Fields of Stones

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Note: I am back in the US already after my trip. However, because of popular demand ;-), I am posting the remaining parts of my blog that I was unable to post from Kabul, mostly due to lack of time.
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I had an opportunity to drive up to Mir Bacha Kot, a village about an hour and half away from Kabul, to visit the AIL-run health clinic there. This provided me the first glimpse of the country outside of Kabul. What a drive it turned out to be…don’t worry, it was not adventurous or anything, but it definitely was extremely enlightening.
The first sign (or at least it is what I used as a landmark) that we are out of Kabul is a giant hoarding of the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Massoud, the commander who united disparate leaders to fight the Taliban, was assassinated two days before 9-11 in a suicide-attack by men posing as journalists. He remains a popular figure in Kabul. His introspective smile greets you from moving vehicles, city walls, inside shops, gates of fortified military camps, and even the front doors of some residences. I wonder if his assassins or the Taliban had envisioned that they would be on the run and Massoud would rule Kabul, even if from hoardings and posters.

The four-wheel Land Cruiser and its driver are navigating the damaged road wonderfully. Lots of road construction on the way, so hopefully the end of the damaged roads is near. The countryside is dotted with infant plants and trees. It looks a lot greener and far more peaceful than Kabul. The green is that of a lush and fertile land, and not the soft, polluted green that you usually see in the cities. Cattle, mostly sheep and goats, graze and roam. Groups of children play. The ever-present shipping-container-shops provide for a traveler’s necessities. Some men offer their evening prayers. Few rest on raised platforms. Others converse in groups. Women walk in groups or with kids. All are going to, coming from, or going about their everyday tasks of life and living.

Jolts of the grim undercurrent are never far off though. Sometimes it is the rusted remnants of military vehicles that you can barely recognize. A giant whale shaped structure, stripped so bare that only its skeleton remains, sits in the middle of a cultivated field, belying its nature and purpose. Due to the precarious security situation and the ever-present threat of an attack, there is a noticeable military presence along the road. Our SUV’s decals get us easily through the military checkpoints. Armored tanks and heavy artillery equipment stand on small hills at a couple of points. One assumes that they are strategic locations on this road. They face the mountains, standing ready and on guard against shadowy foes. In a single moment, the picturesque and majestic mountains become threatening and scary. Definitely not the mountains’ fault!

Then I see those mysterious stone arrangements again, this time along the roadside. I first saw them when I landed at the Kabul Airport, in the fields surrounding the runway. The stone formations consist of two or three flat stones or small rocks placed one on top of the other. It is topped off by a vertical or longish stone that is colored either white or red. Initially I thought they were totems of some kind. Was I wrong! Someone educates me about those stones. They are indicators of landmines. White stones mean de-mined areas while red stones denote that the area is mined and dangerous.

I spent the next few minutes imagining all kinds of horrible things that suddenly seemed quite possible. What if our vehicle runs off the road? What if this? What if that? But before I get too hung up on this, we are past the stone formations.

We drive beyond the fields of the stone arrangements and into unmarked and unmarred territories. Some time later, we reach the concrete structure that houses the Health Clinic. AIL employs doctors, lab technician, and pharmacists for the clinic at Mir Bacha Kot and drives them from and to Kabul everyday. It is way past its operating hours, so the clinic itself is closed. However, we tour the outside where the maintenance and care are obvious. From a small garden that is sprouting, to posters that adorn the walls, you can imagine this place being a beehive of activity, just like the AIL office in Kabul when I go there for the workshops. After a quick tour and a check-in with the on-site caretaker, we start our journey back to Kabul.

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Aside: By the way, the clinic at Mir Bacha Kot was funded by Give2Asia, the donor advised funding arm of The Asia Society. I remembered the time I worked with The Asia Society when I was at Commerce One. To use the oft-used cliché – Small world!
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We pass the fields of stones again, but now they take on a different perspective. People are going about their life in the middle of these white and red stone arrangements. A small path meanders directly through one of those fields with red stones AND red signs in the local language. The field itself is fallow but the path looks well-used. Goats graze lands adjacent to the mined ones. I actually see a group of kids playing right next to yet another mine indicator. Men talk, pray, and rest; kids play; women work. Everyday activities proceed amidst these landmined fields. My educator-guide tells me that this is quite common since people depend on these lands for their livelihood and may not have anywhere else to go. Apparently, many a times people attempting to cultivate their lands get blown up or lose their limbs to these mines instead. But then, what else can they do? Now, my earlier what if imagination becomes the frivolous melodrama that it actually is.

During one of my later evening excursions into the city, I see a small garden memorial dedicated to all landmine victims and the offices of the international agency attempting to clear the mines.

Landmines – so long ago, the Nobel Peace Price was awarded to the campaign to ban landmines. Yet, we are unable rid the world of this devastating scourge. We are unable to get all the countries to even sign the treaty to ban landmines. So many affected countries in this region. So much damage. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India. This is just from what I know. Who knows how other countries of the region fare?

Landmines – the cheapest way of protecting your territory and the stupidest. They know not what peace is. Long after the war is over, they lie there. Buried in the fields. Inert but not inactive. Waiting for the next human being or animal. Even in times of peace, step on it inadvertently and what gets shattered and blown away are limbs, lives,……hopes, and dreams.

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