Back home in New Zealand

February 20, 2011

Home! The first thing that I notice is ‘the green of the pastures’ as I travel down to the Waikato. Great contrast to the brown and white of the Afghan earth with its snow, in winter. The trip south to my beloved Hamilton and family gave me time to reflect upon where I had been and what I had just done. Afghanistan as a doctor with the New Zealand Defence Forces. A year ago I would never have thought it possible that I would be ministering medicine in a war affected region, and in a country that has known centuries old conflict through the battles of Genghis Khan, Muhammad Babur and both the English and Russian Armies in the last one hundred years.

 

I had left Bamyan city in Bamyan Province on the 12th of January, and come via the military transport system in Afghanistan to the Middle East and then via a long flight back to Auckland. I can’t really remember what the flight home was like for I was still energised by the experiences of living at Kiwi Base with a whole bunch of New Zealand men and women with common cause. 18 hours in the air gave me a lot of time to think about those moments that would forever be remembered by me.

Firstly, the countryside that Kiwi Base was in. PT Hill overlooked the military encampment in the immediate distance. Further, was the Hill of Gholghola, where Genghis wrought such terrible violence that it became known as the ‘City of Screams’. Further still were the cliffs that overlooked Bamyan and which were now marked by the empty spaces of the Taliban vandalised Buddhas. I walked between the two of them over my last week in the region. I was showing my replacement Medical Officer, Jordan Baker, around the region. Showing him some of the sights for which the region is famous. On the way we had a pleasant guide who spoke little English, though through our interpreter he filled in the details of the history of Buddhism in the region and how important the region was as a crossroads to and from regions east and west. He pointed out another smaller third Buddha and then a fourth, or baby, Buddha – both also destroyed in the violence of early 2001.

Looking out from the cliff-face, snow covers the fields in the rivets of a late autumn ploughing. It has almost gone from most of the fields but does lie quite heavily higher up on the higher hills. Jordan is loving his first views of the region, for he has travelled little before and all this ‘newness’ is so energising to him. Me, I love showing him the various sights but at the same time admit to a great sadness that I am about to leave the town and its history.

 

At the small ‘female’ Buddha we are able to walk up and over it by way of steps that remain in the walls. There are three levels to our tour, each higher than the last and each with numerous caverns that housed priests through the ages – even the Taliban, in the early years of their occupation. Some of these caverns were citadels and many have the remains of paintings blackened by the fires of their destruction. Still others had smoke on the ceilings where the insides of the caves had been burnt out. Such destruction. It makes me pause in reflection and in sadness. Un-necessary. Certainly not the way to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the local Hazaran population.

 

Secondly, the people and the village of Bamyan. This was best felt by me when I got a few members of ‘the crew’ together, including Allan, Ra, Steve and a pleasant interpreter called Gee (which was short for some intricate Afghan name that seemed such a waste when ‘Gee’ explained him so much more admirably) and we walked on a ‘dismounted patrol’ into town to wander around the bazaar. Along narrow tracks that the locals use to pass over fields now brown due to the winter, but normally lush and green in the summer. The dust swirls still with every footprint on a dry, still day. In the distance the new snow is on the hills and the locals will be pleased again with the nurturing of the soil. Into town and along the dark side of the street, where the sun never seemed to reach in the winter months. So many shops open today.

It is Friday and the locals are all out doing their shopping – men and women, though never together unless they are family or married. Men sewing away at shoes brought to them for repair. A lot of shoe shops abound, mainly with second hand shoes and not occasionally many that are just single shoes – who wants them, I wonder. Clothes shops, with women inside under burkas doing the dealing with the men owners. Outside other men pushed wagons with sacks of coal. Boys run by with bananas for sale and still others came up to us to ask for ‘baksheesh’.

 

Steve had an endless supply of pens to give out to the kids. Men sitting in chairs or merely crouched beside the gutter partaking in chai, talking and watching folk just wander and meander. Men whose weathered faces, reflecting the harshness of living in this unforgiving land, appear to be carved out of leather: cheeks with valleys and vales, eyes hidden under an overlapping eyebrow bristling with honest hair and mouths often hidden in a bread that spreads with laughter. Their ‘Shemagh (Afghan Scarf)’ wrapped around their necks, over their faces and upon their heads seemingly part of their bodies, whilst around their midriffs were huge rugs to shelter from the cold.

Drifting by were the women also – in white or blue burkas. Still others without the over-face mask but with a scarf over their heads and around their faces, and perhaps an end of it held loosely to mask their mouths. No women were without some facial add-on; unlike the young girls enjoying their freedom whilst they could.

 

Orange sellers. Ever present mobile phone shops – a glut of them, with no one in them but there in all their glitzy glory. Material shops. Hardware shops every 5-6 shops, selling pots and pans and plastic jugs that are used to carry water for ablutions after toileting. We pass a potato naan shop stall. They look delicious and we all decide to buy one of these. This will be lunch – potato cut and placed on a thin pancake wafer. The potato is grated and placed in the middle of the mix, and then the three sided blend is rolled and put into a deep fry. Rather different and rather nice. One was enough and the cost was 10 cents for one.

 

Wander down by the river, and along the stalls in this region – fruit stalls, butchers shops with just the trachea and lungs remaining for sale and hanging from the corner of the shop – outside. A man selling nuts and dried fruit allows me to take his photo. Always photos to snap for the memory bank. Along another side street know locally as Titanic – shoes shops and kids toys, and … shoes. Ra was fixated by the shoes and so we went past many shops only to have him disappear as he would go and have a look. He never decided, he just liked to look at them and chat with the locals at the same time.

 

The sound of young music from stalls by the side of the road and from the nearby shops selling radios, music and all its paraphernalia. People would watch us pass but I do not recall seeing a malignantly disposed grimace – smiles and the right hand (always the right hand) drifting up to the heart with the salutation ‘salaam’… always the men, and young boys practising. Dear Lord, how I just loved to look and to reflect and to just wonder how these folk were living every day… in the rain and snow and bitter cold. Still the gnarled and crusted hands would come forward for me to shake – usually so gently, and with honest feeling. It would be hard not to be touched in some way.

 

Restaurants, up steep ladders and perched atop roofs of shops below, serving their only dish – kebabs, rice, sort-of meat soup, with slices of tomato, onion and a chilly on a side dish… they are dried around the edges indicating to me that they have been cut and prepared many hours before and the alert goes out quite strongly for me… DON’T EAT!!

In the street, cars with no exhaust-system spew out smoke and zoom along the road at a speed that makes the mouth drop in bewilderment. No seat belts and door handles that have been roped to the vehicle main frame indicates further to me DON’T DRIVE IN THIS ONE! Cops in their olive green suits drive by in their ford 4-pers pick-ups faster, for no good reason other than to drive fast and scare the locals. Kamaz truck belch and vomit benzene fumes, as they carry their wears through the distance of tar-seal, men in turbans perched on their roofs, their cargo or riding high in the cab. Small kids don’t even bother watching the sight of such massive movements anymore. They’re more interested in our baksheesh.

 

The third and final image of my deployment is of the men and women that I worked with. What an honour to have been with them. All ranks, high and low, showed me a respect that I was honoured to receive. Their military side as they talked of various missions. There serious side as they talked of their families back home and how much they meant to them. Their ribald side as they shared jokes, some spicy and some not, with me. They are well lead by their CO, Lt Col Fox, and they are well protected by all the various units that accrete to form the Company for this operation known as CRIB 17. I will miss each and every one of them.

 

The Medical team at Christmas From L to R: Leon Frampton-Leigh, The Doc, Kirk Blumers. In Front: Cat Brown

 

 

Finally, salutation to those in the medical team, each of whom needs a mention. Leon (the Nursing Officer) who worked so hard to develop a respectable and respectful RAP for us yet still smiled at the end of it. Blu, what can I not say about him! This guy was amazing. I loved his clear brain and his thinking, and the support he gave me. This gut IS ‘the stuff’. The medics, boy did their knowledge impress me: Cat (a star medic who needs to go to a higher level – poor thing, I have probably STILL spelt her name wrong), Kim (a gentleness with her that expressed her caring spirit), Mike (hardy and military in mind), and Holly (thrown in to so many situations, coming out richer for the experiences).

 

A final image for me and the last entry into my diary: ‘Wonderful autumnal views of the region and have noticed even in the least few days, the lack of leaves on the trees. Way in the distance were the snow capped hills looking down on us. Beautiful views!! Every morning, I see the sun tipping the hills. I take this to be my welcome to my day. This will be the essence of my memory. Now it is time for home and my family. This has been a ‘most great trip’ – and one that I was delighted to have been part of!!

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Women in Blue

January 10, 2011

Blue            and white
Burkas,

mask women hiding

Themselves from outside eyes viewing
Tranquil times

or tense, turbulent

Occasions that speak too honestly
Of that which happens at home?

Walking along tracks

time-worn, through fields,

Wending a way –
down, bazaar beckoning
Attractions displayed, for sale, in myriad forms
Along clear course
to meander,  to ponder,
Sometimes to purchase, mainly to wander
Silently – as an observer wonders, in silence.