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Sangow Bar Village

While war ravages neighboring narco-provinces, sluggish progress is being made in others.  Here in Ghor Province, the Japanese, Lithuanians, and a host of other nations have teamed up in this remote area of Afghanistan.

Please click the image above for a larger view.

So one morning the Lithuanians loaded up a patrol and headed out West, in the direction of Herat, and took along four Japanese who are involved in the oversight of spending $2 billion of Japanese money in Afghanistan.  Both the Japanese and the Lithuanians exude a sense of purpose; everybody seems to wish they were elsewhere but the mission is important.

We started from the Chaghcharan Provincial “Re”construction Team (PRT); the first step in revealing truth with no mercy about Afghanistan is to call things what they are.  There is not a single “Reconstruction” team in Afghanistan.  The place was never constructed.  Just why the faulty name “reconstruction” was picked is unclear, though it would be fair to guess that political expedience is the culprit.   Peoples of developed nations might be more likely to “re” build something they are made to believe they destroyed.  The governments can call these PRTs, but henceforth this writer will call them Provincial Construction Teams, or PCTs.

So we loaded up the trucks and headed out West from the PCT.  Some readers might recall the last dispatch, wherein we accidentally found Lizard Hole (Karbasha) Village up in the mountains while searching for Kuchi nomads.  Today we were heading to Sangow Bar Village.  The satellite imagery shows no paved roads because the closest, the “ring road,” is about 175 miles away if you are flying, and much farther if you are on a camel or driving.  And so it might seem that we are in the middle of nowhere because by most developed standards we are.  If visitors from other galaxies land in this largely Stone-Age place, they can expect to be greeted by small-arms fire and RPGs.  Though various star-watching peoples are known to have lived here for many thousands of years (including Buddhists, Jews, and invaders of all sorts), there were not a lot of road builders.

Provincial 'Reconstruction' Teams (PRTs) will henceforth be called Provincial Construction Teams or PCTs, on this website.

Please click the image above for a larger view.

It’s worth a moment of silent reflection to look at the image above and ponder this: though the area appears extremely desolate and remote, there is hardly a fold or wrinkle in the land where you can walk or drive that you will not run across someone.  There are areas where few people venture, such as the “Desert of Death” down south, but it seems that as a rule Afghans diffuse into the available volume as if they have a partial pressure.  Independence is a key personality trait; if they had a meter of road for every meter of wall they build, the major communities likely all would be connected.  Out in the boonies, just when you think you are at the end of the world and nobody could possibly be there, you find a shepherd, or some bearded guy cutting grass with a daas (a long crescent-shaped knife) for his livestock.  The people pick over this arid land like ants.  Afghan life in the hinterlands is like an eternal camping trip.  By their calendar, the year is 1387, but it seems like it could be thousands of years earlier.  Young American soldiers who served in Iraq learned about our own country.  Often, soldiers would say things like, “Why can’t the Iraqis just get along?  They keep themselves down, dragging fights around forever.  They fight over stupidness!”  Nobody had to fill in the blanks.   The reflection was healthy for us.

Along the dusty road to Sangow Bar Village, we passed by shepherds whose livestock shaves the land of nearly every nibble of green.

We rolled into the village of Sangow Bar and were greeted with quiet acceptance.  Ghor Province is touted as being poppy-free, and indeed it’s nothing like the rolling hills of Urozgan, the fields of Kandahar, or the mega-producers in Helmand, where I’ve seen miles of poppy growing along the roads and just near bases.  This tiny patch, about the size of a walk-in closet, was for personal use.

The sluice gate near the center of the image controls water to the generator downhill.

The village of Sangow Bar was dark.  It had no electricity until 2006 when Lithuanians invested about $40,000 to build this micro-hydro generator with the idea of watching the village to see if true improvement was made.  Today, Sangow Bar has plenty of electricity and the people have lights and satellite television, yet despite that opportunity, nobody seems to watch Oprah.  The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it watch Oprah,” is an unfortunate reality in many parts of Afghanistan.

Sangow Bar: Little Red Hen incarnate.

Please click the image above for a larger view.

Today, Sangow Bar has surplus electricity, so a Japanese asked why the power lines did not cross the river to the dwellings on the other side.  The village headman said the people on the other side of the Hari River had refused to help build the micro-hydro, so today they get no juice.  The Lithuanians have determined that the project was a success, and the project appeared to be a success to the Japanese and to me.

With this success in mind, the Lithuanians together with Iceland decided to build thirty more hydro-generation stations.  Now, if we look at this in context of the broader picture, thirty, three hundred, or even three thousand might seem like an irrelevant number.  But it’s not.

During my eight trips to Nepal, and my training with Ghurkas in Borneo who had served in Afghanistan, the Ghurkas have educated me in “Gobar Gas,” and they wonder why Afghans do not use Gobar Gas.  Gobar Gas is a simple, cheap, and very ecologically friendly way to collect methane from human and animal waste, and that methane is then used for heating, lighting, and cooking.  The system improves sanitation, and the by-products make great fertilizer.  And so one Ghurka soldier who had served in Afghanistan insisted that I learn the five virtues of Gobar Gas, and that I be able to name them offhand.

Gobar Gas systems cost only a couple hundred bucks each, and any villager can operate and repair the system.  Today I see Gobar Gas all over Nepal, but the older Ghurka soldiers will say that when they were kids, Gobar Gas was practically nonexistent in Nepal.  But some far-thinking Westerners came in and installed some systems here and there, and the Nepalese people saw the incredible value, then ran with it.  If you go trekking into the villages in Nepal, you might ask villagers to see their Gobar Gas system, and before you know it you’ll have the grand tour because they are quite proud of these excellent little contraptions.  And it started with seeds.

And so the Lithuanians and their thirty generators will likely spark more than a few light bulbs.  We and our allies cannot construct Afghanistan, but we certainly can nudge this caravan in a better direction.

Americans implored the Japanese to get more serious about Afghanistan, but it was the Lithuanians who actually petitioned the Japanese to come out here to Ghor Province.  The match is working well; the Lithuanians provide support, such as security and some investment, but when it comes to capital, the Japanese have the big guns.

Hisako Ishizaki is a First Secretary from the Japanese Embassy.  She has worked, studied and traveled around the world, including in Mindanao in the Philippines, where I just left.  While Hisako stayed involved in the discussions about the hydro-plant, she wasted no time in sitting down and teaching this child to write a few characters.

The feet tell the story. Pencil from Japan.

Ambassador in UN Affairs, Shigeyuki Hiroki, is the key man when it comes to the investment of the $2 billion Japan has so far pledged.  Mr. Hiroki told me that $1.8 billion is already invested, and that the final $200 million is not the end of the road here for Japan.  Ambassador Hiroki told me that Japan would be involved for 10, 20 or 30 years.  Mr. Hiroki has been one of the most realistic officials I’ve spoken with from any country, though the Lithuanian Commander of the Provincial Construction Team, Colonel Alvydas Siuparis, also is under no illusions.  Nor are Secretary Gates or General Petraeus under any illusions and they speak frankly.  It would seem that our greatest asset today is the small but strong and growing nucleus of people who understand the magnitude of the problems, but still believe in the endeavor.

That said, the Japanese time frame is more realistic than I hear coming from most American, British, or other officials.

Hisako prepares to cross the sluice, followed by Counselor Hiroyuki Orikasa and First Secretary Jiro Kanzawa, while the Lithuanians, whose names I am not permitted to publish (photos are permitted), stay vigilant.  Luckily, the only danger here seems to be the sluice.

The Japanese who have landed out here have enormous collective global experience.  Hisako, for instance, speaks Dari fluently after having lived in Iran.  She studied in Costa Rica, the Philippines, and has traveled extensively from Tajikistan to the United States.  This is true of the entire Japanese team, including Chihiro Imai who has worked and traveled extensively in the most bizarre corners of Africa and South America, visiting about twenty-five countries.  Hisako and Chihiro have both been to India, and both women laughed when I said that I go to war to take a vacation from India.

Unfortunately, the deteriorating security situation is causing the Japanese to dramatically cut their staff in Afghanistan.  It would seem that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agrees that Japan is cutting back right when we need them most, though he has publicly praised the Japanese commitment and urged them to stay involved.  It is important that the Japanese stay heavily involved and not decrease but redouble their efforts.

Window through time: Purples, greens, and reds seemed popular with the girls. A wrestler is born. Echoes of Alexander. No food shortage in Sangow Bar. A weathered sign for Afghanaid in the background.  Water wells are popping up all over the place.  The Lithuanians say about sixteen NGOs work in Chaghcharan and have made their own significant contributions. Little girl who followed the Japanese and Lithuanians.

Unfortunately, these kids had already been taught the benefits of begging and this analogy extends directly to their parents.  In Afghanistan, like Iraq, when we invest resources into installing a diesel generator for a neighborhood, the people will complain that we don’t supply the fuel.  When the Indians paid for local broadcasting equipment in Chaghcharan, the station manager complained that the Indians didn’t make a new office, and there is often a tone that we need something or “give us or we will misbehave.”

“Trick or Treat” was a common theme in Iraq and is so here, too.  Many children in Chaghcharan beg, but unlike the kids in this village of Sangow Bar, kids in Chaghcharan often throw stones at the vehicles if the soldiers refuse to play Santa Claus.  Many of the Lithuanian vehicles have spider-webbed windows and windshields.

There was a time when some Iraqis began to revel in the attention, and they seemed to lose context that one day the war would end—for us anyway—and that attention would evaporate.  One sees the same in Afghanistan.  Prosperous nations are trying to psychoanalyze Afghan behavior, and some Afghans revel in this newfound influence, but what many apparently do not understand is that this storm is apt to end as quickly as it began.  For this very reason, many Iraqis are filled with nervous anxiety that the Americans are packing out.  Influence at local levels in Iraq had diminished precipitously by 2008, and it’s only a matter of time until local mayors and governors in Iraq have no open line to American upper echelons.  Business will be conducted at national level.  Gone are the days when the mayors of small cities like Tal Afar could get the attention of Generals and even the President of the United States.  The world is big, and there are tens of thousands of “Tal Afars” out there.  The curtain opened and now it’s closed in most of Iraq.

Interestingly, Iraqi contractors are following the money and popping up in Afghanistan.

Other Afghans are more circumspect, seeing themselves in larger context, realizing that aid can be a fickle blessing and is not an obligation, and that we all know we owe nothing to Afghanistan.  We are not paying off a debt and there are other ways for us to protect our self-interests.  Many NATO partners, and other partners with big pockets, are here for larger political considerations that have little to do with Afghanistan per se.

Dr. Yaqubi, Director of Ghor Provincial Hospital, has a clearer perspective of the situation, and in fact returned earlier this year from a conference in India.  Dr. Yaqubi said his hospital goes six months out of every year with no running water, and when he does have water, it’s unfiltered and unpurified.  The cleaning men fetch water from the Hari River during six months of the year, but in the summer they have a reservoir, and get water from the nearby girls’ school, whose own director is upset that the hospital uses their water.  (A bright spot in Chaghcharan is that the locals want girls to go to school, and many children are learning English.)  During the wet times, the hospital floods, causing the septic system to overflow.

The hospital has ten General Practitioners, three specialists, an anesthetist nurse, two X-Ray machines—one of which works—and an ultrasound machine.  They have no female doctors and the male doctors are not allowed to deliver babies other than by Cesarean.  During delivery, women are on their own with the midwives, and the male doctors are not permitted to treat “female problems.”

Dr. Yaqubi said he did eight Cesareans in last three months with no complications, and that during the last 90 surgeries had only two deaths, and that complications usually occur because people wait too long to seek treatment.  The average post-op stay is four days.

No NGOs offer assistance at the hospital, according to Dr. Yaqubi.  There is room for 85 patients, and the Lithuanians donated two tents, adding twelve more beds, but those tents are used for storage.  I sat on one of the beds and tried to imagine being a patient here.  There is no exaggeration in saying that Americans probably had better medical care during the time of our Civil War.  The dusty hospital with its buzzing flies is a living museum of unplanned misery, and I heard the cries of babies wafting through nearby open windows.  Bedraggled women sat with pitiful-looking children, waiting on steps into the hospital.  Dr. Yaqubi said that if there were two shipping containers for storage, the tents would offer a dozen more beds.

Dr. Yaqubi wants to show people that health care is not free, but he says that the parliament in Kabul thinks it should free to all.  The Afghan government can’t even drill a well for this provincial hospital, and all their machines and supplies were probably donated, yet they want “free” healthcare.  The beggars of Kabul who refuse to drill a well for the Ghor Provincial Hospital want free health care for all!

I told Dr. Yaqubi that the same argument is raging in America, and I asked the Lithuanian doctor sitting beside me if this is an issue in Lithuania.  She confirmed that it is.  Dr. Yaqubi said that if treatment is completely free, the hospital would be overwhelmed.  With about 750,000 people in Ghor Province, they’ve got 85 dirty beds here, and two smaller clinics elsewhere.  Free health care?  How about steady electricity to run the X-ray machine?

During winter, most patients cannot journey to the hospital no matter what the case.  If a baby is burned during a cooking accident, there is no chance to make it to the cold hospital.  If people become too sick they just die and are buried in the icy ground next to the village.  Five years ago, Dr. Yaqubi recounted spending five months in the remote district of his birth, administering aid to the people stranded by the snows.  He conducted more than 150 surgeries, including ten Cesareans, saying that was the first time the locals ever saw such a thing.  Usually the women just die if there are any complications, and he said nine women died that winter.  “The woman thinks she is going to die, so she does,” he said.

According to their calendar, the year is 1387, and New Year’s Day this year was 21 March.  During the year 1386, the main hospital raised the equivalent of $8,447 in fees from patients, according to Dr. Yaqubi.

Every village has a Mullah.  The less primitive Mullahs realize that modern medicine—more or less—can actually work, while other Mullahs, through ignorance or power-wielding, claim monopoly on healing rights, and forbid or discourage people from seeing doctors.

Let’s grab a napkin and do some coffee table math.  According to the CIA World Factbook estimate, the population of Afghanistan, as of July 2009, is 33,609,937.   Just how the CIA arrives at such a precise number but can’t find in Iraq the WMD that certainly existed at one time, must leave the math-whizzes rolling on the floor.  For the sake of humoring the CIA, let’s round to the more napkin-friendly number of 34 million.  The CIA World “Guessbook” opines that about 24% of the people are urbanized.  This leaves 76% in the sticks.  Sticks and mountains.  And deserts.  So that’s about 26 million people in the boonies.  Afghanistan is geographically slightly smaller than Texas, the people are 99% Muslim, and the place is home to some of the most forbidding mountains in the world.  Deep Appalachia has nothing on Afghanistan.

There is no estimate for the average size of Afghan villages in the CIA Guessbook.   My big guess from seeing villages in various provinces and many districts is the average community probably consists of less than a hundred people.  Former USMC officer Tim Lynch has lived here more than four years, and estimates the average village might have sixty people.   For the sake of coffee table math, let’s say the villages in micro-communities are home to some 26 million, and have about 100 people each.  That would leave 260,000 villages, plus the 8 million people who live in cities and towns.

Those 260,000 villages are spread out in some of the wildest country you can dream of.  Now imagine putting one schoolroom and one teacher in every village to teach all kids through all ages.  According to the Guessbook, about 28% of the people are “literate”; that’s about 43% of the men and 13% of the women.  The hand that rocks the cradle can’t read, and the fact is that the Guessbook has no idea how many people can read because in all the years of war, most villages are never visited.

And so, it’s not a far stretch to say this is a girl without a future as we know it.

It’s too late for most kids who are already born.  Outside the cities and towns, most will never learn to read.

The world behaves cruelly and precipitously.  If this girl gets sick during the winter, likely she will be out of luck.  The hospital is too far.

The girls in many villages wear the same color lipstick, which they slather on with abandon.

Lithuanian and Japanese officials visit a park under construction in Chaghcharan.

When Shigeyuki Hiroki, Japanese Ambassador in UN Affairs, walks through villages inspecting projects, it’s doubtful that anyone around understands the gravity of his recommendations on how to spend that $2 billion. Unfortunately, due to the increasing violence, the Japanese are thinning their staff in Afghanistan.  The Afghans must realize that they are facing competition for Japanese assistance.  Other places, such as Cambodia, are not dangerous for Japanese aid workers.

Lithuania and the U.S. teamed up to build a training center in Chaghcharan, which a local authority then tried to take as his residence.

These children likely will learn to read because they live in Chaghcharan.  In fact, I think this girl was in a nearby school I visited.   The Lithuanians, Croatians, Ukrainians and others have been helping with schools and supplies.  Many of the kids in Chaghcharan are learning to speak English.

The Lithuanian-run Provincial Construction Team (PCT) at Chaghcharan.

There are still legacy mines near the airstrip next to the PCT, and just a few days ago a mine was found and detonated just a meter off of the main road into the camp.  Wounds from legacy mines here are relatively uncommon, though.  Dr. Yaqubi said that only about one person per month steps on one.

Despite the remoteness of Ghor, the Lithuanian, Croatian and Ukrainian soldiers seem to take pride and joy in their work.  The journey is long, but progress in this little patch of Afghanistan is obvious.

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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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