I have some great stuff to tell you so you might grab your reading glasses when you have time.
For those who just want to know that I am safe, well this e-mail should confirm that.
The Short Version:
We have contracted the construction of two 6 room schools, one 8 room school, and a 3 room addition in Qarnala. In nine summers we have contracted 14 schools and one library.
The Mir Bacha Kot library is open and still handing out books in an area serving a population of ten thousand people. Look forward to doing the same again in 2011
I have a Facebook page compliments of Paul
The Long Version:
The flight from the states to Kabul went smoothly, I spent a night in NYC as well as Dubai where I had dinner with Hamida Gafour and her Husband. Hamida wrote a 4 page article last fall in The National on myself and DAI’s projects . The Kabul airport was a chaotic jam of passengers from three 737’s looking for bags on two small cramped turnstyles.
After dropping my bags at the Mustaffa, I went around the corner to Chicken Street .After a warm embrace from my father Haji another summer in Afghanistan had officially begun. He is well as is his entire family. It is all up to Allah he says. We sat and drank tea caught up on another year gone by and sold a few carpets .
The 1st couple of days were spent touching base with friends mostly Afghan. Rare to find an expat from last year still here. Qasimi and I met to make plans for our annual school construction drive into the mountains. When the call came a few days later my bags were already packed.
It was a short trip, 7 days traveling every Donkey path in the Nawur -Bamiyan region of Afghanistan. For the 1st time in my travels to Afghanistan it was decided that traveling through Ghazni city was too dangerous, not just for me but for Mr. Qasimi as well . Qasimi had hired a Toyota van with 4 wheel drive to take us where we had to go. Aside from Qasimi there were only 2 security guards, Qasimis driver in case the (City )driver got tired or couldn’t handle a stretch of road and Sharifi my translator.
From Kabul we traveled south to Maidan Wardak, where we hooked a right and headed west towards Behsud, and eventually Bamiyan. The first 10-15 miles was paved which was a pleasant change. I hadn’t traveled this road since 2005 when I took a trip to Bamiyan for pleasure only. The Wardak area has been a No Travel zone for the past several years. This year is no different but safer then traveling through Ghazni . Eventually the pavement turned to smooth fresh packed dirt ready for pavement and a few miles down the road the construction equipment informed us of the inevitable.
Nowhere is everywhere I went this trip doing figure eights and zigzagging from one valley to another over 11 thousand foot plus peaks.. I felt like a pinball, going West to head East or North to eventually head South again. When I look at a map of the area I travel there is no indication of a road or even a path on the map legend. The mountains determine our route of travel
Most days started at 4:30 AM with the call to prayer and ended between 8 and 10 Pm, ending as it started with a quick prayer followed by the laying out of mattresses and quilts for sleeping. The time in between was spent mostly traveling to our next village. Once we reached our destination Chai and Nan with butter was served while the elders would gather for the meeting with Mr. Qasimi and I.
Our 1st night was spent in Kalo, an hour south of Bamiyan. I have visited this village before for tea and indigestion. I caught one of my more serious stomach bugs after obliging our host by eating the lunch he served to us. After that episode I determined to be more careful with what I ate and meat was entirely off the menu. Chips, boiled potatoes, nan, moss, and chai are the staples while on the road. My Afghan Diet is simple and effective to lose weight but not wordy enough to make it the latest diet craze best seller
In the morning Qasimi asked me if I would consider this village as a possible school. I said I was open to the prospect but wanted to 1st Visit the Shibar region where Bamiyan PRT and the VNG had determined would be a location suitable for a school that Vermont Guard could visit and support.
We traveled down the road toward Bamiyam past several old fortress carved out of the mountain most dating back to the before Ghengis Khans invasion in 1219. We turned east towards Shibar and the Bamiyan – Parwan border. The road was a maze of heavy construction similar to the Wardak road. Bamiyan had been designated as must go area and was receiving preference for infrastructure in part due to possible tourism in the future.
As we traveled, I was starting to feel uncomfortable about building a school here. Our schools are situated in rural areas hard to get to. This area was under major transformation which would change the educational needs of the area in a few short years. Qasimi and I agreed to at least visit the elders and see what they thought. Fortunately the elders preferred to wait until a larger NGO was willing to invest in the region and for the 1st time our offer to build a school was declined. We finished our Chai, said a few Khadaffis and hopped in the van for Bamiyan and the Kiwis Major Tweedy who is in charge of the Bamiyan PRT.
Where you from soldier?
On our way towards Bamiyan we came across 3 US soldiers standing guard over a large culvert project as PRT checked on the progress. We stopped the van and I hopped out, long hair and a beard with a bunch of Afghans looking out the window. The 1st of 3 soldiers was a young women with an M-4 in her hands. Where you from Soldier? Bamiyan sir. No what State? Vermont Sir. I’m from Vermont. I guess you are sir as she noticed my American Flatbreads shirt. We spoke for 5 minutes, me telling her and the two from Kentucky what I was doing in a van with a bunch of Afghans and them giving some background to the road project and that two of Toms closest friends were assigned to Bamiyan PRT as well.
Here in Vermont like the other 49, have sent over the past decade hundreds of our neighbors off to war.
This year the Vermont National Guard (VNG) has sent close to 1,500 Guardsmen and women to Afghanistan for up to a 12 month deployments. Most soldiers in Afghanistan have been there for one deployment or more with a combination of tours in either Iraq and or Afghanistan. Now when you divide 255 cities, towns and villages into 1,500 it is safe to say that almost all Vermonters know of someone in uniform in Afghanistan. I got to know a few more this trip from Island Pond to Bennington.
Part of this summer’s project was to locate a village that VNG could possibly visit and support with school supplies or soccer balls etc. Not many will actually get the opportunity but locating it outside of our normal area in a safe area might make it possible for some. it was made clear that the VNG was not responsible for the school project in any way but more an opportunity for soldiers who knew Tom to take part in a small way in the support of a village.
We arrived in Bamiyan around noon, our meeting was at 3 so we had a few hours to kill. I called Assadullah and his sister Adelah, both exchange students in Vermont. Assadullah picked me up in his family’s only source of income their Toyota Corolla. We had just enough time for introductions, tea ,and the realization that their house had been rebuilt 3 times during the Taliban era. On our way back to town Assadullah filled me in on how he is volunteering his time at the Bamiyan High school as an English instructor unable to find work that pays a salary.
Our meeting with the Kiwis was short and sweet. We rolled out a large map of Bamiyan, explained the situation in Shibar and looked at a list of villages requesting schools. Most were requesting schools larger then we could support but one name came up that Qasimi seemed excited about and wouldn’t you know it, we stayed there last night. As we rolled up the map and shook hands Qasimi assured the Major that we could arrange everything. The men and women of the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) were lining up at the mess hall as we walked towards the gate, we had one more stop before dinner; the Governors office.
We drove around the Cul-de Sac a quarter mile to the new Governors headquarters . It was secure, clean and close to the airport. We walked up the stairs, Qasimi leading the way to Habiba Sorabi the women Governor of Bamiyan since 2005. Qasimi and Ms. Sorabi are old friends so the first few minutes were spent catching up as Chai was served . Now the conversation is in Dari so, I was just sitting there minding my own business when the Governor turned to me and said “I will donate 2 thousand dollars towards your school and want to be there when it officially opens”. I was pleasantly surprised and soon enough the Minister of Education walks in, they sit around exchanging pleasantries, the look in my direction and with a nod confirming that this school will be registered with the Government.
The next morning we walked the 1/2mile up the road to the school. A 3 room school in good condition and 3 tents were filled with young school girls for the morning session. The night before we had made the agreement with the local elders, so today was just a picture taking event before we headed off for our next of three stops , Alton. The 6 room addition will be the 4th school in Honor of Tom Stone. With the Governor and possible visit from VNG soldiers it was understood that the project should be a success.
Alton, Borjigai, sleep.
We had to travel south through Behsud where the Kuchi and Hezera’s had a battle waging two years back. It flared up again in late May early June of this year but had calmed down the past couple weeks. The snow remaining on the peaks of the Koh-I-Baba range showed more snow was left to feed the streams into late summer. We made it to Alton just before noon
Alton was going to be a quick stop, school was not in session so a few photos of an empty school and a quick stop in the village and we would be off for Borjigai. The Alton school was almost complete two years later. The Metal door was ready for hanging and another work day was planned for after exams.
We arrived in Borjigai as the sun was starting to sneak down behind the peaks, a group of boys playing soccer on the uneven gravel area most suited for playing. Elders came from their houses on foot or motorcycle for the even quicker visit in Borjigai.
The girl’s school we contracted is nearly complete, roof and outside walls are finished. The interior needs to be started, but that and glass in the windows and it should be complete. The boy’s school however, a project from a different source of funds ( Govt?) is still in the same state as last summer. Walls are nearly finished but not even close to being complete, didn’t have time to inquire, did not want to get involved.
Our last stop was our host for the evening about a half hours drive towards our next new project in Jorgai across the valley from Borjigai. It was after dark by the time we settled into an evening meal with a near full moon coming up over the mountains. Sleep was easy to come by that night. It was July 4th
The next morning we headed across to the other side of the valley. Elders needed to be gathered from all the neighboring villages. This would take a couple hours so Zamim, Jumal, Sharifi and I hung outside drinking Chai and lying in the shade of the building. Once the elders were gathered I was summoned down the hill a ways where the elders and Qasimi had decided the new 8 room school should be located
We discussed the cost and the few conditions on my part and once we had all shook hands and our head in agreement we headed back up the hill for a mid day lunch.
Jorgai has 380 students all told. There are 330 boys and only 50 girls. When I was given these numbers I just looked at the elders and said. “You know I don’t want to tell you how to run your village or your school. I want to respect your traditions and culture, but in all honesty the more girls I have attending school the more money I can raise to build more schools”. I have worded this request in many ways in the past. And have always steered away from a link between money and girls in school. I said it without thinking and I think they understood my dilemma (no one asks me how many boys attend school)
I suspect the number of girls will increase not because of my comment, but now that they have more than a Madrassa to choose from.
Safidab is the 1st of the four new schools contracted last year. The walls are up and the beams in place for the roof yet to be started. I have built enough schools to learn that it will get done when it gets done. A work crew was scheduled to come in after exams and finish the roof. The school was well built, thick walls and a courtyard large enough for a volleyball court. The layout of the building also allowed for another room to be built in the future as a teachers office with little effort. Although not complete the village had spent the money well, and like Alton and Borjigai was not requesting additional funds.
The students, teachers and elders had assembled to greet Qasimi and myself with shouts of praise and speeches. We all spoke emphasizing the importance of education and encouraged the students to work hard at their studies. Qasimi and I have it down to a formula now. Speeches, photos, maybe chai, but not here, not today, we were off to Garmob and a Hamam.
Tobi Gamob is the 2nd school we contracted last summer. It came out wonderful. 8 rooms with roof, and cement inside, windows and doors are still on the list. It was late in the afternoon so students were not available so a few photos and off to Garmob.
Last summer we budgeted $ 1500. For odds and ends associated with the Garmob school. It was simple stuff like frames, and glass for windows, white wash for the walls and a 3 room latrine for the girls made from stone from the old school building and cement. The teachers and male students volunteered their labor to make it happen. I could hear them chuckle down the hill as I walked into the structure, camera at the ready. I just shrugged and they laughed even louder.
It was getting late and we were dirty, time for a nice warm water bath coming from a 9,500 ft mountain spring. A clean change of clothes put a fresh step to us all. We proceeded down the road to the local mosque which when needed can be turned into a Motel Six. Dinner and conversation was served, it was a cool evening outside but comfortable inside.
The next morning we headed for Nawur which also meant we were in the home stretch. Two maybe three days and we would be back in Kabul. A shortcut (road? what road?) through a narrow canyon allowed us to shave 2 hours off the trip to Bid. Bid is the 3rd of the 4 schools we contracted last summer. The 6 rooms are complete inside and out, windows and doors are all that’s needed.
School was in session which gave us an opportunity to visit the classrooms and see what the students were studying and let them get to know me a little better. After some impromptu lessons from Mr. Qasimi we made our way to Doab for a quick transfer to another van where I would go alone to Bariki
Bariki was waiting for me all lined up in a row as I climbed out of the van and up the hill towards the school. A quick tour of the school showed that it was a hundred percent complete. I have found the smaller schools to be completed and the larger schools needing an extra year. Songs, speeches and pictures were taken, Chai was cut short due to our schedule and the need for me to head back towards Qarnala.
We spent the night in Qarnala and early the next morning traveled an hour to the village of Shemalto.
Shemalto has a working 6 room school but it is old and crowded and an additional 6 rooms were needed. While the village elders discussed the agreement and their end of the deal I toured the school taking pictures and visiting the students. The school has 200 boys and 170 girls attending grades 1-9, the high school is a 3 hour walk so few boys and no girls attend .
Qarnala was our last official business this trip we had agreed to supply funds for a 3 room addition to the five room school we built in 2005?. They have been hounding me for more rooms since 2006 when I came back to see the school for the 1st time. It was good to get them off my list / back. Saying no every year leaves a bitter taste in ones mouth.
On our way home we made a quick stop in Yakhshi. Students were in school and it is good to shake hands at least once a year. The 3 rooms were full of young boys and girls books in hand wondering what all the fuss was about. It is a humble structure that we should dedicate funds for improvements in the next year or two.
After a quick Chai and Nan lunch we were off to Kabul but the journey would last well into the night and part of the next day. We arrived in Kabul around noon time with a flat tire at the livestock market on the outskirts of town.
It had been determined that it would be best if I again only made one trip. Security was always an issue and like last year Qasimi would be back in the area in a couple weeks pushing the villages to get the work done in a timely manner. This meant that my time would be spent in Kabul until my flight was changed. I did have a few loose ends to tie up. One was the library and the second was the VNG and the 3rd and most elusive was finding someone at the State Department to write a 2 paragraph letter requested by an Afghan official as part of my registration process.
I made my annual unannounced visit to The Mir Bacha Kot Library. I was happy to see it was in a clean state with records showing books being taken and returned. ID’s were being issued and new furniture and Drapes had been purchased. I left them the annual $500.donation. I requested that they use the funds for cement and paint. I wanted a clean library that I could take a picture of. The Library is in good shape, It just needs a little attention to keep it in good condition.
Back in Kabul I made my second trip to visit VNG guardsmen
I was able to have the pleasure of traveling with the VNG from Camp Pheonix in Kabul To the Bagram base to meet Colonel Roy, Boots on the ground commander of the Wolverine Task Force. Tom and the Colonel had been close friends and he wanted to personally take a minute to know more and thank me for not just Toms schools but all the schools. I wanted to take the opportunity to thank them for being there, cause if they weren’t there I couldn’t be there either.
Its pretty simple, we need each other to make it work.
I enjoyed my visits with the Guard, to see someone from Vermont this far from home gave my spirits a boost. I hope I did the same to those I met.
All in all the trip was short and sweet and successful . we contracted 4 construction projects for a total of 23 classrooms for 39 thousand. The other 11 are complete or almost complete Like Jeddy always said It will get done when it gets done and it does get done, just not on our timetable.
Not sure what next year will bring all depends on the bank account figures in May, it would be nice to do a couple more schools next year, we didn’t have time to visit any possible locations but the list is still there. My own list for next year grows larger by the day already. Getting this off in an e-mail will help
Hope all is well. Appreciate your support and encouragement