Letters from Afghanistan: installment #7

Poisoning dogs, orphan teamwork, getting poisoned

by Connor O’Steen

[Ed. note:  Connor returned to Kabul from Bamyan and the Jawzareen Valley, as noted in installment 6.  The Red Crescent is the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross.]

When we got back to Kabul, we were immediately greeted by an unpleasant surprise. The head of the Afghan Red Crescent had decided that he was tired of the stray dogs that walked through Marastoon, dogs which did nothing more than bark, ask you for food, and follow you around. He put out poisoned meat, which didn’t kill any of the strays, who are accustomed to these kinds of things, but did manage to kill Faisal’s dog. Faisal is the head of security in our compound, and I remember him very well from my first day in Afghanistan. Marnie was leading me around the compound, introducing me to various people, and I met him when we reached the front gate. We greeted each other, and he smiled broadly telling Marnie that, “Since he has no father here in Afghanistan, I will be his father while he is here.” Now, as I pass him at the front gate and say hello, he just looks sad and waves to me distractedly. As a protest against what happened, he and his staff refused to come to work for three days. During this period the gate was opened and closed by a stoned-looking 13-year-old.

I think that the way a person treats animals is an indicator of how that person treats human beings. From what I’ve seen here, the boys who beat dogs or whip donkeys are the same ones who will hurt those they deem weaker than themselves. They may do it out of enjoyment, anger, or displacement, but that’s their method of coping with the world around them — violence. The fact that the head of a humanitarian organization would poison dogs is unbelievable to me, and I can only think that someone made a horrible mistake putting him in that position. I would never work with a man like that.

A few days later, it happened again. This time a dog that I knew well, Brownie, died. Brownie was a stray, but only in the nominal sense of the word. We all gave her food and lots of attention, she never had the desperation of other strays in Kabul. Brownie was stupid, but we loved her anyway. She liked to jump on you and she often ran through puddles; the combination would leave your clothes splattered with muddy pawprints. When I worked in the office at night and walked back to the house in the dark she would greet me enthusiastically and dash ahead and then back to me. Her excited breathing made the road seem a little clearer in the pitch black. Now it just seems lonely.

On a lighter note, I’ve been doing a lot of work at the orphanage this week, both starting a pen pal program with students in the US (I’ll talk more about this when I get a stronger grasp on it) and playing with boys there in the evening. When we first get there, Reese and I start by playing basketball or soccer with our class. Because the program we’re running isn’t fully funded, at Allahouddin, we work with 25 boys and 25 girls out of about a total of 250 at the orphanage. We hope our flagship class will convince donors to expand the operation to the whole orphanage. This kind of “test run” for programs is actually extremely common for humanitarian NGO’s that operate outside of the enormous funding umbrellas of USAID or UNDP. It can also lead to extremely frustrating situations where donors back out of previously promised funding. But that story is for another time.

Playing basketball with Afghan boys is a singular experience. We’ve taught them the rudiments of dribbling, shooting, passing, and all the rest, but we can’t seem to communicate the concepts of teamwork or fouling. Every time one boy gets the ball, he becomes the target not only for the opposite team but for his own teammates as well. Ultimately it turns into a kind of, “hold onto the ball” scrimmage where every man is for himself. I’m not going to spin this into some larger claim about Afghan society or the state of the Afghan psyche. It would be irresponsible to do that from my observation of games at one orphanage. What I can say though is that boys in Allahouddin are taught that the only way to interact with each other is through competition. The way they play, the way they learn, the way they talk is all individually oriented and aggressive. I find it exhausting to work with them, even for two or three hours; I’m constantly assailed by requests to thumb wrestle, arm wrestle, just plain wrestle, box, play soccer, and so on. One boy punches me in the ribs every time he sees me, not because he’s angry, just because he wants to see what will happen. I can’t imagine living in that kind of environment, where your worth is measured through your ability to best others.

When we’re done with basketball, I always make sure to do something that involves the entire orphanage, so that the other boys don’t get jealous of the ones who get to play basketball. I realized quickly that the best activity is one that doesn’t need to be taught, and involves skills that everyone has naturally. So, as the sun sets on Kabul, I gather all of the kids around me and I lead them through the buildings of the orphanage. We duck and weave through the doorways and thread our way around potholes and piles of building materials until they all fall behind me, apparently exhausted. Then I draw them into a clump and we do jumping jacks and push-ups. I call out the Dari numbers in my best pseudo-drill sergeant bluster and they all give me delighted smiles.

And I think that’s what they really need. These kids are so cramped in the grounds of the orphanage that they get keyed up easily. A little exercise goes a long way, and when we’re done, I have a vanguard of orphans who escort me back to the car and wish me a safe trip home. Manda na bashi, may you not be tired.

The other altogether unpleasant change in Kabul is scorpions. Lots and lots of scorpions. I’m not sure why they make their full scale assaults on houses this time of year — I had actually expected them to venture indoors for the winter — but here they are none the less. To take proper precautions I spent the good portion of a day online looking up types of scorpions in Afghanistan and proper first aid for how to treat stings. I even talked to a friend with EMS training and did my best to locate anti-venom solutions for species here.

So, as absolute proof that fate has a sense of humor, that very night I felt a pinch on my leg. A little prick that was no worse than a bee sting, but even when I was in denial I knew, I knew that was what it had to be. I got up quickly, flicked on the light, and gave my blanket a good shake. In the dim light, a black shape about three inches long flew out and scuttled away. I yelled a four letter word about five or six times in rapid succession, and then started to get dressed. About five minutes later I was sitting in the kitchen, my leg propped on a stool and weighed down with an ice pack. When we realized that the leg wasn’t swelling up, and I wasn’t suffering any neurological effects from the venom, it was time to get back to sleep. This time, we dragged blankets and a thin air mattress to the kitchen table and I slept there.

The pain of the sting was much worse, then, and surprisingly variable. I sat there (very much awake) in the dark and observed it: at times it felt like a needle that was being jiggled around, and at times it took on a distinct crawlingsensation, like something was moving over it, or inside of it. My mind wandered to stories of parasitic insects that plant their larvae in humans, an old traumatizing fear from childhood, and I lost the ability to think rationally for about half a minute. I calmed down eventually and realized that these sensations weren’t serious, just the result of localized poisoning. I woke up in the morning with a headache, some nausea, and a painful throat; probably the result of an earlier incoming illness rather than the sting. When Asif, an employee of PARSA that helps us with the day-to-day functioning of the house, was told that I was stung he turned very pale. “If it was siya guznashta. You no live,” he said.

I thought he might have been exaggerating until I ran across a description of Hemiscorpius lepturus online, a species that isn’t uncommon in Afghanistan. This scorpion has a sting very similar to a brown recluse spider, with a cytotoxic venom that causes hemolysis and cellular necrosis. Most notably, there are no known anti-venoms — meaning it’s untreatable. You either live through it or it kills you.

Lucky me, then.

Today, after we’d found another scorpion scuttling across the floor, we started getting ready for chemical bombs that will, I hope, eradicate all trace of insect life from our rooms. That morning, as I reached into my backpack for a pair of socks, a stinger flashed by my hand and I recoiled right before it had a chance to get me. This one was yellow, about three inches long with a thick tail and thin pincers. It seems that it had hidden in my socks for quite a while waiting for the perfect opportunity. I’m not sure who I offended in the scorpion community, but I think it’s clear now that they have it in for me.

I am, to say the least, very tired of things that crawl around and try to hurt me.

Ed. note:  You can read more about 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

Installment 4:  Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

Installment 5:  Replying to questions and local democracy in Jawzareen

Installment 6:  Having visions with Mohammed

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

4 replies »

  1. Scorpions and kids — you’ve got your hands full. Thanks for another penetrating analysis, especially of the boys.

  2. What you need is a cat. 🙂 In high school, we had a cat that would go out and hunt centipedes and leave em on our door step in the morning. Of course, that guy with the dog poison would be a problem… Thanks again for the update. Sounds like you’re building up a lot of memories.