A Meander into Bamyan

December 20, 2010

local man at bazaar

The NZPRT is up on a hill. Sort of half way between villages, though that is a little hard to tell here as many of the surrounding villages flow into each other without boundaries. I suggested to Blu and Leon that we do a ‘dismounted patrol’ down and into Bamyan city itself, but that we walk through the villages just over the way from the aircraft runway. Being as I suggested it, both Blu and Leon looked at me as if to say – great well you organise it and we’ll come with you. Sort of a bit like ‘you make the cake and put the icing on and we’ll eat it’! But they are great guys, so I succumbed to it.

So, I spent the rest of yesterday morning planning to do the dismounted patrol in the bazaar. We need to do this preparation for obvious security reasons, so it was not too much of a hassle. I planned for us to go with an interpreter walking into town, having a look and then walking back home to PRT. I wanted to walk through the villages and fields and then to meander without too much of a time limit in the bazaar – which is where most of the shopping by the local Afghanis was done.  The process was sorted and then we were away, heading off into town.

walking through fields

Frozen waters

Well, what a delightful walk we all had. The day was rather cool but the sun was high in the blue cloudless sky. Out the gate, over the road, a stroll over the far edge of the airfield, over the main road to the PRT and then through a village – with its different smells, and sights and sounds. Most of the houses here are hidden by high walls that surround the home and a compound that will often contain orchards of fruit trees or just the accoutrement  of a family’s life. Through the village we go, over an icey stream, and then a walk beside some willow trees along the humps that are on either side of waterways that provide nurture to spring and summer crops. So many water ways course across the fields. There does not seem to be any deficit of water in this region, at least… just difficult to organise the appropriate social use of it however. On we travel and from the photos you will see the very dry fields as we walk along, chatting about this and that. More willow trees. Down a valley that does not get a lot of sun and the ice there has not yet thawed. Onto the only tar-sealed road in Bamyan.

men in fields

We follow this down to the primary roundabout… turn right and into the bazaar. First thing that I do is go to a stall that I went to the other day and give then a laminated photograph of themselves. They look so proud in their stall .

Three Wise Men

Local man preparing kebabs

Locals at the Bazaar

Next we spend time meandering down the main street stopping here and there to take photos and often pausing to weave as we go along the way. Images of our walk that cross my mind today: ‘the bazaar is not so crowded today because in is a special Shiite celebration ( the one that involved ceremonial thrashing of the back with a whip)’, ‘a few stalls selling flags etc celebrating this day’, ‘we go into a couple of jewellery and bric-a-brac shops to buy the usual trinkets for folk back home… I just can’t resist this art-work’. Couple of little things, I go ahead and buy – women’s bits and pieces for family back home!

On with the strolling down to the shop that the NZ PRT does its shopping – super-market style, and then we head off into one of the back streets and go along that. It is very different to the main street. No sealing, more bumpy, way more primitive, it happens to be one that deals in car maintenance so the road had big holes in for oil / sump seepage, there are no OSH rules here. Next turn we head off into the hills and back to where we started – at the PRT. We wend out way home through the walkways that pass beside the water-ways. Every image is a photo-call, and I take many shots to preserve in my mind what it is actually like to ‘touch on city life’ here in Bamyan. So much is known about what we, in the Army, do on a day-to-day basis but not too much is understood about the images of living in this community. Such then, is the reason that I write of this and present some images, that I think are reflective, of a different community and lifestyle…

THE MOUNTAINS

December 19, 2010

Early. Mountain shadows over surrounding
Vales and villages of greater Bamyan in the basin.
Sunlight to glisten way-high tips, to descend their slopes
Exposing colours of orange, yellow, sand, brown, red
Made more so by shade of beams that strike at angles
To herald majesty and another colour-filled date.

From bottoms of valleys; gradually, imperceptibly to
Begin, little puffs of smoke prickle straight to skies or
Drift to sides of houses in shallow drafts. Then with
Passing moments through dawn into fullness of day,
Haziness from break fast fires overlays fields barren in
Preparation for winter coming. So it has forever been.

Marc and Padre Ra

Christmas is coming to Bamiyan. I can tell this, not because people are walking around singing carols of good cheers but, because the weather has started to change. Not just your average couple of degrees swing either way change but a severe disruption-of-the-environment-change. Yesterday was a non unpleasant 4-8 degrees dry tolerable cold, but today was the coldest day that I have experienced on my tour here in Afghanistan with the New Zealand Defence Forces. Minus 5 degrees, and that was the high! The wind from the hills surrounding this lovely peaceful town whooshed down in a not-too-subtle warning of more severe days to come.

I awoke this morning, 0615, my normal time. Wrapped up and shuffled quickly down to the shower before either my feet, legs or other parts of my body froze. Normally I would go for a four km walk around the camp but not today. I was to join the New Zealand Police Officers at a breakfast hosted by the Afghan National Police (ANP) School Commandant, Colonel Paiman. This was as a precursor to both Jo Saville (NZ Police) and I helping our Malaysian Colleagues teach the ANP first aid.

Recently arrived from the hot tropics of the Malay Peninsula, our Malaysian Colleagues were still in shock at the temperatures that they were experiencing here in Afghanistan. I knew this, for every time they appeared I had to ask them who they were, as their faces and bodies were totally covered up in tropical army fatigues with tufts of wool protruding from them like bristles on a dish mop. They were finding it tough going being here in such a different location, and then on top of this they had to find their own role here in Afghanistan supporting the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

First off, we joined the Colonel for a traditional Afghan breakfast and it was superb. A 2 meat breakfast – kebabs and roast chicken wrapped in naan, with fried eggs. Add a cup of Chai (local tea) and it was ‘wrap your laughing gear around this then’! I enjoyed it, and eating it with other Kiwis and Americans similarly invited to the feast we took the chance to remind ourselves of what Christmas normally meant in our own countries. My eyes glazed for a moment as I thought of hot roast turkey and cold ham, followed by Christmas pudding, Pavlova and ice cream. The Colonel’s mouth dropped open when I explained the dishes to him. He hadn’t even heard of them before.  Jo’s mouth also popped open but she couldn’t understand why the hot and cold mix. ‘Covering all weather contingencies’ was my learned reply. Her eyes flicked skyward!

'Jo smiling at one of the lighter moments in the class'

Breakfast over and we are invited out to watch the morning parade and view the presentation of the guard. ‘This was a bit more like it’ thought I.  I was entering into the spirit quite well. The Colonel gave a rousing speech and then deferred to ‘the breakfast group’ who walked up and down the ranks checking the amassed policemen. Never a person to pass up an opportunity I decided to start shaking hands with the startled array. Hell, I am not going to get this chance again so I decided ‘in for a penny…’. I have a marvellous time with the lads presenting before me. The guys looked so young and friendly and are initially shocked at my forwardness and then they put their hands out and big smiles cross their faces.

The Doc guiding the stretcher and bandage application training

This joy over, Jo and I proceed to guide the training of our Malaysian colleagues for the rest of the day. All local police, this was a reinforcement of knowledge that they already had been given in the past. Some of these guys had been in the force for 9 -12 years and others had only just joined. Our task was to give them some ‘first aid experience’. The role that Jo and I had in this day-long session was to mentor (though I do not like this word necessarily as it is very ‘buzzy’ and very ‘US centred’) the Malaysians through their teaching so that they are comfortable (that PC word again!!) with their teaching of the subject. The teaching is quite hard for the Malaysians as they present in English, which is a second language to them, and so much tends to be lost in translation. The sessions themselves are quite hilarious in a productive way as the tutors translate their session, in their own minds, from  Malay to English and then speak with a fluency that the local translator can facilitate from English to Dari (the local language of this region).  If this is hard to understand, then it is intended to be as it gives an expression of how hard the Malaysians tried with their conference today. I wrapped up each of the 6 or so sessions with a ‘five take home points’ to accrete knowledge, and Jo similarly did the same from a practical point of view.

The day was exciting for we got to be involved directly with the local police force and we were able to show them skills that they could one day directly be expected to use. It wasn’t hard work, and the time ticked over quickly for a number of reasons. The sessions were dynamic, informative and fun to be part of. It really did seem to make a difference professionally when I saw the application of the knowledge process that Jo and I were part of transforming people who initially approached the day with scepticism into a group that could see ‘the point of it all’.

Marc and Jo with the ANP group

We paused at the end of the day for a group photo, before bundling back to the Malaysian Compound for hot coffee and chocolate. Jo and I gathered with the five Malaysian tutors and smiled not a little at what we have achieved.

 

ON THE ROAD TO NAYAK

December 8, 2010

Saturday was another bright and sparkling day outside, but seriously cold in the shade. The morning had registered minus 14 and I had just finished doing my daily walk of ‘one kilometre’ around the perimeter of the camp. Breakfast was my usual cereal and coffee and I was just settling down to do the day’s tasks. A knock on the door and the Colonel came to the RAP.

‘Would you like to come over to Nayak tomorrow morning, Doc? Going over there to check our FOB (Forward Operating Base) facilities and a good idea for you to do the same with our medical resources. Interested?’ Well, was I what? I had been in camp for some days now and was looking forward to ‘a look outside’ the gates.  Excitedly, I got my packing quickly done for the anticipated trip. All the goodies that I would require to take with me, but hopefully would not need. I say hopefully because although this area of Nayak, which is 4-5 hours over to the east of Kiwi Base is supposedly safe and secure, though we were not going to take any expectation of this as being definite. We knew from experience that Afghanistan is always a territory that we needed to assume could become dangerous, either geographically due to wind and snow trapping us … or from an equally ominous insurgents’ point of view.

The next morning, there I had it – my gear all laid out. I felt as though I had seriously missed something as this task was quick and complete. This was not like I would have done at home – fiddling around with equipment and trying to decide which was the ‘best shirt to take’ or which series of bandages were more appropriate. I had totally surprised myself by being ready and fully equipped with all that I may have needed: fully kitted out emergency medical response bag, my sleeping  bag, my camera pack and some warm clothes and huge big puffer jacket. It was going to be rather cold where we were going and I wanted to be well prepared for any cold weather eventuality.

0845 and I am ready. I drag all my baggage out to join the rest of the team. The Commanding Officer  smiled at me – ‘I see that you have not learned minimal packing is best have you Doc’, he commented on looking at what I thought was rather a compact set of gear. Just five sort-of-little-compact packs and baggage. ‘Next time we’ll get a special vehicle for you!’  He dipped his head and I took this to mean OK for this trip but not the next. Phew, I was lucky. Otherwise it would have meant that I take out my wool fleeced nightie and my possum skinned hot water bottle – just kidding! I would never carry either of these items on an army deployment, even though my Darling Wife suggested that I take them and my own cuddly pillow!!

Get together, we do and attend the trip’s briefing. This is to explain to all what we are expected to experience on the journey. Invariably it gives us in the patrol an idea of the terrain that we are going to go through and any risks that we need to be wary of: new roads, any snow… that sort of thing. A final check up on our numbers – 10 of us, each with different yet essential tasks for the journey – then we are away.

We are off and it feels so good to be going through the front gate and out into the local community. Through the town of Bamiyan and along its sole tar-sealed road and then past the two huge spaces where the Buddha’s on Bamiyan used to be until the Taliban destroyed them and then through and onto the mayhem of the country roads.

The scenery is unique and wonderful, and never fails to draw me to it. Dust and dirt fly as we pound the bumpy and thumpy roads. To the sides people are going about their normal days: donkeys taking produce to market or to sale, some carrying children but never women; women walking three or more steps behind their men folk. ignored and never acknowledged any salutation in friendship until they are permitted to; young kids waving to us with a sideways back and forth rocking movements; and small stalls beside us on the road with a couple of men tending them  and selling their product trying to make the day’s sales.

Ahead of our driving and in the interminable dust, the potholes of the road demand caution and a low threshold for swerving at any obstacle that may stumble into our route’s path.

To the sides of us the hills to the east of Bamyan town thrust up into the skyline. They are huge hills on either side of us down here in a valley. There are fewer people now as we wander further from the township. Ironically the road starts to get better, for contractors have begun tar sealing on the road between Bamiyan and Nayak, and have decided to start the road midway between the two towns. The logic of this tends to baffle me somewhat. Why not start at a major town and go out from it. Nah, cant figure that one out!

Through the cleft at the end of the first deep valley, and  the hills push higher and higher as I crouch below the window to look upwards. Shadows of the valley cut across the shafts of light that are able to penetrate deep into cold and bitter shadows. The road is gravel but is really very good and we are able to travel without physical discomfort, though dust still trails us and prevents us from opening the windows to breathe. Fine dust that gets into everything – eyes, clothes, machinery (the car inside is covered in a fine layer of particulate dust. I don’t breathe too deeply!


We occasion villages to either side of our travel 500 yards away, built into the hills. First the wall built of clay-mud brick, sometimes old and sometimes new and occasionally a mixture. This is probably a reflection of personal finances. The style is adobe-like. Red-brown clay that is reinforced with fibres of hay and twig. Kids swirl around the boundaries and women are seen to drift between their familiar inside and out as they tend to their duties.

 

 

Female children up until teenage tend to the washing of clothes and dishes down by a stream, if there is no nearby water pump.

Boys are helping with the donkeys or farming or gathering of wood. Men with their turbans swirled around their heads, often masked over their mouths and noses to cover from the dust, walk along the road with donkey or not, or tend to the shopping in the bazaars.

Bang, right in the middle of nowhere, we are driving on tar seal. About 10 kms of it. Bizarre though what a difference this makes to our travelling comfort. Just as I start to nod off in the warm comfort of our vehicle’s back seat, with a crash I am fully awake to the bumping and pitching of the rutted  road again. Back on the gravel. The dust swirls in front of our vehicle and thus-wise we travel through to the town of Nayak. Nestled in a pleasant valley, it is a safe area for us to travel to as the local population are doing for themselves so very much better now that they feel a security supplied in part by the NZ forces in the region.

 

(Left) Master Sgt Trevor Pittman (Centre) Dr Marc Shaw and (Right) Squadron Leader Steve Hall (NZ Air Force)

  • The time is around 2000 hours – our Malaysian Colleagues are having their celebration of EID which is the equivalent of our Christmas. Leon comes across to me and says that he has just had word of a serious injury to one of our American Colleagues. ‘A neck injury is coming in within a half hour’, he says. So, we prepare for the injury in the best way that we can. The patrol that the man is with is quite far away and we are not able to get too much detail from the initial radio contact. He arrives and we step into action: history of ‘was in a patrol vehicle travelling at 55 kms / hr, with the usual ‘in car’ prevention – seatbelts and the like. The vehicle crested a hump in the road and the patient sitting in the back of the vehicle whacked his head on its roof. Due to the unexpected nature of the impact, the patient’s head then slammed into the back of the seat in front and the side window on his left. He was pretty seriously knocked around, and the first response of the team on patrol was to stabilise his head so that no further injury could occur. For me, as the Doc, the serious part was that our man had developed reduced movement in his left hand and pain on the left side of his neck radiating down to the left arm. This was a pretty severe discomfort. Although he denied being knocked out, there was significant evidence that he had developed concussion. My concern was that our patient has sustained a fracture of the cervical spine in the neck.
  • Well, with such a diagnosis as a possibility, we then had to get our man to a higher medical facility for radiology and further neurological assessment. Now was the time for me, as the Doc, and for Leon, Blue and the other members of the medical team to ‘step up’ and prepare the case for evacuation to Bagram. It was time for me to report to the US Command about our patient, their soldier. I addressed them with the standard ‘we have a situation here…’ and then proceeded with the objective assessment of their warrior.  I then continued to tell them exactly what was going to happen and how it should pan out with their help in ordering a casevac. At this stage I got a bit ahead of myself and threw in a few newly learned acronyms by mistake but the US officers were very tolerant of my errors an then proceeded to throw in a few of their own. I was on slippery ice here – but fortunately no one noticed my improvisation, such was the intensity of the communication. An aircraft was ordered up and it was arriving quite soon.

  • Blue, Leon and I readied our patient for the flight by considering the further practical issues such as how the man would travel and with what medical support, pain relief, intravenous support and the like. Good pragmatic medical sense.
  • Then we get the word that the aircraft is overhead and whoosh, we hear it. I get around some guys to help me (Sqd Ldr Steve Hall, Allan Kelly and Master Sgt Trevor Pittman) and we truss our patient up in a blanket and with a ‘silver heat-retaining blanket’ around him. On a stretcher and spinal board he goes, and then onto our portable ambulance we transfer him down to the nearby airstrip where the plane has just landed, in the dark. Brilliant stuff!
  • Fortunately not a very cold night tonight. We wait on the airfield for the plane to come up to us. Meanwhile deployed on the field are our troops to secure and protect our airfield and the perimeter of the aircraft. THIS is very impressive – they have strategic points covered and are there waiting for my patient. We get the word from the Sgt-Major and drive off to the ‘airframe’ (Army talk for ‘an aircraft’) in the distance – we cannot see it at this time, just hear it! We travel with out headlights on and see before us dust rising but no plane – it is in the darkness. We are aware of something huge in front of us. An occasional speckle of LED lights presents itself to us. An about turn and then a quick reverse back to the down-ramp at the back of the plane. I look around and am so impressed with the professionalism that I see before me. In a perimeter around the craft and with hot aviation fuel odours in my nose, there are a number of persons, fully armed and with aviation helmets on, on either side of the ramp. They are guarding our presence. I grab my corner of the stretcher and up the ramp we go to deliver the patient. One of the medics comes over and I give him the update ‘We have a situation here …’ They are happy with my presentation, and with a quick ‘farewell’ to our patient I head back down the ramp to our vehicle. We drive off into the dark, with the aircraft quickly disappearing. Just the sounds of the props remain.
  • Back down the airfield just in front of the camp entrance we pause and wait for the plane to take off. Shortly after, it does – night-time take off and very impressive. The whole imagery of the evening with our patient and the transportation of him to the aircraft was something that will never leave me – VERY professional and absolutely exciting to be part of!

Travelling to schools is one of the aspects of the job that we do NOT have to do, but it is so rewarding! To see the kids of all ages come out to meet us as we travel around the various villages is really magical. At the risk of sounding all soppy and sentimental, all of us like to stop and chat with the kids that we pass. There is a huge push in this region for schooling for boys and especially for girls. The Governor of this province is a woman, in fact the first woman politician in Afghanistan, and she is especially keen that the children receive good education. There are a number of educational resources that have come into the Bamiyan region and because of this need for knowledge there is significant energy going into the creation of higher learning facilities like universities. Currently if students wish to go to a tertiary institute they must go to Kabul – 30 minutes away in a plane but 8 hours away on a dangerous and tortuous road.

As I travelled to villages not far geographically from Bamiyan, though centuries away in terms of facilities and resources, I am reminded of quite a lovely conversation between Sir Edmund Hillary and Urkien Sherpa (from the Book ‘Schoolhouse in the Clouds’)

“Tell us, if there is one thing we could do for your village, what would it be?”
“With all respect, Sahib, you have little to teach us in strength and toughness. And we don’t’ envy you your restless spirits. Perhaps we are happier than you? But we would like our children to go to school. Of all the things that you have, learning is the one that we most desire for our children”.

We visited a school with some of our Malaysian Colleagues. There was me, Ra (the Padre), Allan (the other Civilian to me), Steve Clarke (our administration Officer), Jo Saville (our NZ Police-woman)  and our interpreter Jaffir. It was closed for EID but it did not matter. The children in the adjacent village swarmed to us, and we had school books and pencils and rulers to give them.

 

Jo, Allan and Hassan - photo by Steve Clarke

 

 


A trip up the Foladi and the Sadaat Valleys presents a road that is tortuous and very bumpy but ‘whew – the sights are stunning’ local Afghanis from Bamyan region on the road with their donkeys or their bikes or the motorcycles or in their motor vehicles. There are young girls doing the washing at streams. I saw kids and older boys who waved and watched us drive past. Turbans, burkas and chadors, brightly coloured dresses on the kids often with sparkle in it. I saw the donkeys and the cows and an occasional Kamaz which are Russian built trucks that the Afghanis use for transporting everything – dirty, huge, loud and spurting fumes that engulfed their origin. Wonderful autumnal views of the region and more recently the lack of leaves on the trees. Way in the distance were the snow capped hills looking down on us. Beautiful views!!

Afghanistan – The Patrol

November 15, 2010

Chinook helicopters

‘So what’sit like Blue?’ said I to our Chief Medic. ‘Whaddya mean, Doc?’ says Blue. ‘What’sit like to go out on a Patrol?’ I enthused.

I was keen to find out about this, for whist we are very much doing the best to look after the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local Hazaran population, here in Afghanistan we are still very much an Army and as such have a military role in protection and defence.

Blue sat me down, and told me all about the patrol that he had just come back from.

“We were around 34 soldiers and our patrol consisted of Kiwis, and our American Cousins. We also had interpreters and members of the Afghan National Police and I was responsible for the health and trauma management of any casualties.

Early on Monday morning we got uplifted by Chinook helicopters from outside our Forward Operating Base in the north of Bamyan Province. These huge choppers landed on uneven ground that looked pretty impossible to get down on, we were waved on in lines and sat down a little uncomfortable as we still had our packs still on. Out the back of the helo the tail gunner hung over the end of the ramp. To the sides of us, two gunners took care of their respective arcs of vision. Up and away, the birds took off with an escort of four apache gun ships. Our destination was to a ‘landing zone, LZ, some distance away. The flight was exhilarating and, for me, it felt like I was truly part of a multi-national patrol.

We initially flew low over a village called Do Abi where there had been reports of some insurgents (or Taliban) setting up ambushes for us to walk into. The intent of our ‘fly by’ was to show them that we weren’t afraid of them and that we were ready to step up to confront them, and defend ourselves, if we had been attacked.

Over Do Abi we went, and then ascending the huge valley adjacent to the town we flew to a high altitude drop zone (DZ) on the far East of Bamyan Province.  In the second bird my section waited for the first one to land and deploy its forces, so that we could deploy ours. We circled around the DZ and then came in to land between a couple of close peaks and onto a small, narrow plateau. As soon as we were off the Chinook, up goes the ramp and she is away. A couple of Apaches made a low pass to clear the peaks for our advance and then they are gone, leaving us in the silence of the forbidding Hindu Kush mountain range. I looked around at the  steep and unforgiving terrain, wondering how we would go at this altitude, but we Kiwis are a fit bunch and we seemed to just step up to this patrol opportunity.

 

Blue on patrol

We quickly determined our battle orders, and then advanced up a steep valley. I figure that we were about 3000 metres above sea level at this point, so the going was pretty stressful on the ‘ole lungs’. An occasional stop to pause and look around at the stunning mountain range, before we got to our first waypoint.

On we go, and up higher and higher along a goat path higher still we track, finally arriving at our night-time location, approximately 3500 metres above sea level and right on the border with the next eastern-most district and within 2 kms of a village that we were keen on observing.

Our security and observation posts were set up for the 12 hour night. At this time also, I went to check up on the health of all those in the patrol. Had to put an IV into one guy who was a little dehydrated and who had a low BP. Then we hunkered down into our night routine, and the silence of the mountains was incredible and unforgettable. I could hear my heart beating and as it did so, I had this unbelievable feeling of being alone atop the world. Truly amazing and very humbling.

The intention for our patrol at this point was to observe any activity in the area. At this height we had a good chance of spotting any movement in the region.

A good nights sleep for me in my warm sleeping bag on the ground and then the next day we were up and gone by 0715. Going down the way that we had come up, first we headed down a steep narrow river valley and then we began the steepest descent I have ever walked or patrolled. It was truly amazing that no-one was lost off the steep 1 in 2 hillside at any stage of the patrol back. The track was barely wide enough for our boot prints. Looking down the drop off to my side took my breath away such was the depth of the ravine, but for all that we reached our pick up point relived that we had made it in one piece and in good health, save for a few bruises, blisters and abrasions.

For me, a challenging and rewarding patrol to have been involved in. I saw and participated in the multi-faceted aspects of a modern army patrol, and certainly it was a privilege to have been the Medic for it.”

 

Carer and young child

Whilst the main task of CRIB 17, the name given to this deployment of our Company here in Bamyan, must be the security of the region, other noteworthy tasks often befall the Doctor and the Padre.  So it was an unexpected pleasure to be invited by the Americans here at Kiwi Base, to accompany them to a local orphanage. Ra Koia (the Padre), Allan Kelly (my new ‘Best Friend’) and I got some of the many packages that have been sent over here by New Zealanders to take with us to distribute to those in the orphanage. I looked at the ‘goodies’ that had accumulated and saw woollen clothes, gloves and hats. I saw woollen rugs and woollen toys all handmade and with a uniqueness that was expressive of an individual’s care in their making.

The three of us packed our 4 x 4 and set off along the roads of Bamyan. Now these roads are pretty darn monstrous to drive over. At times we feel as though we are driving down a canyon only to emerge at the top of a hill. Finally we get there. I say finally because Ra, who was driving, got lost and as we were the lead car for the American contingent who was following us… this was not a good look. I offered to get out of the car and redirect traffic, but at this stage it was felt that I was probably more of a hindrance then a help. Allan came to the rescue (he is THAT kind of a guy!!) and boldly said ‘what about going down there’ as we passed the only other road in the district.

Ra and I were very impressed and decided to go with his rather bold suggestion, considering the entire US Army was now following us. Off we went and it was not long before Ra, who had been this way before, exclaimed ‘Ah there is the hill that I was looking for!’ Allan and I looked at each other, for the hill was actually duly visible from Kiwi Camp three kms away!

Never mind, we were now on a mission and with dust puffing in all directions and we ‘burned up’ the road we were not long before the orphanage gates were ahead of us. The gatekeeper rushed to open the gates and the children started to appear, not in singles and doubles but in hoards. Well, it seemed like that, as all were keen to get to touch us and shake our hands with a kindly ‘Salaam’ to follow. Boys and girls and babes. All smiled and cheered us. This was very touching as at this time they did not know that we had some gifts to give out.

Allan and a young woman at the orphanage

This was the only orphanage in the region and it had 59 children at it – ages ranging from young babes through to their teenage mothers, boys that appeared to be young men and boys that were growing up to BE those boys that appeared to be young men. Age was somehow irrelevant, for they all had two common factors: their parents were lost and had, in all likelihood, been killed by the Taliban.

The compound is a rather a big place with the children and about 3-4 adults who help with the cooking, the security and I guess with the ‘mothering’ of these children – though in all probability they tended to mother themselves. They really were very hardy and they had sustained much to make them so.

Within the wall of the compound (the Afghans appear to just love building walls! They are everywhere) there was a large building with a large dark hall within which there are fingers that go to the individual children’s dormitories and rooms. On of these ‘fingers’ directs off to a kitchen where the cook is preparing the lunch, firstly by firing up the wood-burning stove sending smoke and its signature smell through the whole building. The facilities are primitive yet all living here in this compound appear content with what they have, though like all children they dream of a future they will be more content in. We get our 3-4 bags of goodies and distribute them out to the children – the dolls come first, and as we give them out it is easy to see which children are happy with their selection and which children will be swapping their selection for a better find when we leave. For all that it is a lovely experience to give these kids presents, for they do not get many.

The kids with their new dolls

Having given smaller gifts to the children, we leave the bigger parcels of clothes for the centre’s supervisor to give out. He accepts the gifts with a soft, though honest, ‘Tashikor’, or thank you. In a pure world it would be great to be able for us to give appropriate clothes out to those that needed them most, but it really is not for us to take this task upon us for the curator knows all the children well and we are happy to leave this task to him.

Ra with the children

Hands on our hearts, we wave goodbye.

Marc with an orphan child outside the front gate

The children follow us out and around the compound as we move to be part of all the activities going on – watching new buildings going up to cover the expansion required for those living at the centre, observing the library to help with the local Governor’s avowed aim of improving education for all in Bamyan, and finally just by the guard gate we watch two of the children’s carers painting the fire heaters and the portable stoves with pitch black to protect them from their anticipated use during the coming winter.

Pitching the fires for winter

The kids appear to have been delighted to see us and to touch and shake our hands. We have stayed for around a couple of hours, and as we leave Allan makes the comment that we are all thinking ‘What have they been through, and how humble such a visit makes us’.

These photos have been taken by both Marc and Allan.

Overlooking Bamiyan Town


The cool day is sun-filled right across the hills of the Bamiyan valley, to the snow that adds a frame to the remarkable picture’s scene. The Padre (Ra) and Allan Kelly, a civilian such as myself, and I head off to the nearby Foladi Valley. The journey to our planned destination was anticipated to take around 40 minutes . It was to the farthest medical clinic up the valley, but I don’t think any of us anticipated the state of the roads that took much negotiation and rocky-road manoeuvres. Our caution in thusly travelling was countered by the speed of the local police who seemed to be on ‘blue light flashing’ every time they took to passing us on the  rutted dusty roads.  Cautiously we drive, and an hour later we feast our eyes on a most lovely village that looked as though it was from way back in ancient Medieval times.  We were presented with often huge houses that had stunning walled architecture, and which gave home to 5-6 families living there. The walls of these not unattractive constructions were made of mud – brick or stone and concrete.  Often they had lattices on windows and sometimes there were occasional windows blocked in to conserve warmth against the bitter cold.

The narrow streets of this village gave the image of quaintness as women walked the streets with their chadors, the days washing perched in perfect balance upon their heads. By the sides of the road and thrusting like fingers into the ploughed fields were water-trails nurturing the land and all the village’s washing, at the very least – dishes and clothes, seemed to be done in such water courses. 6-9 inches deep these tracts meander delicately and rather picturesquely across fields and along poplar lined fields planted in rows to stake out boundaries or emphasise forests. Just beautiful,  and made more so as we were lucky enough to travel to the region the day after there had been rain and so there was little dust – even the trees had shed some of their dust and were another  cleaner, purer colour today.  Children were playing in mud and in the streets, whilst some were doing the dishes for their parents. All stopped to look at us as we passed and most would run away to prevent photographs being taken, yet everywhere we looked to snap another image told ‘a thousand words’ and we wanted to capture them all.

Finally we found our destination medical clinic that had over the last week been taken over by the International Red Crescent (IRC ) and  we were told that it had a Doctor, a Nurse and a Vaccinator. A couple of packages of goodies –  woollen clothes, dolls, and toys made by generous Kiwis back home –  that we gave  to the clinic  prompted smiles in gratitude. This was the only reward that the Padre, Allan and I could ever have wanted. A few photos on the way back, man and donkey, women walking the roads, children by the sides of the roads and scenes of a majestic country present themselves to us in the winter’s sun heightened , again, by the reflection of the snow upon the hills.