Posted by: Zoa | December 27, 2011

Christmas in Afghanistan

Greetings, blessings, and Merry Christmas.

After Thanksgiving’s magnificent performance, I was curious to see how Christmas would be celebrated here at Forward Operating Base Sharana.

Our chow hall put on a substantial feast, with pot roasts, hams, turkeys, yams and a full range of Christmas deserts.  The pecan pies were excellent.

Just as with Thanksgiving, the kitchen staff demonstrated their artistic skills with Christmas trees and other decorations made from recycled shipping Styrofoam.

The Education Office held an open house and a Christmas party.  Here’s a photo of the friendly team that I’ve been working with for the past two months.  From left to right, starting in the back row:

  • Becca coordinates and proctors placement tests and exams.
  • Frances is the University of Maryland field rep.
  • Michael keeps the computers working.
  • Mel assists students in using the computers to register for classes.
  • Teuta is the Central Texas College field rep.
  • Devon answers soldiers’ questions about educational benefits.
  • Mary is the Education Services Officer — our boss.
  • And me, I teach the classes.

Just after Thanksgiving, I started teaching Astronomy and Computer Sciences.  Shown above are my astronomy students.  On December 10th, we had a lunar eclipse with ideal viewing conditions.  The moon rose brilliant and white into a cloudless sky above the mountains on the Pakistan border.  We took breaks from class every 20 minutes to go outside to watch Earth’s shadow drift across the moon.  A few students had never seen an eclipse before, so they were duly impressed.  When the moon was fully eclipsed, it had a reddish tinge which gave the desert an unearthly glow.

In other news, my geology students returned from a mission to report that they’d killed the local manufacturer of roadside bombs – a man they’d been hunting for months.  They lost a vehicle in the process, but there were no American casualties.  They returned from their mission with some excellent samples of quartz and jasper.  They seemed more satisfied with having found some cool rocks than with having killed someone.  I would be, too.

Soldiers today are different from when I first taught for Maryland 30 years ago.  They’re older now.  Their average age is at least 25.  There are also about four times more women in the Army now than in the early 80s.  One of my math students was featured in her battalion’s newsletter.  Click on the article below to  expand it and make it readable.

Women are essential to the Army’s mission in Afghanistan because male soldiers are forbidden to interact with Afghan women.  This is why Specialist Stewart finds herself playing an essential role on the front lines.  Stewart isn’t a typical soldier.  But then, there doesn’t seem to be a typical soldier any more.  Their backgrounds and origins are all over the map — from Brooklyn to Brazzaville.  Although they all have different reasons for joining the military, the soldiers I work with joined the service in order to get a free college education.

Here are some of the local nationals who greet me every morning.  One of the best things that the U.S. is doing for the people of Afghanistan is providing jobs.  These fellows serve food, do laundry and clean the latrines.  They seem pleased to have these jobs.  I estimate that the Army employs at least 1,000 local nationals full-time.

So what was Christmas like here in this small city of 10,000 soldiers, contractors and local nationals in the middle of the high desert of eastern Afghanistan?

First, we ate a huge noontime meal.  Then, everyone took the rest of the day off – which is unusual.  Most offices and operations stay open for business 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  However, on Christmas afternoon, even our post office was closed.  Then the festivities began.

The gym hosted a weight-lifting contest that was very well attended.  There were events for all weight classes, both men and women.  Shown above is someone bench pressing about twice his weight.  Impressive.

In the evening, there were parties with music, games, healthy foods, a few sweets … and no alcohol.  Alcohol is forbidden on military bases in Afghanistan.  There’s not much tobacco here either, because the Khyber pass is still closed to NATO supply trucks.  Those who have cigarettes share and smoke them sparingly.  Gambling is prohibited, also.  With all these restrictions, the Christmas parties were rather wholesome events.  The poker players shown below are merely playing to see who can win the most poker chips.  But they’re having fun.

The Learning Center was one of the party venues.  At midnight, after an evening of food, games and music, we folded up the tables and chairs, swept the floors, and returned to our barracks for a good night’s sleep.  By 08:00 the next morning, we were all back at our posts again.

It’s fascinating to live in a place where there’s no alcohol.  Everyone goes to bed at a reasonable hour.  There are no loud parties.  No one is hung over in the mornings.  I don’t sense any tension.  Everyone goes about their business calmly and with pleasant manners, opening doors for each other, etc.  People voluntarily take out their neighbor’s garbage without being asked to do so, and without expecting thanks.  The harshest words I’ve heard in two months were when the wireless router at the education center went down.  There’s a sense of teamwork.  Still, there are some nights, after I’ve finished teaching class, when I wouldn’t mind a nice glass of Malbec.

There’s almost no money here, either.  Food is free, of course.  And although there’s a PX that sells magazines, batteries and basic electronics, the main “shopping” center is the Free Store run by the chapel.  Here’s where donations from folks back home end up.  Yesterday, I dropped in and asked the chaplain if he had any hand lotion.  He rummaged around in some cardboard boxes and pulled out a couple of small bottles and said “How about these?”  “Perfect” I replied.  We chatted a bit and then I walked home.  No money changed hands.  How simple can life be?

Everyone is healthy here, too.  Most folks go to the gym every day.  There are 5k fun runs every month.  In two months, I haven’t heard of anyone having the flu or a cold.  Perhaps the cool, dry air and constant sunshine kill the bacteria?  Of course, outside the wire lurks danger.  One night at about 20:00, the PA system called for all doctors on base to meet at the emergency room immediately.  I don’t know what happened, but several troops must’ve returned from a mission with serious injuries.

There are no animals, children or old people here, of course.  All in all, it’s a little bit like living at monastery.  Although it’s a co-ed environment, sex is not allowed.  I suspect that it happens, but not very often.  The housing arrangements are so restrictive and there’s so little privacy that it’s hard to see how a romance could develop.  It certainly keeps life uncomplicated.

Life here is austere and simple.  My life has settled into a comfortable daily rhythm.  I’ll be here for three more weeks.  Then, I’ll be transferred south to a Marine base named Camp Leatherneck.  Stay tuned for more photos and stories.

Peace and good will to all.  And Happy New Year.

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