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No Armor and Afghans

Kabul | Day 3 – My family probably thinks I’m crazy for what Ken and I did yesterday. We walked through the streets of a Kabul suburb in civilian clothes and no body armor.

The fact remains though, that we’re not crazy and we did it for multiple reasons. The first is because we wanted to talk with Afghans; we wanted to connect with them. From past experience, that’s almost impossible when you’re wrapped in kevlar and carrying weapons. Another reason we did it was to send a message – the people of Afghanistan are not our enemy, they are extremely hospitable, friendly and warm.

I’ve been to a few impoverished countries in my life, including the Philippines, where my wife is from. I’ve noticed one similarity between them all; when life for people is tough, they draw closer to one another. Communities bond together and families become inseparable. Since arriving here in October, and having a lot of chances to talk, both in and out of armor, with Afghans, I’m completely comfortable saying I love the Afghans and I hate the insurgents.

It’s an interesting experience when you’re riding in an armored SUV looking out of your plated windows and you see the Afghans carrying about their daily business. They’re used to seeing our vehicles driving all around. When you get out of the vehicle though, that’s when their expression changes. They look, whisper to one another, and wonder what’s going on.

For the first few minutes, they are shy, but then as they see you talking, smiling and laughing, they quickly warm up and want to talk. At first you’re talking with one Afghan and his friend stops to listen. More than likely they can’t understand what you’re saying, but they stay. As the minutes tick by, more and more Afghans show up to listen to the strange, yet interesting person who stopped by their neighborhood. In five minutes, you’re swarmed by Afghans, all forming a circle around you wanting to see your camera and listen.

We’re lucky we had such an incredibly good interpreter with us. He not only translated perfectly, but did so in “American English,” which was not only quite amusing to listen to, but also very effective, enabling Ken and I to hold near perfect conversations.

I asked a range of questions to about four Afghans, including a shopkeeper, a taxi cab driver, a little boy, and an area representative, who we came across while walking down the street.

I asked them how they were doing, what their everyday lives were like, what hardships did they endure and what did they think about coalition forces being here. I even asked a question off of the forums; are you happy to hear aircraft overhead or scared?

The resounding answer to the questions, is that their lives were really tough, employment was scarce and they didn’t mind the coalition forces being here. Ken is throwing some of these answers into his vlog, so check it out to see.

When I asked about the aircraft, I heard mixed reviews; the shopkeeper really didn’t care, while another Afghan said he felt good to hear them overhead.

The one and only tense moment came when a very verbal and emotional Afghan approached our large gathering and started ranting about government corruption, but that was about all our interpreter could understand. After Ken and I listened as best we could for a few minutes, and after hearing of all the problems, I asked whether there was anything good here. That must have been taken as a weird question, because all I saw was astonished faces. I assumed the answer to be no.

At this point, Ken and I were standing on a street corner surrounded by what seemed to be at least 60 Afghans, so we decided to move farther down the street so traffic flow could continue. We jumped in the back of our armored SUV and our two body guards drove us about a half mile down the street. I have to name drop our guards really quick because they did an incredible job, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Edward Hood and U.S. Navy Petty Officer Justin McNeley, our thanks go to both of you for enabling us to share an incredible opportunity.

This is where we met the Afghan representative. We had a lengthy discussion with him in regard to his community. He told us that his people were poor and were living “hand to mouth,” which basically means they can afford food, but that’s it. He mentioned the need for a solid education system, which should be available to everyone. I asked how secure he felt and he told me he was safe about 80 percent of the time.

After only a few minutes, he offered us tea, which we gladly accepted. If you ever have a chance to drink hot Chai tea, take it. It’s absolutely wonderful. So we continued our conversation after I almost burnt my tongue because the tea was so hot, and we watched the cars pass. All the children love to have their pictures taken, so I took a few moments and shot some photos while Ken interviewed the representative on camera. I had about 15 Afghans laughing when I put my 200mm lens on and was taking some paparazzi shots of Afghans walking down the street. They were absolutely captivated by it. Sharing moments like this, with the Afghans, is what makes 30 Days something special. Afghans aren’t scary, they aren’t mean or vicious, they love strangers and want us to know what’s happening here.

I wasn’t there when Ken shared a very special moment with the representative, but he told me about it afterwards and it made my eyes water a little bit. Ken explained to me, that when he was saying his goodbyes, the representative looked really sad and asked if we could stay the night with him. Hospitality is a hallmark trait of Afghan culture. For an Afghan to risk his life and offer his home to Ken and I is of such emotional and meaningful gravity, I will wish forever that we could have taken the offer.

Ken and I talked extensively about this offer and we both understand one aspect of Afghan culture, which is the fact that if an Afghan accepts and invites you into his home, he and the community he is a member of is responsible for your safety and protection. If allowed, we both would have taken the offer in a heartbeat. Not only because we wanted to share an experience like that and share it with you, but because it would have meant so much to that community. Our interpreter explained to us, that if the offer would have been taken, the representative would have been telling the story of the day two Americans stayed at his house and broke bread with him, to his family and community for generations.

I believe, after spending two days among the professionals at Camp Julien, sharing moments like the ones yesterday is the heartbeat of counter insurgency. We must understand that although Afghans are leading incredibly hard lives, they are good people, and I’m willing to come back time and time again to this country to help them. They deserve peace after 30 years of war.

 

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