Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Archive for October 2009

Photo and video

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This Man is Not a Photojournalist – Interesting profile of this photographer, but not a lot (ie no info) on HOW he shoots. Which makes the piece interesting, but crap for detail. I’d love to be able to do this kind of stuff, but I need to learn more. Still, worth a read. I’ll be posting some of my own video soon and I hope to make a short using iMovie soon. His photos can be found here:

http://www.timhetherington.com/

and here

http://www.worldpressphoto.org/index.php?option=com_contact&task=view&contact_id=508&type=gallery&Itemid=

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Written by johnwendle

October 12, 2009 at 6:24 pm

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On helmets

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A Heads-Up About Helmets – a good warning and a good thing to keep in mind.

The other thing the Sgt. told us when we were riding in the back of the MRAP was to always wear our helmets in case we got hit with an IED to protect us from hitting our head around the interior.

As I shoved myself into the race car style seat and strapped into the three point racing harness, Sgt. Jersey said, “if we are hit with an IED or if we roll (MRAPs roll at a 20 degree side grade) keep your arms and legs close to your body. Anything hanging out will get ripped off.”

Written by johnwendle

October 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm

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The Death Star

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A Window On the War in Afghanistan – here is the intro to a audio slide show at – Multimedia: The War in Afghanistan Up Close – this is pretty good. Some of the pix are pretty scary. I was in an MRAP just a few days ago. Its messed up to see what an IED can do to one of those beasts.

The MRAP crews name their machine just as crews used to name bombers in WWII.

One was named Sophie since that name was written in small, neat, red, permanent marker letters under the door.

The Death Star

The Death Star

Another machine was called Death Star. This name was written in big letters in permanent marker across the front, right over the International hood ornament. The Marines who dubbed the machine got in trouble since the military does not allow vehicles, or ‘victors’ in military speak, to be marked with aggressive names or logos like skull’s heads since, as one Marine told me, “they feel it would send the wrong message to the people or locals would come up and ask us what ‘Death Star’ means and we wouldn’t have an answer.”

The Death Star

The Death Star

One crew called theirs The Rhino because it has a meter and a half long nose piece sticking up like a giant, all steel black flag from its nose. The boom lowers and the “flag” hangs down emitting a signal near the ground that, in Iraq at least, was meant to block detonating signals for IED sent from devices as simple as garage door openers. As of yet, the crew had not operated the device yet since IEDs in Afghanistan are huge, but not too sophisticated in their detonating devices.

Even if the IEDs aren’t sophisticated in their detonating mechanisms, they are still deadly, as Ferguson says in his TIME piece. All of the 26 injuries that Apache company sustained in Wardak province in Ferguson’s piece were sustained from IED attacks – as was the one KIA.

Sometimes its something as simple as a line stretching away into the bush. One Marine at Jaker told me he traced a line some 200 meters off the path, finding the end, he found nothing.

But those who plant IEDs are becoming more devious, the Marines told me. One Marine, who covered me as I ran back inside the wire after local Afghan National Police (ANP) started shooting over my head in an altercation with some police recruits who didn’t want to be recruited and were high on opium, told me that he was walking down one of the narrow lanes that wind through the mud walled villages along the life giving canals in this region and so a very slight bulge in a wall. That’s it. Just a slight bulge. The marines ended up blowing up the whole corner of the wall and figure they vaporized a dozen pounds of fertilizer based explosives along with bolts and nails and other random pieces of metal that had been embedded in the explosives in the wall to act as shrapnel.

The guy, who is only 22, said that there had been enough explosives concealed behind the re-smoothed mud of the wall, “to do some serious hurting.” He added, “the funny thing is, is a week later, we patrolled by the same wall and we found another IED. It was hidden in the hole where the other IED had been. This time they just put a piece of paper over it.”

Written by johnwendle

October 12, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

New aid to Pakistan

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So, the US triples aid to Pakistan, but under the stipulation that Pakistan must show that it is fighting militants. Thus, if Pakistan cannot show it is fighting militants, the US holds back aid, which causes more people to suffer, which creates fertile ground for militants to recruit new people???

Racing Time and Taliban to Rebuild in Pakistan -NYT

Pakistan to talk to U.S. over aid bill – Reuters

Written by johnwendle

October 12, 2009 at 1:30 pm

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recent articles

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Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been reading recently:

We need to be certain sacrifice of lives in Afghanistan is justified – by Anthony Loyd, author of My War Gone By, I Miss It So. One of my favorite books and one of the best accounts of the Yugoslav war I’ve ever read. (Along with In The Hold, by Vladimir Arsenijevic.)

‘What’s the point? The Taliban will be back within a week’ – by Miles Amoore. I hope I’m writing stuff like this, and doing stuff like this, in a year.

The War in Afghanistan Up Close – I don’t think this photo essay deserves the title it got, but its pretty good stuff.

Written by johnwendle

October 10, 2009 at 6:37 pm

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Aircraft carrier

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This is a great piece from This American Life called Somewhere in the Arabian Sea. Its about life on board an aircraft carrier. It kind of reminded me a little bit of what its like in the Palace.

Written by johnwendle

October 10, 2009 at 6:23 pm

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Corn Flakes, CNN, beer but no plans

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A four-layer security sandwich separates me from the bleached blue sky out my window. The innermost layer is an ill-fitting screen that allows the mosquitoes to squeeze in, then a rickety sliding door of reflective smoked glass that casts my room in shades of state trooper brown and Martian red, then a

The view from my room

The view from my room - larger photos can be found at http://picasaweb.google.com/johnwendle/ThePalace#

soldered steel gate of shoebox-sized rectangles and finally a blast grill of 1/8 inch thick steel fencing welded to the outside of my balcony protect me from the outside.

Not that it is that exciting. Probably we need it. This is the kind of place where people routinely die from the cliché of “the wrong place at the wrong time.” The layers do not block out the regular sounds of exploding IEDs and sporadic gunfire, or the call to prayer from the mosque outside our walls.

By contrast, the inside of the compound, known by its nickname “The Palace,” is green with grass and dotted with the bright flowers that thrive in the 100 degree heat. The pink and beige walls reflect the sun and the sandbags absorb it.

My room

My room - yes, that's real faux-marble flooring

Allow your neck to crane back slightly and your sight is immediately arrested by Hescos, barbed wire and the guard towers that are planted in every corner.
I daydream about passing through all those layers, climbing on top of the balcony railing and jumping onto the thick mud roof of the patio below me, then climbing up the sloppily built brick wall topped with barbed wire and slipping into the dusty streets of Lashkar Gah.

The Palace has been rented by many different foreign development NGOs for nearly a decade now. According to early stories, walking in the streets wasn’t always a daydream. According to stories in

The sandwich

The sandwich

the Washington Post and a book called “Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier,” aid workers used to be able to walk in the market and on the streets.

It’s different now. The security sandwich is in. The security contractors are paid to do their security assessments, report that the situation is dangerous and are hired to protect the NGOs’ compounds. But who knows. Wrong place, wrong time.

Instead we live and work inside our compound here in Lashkar Gah. Mostly we work.

The Palace

The Palace - my window in the upper right

The day starts at 7:30. Breakfast is served from 7 to 8. Lunch is from 12 to 1. Dinner is from 5.30 to 6.30. In reality, most people eat in about a half hour and go back to their office or their rooms. There are only 12 foreigners working here. When there are more, people talk more in the dining room – generally the only place where any kind of social life takes place.

Conversation generally revolves around just a few subjects. The men, and it is all men here, all over 40 except for me and one other guy, talk about work. Or they bitch about the Afghan staff and the local government. The other favorite subject is to tell funny or ribald stories about places

The wire

The wire

they’ve been. The amazingly clean beaches of Mozambique. The whorehouses of Thailand. Puking up worms drunk from a Bolivian beer. Shitting their pants on airplanes. Chopping the heads off king cobras. The guys talk about their families. Sometimes there is a lot of talk. Sometimes, when the food is good, there is no talk at all.

The courtyard

The courtyard

And the food can be fantastic. Our Afghan cook and his staff have prepared meals for the foreign clients that have passed through for years. The menu ranges from hamburgers and French fries, to amazing chicken soups, to curries, to Thai shrimp to fried chicken to kebabs. Always there are fresh salads. They bake their own loaves because there is only round and canoe-shaped flatbread here. As any Marine knows, good food is good for morale. It helps us to stop thinking of the security sandwich that presses in from all sides.

The pantry is well stocked in modern expeditionary style. Peanut butter, milk and juice from Pakistan. Cookies, Coka-Cola and Marinda imported from Saudi Arabia. Nothing from Iran. As you’d expect in a house full of men, the refrigerator is stocked with 25 kinds of sauces from Heinz ketchup and French mustard to blue cheese salad dressing, Hershey’s syrup, relish and salsa.

The main gate

The main gate

It would be enough to make KBR proud. I’m not used to the mountains of Pringles and am blown away by the assortment of breakfast cereals: Rice Crispies, Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes and lots of

The chakidar for the main gate

The chakidar for the main gate

bran. After living on little money for a couple of years in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world, the onslaught of American plenty still shocks.

If you want, your bedroom is swept, your bed made and your bathroom cleaned by a two man Afghan cleaning crew. Because we only have Friday off for the weekend, the week always seems to be Monday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Sunday, Monday, Monday. “Friday,” actually Thursday, the foreign staff usually is served grilled chicken or lamb or burgers and sausage and eats in the grassy, shady garden. Crickets trill and in the dark, gigantic basil plants fill the air with their smell as we sit around big tables joking in a manly way, talking about helicopters, IEDs and guns and talking about work, a lot of the time, strangely, in a self-glorifying way, even among people who do the same job.

The garden

The garden

The $100-a-case beers flown in from Kabul in people’s backpacks, the talk, the locally made clear “whisky,” the barbeques, the food, the cleaning staff, the soft beds and the constant, ever-present hum of three-ton generators, the air conditioning and the constant high water pressure and perfect hot and cold showers are all designed and meant to compensate us for the one thing we can’t do. Go out. Except for work there is never any point in making a plan for the “weekend.”

A guard tower

A guard tower

Maybe this is what people in prison feel like. It’s not exactly that you lose your freedom of movement that is so ruining, its that you lose any reason to imagine about your near future in any concrete way. A prisoner of the bombs, the walls, the breakfast cereals, the wrong place, but most of all a prisoner of the future.

All photos can be found at http://picasaweb.google.com/johnwendle/ThePalace#

All opinions and stories in this blog are my own and do not represent the view point or policies of my employer. None of the written material or photos in this blog may be quoted or used elsewhere.

Written by johnwendle

October 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized