Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Uruzgan germs

The next few posts will bounce back to Afghanistan, although I am now back in Cairo for a break.

The one and only embed I did in the entire three months was with the Dutch troops down in Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, and I will forever remember it as the embed that gave me pneumonia. I started to feel under the weather the day Mark Magnier, of the Los Angeles Times, and I traveled to Uruzgan. It took a whole day (starting at around 6 a.m.) to get there via military transport flights.

The story was about how the Dutch are using development to improve security. We spent the following day with the Police Mentoring Team, as they conducted a traffic stop and training with local police. Take a look at Mark's story here: "Dutch troops' method in Afghanistan gains new prominence."

I admit I am a little divided on embeds. Some journalists spend the bulk of their time in Afghanistan embedded. While I think the military is a vital aspect of the story, it is nearly impossible to get to know regular Afghans while embedded. Some places are extremely difficult and dangerous to visit so hooking up with the military is sometimes the only way, and I admit I would not have been able to get to Uruzgan without embedding. I just try to take it as part, but not the whole, story.

I woke up with my throat on fire and feeling like my head was four times too large. Always a bummer when there's work to be done.

We left the base and convoyed through the provincial capital of Tarin Kot in these giant armored vehicles with little slits for windows. I guess they were similar to the U.S. Army's M-RAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle). From a safety standpoint, these are supposed to be more protected than a Humvee if an road-side bomb explodes nearby, which is great, but I couldn't see anything from inside. I asked one of the rear gunners if I could poke my head up for a few shots, but I also didn't particularly want to get in his way or obstruct his vision. Tricky.

The other downside is the vehicle doesn't take bumps well. At all. I could barely hang on to my camera.

Downtown Tarin Kot. Lots of men, kids, even some women out, all good to see. We were just passing through though to the other end of town. No time to stop and chat.

The soldiers parked in formation and got out at an intersection next to a gas station and across from an Afghan National Police station called Sar Sheykhil. Then the soldiers set up an impromptu traffic checkpoint so that the Afghan National Police could practice searching cars and people for weapons and explosives.

The idea was for the soldiers to mentor and supervise the police while they conducted searches, which is good since most of the police seemed to be unarmed.

It was a just another September day in Uruzgan: dusty and hot.

The foreign presence attracted lots of curious onlookers.

I like the eyes on the headlight. Classy.

Some people seemed to find the whole experience entertaining.

The police went inside the station to take part in a training on handcuffing and searching, so the Dutch soldiers continued searching the motorists and pedestrians outside.

These kids and their donkey walked by at least five times. (I have other photos of them.)

Inside Sar Sheykhil police station, Sgt. 1st Class Radjen Rampersad taught procedures for searching and handcuffing suspects. He also asked them basic civics questions, like "Why is it permitted for police to search and handcuff someone?" Most couldn't answer. They attempted the exercises with enthusiasm though.

The police don't have the tools they need to conduct their work, and they don't earn much money. This 40-officer station shares one pair of handcuffs. Most of the officers don't have their own weapons. Some don't even have proper shoes. Because of the complicated politics back home, the Dutch must get special permission to hand out arms. But, it's hard to figure out what part the Afghan government has in equipping and training them.

For their part, the police officers expressed frustration. They are starting from zero and they are putting themselves at risk for what seems like very little in return. Afghanistan is one of those places that needs so much it's hard to know where to begin.

That's the police station behind the HESCOs--the brown bunker-type things in the background. (Pretty sad I talk Army now.)

Almost time to cut out. By now all I can think about is my pounding head, clogged sinuses and the bed in the container back at the base. And I am coated in sweat and dirt.

Go inside, little guy. It's too hot.

Much of Uruzgan is desert, by the way. Mountains, valleys, very harsh terrain. Very little infrastructure. Did I mention it's like an oven?

Yes that is a windmill. It's actually a coffee bar inside of a container at the base in Tarin Kot, FOB Ripley.

And, with that full day's work, I crashed in my bunk. It took three days to get back to Kabul, and by that time all I could do was lie miserably in bed.

Ah yes Uruzgan. I won't forget you, or your dust.

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