Another interesting day in Khan Neshin; we walked through a field of hashish, got a glimpse into the lives of Afghan women here, I was able to hold a smiling little baby and we had tea with a soldier who has a kill count of 83 – for mice in his tent.
“Singayaay!” the Marines and soldiers greeted villagers in Pashto. Walking on patrol in Maranjan, we followed the troops as they helped the Afghan police pass out blankets to the villagers. Hearts and minds in action, this time in hopes that it would shed a positive light on the local police - a police force that has been traded out several times for misbehavior including intimidating the villagers and drug use. The last group kicked out had 11 out of 20 test positive for drugs.
But the alarming part is those men will not be kicked out of the Afghan National Police (ANP) and likely just be relocated to another part of Helmand province. All because the ANP is lacking numbers as they try to grow. Right now, throughout Afghanistan, it seems with both the ANP and Afghan National Army (ANA) it is more about focusing on quantity rather than quality.
There were many skeptical Afghan eyes as the forces walked by greeting them with one hand waving and the other holding their weapon; but the Afghans were more receptive than they were six months ago.
Less scared of Taliban reaction but still not fully trusting the intentions of the U.S. troops patrolling their village.
“Who ever has the power, we have to agree with them, we locals have no power to do anything or else we will be targeted,” a villager Rahmatullah told us.
The men were smiling and even laughing with the Marines as they watched a soldier sink calf deep into the muddy terrain.
The children were excited to get pens and toys from the Marines who would then be bombarded by children surrounding them with their hands on their faces donning shy little smiles.
And even I was able to hold a smiling and laughing baby for once. Happy children are rare to see in the city of Kabul where I spend the majority of my time.
In the remote villages of Afghanistan, children are still children; not yet forced into adulthood in the harsh streets of the city losing their innocence in the most heartbreaking ways.
'It's OK, I'm a woman'
It was mostly the men and boys we saw, as the women peeked over the walls of their homes to see what was going on. They're not allowed to come out and are restricted to the confines of their mud homes.
“It’s OK, I’m a woman,” I said, peeking by their doors, just as curious as they were.
A group of females, young and old, allowed me to come into their home. They were women of stunning beauty; rare and hardly seen. Dark hair, light hair, blue eyes and brown eyes. One thing they had in common was their beautiful smiles.
My camera fascinated them as I snapped pictures and showed them the digital photo. I wished it was as easy as saying, "I’ll bring you a copy." But we all knew this would likely be our only meeting.
Time was cut short because we had to keep on walking on our patrol. This time we could smell our destination before we could see it.
Hashish fields that called for the days of the hippie trail in the 1970s, when there was some sense of innocence to the drug cultivation in Afghanistan. Now looking at the fields you are reminded of the dangerous drug trade ravaging this country and its future.
Sitting on a large pile of marijuana leaves on his tractor, Matiullah the farmer told me that he farms the field for the landowner who lives in the capital of Lashkar Gah. He makes a small profit but it’s the only way of feeding his family. He said if he could farm grapes or wheat he would, but this isn’t his land and it isn’t his choice to make that type of decision.
The Marines say that they can’t just destroy the crop because that would take away the farmer’s income. But they are working with the local farmers in the area, finding other means, and most importantly, creating a rift between them and the militants benefiting from the profits.
One of the Marines asked me if I see this often being in Afghanistan, and I told him that what I see more often in the capital city is not the drug cultivation but more so the effects as the rate of drug addicts continues to rise among the population within the country’s borders.
Cookies and mice
After the patrol one of the soldiers in the camp invited us to tea. There are only three soldiers on the base living with the Marines and they have a nice setup at the back of a large tent.
Cpl. David Johnson was the only one remaining, his buddy Stephen just left for Camp Payne and the third soldier was on leave at home. David was also leaving at midnight to catch his first of many flights heading home for a two-week break.
Having some delicious green tea, David let us rummage through his snack box. I was starving after the patrol. I scarfed down some beef jerky, trail mix and some homemade cookies he gave us. The homemade cookies were from a woman name Connie Turner from the state of Michigan. Apparently Mrs. Turner bakes 24,000-48,000 cookies a year and sends it off to the troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was impressed considering I can’t even bake cookies without the store-bought cookie dough. And to bake 48,000 – wow!
We suddenly noticed a kill count board in the room. And the number was stacked at 82 (went up to 83 a few hours later). That is how many mice the three men have been able to catch in their traps since moving into this tent.
And unfortunately after hearing about that, I’ve started to see the mice around the base and in our room; funny how you notice things more once someone tells you it’s there. I’m just glad that the weather is too cold for the viper snakes to come out and play; or at least I’m hoping it’s too cold …
It was nice to just chat again, which is really one of the best parts about staying at FOB Castle. Whether it is with the troops, the Afghan government or the village children. It’s just refreshing to meet new people and get to know them, their motivations and their needs. Getting a glimpse of humanity in a land of war.
Helmand may be one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan but for me it is a precious jewel that means so much to so many different people.