What follows are excerpts from a journal. The Images were taken for, and property of, Scar Tissue Filmworks
Terminal 2, Dubai Airport
This terminal houses the flights to places like Iraq, Mogadishu, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The people in this terminal are all very serious. The few conversations going on were in hushed tones.
Every Caucasian here were either a contractors or military. It wasn’t hard to notice the vast number of military haircuts, Oakley shades and cargo pants. I could catch knowing looks from across the terminal between men that had seen each other in places I had probably never heard of. An odd chain-smoking journalist in a photographer’s vest was sitting in the corner furiously scrawling in a notebook.
Our contact, wore a tan suit and a black turtleneck. He used to be a journalist for Al Jezera and now owns a media production company in Kabul.
Driving though Kabul was an amazing experience. The entire landscape is grey and dusty. Few of the roads are paved and nothing is clean. Cars, bikes and carts clog the streets. The trucks are brightly painted with happy messages and blessings. Chains along the front bumper give the trucks their name; Jingle Trucks.
Our contact asked us if we had a specific time we needed to be at Bagram Air Base and if we were hungry. The Director said that we were expected, but not at any particular time.
“I’d love to have some Afghan tea, maybe some Kabob…” I said with a smile.
Our contact gave some directions to the driver and we turned a corner off the main road.
“Is this a good idea?” The Director asked nervously…
Our car pulled over in front of a building made of corrugated metal. A crude sign above the entrance had a picture of a chicken and the word Kabobs.
I knew that we would never be able to get into Kabul once we were on base, so this was our one opportunity to get into a place like this.
The inside reminded me of the Tibetan bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A potbelly wood stove heated the water for tea, and a young servant boy was tasked with it’s stoking. At one point a young girl in filthy rags came in to fill a teapot from the rusty spigot. She was pushed away by 3 older men, she argued, seeming to say that someone else had given her permission. She tried again with the same results.
We were asked what we would like. I wanted to try some Kabob. He ordered us some chicken soup and beef Kabob. Our tea arrived first. Our contact poured a little into one of the clear glass teacups and swished it around, poured it into the next cup and repeated the process for all of the cups. The green tea was really delicious. The soup wasn’t great, but the Kabobs were spectacular, served on the 18-inch metal spears on which they were cooked (at a foot and a half long, I can no longer call them skewers…). The meat was perfectly seasoned on the spear; each piece nestled between a bit of gristle for extra flavor and to keep the meat moist.
I asked if it would be ok to take pictures here, and was told that it wouldn’t be a good idea at this particular place and time.
Damn. At least I got to try some good Kabob.
The road to Bagram Air Base is pock marked and surrounded by mountains. The few buildings are in terrible disrepair or mostly destroyed. Our contact told us a few stories about people he knows that have fought the Taliban and the Russians before them.
It was a jarring 1-hour ride, swerving in and out of opposing traffic to avoid monstrous holes in the road.
Snipers often sit in the mountains and take shots at military vehicles. Few people walk this road. The military only travel this road in armored convoys.
We get to Bagram, and wait for our ride into the base. Our bags are inspected and loaded into a truck.
After checking in at the Media Operations Center, getting our badges (which we’re obligated to wear at all times), we were shown to our quarters. It reminded me of the living quarters I had when I worked at Cedar Point many, many years ago. A simple plywood building called a Bee Hut. There were 3 cots in the room. We were informed that we had a roommate, a cameraman from the BBC. He turned out to be a cool guy, doing a documentary about combat stress and it’s effects on the women of the military. He was with us for one night before he was moved down to quarters closer to the hospital where he would be doing the lion’s share of his shooting.
We were told that we would be picked up at 8am the next day and taken to PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) Headquarters.
Our first Mission took us to 2 schools that are being built by Afghan contractors and labor, but organized, contracted and overseen by the PRT.
The journey to get to these schools was no drive down the Parkway. The 3-hour bone-rattling ride through the Afghan backcountry was, at times, harrowing. Our convoy of 3 armored Humvees drove narrow roads along the sides of sheer cliffs, through rivers and riverbeds, up and down terrain that no other vehicle could possibly navigate. Our vehicle, designated Ram 10, was driven by a southern Ohioan named Adam, known as Highspeed.
“Bump, John.” He calls out to the turret gunner, who braces himself. The Humvee nosedives almost 30 degrees down into a gully and back up again. Highspeed assures us that this terrain is no problem, as he’s a rally driver and off-roader back home. “I do this for fun on the weekends… Bump, John.” We bounce several inches off the seats as the 10,000-pound vehicle heaves over a boulder.
There isn’t a road here. It’s a dry riverbed filled with glacier-sized rocks.
“We can only take this way part of the year. Once it starts raining this will be a raging river. Bump, John”, Highspeed continued to take Ram 10 into places that even the Hummer dealer would wince at. He’s truly a remarkable driver.
About half way to our first objective, we stopped in a small village, the highlight of which was a couple of abandoned soviet tanks sitting at the end of the main road. The local kids used them as playground equipment. The Director started to hand out candy and was quickly mobbed. This gave me ample opportunity to shoot photos and video of the tanks while the kids were occupied. I got some really great shots of a small child as he cautiously approached me around the front of one of the tanks.
The Director called me over to get footage as he tossed candy out into the crowd of children and it scattered onto the muddy ground. The children scrambled over each other to fetch it. The Director smiled.
“Mister, Mister, pen Baksheesh, pen!” they all shouted over each other. The Captain told me that kids wanted American pens and they always asked for them. “Baksheesh” basically means, “give me…”
As the kids started getting more riled up The Director started talking louder and slower, because that’s how Americans communicate with people who don’t speak English. “HERE’S SOME CANDY! EVERY ONE TURN TO FACE THE CAMERA! TURN-TOWARDS-THE-CAMERA!”
“We gotta go.”, said The Captain, as he saw the situation starting to get out of hand. The Director’s mob began to resemble a George Romero film. “C’mon we gotta go.” We climbed into the Humvees and continued on. I could have shot those tanks all day…
Snow began to fall as we gained altitude. We reached the first of our objectives in fog and snow. It was a little surreal. Snow was softly falling, but there was no wind. It wasn’t even all that cold. Fog hung low as we approached the stone and concrete building that was soon to house almost 100 students. We climbed the steps and were met at the top by the schoolmaster. As we took the tour of the work so far, the Civilian Engineer assigned to the PRT, commented on how some of the work (namely the ceiling, and many of the load bearing beams) would need to be redone, as the concrete mix contained far too much gravel and even wood chips. “We see this a lot.” He said, “Contractors want to save money and will mix in this stuff to take up space. What they don’t realize is that this won’t be safe. We need to make these structures to survive earthquakes, which are common here.” The Captain added, “Contractors are paid in 25% installments. 25% up front, then we check progress, before the next installment is paid. This contractor won’t get paid until this work is redone to specs. And because of this we have to tell the School Master and the students that the school won’t be ready for them this spring. They may have to wait until next fall. Until then they’ll have to continue to hold classes outside as usual.”
I captured some amazing portraits of the students and School Master. The soft light that filtered by the fog and snow was amazing.
The PRT guys were discussing the work that had been done and the work that needed to be redone, and started taking a tour of the rest of the facility. As I went to follow them, The Director stopped me and said that he needed video and stills of him with the kids and the teacher.
As we were leaving, I wanted to get the tripod out of the Humvee and get an establishing shot of the building.
“We don’t have time for that now the guys are planning to go.” The Director said. I insisted that this part of the story needed an establishing shot. I ended up running for the tripod myself and got a quick shot. The Director saw the shot and then insisted that I get another establishing shot with him and the kids in front of the school.
Our second stop was another school that some renovations had been done on. The PRT needed to check on the progress of those renovations. The schoolmaster wasn’t around and the gate was locked. One of the men, followed by The Captain, found an Afghan ladder, two straight-ish poles with cross pieces haphazardly attached, some by rusty nails, and others, tied with twine. No person in their right minds would trust such a contraption. After climbing over, they proceeded with the inspection.
Highspeed was holding a security position outside our Humvee. He was keeping watch over the desolate snow covered farm fields. The clouds and fog obscured all but the bottoms of the far off mountains. “You can never see the peaks of those mountains, even on a clear day, you can’t ever see the peaks.”
The convoy continued it’s way back to base. On the way, we stopped to see one of the Provincial Sub-Governors. Since he wasn’t home and his place was next to a village bazaar, we took a break and did a foot patrol of the area.
Again, I got some amazing portraits from this little excursion.
The old man standing outside his shop wrapped in a brown blanket, had a proud look in his eye as I took his portrait. The dark haired man in the Afghan hat with the wry smile who let me photograph him. I nodded thanks with my hand over my heart, a sign of respect in this part of the world.
The most startling portrait of the day was of the three boys standing in front of a shop. When I saw it, I had to have it. I pointed the camera and started shooting, all the while knowing I had captured something special.
There was a shop that a guy turned into a sort of dinner theater. He had a burlap curtain covering the doorway and benches facing a TV. A Kung-Fu movie was playing that I didn’t recognize. His shop sells the afghan version of French fries. Served cold with a sweet spice sprinkled liberally over them, and wrapped in flat bread.
On the way back I thought about how hard life is here. What kind of desperation that must take hold when your only plan for the day is to survive.
Ahead of us, a Toyota Corolla packed with 8 or 10 Afghan nationals took a blind turn way too fast and plowed head on into the lead Humvee of our convoy.
None of the passengers in the car were wearing seatbelts; all were injured, including 2 toddlers. From the look of the windshield, at least three of the passengers hit it. The car was completely devastated.
A French Convoy we had passed earlier caught up with us and their medics took care of the wounded until an ambulance arrived.
The turret gunner of that lead Humvee broke two of his fingers in the incident. The Humvee was virtually undamaged.
Our mission brief today said that we’re delivering 26 mattresses to the women’s dormitory of a university. This is actually a pretty big deal, since there aren’t many universities in this region and even fewer that admit women. This school is housed in a German built textile plant from the 40’s. Its’ architecture has that ominous German look to it.
The Director said it looked like Dachau…
We have a huge 5-ton truck in our convoy today loaded with the mattresses. It parks outside the walls of the compound.
We go inside to meet with the headmaster of the university and the region’s Sub-Governor. We are served tea and snacks while they discuss what’s happening. The tea is an important part of any process in this area. Business is never discussed right away. The Captain participates in a little small talk about weather, families, and hunting. After tea and cakes, business is slowly brought up. This can aggravate some foreigners, particularly Americans, as we have a tendency to want to get right down to business, which is considered rude.
Once the destination for the mattresses is discussed, we move onto the task at hand.
Several hands appear to help as the mattresses, donated by Bagram Air Base, are one by one carried into the woman’s dormitory and stacked against a wall.
The Captain is proving himself to be a great on camera personality. He’s got a great, permanent smile, he’s articulate, and what’s more, he knows what he’s talking about. I have him giving on camera “Play by Play” type stuff after each part of our mission. This will be invaluable footage when The Director gets into the edit.
After the University, we stop at a PRT-built women’s shelter to deliver some stuffed animals. It’s a bit of a mob scene and I realize that there is no good way to shoot this kind of thing. Half way through, I decide to shoot photos and get a few great ones.
There are no days off in a war zone. They are called “Low Battle Rhythm Days”. I caught up on some much-needed sleep, and processed some of the previous days photos.
I’m becoming a fixture at the coffee shop/Popeye’s/Pizza Hut.
Salang Pass, Salang Province.
The second highest road tunnel in the world at just over 11,000 feet above sea level (Bagram is about 5,000 feet), over 2 1/2 kilometers long. 80% of the region’s fuel and goods come through this tunnel and down the mountain pass.
Our mission was to meet with the head of Public Works for the province to see if the road clearing equipment that was purchased for keeping this vital road clear of snow and debris was being used properly or indeed being used at all.
Our meeting with the head of public works (a General in the Afghan Army) went well. We were requested to stay for a fabulous lunch of lamb stew, chicken and kabobs.
Got a few great portraits
The road leading up to the tunnel is heavily traveled and we stopped a couple of time to see the purchased equipment in use.
Once at the foot of the mountain, you must traverse a crazy number of switchbacks and bits of covered roadway. The tunnel itself isn’t ventilated and it was very icy. There’s something very unsettling about watching a 10,000 pound vehicle in front of you slide all over the road, dangerously close to oncoming traffic. What’s even more unsettling is when your vehicle does the same…
At the top of the mountain, we stop to inspect some other equipment, get some footage, and we go back through the tunnel and down the mountain.
This wasn’t without its difficulties. One of the Humvees had some problems. The brakes nearly caught fire. The driver had been riding the brakes downhill, instead of downshifting. We had one of the other Humvees tow it home.
Today’s mission was to inspect a clinic that had burned down. It was the best clinic in the area, originally built by a Bangladeshi NGO. The doctor still practices out of one of the fire damaged rooms. He had a calm, Zen-like appearance about him. His portrait is really great. Just after the PRT left, a man with a rash on his arms and chest came into the blackened office to be treated.
The PRT says it will be at least 3 months before they can begin the process of rebuilding the clinic, but in the meantime, they’re going to get the Doctor some tarps for his roof and other supplies to help him continue his work as best he can.
The next objective for the day was to look at a possible flood control project along the Panchere River. After disembarking from the Humvees, we are lead across farm fields and irrigation ditches to the area in question. “Cool. You’re first real foot patrol.”, comments The Captain. The walk takes about 15 minutes, but only 5 Afghani minutes.
The low-lying plain floods every year and the residents would like the PRT to build them a flood control barrier. The method used will be large wire mesh baskets called Gabions. You fill these huge baskets with rocks and boulders (if there’s one thing Afghanistan has aplenty, it’s rocks and boulders) and then stack the Gabions to make walls. This would divert the floodwaters away from the banks and save the mud-brick homes of the people that are forced to leave there for the months of the rainy season.
The reality of the situation is that the rainy season is less than a month away, and the project would entail 4-6000 Gabions. The PRT just can’t work that fast. It would take at least a month to get the paperwork ready for this kind of project. The PRT can eventually get them the Gabions, but the locals will need to supply the labor to fill them. One of the Afghans says, through the translator, that the Governor had promised them the use of excavating equipment. The Major said that he has no control over the Governor, but he will be talking to him with the next week and will remind him of the matter.
The Captain said that the PRT doesn’t want to just give the Afghan people things. The Coalition Forces won’t be here forever and he would like to see the people become self-sufficient. It’s the whole “teach a man to fish” thing.
A good example of this is the road clearing equipment for Salang Pass. The PRT donated the equipment, but the Public Works Department is responsible for maintaining and using it. The people of the region are used to asking for (and receiving) everything. “We are Afghanistan, we’re poor, give us what we want.” The Captain and the PRT are putting in place a bureaucracy where the people go to their provincial leaders to request a project, and then the provincial leaders go to the sub governors, who then go to the Governor, then The Governor goes to the PRT.
At ribbon-cuttings of new projects, like a recently opened Clinic, the PRT will take a backseat. They want the people to see and realize that it’s their local government that is responsible for the project. Whenever the Members of The PRT speak at these functions, they always bring it back to the Government official responsible. “We’re not going to be here forever.” The Captain said, “We’re basically trying to work ourselves out of a job here, so that the Afghan People can become self sufficient.”
When the PRT does a project, they hire Afghan contractors from the area where they will be working. The contractors then hire local labor to complete the project. The locals get the jobs and the clinic, road or school. Keeping this all local gives the Afghans a sense of pride and accomplishment, along with a job. These things are crucial to getting the country back on its feet.
There are usually 2 or 3 PRT convoys that go out every day from Bagram. The other convoy that went out today came under fire from small arms and rockets propelled grenades (RPG’s).
I came to find out that a few days earlier, The Director tried to get us onto that mission, after finding out it was going to “a troubled area”. We were denied permission to tag along. I was reminded of a comment that the Master Seargent uttered to me in the hallway, outside his office that day; “You’re partner is trying to get you killed.” It didn’t make sense at the time, but after finding out how hard The Director had tried to get us out their with those guys, I got it. It would have been “good TV”, but having us in that convoy would have put everyone at risk, since we would have become a liability, if anything happened to us, or our vehicle.
In the end, no one in the convoy was hurt. The air cover that the convoy had the forethought to order (in the form of 2 Apache helicopter gunships), quickly dispatched at least one or two of the aggressors.
It really brought home for me how dangerous this job can be for the PRT. We’ve felt completely safe every time we’ve gone out. That’s because we follow their safety protocols. We ALWAYS wear our Kevlar vests, and we are never out of sight of the members of our convoy.
When we were at the Bazaar, I was walking around taking photos and shooting video, oblivious to the bigger picture around me. There was always an armed member of our patrol following me, keeping a lookout and watching my back. The PRT are responsible for our safety on these missions IN ADDITION to their regular duties. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration, for these guys. They have a tough job to do. They do it well.
The PRT helped to build a Women’s Shelter and Clinic. They are next to each other, on the same plot of land. The Shelter is for women and children and its run exclusively by women. This is a huge deal in this Islamic Republic. Today the women are looking for help with their International Woman’s Day event. The PRT will be able to provide donations of food, clothing and children’s toys. The women we meet with are not shy about asking for things that they need. Today they are asking The Captain for help transporting participants to their event. The PRT can’t provide vehicles to them. In the past they have gotten other NGO’s to donate funds to hire vehicles for them. The women are disappointed. “You can build roads, schools, and clinics, but you cannot get us a car?” One of them says through a translator.
Ending the meeting on a good note The Captain tells the women that the PRT has recently received approval for the construction of a 24-room school exclusively for girls on the grounds behind the women’s shelter. The current 12-room school, behind the Clinic is in terrible disrepair and will be fixed as well, in the end they will have the 36 rooms they need for their students.
On The way back, we stopped at a desolate cemetery at the foot of an imposing mountain face. There were only a few real tombstones. Most of the grave markers were just plain rocks partially buried in the ground. Makeshift flagpoles with green flags fluttered in the cool breeze, symbolizing those that died as martyrs. I got some great shots, but was hurried back to the convoy before I could get anything I was really satisfied with…
Went to a provincial Government Meeting today with the Governor of the Panchere province and all 30 of the sub-governors. The meeting lasted over 2 hours.
Afterwards we distributed some clothing to an orphanage.
Range day cancelled today, due to yesterday’s rain. Caught up on photo processing.
Went to a small bazaar on base. Dealt my way into a flintlock pistol for $30. It’ll be a cool souvenir for my wall.
With a week to go here, my thoughts turn to what’s next.
I’ve been thinking of coming back, actually, by myself, with just still gear. The portraits I’ve captured here are some of my best work ever. If I could return, I think I could get some even better shots. Doing a book based on the mission of the PRT and the people that benefit from its efforts might be a possibility.
One of the Missions of the PRT is to assist in the training of the Afghan National Police. They have a bad reputation to deal with. They used to be underpaid public servants, prone to rampant corruption and bribery. The PRT helping to train them in law enforcement techniques, such as the proper way to apprehend a suspect and vehicle searches, as well as self-defense The ANP play a pivotal role in the recovery of Afghanistan. They have to be seen as a trustworthy authority so that the Coalition forces can focus on things other than law enforcement.
More time at the coffee shop today, working on a library of photos for the soldiers of the PRT. They are very excited to see them. I’m apparently the only photographer they’ve worked with that’s been willing to share photos. The Director told me what ever they wanted was fine with him, so I’m trading over 300 photos for patch the members the PRT convoy wear. It says “Seven Club”; representing the less than 7% of the 20 thousand soldiers on base that ever go “outside the wire”.
I think it’s a good trade.
Went to a training class today run by the Bagram Media people. It’s a training class for Afghan cameramen and reporters. They had many questions and were eager to learn all that they could. These people are yearning to tell their country’s story. They are somewhat misrepresented in the world media.
The meeting we attended today was for Youth Generations. It’s a group that started out organizing intramural sports teams for the young people of the country, such as Soccer and Volleyball (which is HUGE here). The teams cross ethnic, cultural and religious lines allowing the kids to interact with kids from other regions and provinces. The group has grown considerably, now counting many adults among them and a new mission: to help the youth of their country to inherit an Afghanistan that they can be proud of. They meet monthly and this month there was a very special first time guest to the meeting. The local Sub-Governor heard about this group and what they are doing and wants to become involved.
The Captain hears about ideas for projects the group is interested in. One member says that they would like to plant trees. (Most of this region was almost completely deforested by the Russians and is in desperate need of trees). The Captain’s eyes brighten as he tells them about a recently received PRT contract to do that very thing.
The Youth Generations group will submit a bid for the project and they will be given donated trees AND be paid to plant them across their province.
Getting out of Kabul International Airport.
After quickly and freely giving away all of his cash (some lucky baggage handler made a weeks salary, and so did some other guy in a uniform who opened a door for us), and frantically announcing that he needed 50 bucks from me to pay the airport tax (the only legal bribe in the airport…), I suddenly got over traveling with The Director.
You do NOT have to tip anybody here. The Director just nodded his head no…
“You’re wrong. They weren’t going to let us out of here. I HAD to pay them off. You’re just wrong.”
I told him that his frantic waving of money, opening his wallet, and general freaking out in a place like this only attracts the attention I would, personally, like to avoid. He makes himself a target and therefore, makes me a target.
We have valid passports and visas, not to mention, confirmed seats on the flight. They have to let us on, bribe or no. The Director again tells me I’m wrong and wonders if we are going to have a fistfight in the middle of the airport to settle the matter. I briefly consider it.
“All that bribes do is move you to the front of the line. We have plenty of time before our flight. There was no need for you to throw your money around like that.” The Director continues to shake his head no.
He stops when the guy who was helping us with our bags agrees with me. “He’s right actually.”
Now The Director starts muttering to himself that we narrowly escaped being incarcerated in an Afghan prison.
Narrowly escaped? Yes. But not from that.
He spent the entire flight two seats across from me angrily scribbling in his notebook. More than likely a tale of how he saved us with $350.00 in bribes to heathen brigands in the wilds of Kabul airport.
The flight back to the US was uneventful.
I’ve though intensely about going back to Afghanistan in the weeks since my return. It’s a beautiful country of proud people.