Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Outside the wire

So, last Sunday I went outside the wire on my first mission. I didn't tell anyone at home what I was doing, but later that day called my parents and let them know. As you can imagine, I can't really call home and let people know I'm going outside the wire tomorrow, so I'll always call afterwards and let someone know I went out and that I'm okay.

I didn't sleep much the night before, cause my head was spinning as I was thinking about all the stuff I needed to remember and concentrate on. I really had no idea what to expect, but I went through all the convoy and IED defeat training they gave me at Ft Bragg. A word of advice, when you want to sleep well, don't review the IED defeat training in your head. Take my word for it and think of something else.

I wish that I could have taken photos of Farah city, so you could see them, but when you're out and about here you can't be a tourist. As we drove into the city, I really had no idea what to expect. The only place I've ever been that was even close to a third world country was Chile and even the worst places I saw there were nothing compared to what I saw. It's amazing how poor people are here.

The bazaar area covers a couple of small blocks, and everything was pretty grimy with splashes of bright colors from some of the fabrics catching my eye as I went through. It was hard to concentrate on what the town looks like, because I had to focus on where people were outside my window and what directions cars were moving. Here's an idea of what was going on in my head: Do any cars have tinted windows? Are they moving out of our way? Is the weight evenly distributed or is that car really leaning more towards one side than the other? What's that guy over there holding in his hand? Okay, it's a shovel of some sort. Now, there's a kid running up on the left side of the humvee waving like mad at us to get some attention and hoping for a handout. Okay, what's that piece of blue on the side of the road? Plastic or something, maybe nothing to worry about... Where's that kid headed? Why's he running straight toward us? Why isn't that woman in a burqa moving out of the way? Is that really a woman in a burqa? Okay, there she goes back on the sidewalk.

It's a little overwhelming to try to take everything in, and I was so worried that I might miss that one thing that would make all the difference. I was praying so hard that if there was anything I needed to see that I would be able to see it clearly and know it was a threat. Thankfully it was a quiet trip both ways.

Our first stop that morning, was to the Center for Excellence. That morning they were holding a graduation ceremony for about 20 women who had successfully completed a business course. The women had learned how to make jams and jellies and then sell them in the local bazaar. They were taught simple business procedures for tracking their expenses and profits. A young woman, about age 15, was the master of ceremonies. A young boy about age 9 or 10, started off the graduation by reciting/singing a passage from the Koran. Then two more young women gave brief speeches and an older woman also talked.

LT P and I were the reps from the counsel for Women's Affairs at the PRT. She and I talked briefly about the importance of education for women and how courageous it is to seek out opportunities for education. Then we handed out some certificates, got some refreshments, shook hands with all the women, took photos, put our body armour and helmets back on and headed out the door to the next meeting.

Our next meeting was at the Department of Education with the Director. Because I don't get out much here, Capt B let me accompany them inside for the meeting. It was interesting. I was the only female in a room full of village elders, PRT leadership and the director and his staff. The meeting was about the security issues with a potential school site. The contract had been signed to build the school, but due to security the contractor wasn't able to start construction. The villages were not owning up to the responsiblity of providing security, because the contractor was an outsider not from the village. We spent two and a half hours there debating this problem, with no resolution.

The room was a pretty big room and it was even air conditioned. The director's desk was in the corner and big, green sofas lined the walls, with coffee tables and end tables positioned in front of each one. All the important people sat near the front of the room by the Director. Me, I was so important in this setting that I set near the back by the door keeping an eye on who was coming and going from the outer room. We also had a soldier out in the hallway keeping an eye things as well.

The director's 15 year old son was there as well. He sat next to me and explained the purpose of the meeting to me. He speaks really great English and wants to be an economist when he grows up. He is majoring in economy in high school. He was a really funny kid and very proud of his dad. He was proud to act as my host for the meeting and also curious to ask me many questions.

The first question he asked me after learning my name was every single girls' favorite question: Are you married? When I said no, he asked if I wanted to be married. He seemed relieved to hear that I did indeed wish to be married. He wondered why I wasn't married and I explained that the right opportunity hadn't come along for me. He nodded very seriously and then proceeded to explain that it was good to be married and that one must be careful when making this decision because it was a lifelong decision. Fabulous, I thought, I'm receiving marriage advice from a teenage Afghan boy. Ah, the ironies of life.

This teenage boy had lots of questions about TV shows, schooling, where I was from and where I lived. He was very impressed that I live in Washington, DC. It's a very important and famous place in Afghanistan, because decisions made there affect us here in Farah. He even knew where Utah was and was able to tell me about the Great Salt Lake. He asked me about my purple CTR ring, and so I got to have a small missionary moment with him by explaining that CTR has many meanings. The most common meaning is Choose The Right, but my favorite is Christ The Redeemer. He thought it was pretty cool that I wore a ring that reminded me of these two things.

About halfway through the meeting refreshments arrived in the form of bottled water for the 3 Americans in the room and plates of cucumbers and small saucers of salt. The cucumbers were piled high on the plates with knives in order to peel them. Interesting choice of refreshement, I thought. It was explained to me that these were the famous Farah cucumbers, which are exported to many other places in Afghanistan and Iran. He proceeded to peel a cucumber and split it with me. It was good, probably one of the better tasting cucumbers I've had.

The meeting ended and like I said earlier the elders weren't able to resolve anything about the security issues. If the contractor had been from one of the villages by where the school was to be built maybe we could have gotten an agreement. But as it stands, if the school were to be built there, they would probably burn it to the ground because no one stands to gain anything from it financially. So dumb!

We headed out to our trucks where the rest of the team had sat for two hours baking and sweating in the 100+ degree Farenheit heat. I climbed back in the truck and belted myself in and off we went for the 10 minute drive back to the base. Again, I had to keep myself in the game with my mental dialogue about what I was seeing.

We got back to the FOB, cleared our weapons, had our mission debrief and went to lunch. Not bad for a morning's worth of work in Farah. I don't have photos yet of me in action, but I'll get them soon and post them for you to see. I hope to get more opportunities to go outside the wire. It's exhausting but fulfilling.

I love hearing from you all. The mail is pretty slow right now, but please write and I'll write back. My love to you all from AFG.