Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Taking the time to be a kid

For the past week, we’ve been escorting a crew from CBS’s 60 Minutes around Kabul as they work on story on the Afghan National Police. We’ve been everywhere; Central Training Center, Camp Phoenix, the Afghan National Police Academy, ANP headquarters in Kabul; you name it, if it had to do with police, these guys wanted to film it. It was a nice chance for me to get some photos too since pretty much everywhere we went, they were putting on the show for the big time media.

From South Africa and Australia, the film crew was a fun group; most of the journalists and photographers we’ve had out here are and I can imagine why - they have the coolest job; traveling around the world, documenting stories and amazing events and getting paid to do it. Sort of like being in Public Affairs, but with more money, more freedom and civilian clothes. So almost.

On the third day out the film crew wanted to get the Kabul police chief on patrol so we headed to the streets of Kabul, where of course, a big crowd gathered in minutes. It’s usually the kids first, and today was no different. Two little boys immediately came up to the vehicle windows and started trying to get our attention.

While I find it extremely sad to see little kids playing or going through garbage, I don’t like to give them money, no matter how much they beg. I’m sure they all have the phrase, “Missus, missus, one dollar, you give me one dollar” memorized because that’s all they seem to say, over and over. I know people hand out money but I can’t do it; it doesn’t teach them anything, the other kids might beat them up and take their money and it just encourages them to ask for more. Not to mention, you’ll have every kid in a two-block radius begging you in a matter of minutes.

But these two little boys were being relatively well-behaved and were asking for food so my co-workers and I gave them some snacks we had and a couple of bottles of water. While they were quiet about their prize, it was inevitable that other kids would find out and come running. Sure enough, five more kids came over trying to beg for money or sell us trinkets and gum. After awhile, they ran off, but the first two boys stayed and after sneaking them some lollipops, I started to play a combo of hide n’ seek and tag with them. They were laughing and having fun, and it was nice to see them taking the time out to be kids because I imagine their childhood doesn’t allow much room for playfulness. There is something about interacting with the Afghan children that brings out your protective insticts; they have so little disregard for their own safety, health and well-being; it makes you just want to take care of them. I tried to clean their hands and faces with the baby wipes I always carry and the 'What is THIS?' look on their faces was almost comical.

After awhile it was time for us to leave, but I managed to get a few pictures of them playing first. I don’t know if those two kids will remember us but I hope that whatever comes their way, they remember there are decent people in the world.

Getting the party started right

Every culture celebrates a special occasion in its own unique way; in the U.S. we typically have cake, balloons and music. In Afghanistan, they sacrifice a cow.

Our office covered the cornerstone laying ceremony for the new Afghan Defense University headquarters at Quarga in early April, where, after the typical speeches from various Afghan National Army leaders, a few ceremonial bricks were placed at the construction site ... and then the Afghans blessed the land by sacrificing a cow.

When I arrived at the construction site, I started taking pictures and talking to people, looking for a few good interviews for the story. One of my co-workers handed me a program and said, ‘Did you see their going to kill a cow’? Up on hill, overlooking the construction site, was a cow and two handlers. I wasn’t sure if really believed they would kill the cow or not, but indeed, they did. I had a front row seat; turns out I’m not that squeamish. I found out later they distributed the meat to families in need; nearby there was a refugee camp so hopefully some was brought there.
The ADU will be home of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, a four-year military university modeled after the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a dining facility, library, clinic, post exchange and several additional military schools. Over the next three years, these facilities will be built on 1,500 acres of land that was once used as Ahmad Shah Massoud’s stronghold. Known as the Lion of Panjshir, Massoud is an Afghan national hero who fought against the Soviets during the Russian occupations and then the Taliban; he was assassinated, Sept. 9, 2001.

Although it will take a few years for the ADU to be finished and all the schools moved there, it’s a huge symbol of courage, strength and hope for the people of Afghanistan. They are consolidating their Afghan National Army training facilities in one central location, and this place will hopefully become synonymous with honor, security, educated and ultimately, the future of the country.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Paving the way

The room was filled with movers and shakers – generals, colonels, counter narcotics investigators, prosecutors, Drug Enforcement Agency leaders and judges. And me. Myself excluded, it was a powerful group of people gathered from all different backgrounds and life experiences, cultures and nationalities … in fact; one of the only things they had in common was their gender. That and these women were all there because they had achieved what they did in spite of great obstacles, and they wanted to make the path easier for the women behind them.

Facilitating the meeting of the minds was Brig. Gen. Anne MacDonald, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan assisting commanding general for police development, and Michele Leonhart, acting administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency. General MacDonald’s focus is police development and one of the big pushes right now is how to make the police force a safer, more appealing place for women to serve.

Earlier this year, President Hamid Karzai mandated that an additional 5,000 women would be added to the police force by 2014; currently there are roughly 1,000 women serving. Lack of familial support, corruption, cultural beliefs about men and women working together, low pay and dangerous duties are just some of the issues facing the brave few who choose to enter the police force.

Each woman got to tell a little about herself and her personal experience and as I listened, I heard the same struggle over and over again. Some, who were policewomen before the Taliban came into power, recounted tales of violence toward women, financial hardships and freedoms destroyed. Younger women spoke of lack of respect from male colleagues, lack of promotions and of being forced to administrative tasks rather than real police work.

Michele Leonhart shared some of her experiences first as a uniformed police officer, then as a DEA agent. Like the other women at the table, she had her own challenges to face as a woman police officer in the 1970’s: low numbers of women in the police force and negative attitudes from her fellow policemen and even their wives. But she made it to the top of her game and while I’m sure it was frustrating and difficult at times, something she said really struck me. She told the women that ‘it didn’t matter if you were a male or female, people are just looking for good leaders.’

I think that was something these Afghan women really needed to hear, to know that they weren’t alone and that while it may take some time, things will improve. I think it helped them to see that even in a country as modern and advanced as the U.S., women still faced similar attitudes and obstacles, and not that long ago. Their struggles are something I can’t even imagine, that I don’t have to imagine, because people like them and Ms. Leonhart, paved the way.