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As if life wasn’t hard enough in Chaghcharan, the precarious capital of Ghor province in Central Afghanistan, a sandstorm sweeps across town every day at dusk with the commitment of a comet. At those hours its unpaved streets are all exodus: Land Cruisers, turbaned men, and bony dogs all head for their garages, houses or shelters, among the metallic drums of doors slammed by the wind.
Also at those hours, Morgan, Jeffrey and John, the North American volunteers in whose place I stayed for four days, do the thanksgiving prayer for their dinner. In Northern Ireland I had already learnt that protestant people talk to God as if they were talking to Axel Rose¨¨…and thanks men for this great food, I mean, your are really a great dude…¨ And so on. The same God that had created molasses (a terribly tasting spread from the Southern States, derived from sugar cane and masochism) had booked place for them in contemporary Afghanistan.
´Do you know that the Taliban are carrying on attacks near Ghazni? ¨ - I asked Morgan trying to find out what their strength was made of. He didn’t know anything. ¨Since we got here we haven’t been in touch with the news, we don’t want to live in panic¨
To the eyes of the North American troops deployed in Afghanistan, Morgan and his fellows are kind of weird. While the soldiers get paid 3,000dollars a month to come here, these guys are here out of their plain own will, they get just a volunteer’s allowance, and parade their Caucasic features round the local bazaar everyday without bullet proof jacket. All the political conflict is clearly for them a background issue, second to the more important question of: ¨Are we producing a difference here? ¨‘asks himself in loud voice Morgan while we walk up and down the bazaar looking for someone selling unrotten tomatoes. And the situation can work as metaphor.
Generally speaking, Afghans seem dedicated to manipulate the international community, to squeeze it and extract from it as much economic profit as possible before they live or some new fundamentalism starts to sharpen their swords. The difference between what UN technicians and what Afghan workers get in salaries also led some locals to think, in the best case, that these individuals should be financially responsible for local problems. In other cases they even think that Afghan problems derive from this difference of wealth, as if the Afghan government would be paying their expenses.
In a neighboring village, a foreign technician designed a scheme according to which each family should pay a dollar a month to buy a generator that would ever since be collectively owned by the village. To which the chief of the village laughed and said: ¨You have more money than us, you should buy the generator¨. In different cases, village chieftains and warlords have required bribes to NGOs to have the right to improve the life of the people under their influences. Of course, this warlords are noble Muslim that pray loudly in public and are worthy of every vow. This is the main battle that the non-soldiers have to fight daily in nowadays Afghanistan. Who point out that there is no national identity in this country is right. I would go as far as saying that Afghanistan is an illusion plotted by cartographers. People here feel Heratis or Kandaharis, Tajik or Pashto, from this valley or from the next one, loyal to mujahedeen Massoud or to Dostam, but never Afghans.
In the center of it all, in a postcard that would have kept context 300 years ago, Gintaras Azubalis, the commander of the Lithuanian led PRT base (Provincial Reconstruction Team) was sitting Indian style next to Shah Abdul Afzali, the Governor of the province. There seemed to be little or none conversation among the two men, and the Lithuanian looked particularly bored. I wonder how he was feeling surrounded by 5,000 Afghans and, more worryingly, 40 bushkashi riders.
A hundred meters away two armed-to-teeth Lithuanian soldiers emerge from the roof of their vehicles. They provide logistic support as they chew gum and complain about the abrasive heat. Until 1989 Lithuania and Afghanistan shared their status of Soviet occupied territory. Now Lithuanian troops, in a funny twist of history, patrol Central Afghanistan. With some perspective it can be said that, by peacekeeping in Afghanistan, Lithuania is paying its historical debt with such country. What debt? Events are too fresh, but an increasing number of people attribute the fall of the Soviet Block partly to the catastrophic 9 years long Russian intervention in Afghanistan. In other words, more than a ¨Singing Revolution¨ it would have taken hadn’t it been for so much Afghan spilt blood.
When the commander withdrew from the game we crossed words, and I got my authorization to visit the base. I got there by foot, just in the same moment a cargo C-140 was taking off. Judging by the comfort you can also take Chagcharan for the transitory camp around the PRT base, and not, as it is, vice versa. Once inside, the first thing to call my attention is a board signposting distances to some Lithuanian cities: “Vilnius 3800 km”, catering more for the lads’ nostalgia than to the occasional lost driver.
The commander is a man from Alitus, a city I had noticed on my map as I was thumbing my way down the E-67 from Lithuania to Poland, but where I hadn’t happen to visit. The other two men, Danius and Aleks, were going to speak more than the commander, who would basically limit himself to observe how inappropriate the term “Provincial Reconstruction Team” was. “We are here to rebuild the institutions of the country, not its bridges”. Nevertheless, Aleks, who is in charge of the humanitarian aid department, almost sheds a tear while he relates with a musical and soft voice the donation of toys collected in Lithuania to a local orphanage. Confusingly as an orchestra with two directors, Danius, chief of political affairs, interrupts him and says, in a simultaneously serious and playful tone: “that’s a side show to gain some hearts, we are here to provide security”.
The commander finished his coffee and, smiling, showed off the badge on his shoulder: “Welcome to the moon” it read. I understand him, Lithuania’s everlasting imprint were not the arid deserts separating Kaunas from Vilnius but... the moon? That’s a bit too much. I am sure he wouldn’t show the badge to the governor of the province, I mean, to the governor of the moon. Especially because some Afghans believe that the moon is a woman and as such no man has ever, or will ever, touch her, let alone land there.
On the way out, I was guided to the canteen, where a table displayed a whole choice of cereal bars, snickers, Gatorade, ice creams. There were enough snacks there to spoil Buda himself. ‘Everything is paid for, take the chance!” –said my guide. So I found myself kind of shoplifting in the NATO base, not a bad way of breaking the monotone and proteinless road biscuit diet.