render medical work, or ask the village headman, whose village has never seen a doctor, if they wanted help.
Meanwhile, I kept talking with the men, who had never heard of Michael Jackson. I asked them if they knew about the war, and they laughed and said there had been no war here in forty years. “Why would I want war?,” they asked. All is good here, they suggested. I asked whether it was “forty years or fourteen years” (they said the village was founded fourteen years ago), and the headman clarified “no war in forty years here, and the village was made fourteen years ago.” When asked if cars ever came here, the headman said he had only seen two cars come up in fourteen years. The cars -- had to be 4-wheel drive -- had come last year and the people who came in them were looking for information on minefields. (Those mine clearance people, whoever they are, get credit for truly pushing into the boondocks!)
Asking if they knew about the current war, they laughed again, saying there hadn’t been a war there in forty years. “Why do you want war?”
I said, “No, no, the war down south – did you hear about it?”
“Yes, the war in Helmand,” they said.
I said, “The Russians are back.”
The men burst into laughter and said, “Please, welcome back our old friends, the Russians,” and they kept laughing.
They joked constantly about this and that. They said they were Tajik and only the headman could read. They were a very funny lot and enjoyed seeing the screen on the digital camera, but the kids, who almost certainly had never seen a television or anything electronic, didn’t know what to think of it. At first, they didn’t seem to know what a camera was, but apparently the men explained to the kids and some of them held still for photos.
A Lithuanian soldier had walked up into the village with a man, and I saw the man run out with a switch and start smacking some dung cakes, and I thought, What in the world? That’s how I used to catch lizards.
There were lizards galore! Hundreds – no, thousands – of lizards living in holes both in and around the village. They were scampering everywhere. It was like a little Galapagos, Afghanistan.
The boy said “it’s unlawful to touch them,” and so he used the sack to catch lizards and handle eggs. I asked if they eat the lizards, but that, too, is unlawful. “Unlawful” means that Mohammed did not specifically authorize to eat the lizards, so they can’t eat them. Those lizards could have fed an entire village of Costa Ricans.
Please click on the above image for a larger view.
One Afghan man told me that if the mud homes are extremely well made, they can last a hundred years. The walls are very thick and far more than bullet proof, and so the homes have much thermal inertia, keeping them somewhat cool in summer and warm during winter. Afghanistan is known for its dramatic temperature swings that can occur in very short time spans.
The four doctors, from Afghanistan, Georgia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, saw all the villagers. These medical missions also have military value: “MedCaps” (Medical Civil Affairs Patrols) allow soldiers to go into a village or neighborhood and take “inventory” and vital information. Special Forces teams have used these for many years not only to build good will, but to sense the “atmospherics” and derive information. For instance, we left knowing a great deal about the village, including taking down names and photos, and we came away with the knowledge that this is a friendly village. Information also got back to the Japanese, who are investing billions of dollars in Afghanistan, that the village of Lizard Hole has no electricity and they people are friendly. The Japanese took immediate interest. And so, with any luck, maybe our aborted trip to find the Kuchis will bring the Japanese to Lizard Hole.
The symbiotic relationship between the Japanese and the Lithuanians is bringing great benefit to these Afghans. The Lithuanians first reached out to the Japanese as potential donors, and the Japanese opened an office on the PRT and have been very busy out here. The Lithuanians provide security, transport, nice facilities to work, and help of all sorts, while the Japanese bring in money that is in short supply.
And so that was it. We didn’t find the Kuchis, but we found Lizard Hole and then headed home with valuable information. If the Japanese venture up here, the people of Lizard Hole will be very lucky.
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This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThank you Lithuania.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael,
Is there a way to get them a Gobar Heater?
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoNow don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan but I have a concern about this article. You've reported that a basically defenseless village is friendly to us and provided its grid coordinates at the bottom of the Google Earth images. Quite frankly I'm shocked by this - it looks like you've set these folks up for Taliban retribution. What gives?
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoGood note brought to my attention. 'Marc,' above, expressed intel concerns. Taliban would be suicidal to start launching attacks in this area, or to try to get up the "Copperhead Road" to Karbasha Qalat. The people in these parts are well armed, and there are countless anti-Taliban villages within a hundred mile radius. The Taliban today would not stand a chance in this area of Ghor province. Meanwhile, many people who are within easy reach of the Taliban are openly defiant. The area around Karbasha Qalat is not within easy reach, and would be a death trap for Taliban. I should be back in serious Taliban country by end of the week, but even in those areas many people hate the Taliban and do not hide from them. Depends on the area and the people. Karbasha Qalat is safe.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoYon you magnificent bastard. In the top picture you captured the Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula, and star clusters M21, M23, M24, and M25.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHello Michael and greetings from Costa Rica!
As far as I know SOME coastal folks here eat big fat tailed Iguanas, not small lizards.
I reckon the same way some good'ol folks in Florida and Louisiana like to eat Gator tail.
How about: "they could feed a whole Cajun village" ?
I am a US Citizen / Army Vet living in Costa Rica; folks here have a standard of living that is light years ahead of Stan.
C'mon Michael, pick on your own folks... don't need to go overseas to find lizard eaters!
Thank you so much for giving us the truth. Your work is deeply admired and I find it essential.
Many, many Blessings from Costa!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI dont know if it is me or what, but the photo clarity was amazing. What a great view and different perspective of the country. Thanks and be safe.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoWhen all we see in the mainstream media is doom and gloom regarding Afghan (and don't get me wrong I am all to aware of the hardships that our troops are facing in Helmland) it is encouraging to see an article showing another side of the country as well as the good that foreign armies are doing. Thank you Michael.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHello Michael ,my question is : how is you friend the ex-Marine Captain . You had several articles about him and his buddy the ex Brit para, from down under. One of the artiicles was about your ride through the pass and going like blue blazes through the winding mountains . I recollect that you were relieved of a very expensive set of body armor by one of the ex-bandit now Afigan Police. I liked the whole article ,and the ex Marines story. Hope this note finds you well and in good stead. I salute you on your fine journalism and phots. You have a great story line Mike,I think you are right up there with all of the dedicated war time writers. God Bless you brother, I pray for you . And as soon as I win the lotto I 'll hook you up with all the necessary equipment. Feeble attempt at humor. Any way all the best keep up the fine work I read all your articles and look foward to the time you win the Nobel!!!!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael my friend, Keep up the excellent reporting. The truth about the war needs to get out. I know you are in harms way but it for a truely noble cause. My prayers are with you---Kurt
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago// C'mon Michael, pick on your own folks... don't need to go overseas to find lizard eaters! //
I can't speak for Michael, obviously, but I didn't read that as a slam; just an off-the-cuff example of a place he knows of where they eat lizards. I'd certainly try lizard, especially if it was a plentiful protein source in an otherwise inhospitable area. That said, I seem to recall Tony Bourdain said the iguana tamales he had in Mexico were the worst things he's ever put in his mouth - and that man has an iron gut. =)
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThe second photo of the men and the vehicle almost looks like one of those tilt-shift fake-miniature shots. Very cool.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoSplendid reporting, Michael, as ever. Just one point: why would Costa Ricans eat lizards, even if they were surrounded by them? I mean, I'm up for anything, but thus far I have yet to see iguana steaks in the chill cabinet in the supermarket. I guess one of the more outre bistros in Escazu or Curridabat might be able to get a fad going, but I doubt it. Besides, I heard it tastes just like chicken, and where's the fun in that?
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoDear Members,
There is a very good reason to want to find the Kuchis. They are known from Afghanistan to India to be the best way to smuggle someone into a country and out of a country -- ie if paid. At one time they suspected that bin Laden was traveling with them, making it impossible to find him. They are in fact a great part of James Mitchner's CARAVAN. A great book. And if you think stoning in the Moslem world is bad from what you have read. You don't know how bad it is till you have read the way the Afghan's do it. They make a pile of stone. The bottom of the pile having big stones, with the stones getting smaller as the pile goes up. They start with the small stones first when they stone someone. Sort of a Chinese Water Torture, only with stones.
Jack E. Hammond
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThanks Michael. Keep safe.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"Luckily, the Lithuanians have been giving Americans a good name." Great line. Do we need more Lithuanian/Japanese combos in Afghanistan? Is that why things have deteriorated? Not enough folks who understand and excell at civil affairs? Do we need to put Special forces commanders in charge of regions and have them direct things? I'm new to your work so give me time to catch up.
Thanks for your work.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThe picture of the three lizards in the gloved hand triggered an idea: feed the meat to the cat and dogs, but make lizard skin fleece mittens for the family/tribe/bartering. Lizard Boy and his family could be taught to manage the lizard ecological system, prepare the hides, spin the wool, and raise their quality of life. There is only one large hurdle--"It is written: thou shalt not touch anything suspicious."
Are there itinerant Islamic scholars who can clarify these things for people rather than leaving them to live in ignorance and poverty? Can the coalition sit down with the itinerant scholar, the tribal elders and have a conversation about what God actually said? Christians are doing this very thing right now in the West-- its called the emerging movement (EM not to be conflated with the emergent church EC).
The Reformation principle is form and freedom. That is one thing that made the difference for the West. Moral principles have been revealed to People of the Books-- the freedom of ethics follow. Natural principles have to be discovered by science assuming intelligent design-- the freedom of technological stewardship follows. This is the unified field of knowledge that existed for a few critical thinkers prior to the "Enlightenment." This is one of the powerful sparks that can reduce centuries of evolutionary progress to a few short years. We have spacecraft on Mars because of Newtonian physics.
Thanks Michael for such inspirational writing and photography!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael:
You commented on the fatness of the resident cat. I would bet paychecks the cat is catching and eating lizards.
Great post, keep it up.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"Many people in such countries are very greedy and horde everything they can get, but this woman took what she got and started handing it out to others, while Lt. Marius Varna and I looked on in astonishment."
Could you please explain what exactly you mean by the above statement? How "many" people in "such countries" do you know well to come to the conclusion that they are "greedy" ? Also, who is not "greedy" ? When you don't have enough food and supplies to last more than a day or two, its not "greed" that makes people horde, but its survival instinct. So in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, were people in New Orleans fighting for food and shelter "greedy" ? Unfortunately, articles like these that spread a negative stereotype of people in other countries do a great disservice to this country and its armed forces.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"How "many" people in "such countries" do you know well to come to the conclusion that they are "greedy" ? Also, who is not "greedy" ? "
Makes no sense unless I whiffed on a knuckleball.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoWhat I meant by "Also, who is not "greedy" ? " was, given certain circumstances, can anyone among us truly admit that we won't "greedily" horde ?
Scott, if understanding plain English for your pea-sized brain requires whiffing on a knuckleball, then you probably should.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoYour post was nonsensical. Your personal attack was unwarranted.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoSharma,
I took Michael's comments to be very complementary to the Afghanis-- at least the ones in this particular village. This elder's household appears generous in the face of severe living conditions (arid terrain, high altitude, frigid winters, isolated location, etc.), and my heart was warmed to them by the report. I think Michael's point was that they were NOT greedily hording under circumstances where he expected such behavior for whatever reason.
But I allow that "greed" is by definition a relative term lending itself to dispute. The People of the Books might say that by any standard all are guilty. But the People of the Books might also say that persons are responsible for more noble behavior than "instinct" in any given situation.
The Christian Book says to be on our guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does one's life consist of possessions. I know people who consistently live that way and I aspire to be among them. The Jewish book says to understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. I know people who consistently live that way and I aspire to be among them. Does anyone know what the Muslim Book says about this?
Sharma please, I have two questions: 1) if you observed someone in any country living in a severe situation--either underdeveloped or post-disaster-- who was helping to distribute aid rather than taking/fighting/hording, how would you explain this behavior? I would be interested to know your thoughts. 2) Have you ever tested the Christian word that 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'? I would be interested to know your experience.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI was looking at the picture of the child holding the little baby, and I noticed that the baby's pajamas (the red ones) have Santa on the front.
I just thought it was ironic that in the heart of muslim lands, a baby is wearing red christmas pajamas. There must be quite a story on how those pajamas got there.
It's too bad the country is so dangerous, from your pictures it looks like it would be an amazing place to visit for some adventurers.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI have a perspective and only from reading the news as opposed to being on the ground. What I see is that Al Qaeda can have a surge of a few months and then it takes them a while to build back up the supplies and personnel so we see a lull in the fighting. They don't have supply lines like we do so we see a 2 month surge and then a year down before they can do it again. So this 2 to three month surge is about over. If the recovery gets quicker than we should assume they have a new money and weapons supply.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI didnt recognize the spelling...I think many know them as sage-koochee dogs....koocheedog.com..there are some old photos of REALLY big ones.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoFor accuracy sake, it is the Taliban, not Al Qaeda that are fighting in Afghanistan. The fighting is more a function of weather than supply lines. I think the fighting will continue for about more months.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoAs we passed villages made of stone, mud, and straw, the white smoke from their cooking fires hung low, just above the villages, lightly blanketing their dwellings, as farmers were already heading to the fields.
The Afghans are a hard-working lot. The cruel mountains must have killed off the lazy ones a long time ago.
Thanks for your work and a way to scrape the scum from the media pond.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoOn May 1, 2009 I wrote Senator Cardin, Senator Mikulski, DOD, the State Department and US AID about the need for the Gobar Gas collector system. I only received a answer from Senator Cardin but no follow-up, so I wrote him again today. This is a simple, inexpensive way to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
Michael was apparently right when he said, "My guess is that the only real disadvantage is
that the idea is incredibly effective, simple and cheap, and so we probably wouldn't want to get involved." We can help our country and the Afghan people if, we the people who support Michael, would push for this system via our government representatives. We now spend trillions yet cannot find hundreds of thousands for building these systems and improve our chances to defeat the enemy in Afghanistan.
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