Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mazar-e-Shariff - The Details

(I wrote this on September 12, 2007). Well my first official Afghan National Army Military Justice Course is completed. It was a resounding success. The only thing that would have made it better was two more days. Next week I’ll be in Kandahar so have plans to extend it by a day and a half.

On this trip I was accompanied by CPT Chris Barton, the Phoenix Deputy SJA, CPT Stanley Myers (former starting quarterback at the Citadel) , the Phoenix Legal Assistance Officer and MAJ Nick Satriano, one of the lawyers from our higher at CSTC-A. He works with the other two lawyers who mentor BG Shir, the ANA top lawyer.

As we left Phoenix to travel to the airport, the roads were blocked so we ended up taking an alternate route to KAIA (Kabul Afghanistan International Airport) (we pronounce the acronym “key-a”). I’m glad we did. It was the “back way”, a way I’d never been before. We drove past the western-most boundary of the KMTC where a dozen or more tents were set up. Our driver said that it was the Kuchi’s – Afghan nomads, who lived out there. What was amazing to me was that they lived in the middle of piles of garbage. I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to live there, especially when our driver said that once it got hot it really started to smell. Well I got my answer a little bit further down the road as I saw several of them scavenging through the garbage. The women and children were going through and pulling things out of the garbage piles and putting them into big bags. My assumption is that they were scavenging for things to use and or even sell. What a sad way of life. The other thing that amazed me were the dresses of some of the girls. They were incredibly beautiful. The dresses were the most beautiful colors; blue, green, red, yellow, and each one of them was covered with bright spangles that reflected the morning sunlight. As we drove past one camp there were several young and teenage girls outside. One of the girls was twirling around in her dress. The sun really sparkled off her dress. It was such an odd thing, to see such beauty amidst all the garbage. I know, I know, a flower can grow in a garbage pile but these were human beings living in the garbage piles and that’s what made it see so odd.

The other nice thing about the “back way” was the chance to see more of the outskirts of Kabul. We passed acres and acres of vineyards – the grapes are to be eaten, not pressed. Here was all this green in the middle of the city. It was also a surprising thing to see. We also saw 3-4 girls walking with these incredibly huge bags of, I’m not sure what was in them, but they were huge, balanced on their heads. I’m not sure if they were Kuchi’s or who they were or where they were going, but it was really cool to see their balancing ability.

KAIA is staffed by our coalition partners. It’s interesting to see the differences in uniform, hair and facial hair regulations amongst the different countries. Many of the countries do not prohibit facial hair so you see goatees, soul patches, beards and everything in between. Most don’t have hair regulations either and I actually saw a guy who had combed his long hair into a type of Mohawk. Long hair on the men is not an uncommon sight with all types of hair styles. Then there are the women. Now I would never say that the women in the U.S. military are unattractive but sometimes the truth hurts. The women in the other forces are something else. We ran into a unit from Sweden and I must admit that I’ve never seen more beautiful “soldiers.” I’m told that the Czech nurses, who staff the medical clinic at KAIA, are worth getting “sick” over so that you have to visit the TMC (troop medical clinic). One or two of my junior officers are trying to finagle a way to linger at KAIA on our way back so as to take in the “sights.” Then the uniforms. Lots of services allow their soldiers to wear t-shirts instead of the traditional military blouse. That would be nice. The French have shorts and when I say shorts, they’re just that – short – butt-huggers. I could do without them as they were pretty scary!

Our flight north was uneventful. In fact I slept most of the way. We sat in jump seats on a German cargo plane. I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the seats were. We were not allowed to get up and look out the windows so wasn’t able to take any pictures of our flight north.

After we landed we had to wait for our ride to show up. After 20 minutes or so I saw a couple of humvees and a German humvee, called a Dingo, pull into the parking lot. Turns out the Germans were part of our convoy and had three empty seats. Guess who got to ride to Camp Spann in the Dingo? It was pretty cool. German engineering, as always, is better than ours. Comfortable bucket seats, lots of leg and head room and fully air conditioned. It’s also self-contained. The gunner sits protected inside with the gun mounted outside. The weapons system is controlled electronically from inside. As I said, the gunner is completely protected but the other nice benefit is no dust or heat is pouring in from an open turret. Also the ride is quite comfortable, unlike our clunky, bone-jarring vehicles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for our armored vehicles when I’m out and about but after riding in the Dingo I realize there’s a more comfortable way to be safe.

Mazar is famous for several things, including its blue mosque. It’s a large mosque built on one of the three most holy sites in Islam, if I’m not mistaken. Someone had a dream or vision that Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law was buried here so the Mosque was built. (The only problem with that theory is that the guy died in Saudia Arabia and it would have taken over 30 days to get the body here in that day and age and it would have been well decomposed so this particular historian doesn’t believe the body is really there.) It’s surrounded by a vast fenced courtyard with trees, bushes, flowers, etc. It looks like a beautiful location. The chief judge offered to take us into town to visit the mosque, followed by dinner at his house but of course we’re not allowed to go. Bummer. Anyway, it was really cool to just simply drive past such a historical and religiously significant location. Our interpreter, Edris, was going into town to pray at the Mosque. I sent him with my camera and asked him to take some pictures.

I hope you can tell how beautiful it is. Edris says that the building is covered is mosaic – tiny pieces of tile. He said the inside is just as beautiful as the outside. The crypt where the guy is born is where the people gather to pray. He said that as he went inside he was stopped because he had a camera. He explained to the guard that he was from out of the country and had traveled all this way to visit and pray and could he please take some pictures. The guard acquiesced.

He also took pictures of the grounds. Again, it’s a beautiful place. As in most countries, doves represent peace. For that reason they allow hundreds of doves to gather on the grounds. In fact you can buy corn to feed them so there’s Edris among all the doves.

Mazar is in much better condition than Kabul. Paved roads that are really paved and in good condition were among the first thing I noticed. There are even multiple lanes of paved roads. At each major intersection they are building round-abouts and like our European brothers, they are building big statues in them. One was of five horsemen that was pretty impressive. I didn’t get my camera out in time for that one so had to settle for a picture of the scaffolding in another one. Hopefully you’ll get the idea of what they’re trying to do.

Camp Spann, the US compound within the ANA Camp Shaheen, reminds me a lot of Blackhorse, small and intimate. We got bunked in a b-hut whose AC barely worked. That first day was pretty hot as it’s got to be 10 degrees hotter up here. In Kabul we’re at about 6600 feet above sea level whereas here it’s not as high, maybe 2,000 feet lower. And it stays hot at night unlike Kabul that cools down quite a bit. I never thought I’d say this but I was missing my life at Phoenix – private, well air-conditioned room. I told Janae that I had become quite spoiled and soft.

Unlike Phoenix though, all the lights except for a few are turned off at night, I’m assuming for security reasons. That means that unless you can see in the dark you need a flashlight to get around. But the benefit of that is that you can see the stars and even the Milky Way. It was so beautiful that I would spend time each night just looking at the stars. It’s so easy to forget how beautiful the night skies can be when you can’t see them.

So with all that said, let me tell you about our class. The three judges attended which was good as we relied upon their interpretation of the code as well their guidance for they wanted to have happen in their court room. The chief judge, BG Mahdi, was the primary spokesman. COL Salim, we dubbed “Elvis” because of his big hair and LTC Shah Man spoke very good English and was a lot of fun. COL Rassool, the SJA was there as well as one prosecutor and one defense attorney. Five young CID (criminal investigative division) agents were there and they were a lot of fun. So we had eleven total which was a good size for this class.

Originally we had planned for five days of training but as I was finishing the presentations thought that we’d only have three days. I obviously failed to adequately take into consideration the time it would take to translate as well as the fact that the Afghans love to talk. By the end of the first day we were way behind where I thought we would be and was starting to feel panicked about not getting everything in, which of course we didn’t but at least we hit the highlights. By the time we ran out of time, we had had a great class. Like I said I wish we would have had more time but this will give Nick an excuse to come back and finish up the training later.

The most fun we had was when we did our direct and cross examination practical exercises. I had come up with several scenarios, specific to what the Afghans will see in court, and made up different fact situations. It was fun to watch them ask the witnesses the questions. After each question and before the witness would answer, I would have the class vote on whether or not the question was in the proper form or complied with the rules of the exercise. It was fun to listen to them argue back and forth about whether or not they met my criteria. In the end Nick and I became the chief witnesses, he was the accused and I was the victim, so that made it even more fun as Nick is quite the ham and was acting the part of the poor, picked on victim.

At the conclusion of class we were honored by a few words from the Chief Judge as well as the SJA. Of course they thanked us for helping them and their new military justice system. They said it was an honor for them to have hosted us and were so appreciative to us for coming to them. We were then “robed” with the traditional Afghan scarves. I knew Nick and I would receive one as the instructors but was not surprised that Chris and Stanley also received one as they had participated, albeit briefly, as well. SFC Tiona Harrison, the paralegal up here who arranged for the conference room, brought in drinks and snacks on our breaks and printed the certificates, also got a scarf. So then we had to pose for group pictures. The Afghans love having their pictures taken so ended up with lots and lots of pictures.

After the “scarving” ceremony we had graduation. The Afghans love certificates, and the more colorful they are, the better. I had prepared a certificate with their country map in the background as a water mark. I then had the US JAG symbol on it, the Phoenix VI logo and the US Army logo on it. I then put the US and Afghan flags on it. I had taken their pictures at the beginning of class so had their pictures in the middle. I then had the graduation information written in English under the US flag on one side and then had it translated and written in Dari under the Afghan flag. Finally, I had a place for mine and Nick’s signature. Is it sounding like a busy slide? Absolutely. Tiona added the finishing touch by printing them on photo quality paper which made them especially nice. As I expected, they were thrilled with them.

The Afghans have a tradition upon receiving such a diploma; they face the crowd, hold it up and proclaim their allegiance to Afghanistan and her people. It’s pretty cool.

After graduation it was time for goodbyes. Chris and Stanley had never experienced the “hug and kiss” routine before but each one of us got a hug and kiss as they left. Lesser men would cringe but those of us comfortable with out manhood recognize that it is a very acceptable part of their culture. I’m not saying that I’m going to start going around hugging and kissing other men at home but I think I’ve finally gotten to the point that I don’t shy away from it. It was funny though to see the expressions on Chris and Stanley’s faces. They haven’t had enough contact with the Afghans yet to get used to the “culture.”

It was a great class for many reasons. It allowed me to gage my course and see what needs to be cut, what needs to be expanded upon and what can be done better. It has given the ANA up here some basic skills that will hopefully help them in their court martials. AND, it means that I’m one class closer to going home. I’ll be in Kandahar next week, back to Blackhorse after that, the 207th/Herat in the east and if there’s still time, the 203rd /Ghardez. After that there’s no more time and I’ll be heading home. Whoohoo!!

So that’s been my trip up north. It’s been so nice to get out of Phoenix for a while. I was telling Janae that I’ve really missed working directly with the ANA so this has been a nice change and I’m looking forward to the remaining classes.

Now I get to tell you about the trip home. When we flew in we landed on the coalition side of the airport up there. When we flew out, we left from the civilian side. As we drove up, if I had not been in Afghanistan, I would have thought that it was a compound of abandoned buildings. Out buildings with broken windows and cracked exteriors, weeds in the driveway, peeling paint – the whole third-world thing. But no, it was the “international” airport of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The chief of security of the airport greeted us but since he didn’t speak English he directed us to climb the four flights of stairs up to the traffic controller tower to speak with the controllers, who just happened to be German. We confirmed that our flight was leaving from there and would be leaving in about 45 minutes. The Germans offered us something cold to drink and as I opened their fridge I realize that there wasn’t much in there that I could drink. It was stocked full of beer! There were a couple of bottles of water which I took. Edris was with me and as we took the first drink, I realized that it was sparkling water. The look on Edris’ face told me that he’d never had it before Later he confirmed that he’d never tasted it before and that it was disgusting. I had to agree. I don’t like sparkling water.

So after a wait of 40 minutes our small plane landed. There we are loading our bags. It seated about 8.

I was sitting right next to the prop and while I couldn’t see it as it was spinning caught it on camera. So here are some pictures of the terrain of Afghanistan. I saw my first lake and it didn’t surprise me that it was in the mountains.

We landed at Bagram to pick up two more passengers and then took off again for an 8-minute flight back to Kabul. We flew past the Ghar and it was cool to see it from the air as it just rises out of the plain.

So there you have it. It was a great trip and I must admit I was glad to get back to Phoenix to my room. Now on to Kandahar.

1 comment:

DeAnna said...

I really got a good chuckle about you being "comfortable with your manhood" and couldn't help thinking you should really thank my husband for helping you with that. :)