Letters from Afghanistan: installment #4

Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

[Ed. note: Connor O’Steen writes of going to an opium village in Afghanistan’s Ghowr province to do the necessary research to admit Nasim to the orphanage in Chaghcharan.]

First the roads. They were dirt the entire way and I was expecting this, but I had also figured that they would have been purposefully made, smoothed over even to facilitate the transfer of people from point A to point B. Silly me. The roads were the natural result of cars following the same path over and over. We drove in the ruts that had been imprinted by heavier trucks and, from time to time, our car’s tires scraped against the sides of the ruts, bouncing us from side to side. At first I imagined it was like being on a particularly cloying rollercoaster. Then I imagined it was like being inside a pinata. Then I stopped imagining things.

I sat in the back seat, sandwiched between the principal of the [Chaghcharan] orphanage and Reese, Marnie’s son. Somehow, in a way I’ll never be able to fathom, Reese managed to doze through the unrelenting turbulence, waking only briefly when the bumps in the road knocked his head hard against my shoulder. The principal just looked carsick, and stared out the window. In the trunk was Nasim, who had decided to come along to see his family and village for what was almost surely the last time.

I was impressed by the scenery. Just like in the airplane ride over, I got the sense that the hills around us were an endless expanse. Cresting each ridge showed more of the same, and the further east we went, the steeper the slopes became, until off in the distance they blended into proper rock-faced, dry, barren looking mountains. There was an unsettling sense of deja vu as we drove on. The landscape was so unchanging that time bent. Two hours could have been five, or it could have been 30 minutes. Whenever I looked at my watch, I forgot what time it had been before.

As we got close, the road got narrower until our car could barely squeeze along the track cut out of a steep, inclined slope. In front of us on the road, men and boys drove donkeys out of our way, whipping them roughly with thin canes and staring at us like we were in an armored convoy rather than a beat up SUV. Whenever we slowed down, the cloud of dust that we kicked up in our wake surrounded the car and streamed through the open windows. We wrapped the scarves we wore around our faces, and by the time we got there we looked like we’d showered in dust.

Now the village. I stretched my legs, rarely having been happier to get out of a car, and looked around at the houses. Some of them lay in the valley below, where a thin river snaked its way west, but the majority were mud houses built into the side of the hill–seemingly held there by additional mud that provided a ledge underneath. There was a breeze. It was nice. The weather and vegetation reminded me of home.

Then the people. A man and his son approached us, and I was struck by his features. He had light brown hair, stubble instead of a beard, a square jaw and very white teeth. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in the United States or (I imagine) Spain or Italy. He greeted Nasim like he hadn’t been gone for a year, but had just stepped out for an afternoon. Yasin and the principal of the orphanage stopped and talked with him, and it was then that I started to feel uneasy. I’m still not sure what was said, exactly. Yasin translated bits and pieces for us reluctantly, but I was shocked to find how, even in a situation where I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could still feel that something was–very deeply, very fundamentally–wrong. It was the way the man with the white teeth reacted–there was something superficial about his movements, his smile was strange and the way he looked at all of us was like he was just staring, like there was no seeing or recognition involved. We sat for a while in the shade of the trees. Yasin would say something, receive an answer, shrug, and look out at the river.

Before long we were ushered into a low room that had a carpeted floor, walls, and ceiling. It was on the way there that we saw the dried poppies, and it was the first and only time I’ve felt afraid on this trip. It wasn’t a panicked fear, or a strong one, just a gnawing feeling that sat in my gut and made me go over the worst scenarios again and again. We were isolated, I didn’t think our phone was working, these people almost certainly knew what they were growing was illegal. And here we were, sitting in a room lousy with flies, stuffy with heat, and listening to these poppy farmers tell lying versions of Nasim’s story. Again, I got the unshakeable sense that something was very profoundly flawed in these people. The way they laughed, the way they acted normally when telling Nasim’s ordeal, the glazed over way they looked at us, and the way Yasin responded in turn showed their disconnect from reality. I was struck with the conviction that these people were acting, that they had somehow lost any kind of emotional direction and simply spoke out of custom, out of habit rather than thought, rather than empathy. The more they talked, the more I thought that, inside, they had rotted away.

Yasin was the first to express what we all felt, he turned to us saying, “I feel sick here.” And it was true. During the rough ride I’d felt tired but fine; here I felt nauseous and claustrophobic. I realized gradually that the claustrophobia wasn’t just the room, it was socially suffocating. These people, shorn of any kind of deeper reality, made me physically ill.

We sat there for at least an hour. There was a window facing west and I stared through it and tried to imagine myself zooming home across oceans and mountains. I tried to picture the oak tree at my house, the sunroom and screen door, the mailbox, but the tide of nausea made it too hard to concentrate. Finally word came that Nasim’s mother and father wouldn’t see us. We could take Nasim and officially put him in the orphanage.

We got out as fast as we could (which wasn’t that fast, because turning the car around on that narrow track was difficult) and drove west, chasing a bright afternoon sun. I looked out the window at the rolling hills, and smelled the air. I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to leave somewhere.

[Ed. note:  You can read more about Nasim and Connor O’Steen’s experiences in Afghanistan in his prior installments, linked below.  Also, check out Russ Wellen’s take on educating engineers instead of terrorists.]

Installment 1: Dogs, generals and orphans

Installment 2: The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Installment 3: Nasim’s story: making and unmaking terrorists

What to do — blow myself up or study engineering at Caltech?

5 replies »

  1. You’re not just between a rock and a hard place while driving through the cuts in the hills, but with the Taliban on the one side and the poppy growers on the other (except when they’re the same).

    Coming home soon? Or moving on to your next assignment?

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  3. Ubertramp:

    O’Steen will most likely send us his thoughts on Bamyan later. You’ll find Bamyan in the Kite Runner (and a wonderful, if painful, book it is).

  4. Cool. I look forward to it. Just as long as it doesn’t get him into trouble. I hear the kids that played the main characters in the movie aren’t doin’ all that great out there.