December 26, 2002 - Conway Mountain Ear: Kazakstan RPCV Dave C. Eastman worked as Aid Worker in Afghanistan
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December 26, 2002 - Conway Mountain Ear: Kazakstan RPCV Dave C. Eastman worked as Aid Worker in Afghanistan
Kazakstan RPCV Dave C. Eastman worked as Aid Worker in Afghanistan
Read and comment on this story from the Conway Mountain Ear on Kazakstan RPCV Dave C. Eastman who recently returned from a year as Medical Relief Worker in Afghanistan. When he arrived in Afghanistan in August 2001, he lived in the western part of the country in a city called Hirat, at a time when the Taliban were still in power.
This Christmas, he is back in the United States and will thank Santa for a useful trick he learned while serving as an aid worker in Afghanistan in those post-9/11 days at this time last year: When suspecting that you’re driving in a minefield, close your eyes, cross your fingers and say, “No boom, no boom, no boom."
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Former Ear Reporter serves as Medical Relief Worker*
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Former Ear Reporter serves as Medical Relief Worker
By Dave C. Eastman, Special to the Mountain Ear Thursday, December 26, 2002
This Christmas, I will thank Santa for a useful trick I learned while serving as an aid worker in Afghanistan in those post-9/11 days at this time last year:
When suspecting that you’re driving in a minefield, close your eyes, cross your fingers and say, “No boom, no boom, no boom.”
Unpredictability shook the groundwork of any work my Afghan humanitarian counterparts and I did throughout our project to establish emergency health care clinics in northern Afghanistan for families displaced by the war.
For example, one proud day in March 2002, we had finally completed the construction of a clinic in a mountain valley. We stood before it and remarked on how well it had turned out. At that moment we noticed our beaten Russian jeep shimmying back and forth on its tires, and that the stony ground had turned to jello.
There was nothing to do but watch on rubber legs to wait and see if the earthquake that many Americans later witnessed on television would demolish our clinic on its opening day.
The clinic rode out the waves and soon opened to see Afghan women doctors and nurses care for up to 60 women and children each morning until now. The crew that I assembled to weather such storms became my very good friends, which also made it hard to leave for home in the end.
With possible war with Iraq looming on the horizon, and with the backdrop of the past year of the war on terrorism, I am relating this story to Mountain Ear readers after having returned home during Thanksgiving Weekend to Mt. Washington Valley.
Having come back to the ’States from Afghanistan in summer ’02, I now reside in California, and I came back to the Valley in November to visit my father, David L. Eastman of South Tamworth, who writes this newspaper’s Country Ecology column, and my uncles, Steve and Tom Eastman, publisher and assitant editor, respectively, of the Ear, for whom I worked as a reporter a few years ago upon my return from serving as an English teacher with the Peace Corps at a school in Kazakhstan.
After leaving The Ear four years ago for Los Angeles, where my mother lives, I worked at the headquarters of an aid organization by day in California, and played for a rock band by night — an interesting dichotomy, to say the least.
The aid organization for whom I worked supports medical assistance in areas of the world destroyed by war, like Kosovo or East Timor. Its projects are supported by funds from governments or private philanthropists. The projects are primarily managed by doctors and professional public health workers from around the globe, and staffed by medical staff from the areas in conflict.
These medical staff learn new skills and find jobs while the needy are served. I also learned from the LA headquarters how such an organization strives to ensure the safety of its workers while meeting as many of the needs of its beneficiaries as quickly as possible. I got the bug to try it myself, and in summer ’01 I volunteered for a post in Afghanistan.
When I first arrived in Afghanistan in August 2001, I lived in the western part of the country in a city called Hirat, at a time when the Taliban were still in power.
I shared a house with four Afghan men who were experienced relief workers, and as a team we set up an emergency clinic under tents in a camp of 200,000 Afghans who had gathered in the barren desert to receive aid to survive the long drought.
My housemates taught me the basics of my job, including how to shmooze men with machineguns. Unfortunately, they did not teach me the latter well enough, which I found out too late when I tried to impress a Taliban minister with an unlucky gift in early September.
The minister had been a self-invited dinner guest, an honor we did not expect. His hands and feet were gnarled from the fire of a Russian missile blast that had hit when he had been a mujahaddin fighter during the Reagan era, and his eyes were as dark as coals. I tried to cover my temerity under his gaze, but at the meal he surprised me by offering us snuff seeds, a kind of mild drug that is chewed like tobacco. (I thought that was ironic, since the Taliban did not even allow their children the sinful temptation of kite flying, but took some to be polite). I thought it was a nice gesture, and a sort of bond between my American self and this Taliban warrior.
The Taliban minister invited himself over for another lunch, but before he arrived I sent a guard to purchase a nice snuff box, and placed it in a fanny pack emblazened with my aid organization’s logo. At lunch he walked in, followed by a long line of 17 men in black turbins who were ready to eat. I was placed to the right of my Taliban friend, who was jovial. I could not wait, and produced my present.
Everyone liked the fanny sack, and nodded. I motioned with my hands that he could conveniently wear it in front of his belt. He nodded. Then I pointed to the inside, and I nodded, too. He lifted out the round snuff box, which was decorated with a mirror encircled with red plastic jewels. The room exploded in laughter, and the Taliban guests rolled on the floor and gripped their sides. I thought, “Oh, they really like it!” I nodded to the minister, who smiled sheepishly. I showed him again that he could carry it over the front of his belt, and he did not nod again. He put away the snuff box and everyone went to pray at the mosque.
When my Afghan coworkers returned, they fell on the floor and could barely speak for laughing. I knew that I had done something wrong, so I forced them to tell me between gasps. The head doctor told me, “Oh, Dave! I tell you we did not know, or we would have told you! In Kandahar, the headquarters of Taliban, when one man loves another man, he gives him a snuff box such as you have given him!”
When 9/11 occurred, that Taliban minister invited me to stay with him to be safe, but luckily I had to evacuate. Actually, the evacuation was a heart-wrenching experience, because I did not know if I would see again the fine people with whom I had lived and worked. Many had families in Kabul, and knew that the U.S. would bomb it heavily, but waited to rush home until they had seen me out safely first.
At the time, I felt that I was leaving more for their safety than for mine. The evacuation itself was dull; the expatriate aid workers collected into a quiet convoy of white SUVs to drive to Hirat’s grassy airport, sat for a few hours and smoked cigarettes, until the United Nations plane picked us up and flew us to Pakistan.
From there, I returned to Los Angeles to see my girlfriend and my mother. Describing life in Afghanistan to my girlfriend was difficult, but explaining to my mother why I had to go back was impossible. I thought my reasons were good (I had promised my Afghan friends and there were stories of large numbers of refugees suffering on Afghanistan’s northern border), but she looked at me like I was crazy.
Yet, I boarded a plane in late October 2001 to Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic north of Afghanistan, and with the herd of international journalists racing to strike news gold, found myself standing by the river dividing Afghan Northern Alliance territory from the Tajiks.
I wondered why the earth was rumbling. I looked down river, and saw three volcanoes erupt in a line
As the fourth plume of smoke went up in the distance, I realized that I was watching American bombs fall on Taliban bases 30 kilometers to the west. I thought, “I’m going into that?!”
The intrepid journalists seemed nonplussed, so I crossed the river with them on a makeshift metal barge that pulled itself across by Russian tractor engine. We were picked up by Afghans in Toyota trucks, and happily taken eastwards away from the bombing to a town in the “frontline area” daily portrayed then on CNN and BBC. It was not very close to the fighting, but near enough to shake me awake at 5 a.m. when more bombs would explode downriver.
From my previous experience with the Taliban, I knew that I would be treated respectfully as a guest by anyone I met, according to the famous Afghan custom of hospitality.
Although many Afghans expected me to be wealthier than I was because journalists were paying as much as $2000 for a one-day helicopter ride to the frontlines, they went out of their way to assist me to begin a new aid project. Being an American in Afghanistan was an asset, since the Northern Alliance forces were gaining ground against the Taliban greatly due to the support of the United States.
What delighted me most, as it did before 9/11, was that I was always considered a person first, and an American second. Religious beliefs did not present any obstacle to forming friendships. I believe that centuries of seeing invading empires invade and then run from their hills has made Afghans tolerant of opposing viewpoints, yet Texas-proud of their independence.
While the Taliban regime did keep out foreign influences, it went too far in oppressing its own citizens, particularly its educated. The end of the Taliban gave many hope that finally there was an opportunity, however difficult, to improve their own country after 25 years of killing.
From that initial tour in late 2001, I was able to gather information to launch another medical relief program, this time on the Northern Alliance side of the frontlines.
Again, most of the project was expertly done by Afghan humanitarian coworkers, and once a few minefields were cleared, I was able to relax long enough to enjoy the ride until I could get home in the summer of 2002.
Now, I am planning to go to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, where I will major in world health so that I can further my career in relief aid work. Given the nature of things, man-made or otherwise, it’s a need that never seems to go away.
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kazakstan; COS - Afghanistan; Peace Corps Stories; What RPCVs are doing; Service
please advise me of what the black turbin means or does it mean anything.is it different for islamic and hindu