There was nothing I wanted to do more than to somehow be involved again in a humanitarian effort here in Afghanistan. I was involved some with TAO Project (http://www.taoproject.org/) and more recently, I was able to participate in a humanitarian program we have locally here in Kabul.
Having been a part of similar programs in past deployments, I was excited to get to do this again, if time allowed. Things have been so hectic throughout this deployment that I began to wonder if I was going to miss my opportunity, but finally a few days ago, I was able to get approval from my commander to travel with a local group and hand out humanitarian goods to a Koocha Camp on the outskirts of Kabul.
A Koocha Camp is an area comprised mainly of refugees, or desert nomads, who have migrated to the city to find work and earn a living for their family. The many families that comprise a Koocha Camp are former desert dwellers in some cases, shepherds, migrants, and a variety of other backgrounds. They usually converge onto a small, unclaimed, and substandard – even by Afghan standards – area of Kabul to try to make a life for themselves and their families.
This area we traveled to was no different. Set upon the side of a steep hill, they all lived in ceiling-less mud huts, or bombed out shelters that barely protected them from the harsh elements outside. Many of the walls were even constructed of sewn-together burlap sacks to cover the portions of the walls that were lying in rubble on the ground nearby. Raw sewage trickled down in a centrally located stream down a narrow walk-way and eventually ended up on the road down below. It reeked.
As soon as we pulled up we circled the vehicles as best we could in chuck wagon fashion, allowing a protective cover and a quick exit should things get out of hand. But we were here, and the refugee camp was more than ready for us. As soon as the vehicles stopped, a large crowd gathered around, barely allowing us enough room to squeeze out of them. Some quickly tried to draw the crowd toward an open area nearby as our Force Protection team simultaneously took their positions to set up perimeter security. The logistics of the trip were done. Now we were ready.
The first thing I remember was all the kids running up to each and every one of us, as if taking bets on who had the goods. Was it me? Was it Roger?... Charlie?... Gary?... Consequently, Charlie and Roger had never had the privilege of helping on a humanitarian mission such as this before, so the initial shock of 20 or so kids hanging off of them with every step was evident on their face. As for me, I welcomed it and recalled the previous humanitarian missions I’d been on in past deployments. These kids just wanted some attention and whatever we could give them. Since the humanitarian items were not yet unloaded, I took the crowd of kids I had with me and began to clap hands and play with them. Soon, I began a countdown of 3….2….1….. TAG! And then would take off running. It was a simple exchange that they quickly understood and soon took chase. They loved it. I would run…. They would catch me…. Then we‘d count down again. Pretty soon, they were picking up on the English-spoken countdown, and they‘d repeat after me, "Tr-r-r-ree… toooo…. Waaan!! TAG!!!"… and off I’d go again. It wasn’t too long before the running with 50 lbs of armor, weapon and gear wore heavily on me in the 90+ degree heat, so I began to play another game with them – thumb wrestling. I took refuge in the shade of a nearby mud wall and sat down. The 8-10 year old boys of the tribe loved this game. They’re no different than most boys that age… very competitive and very impatient. I explained in "motions" as best I could how thumb-wrestling was supposed work to those inquiring faces who knew no English. I took and demonstrated to each one "the grasp", then I held each child’s thumb with my other hand to show the 3-2-1 countdown before the wrestling begins. It was funny to watch this as some did not understand the alternating thumbs during the 3-2-1 countdown and immediately wanted to begin wrestling without waiting. Consequently, because of the jump start they got, the kids thought the boy or girl had won and they’d all cheer for them. Most times, I let them win anyway… I’d put up a good struggle… grimace and groan…. Act like I was juuuuuust about to best them, and then with a final grunt, they’d win.
Others in our group were organizing games with the kids. A couple females with our group formed a circle with the kids and played Ring Around The Rosie, London Bridges, and Duck Duck Goose. What a magnificent site to see those kids twirling around in that big circle… the smiles on their faces… and utter joy when they’d catch the person they were chasing.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t make mention of a small group from New Knoxville, Ohio. They had adopted me as their point of contact for sending donations for these kids and had sent me a few hundred beanie babies, knitted items (from their "Busy Needles" group), and other humanitarian supplies. Most of those items were sorted, and packaged into Ziploc bags for distribution to the families on this trip, but I held back a few to hand out personally. I have to send out a huge thank you to Norma (pictured) and her crew from "Operation New Knoxville Cares" for having the faith to trust this tired soldier with their many donations. Your congregation’s tireless effort from the First United Church of Christ did not go unappreciated nor was it wasted. To Norma: I am humbled by your enthusiasm and by your faith. You have strengthened my faith that good people do exist in this world, and you have also touched the lives of hundreds of impoverished Afghan children. Bless you.
At the Koocha Camp, each child was so cute and loving in their own way. Some were quiet and composed, others were boisterous and proud, but every one of them touched my heart in some way. One little girl just loved the camera and kept coming up to me and the guys and motioning with her hands held close to her face the "picture click" so we could take her picture. (pictured left) Lots of preteen boys would stand arm in arm, looking tough, wanting me to take their "tough guy" photo. Others just seemed to want "me" and whatever I could offer them - love, attention, fun, stuff. There were so many I wished I could’ve taken home with me and adopted. My heart ached for some of them; a 6-year-old girl holding her baby sister in her arms; and others with weathered-beyond-their-years faces and chapped lips – all of which I’m sure had their own heartbreaking story to tell. But through all the dirty, malnourished faces, the tattered clothes, and growling stomachs, they were still just kids, and they wanted someone to play with them like kids do. So I did.
In the end, lives were changed, hearts were touched (theirs AND mine), and the world made sense again. After three tours to the Middle East – being torn away from family, witnessing unspeakable sights, and even becoming jaded occasionally about our presence here – it is always humbling to be a part of something like this - something bigger than yourself - and get that proverbial slap in the face that says, "Wake up! You ARE doing some good here!" It’s days like this that remind us why we are here.
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