Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Archive for May 2012

New Razistan Slideshow up at Huff-Po

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The effort to launch Razistan, our collective of Afghanistan-based photographers, is going well. We’ve just had a new slideshow of our work go up at www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/razistan-photos-afghanistan_n_1554473.html.

Our work has also been featured on the New Yorker at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/photobooth/2012/05/razistan-voices-from-afghanistan.html and again at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/razistan-afghanistan-war-photos_n_1514540.html as well as on Tumblr’s new Story Board project at http://storyboard.tumblr.com/post/22380298520/razistan-afghanistans-land-of-secrets-president.
As we work to launch Razistan, you can see more of our photos at http://www.razistan.tumblr.com/ and read about us. You can also watch a video at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1626615603/razistan-or-land-of-secrets-a-new-outlet-on-afghan.

We have another nine days to go to raise $965 through our Kickstarter drive to reach our goal of $12,500 – help us launch Razistan and fund more photo projects.

The war is not over. Help us tell the story.

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Written by johnwendle

May 31, 2012 at 9:52 am

On NATO Press Releases

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Below is an unedited press release from NATO. While the story it tells is the heart stopping stuff of an action movie, I think there is added value in looking at the story, as it highlights NATO’s poor ability to tell its own story – part of the reason it is losing hearts and minds. And though some may say that soldiers shouldn’t be expected to both fight and write well, the marine who wrote this more than likely lives at a big base with expensive, imported food, air conditioning and flat screen televisions – another example of the waste and loss taking its toll here. So, the story:

UNCLASSIFIED

Attached is a press release from Combined Task Force Wings, Regional Command (South) Public Affairs Office.

For high resolution photos, please email your request and provide VIRIN.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE SR# 120530-01 May 30, 2012

MEDEVAC Crew Reacts to Dangerous Call

Story by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder & Capt. Richard Barker 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan

In the midst of combat, acts of valor and bravery are performed so often they are sometimes overlooked. This was almost the case with the story of the Soldiers who rescued Marine Lance Cpl. Winder Perez. This is a story that will finally be told, months after it occurred.

On Jan. 12, 2012, a call was passed over the radio to a MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) crew to rescue a 3-year-old Afghan girl who had suffered from a gunshot wound and shrapnel to the back. After dropping off personnel and equipment from their current mission, they headed back out to the location for pick-up. Upon contacting the ground crew on the directed frequency, the pick-up location had moved.

After verifying the MEDEVAC request and landing safely to retrieve the patient, the landing zone controller came over the radio with a loud, frantic voice, “the patient has unintelligible unexploded ordnance!”

The patient was no longer the girl, but Perez who had a rocket propelled grenade embedded in his leg extending to his lower abdomen. The RPG had not detonated yet meaning the slightest wrong move could set it off.

“That call will be in my mind all my life,” said Sgt. Robert Hardisty, a crew chief with Company C, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, New Mexico National Guard, who was attached to 25th Combat Aviation Brigade.

“First you land thinking it’s a little girl and the next thing it is a Marine with an unexploded RPG embedded in his body.” Specialist Mark Edens, a flight medic with C/1-171, was the first to see the RPG round visible in Perez. At this point the crew had to make a decision.

“Because of the level of danger, if the crew left Perez on the ground and decided not to take him, no one would have ever blamed them,” said Maj. Christopher Holland, C/1-171 Commander.

“We all would have understood.” Captain Kevin Doo, the pilot-in-command for this mission, the pilot of the crew decided they would only take Perez if the entire crew agreed. “There was no doubt to anyone that we were going to take this Marine and get him the medical attention needed to save his life,” said Doo. “When dealing with this, not knowing that any moment could be your last. 18 inches from the patient’s legs was about 360 gallons of aviation fuel.”

The crew transported Perez as quickly as they safely could landing at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh 24 minutes from the time the RPG hit Perez. “After Lance Cpl. Perez was loaded on the Black Hawk, it was a total of 11.2 minutes of flight time where every minute felt like an hour,” Doo said. “During that time, we were on the radio coordinating with our escorts, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, and medical personnel who were going to treat Perez.”

The crew’s coordination paid off, which included telling the armed escorts of the MEDEVAC helicopter to stay a good distance away for their safety, calling the EOD team to handle the disposal of the RPG, and ensuring medical personnel were aware of and prepared for the situation they were about to handle.

Upon hearing the news of the RPG, the medical team set a plan in motion to properly remove the round as they gathered necessary supplies and met the MEDEVAC at the landing zone. When Perez arrived at FOB Edinburgh, he was transported to a safe area to extract the round with only the necessary personnel present.

Lieutenant Commander James Gennari, Department Head, Surgical Company B, 2nd Supply Battalion, noticed the wounds Marine Cpl. Perez received were life threatening. If he had not been transported by the speed of MEDEVAC, then he would have died of those wounds. After removing the round and closing up the wounds, Perez was transported to Bastion Hospital for further care.

The same crew who evacuated him from the battlefield were the ones who transported him to the next higher medical facility. Although the RPG round was now miles away from Perez, other issues arose for him and the crew. His ventilator failed during the flight prohibiting his oxygen flow.

At this moment, Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty acted rapidly manually giving oxygen and bringing the Marine back to a stable condition. “After stabilization, I witnessed Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty work in a calm, cool and professional manner ensuring the safety of this patient who suffered a second near catastrophic event with the loss of the oxygen ventilation machine,” said Gennari. “I distinctly remember thinking that if Dustoff could risk their lives to bring this patient to us, the least I can do is take some risk and get that thing out of his leg.”

Stories of heroism like these happen more than we think. While the fog of war keeps most stories hidden so they will never be told, this one escaped from the mist so it could find a place in our hearts. As for Cpl. Perez, it was thanks to these heroic acts that allow him to read this story today from the comfortable safety of the United States.

Written by johnwendle

May 31, 2012 at 9:29 am

Extreme Tourism: Couch Surfing Arrives in Afghanistan

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By John Wendle / Kabul

The patio of the one-floor ranch house was packed. Smoke drifted from the grill and everyone seemed to have a red Solo cup in his or her hand. Were it not for the babel of languages and high walls topped with barbwire, it could have been a weekend BBQ anywhere in the world. But this was Kabul, and the voices were those of aid workers, security contractors and journalists. They only died down when one of the guests began talking about hitchhiking to Khost.

A heated debate erupted between the Dutch tourist who uttered the remark and an aid worker who basically called the traveler crazy. With a mix of anger and shock in his voice, the aid worker tried to explain that Khost — in the heartland of the dreaded Haqqani network, the group that carried out the recent wave of coordinated attacks in Kabul — is a war zone and not somewhere to wander around with no plan. “They’ll shoot you,” he said. To which the Dutch traveler replied, “Why would [the Taliban] waste a bullet on me?”

The Dutchman had gone to Afghanistan through couchsurfing.org, social media’s answer to corporate travel sites. If you do not see yourself as a tourist, want to live like a local for a while or simply do not have the cash for a hotel, then couch surfing is the way to go. The website puts a face on a place by allowing travelers and hosts to set up profiles and swap messages about travel arrangements. Visiting Moscow and looking to meet up with a local for a cappuccino and a chat? Hitting up Rio for Mardi Gras and need a free place to crash? These are the normal exchanges — and they usually result in staying at a person’s house. But when it comes to couch surfing in Afghanistan, “usual” is out the window.

The question is: Who would want to live like a local when local is Afghanistan? Of the more than 4 million “couch surfers” on the site representing 251 countries and territories and 366 languages, the answer is, at the moment, around 381. That is the number of people who are members of the Afghanistan group on the Couch Surfing site. As the website continues to grow, it has expanded into stranger and stranger travel destinations: Afghanistan has become one of these, representing what could be described as extreme couch surfing, with tourists with no experience of combat zones staying with hosts whose profiles are as likely to feature “armed guards” or “razor wire” (apart from the more usual caveats of “no dogs” or “foldout couch”).

Of those 381, few will actually make it — for good reason. “I’m on the Afghanistan couch-surfing forum because I was thinking of going to Afghanistan this summer, but due to recent events, it doesn’t seem like a good idea for a solo white woman to go now,” says Elisabet Sole, a Spanish member. But some still go — drawn by the beauty of the Hindu Kush mountains, the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, natural wonders like the Band-e Amir lakes and the remote Wakhan Corridor. Others are drawn by quasi-philosophical cravings, want to find the truth behind the news, are attracted to the danger or simply want to prove their own courage.

Still, couch surfing in Afghanistan cannot be considered a 2.0 version of the hippie trail of the 1960s and ’70s. Today, fighting has dragged much of the country’s population to the depths of poverty and despair. A U.N. report released in February said that 3,021 civilians were killed in 2011, representing an 8% increase from ’10. This is the fifth consecutive year that the number of deaths has increased. The country is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world for violent death. The past months have not been kind: a bombing in December left scores dead at a religious ceremony in central Kabul, and the burning of Korans and the massacre of civilians in Kandahar has strained relations between Westerners and locals to the breaking point.

(MORE: Three Days in Afghanistan: The Making of a War Reporter)

Years ago, the first time this correspondent looked at the Afghanistan Lonely Planet guide’s “When to Go” section, the advice was blunt: “Never.” Today, that’s changed little. The latest edition’s section on “Getting In” to Afghanistan from Pakistan advises: “Before leaving Peshawar you must go to the Khyber Political Agent [Stadium Road] to collect your gunman. Without him you’ll be turned back at the first checkpoint. There’s plenty to see as you drive through the Khyber.” Though a tourist brochure that featured words like firefight, land mine, bad roads, poverty, kidnapping and insurgency would deter your average traveler, the couch surfers who do make it are not your average travelers. They are the ones that have Libya, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Colombia listed as places they want to go to next on their Couch Surfing profile pages.

“My first day in Kabul was September 13 [of 2011]. I was walking past Massoud Circle, around the corner and east of the U.S. embassy, when an Afghan man came up to me and said something that sounded urgent, but that I didn’t understand,” says a couch surfer from Alaska, who did not want to give his name because he did not want his family to know he had gone to Afghanistan. “Moments later I heard a small blast, followed by a huge explosion and then automatic gunfire as militants began an attack on the embassy and other targets in Wazir [Akbar Khan, a heavily fortified neighborhood of Western embassies and NATO bases]. I had to run for cover. If I had walked a few minutes more in the direction I was going, I would have been in a world of trouble,” he tells TIME. “I was petrified, mostly about the idea of abduction. After getting caught up in the attack in Kabul, in what was supposed to be one of the most secure areas of the country, I worried more about getting injured or killed.” But, he adds, “Kabul was Kabul — how could a tourist not be fascinated by the real thing? It’s like the anti-Paris of tourism.”

(MORE: Inside the Kabul Firefight: Can Afghanistan Take On the Taliban Alone?)

Most, however, have more prosaic experiences. “I wanted to talk to people and hang out with them, get a sense of what it’s like to be an Afghan,” Tashi Bucinel, a European couch surfer, tells TIME. “I was scared the first couple of days. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I didn’t know how trustworthy the people are, so I was very apprehensive.” On her first morning in Kabul, she decided to walk to meet the Dutch couch surfer. “When I was walking down the street, I was looking at the people around me and my heart was beating fast. I thought of the warnings I’d heard before like, ‘Don’t walk, take a taxi’ or ‘You never know who is a potential suicide bomber,’ and regretted not taking a taxi. I saw every bearded man in a shalwar kameez [men’s traditional clothing] as a suicide attacker and was just waiting to hear a bomb blast somewhere. I was so scared!”

After a few days, she wrote in an e-mail to TIME, she began to relax. “I was still apprehensive, but less scared than the first day. I realized how friendly the locals are and that they are actually very honest and trustworthy people. After a few days I lost my initial fear and felt like I was in any normal city in Central Asia.” In the end, she says there was not much to do in Kabul — partially a result of more than three decades of war — and she ended up visiting a few tourist sites nearby and hanging out with some foreign workers. “Kabul is generally pretty boring. There’s not much to do. I was lucky to have met wonderful people, whom I had a lot of fun with. We spent many fun afternoons and evenings together, but if it wasn’t for them, I’d be pretty bored I guess.”

Still, Bucinel’s experience “outside the wire” — as NATO soldiers call leaving a secured compound — is more interaction with Afghanistan and its people than most foreign government employees, soldiers and many aid workers will ever have. Most will remain hidden and safe behind their blast walls and barbwire during their time in Afghanistan, impeding their ability to understand life in the country and to effectively aid its development. At the same time, it is hard to say what the benefit of Bucinel’s experience is: since she is not in Afghanistan to work, is she simply a goodwill ambassador?

Indeed, when an Indian couch surfer wrote on the Afghanistan Couch Surfing forum that “I want to come to Afghanistan and I want to see the war-affected areas. Which areas should I visit and what is the perfect time to come?” a storm of incredulous replies shouted him down, including one surfer who wrote, “I can’t believe what I am reading … traveling to war affected areas??? Do you think it’s funny? Do you want to prove how brave you are? I think it’s very disrespectful toward people who suffer under such conditions! Shame on you!”

Couch surfers will have to begin questioning the wisdom of visiting Afghanistan as security worsens in parallel to the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops that will be completed in 2014. But, for now, many will continue coming to pursue their own particular brand of tourism. “I guess the principle of couch surfing is the same wherever you go. It has to do with trust, and trust always, and everywhere, contains risk,” says an Austrian hostess who spoke on condition of anonymity because her organization did not give her permission to speak. “And, if we finally give up on trust, then conflict, war and distrust have already won.”

This story originally appeared in TIME at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2113634,00.html?xid=fblike

Written by johnwendle

May 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm