John Patten
Photos from Afghanistan

    I want to write next about people's perceptions and assumptions. I can say one line or answer one
    question and people build in all their assumptions on ten different issues. Even from my engagement
    email, in which I thought I was making a joke, I got an email back from my sister berating me for liking Bush
    or his policies, both of which are not true. So much for the congratulations. Same here in this context, in
    which I try to debate points on different sides of arguments, but people assume I support the war in Iraq,
    which I most definitely do not. I'm tired of being misunderstood.

    I'm neither conservative or liberal, democrat or republican, etc etc. I think they are all screwed up. We
    don't have to buy wholesale the choices of any group. People are unwilling to discuss many points we can
    agree on, rather they amplify their strong points, ignore their weak points in arguments, and do the
    opposite with the other side. Nobody is either all wrong or all right, and the screamers do not seem to have
    any solutions. When it comes to the Kyoto protocol, the Rio conference, or the JoBerg conference, many
    of us humanitarians here that have seen these things and actually been out in the field realize they are
    often the elites of a country getting together, talking up a storm, wasting resources and money, going
    home, and doing nothing. Nothing is binding, and even ten years after Rio, which was supposed to be, not
    only did countries not do what they promised, people forgot and many situations are actually worse. But
    people are more interested in the "appearance" of reality or symbolism, which is vaccuous. I personally do
    not care if george jr. did not go. I knew the latest conference would do nothing, and waste 50 million
    dollars in the process. I know so many UN staff from different countries that are not qualified to do their
    positions, and they are also subject to a huge political bureaucracy that encourages individual
    advancement on initiatives rather than what is actually neede on the ground. So for those of us that feel
    the reality of the situation matters more, does that make me a Bush lover? I've lived in villages and "the
    spirit of good will," symbolism, or talking points are absolutely meaningless to the incomes of the average
    person. They can't eat goodwill, and it won't grow back their trees they need to use for cooking fuel. Nor
    does it "set the stage." People have been setting the stage for 40 years. I care more about what is actually
    going on in reality with the people the world portends to help.

    I like to play devil's advocate on many issues to make people realize that words mean something. I may
    agree with protesters on certain points, but many of their arguments are spurious, not factual, and I
    actually think most don't know even a little bit about the real story. They believe anything that is shoveled
    their way. But now I'm rambling. The bottom line is people need to be more thoughtful before taking
    positions. There are a lot of Euro-snobs here, who talk about multi-lateralism, but which is really a cover
    for their own unilateral economic interests (France, Russia, China, or Germany pandering to politics). If
    there is anything that needs to be shouted, it's that issues are complex, and if people do not want to live
    on the human level and debate these complexities in real terms, they are not helping the situation. I do
    miss all the I-house retreats and people. Those kinds of gatherings are when I felt most connected to
    humanity and the larger picture. It's a bit colder out here, ironically in a “humanitarian” community.
    Actually, debate can take place on any issue, but I think somewhere in the bible was said that nothing will
    change until the hearts of (people) are changed. But it's hard to hear through all the yelling.


    Back out tomorrow for eight days. It will be a grind, but hopefully will pass in due time. Already planning a
    bath for Nov 4th. Wish me luck. Just got back from the mountains last night. Going back in the morning
    through another part of the district to the east. It's grueling being in charge of teams and vehicles etc, but
    when I'm out there is the only time I feel above the fray of our organization and manager. At least
    temporarily. Hopefully we will have some good data to analyze for the next month.

    It's not without it's problems though. The "roads" are horrendous, we often get stuck or barely keep from
    falling off a cliff (one vehicle we saw did), it's very cold, no food (or other) sanitation, little water, unending
    fleabites, my personal favorite, and people shit where they stand because nobody has had the presense
    of mind to build any pit latrines. Plus none of the animals seem to care where they go either. Not getting
    sick is half the job. And the other health teams ate my teams’ food! But it is beautiful and simpler, and I get
    to sit around the lantern at night out in the cold talking to the elders, who think I'm a novelty. Good photos
    too. I have my winter Afghan gear on. It's what field work should be.

    Our old host in the dusty mud house has huge marijuana plants in the front yard. So because they want
    me to investigate issues I asked if it was for family income generation, medicinal applications, oil or rope
    from the plants, or any animal fodder applications, and he paused and said without any irony, "Uh, no, I roll
    it and smoke it." Maybe it was rude not to partake, but all the staff was around. Plus being paranoid in a
    mountain village full of Islamists at night can have its drawbacks. Although it's not taboo like alcohol or
    women's faces, who still flee at the sight of me.

    I guess I never feel in danger here. I don't think I should tell the stories to my mother anymore, but I feel
    like a fly on the wall and it has nothing to do with me, and I'll be leaving in good health in April. We’ll see.
    So I’m out on the latest survey in Zendan village, eastern Kohistan, whose slogan is, “Come for the
    amoebic dysentery, stay because the commander said so.”


    Well isn’t this great. The second full day out in Zendan for the last of the three village areas to assess for
    this district. We have to interview 40 households on livelihoods strategies, when it turns out they are all
    getting most of their income from poppies which goes to the heroin trade. I was wondering why this village
    seemed more suspicious, didn’t want us to walk around alone, don’t want me to take photos, etc. We can’t
    choose another village because I guess all of the villages around here in the eastern part of the district
    are into it. They were inaccessible by agencies during Taliban times, who they fought off rather well.
    Actually one of our rental drivers drove for the Taliban and had his truck blown up with 20 Talibs. He was
    the only one out. I’ve been trying to assess whether we are safe here. The teams have been trying to tell
    people we are not here to report them, just to find out about their life and food situation. Zendan means
    jail. It doesn’t help that we have seven guys in one 3x4 meter room. Especially when they shut the door to
    the cold. But we have better embroidery on the pillows. Plus with seven guys two are guaranteed to be
    snorers, so I can’t sleep. And every family has weapons from when they were resisting the Taliban. I hope
    this doesn’t become a twilight zone episode. They said one guy has 40K dollars this year from his crop.
    Which begs the question why doesn’t someone build a fucking pit latrine for ten bucks if there is all this
    money going around? It’s got to be one of the dirtiest villages I’ve been to. Right next to a river with water
    and nobody seems to bath or wash clothes. I wonder if the opium explains it?


    So Mawludin, my able assistant, went to buy the food for the trip before we left. I asked him to buy a can of
    milk, but he didn’t check and got a can of infant formula instead. Because we’re all a bit vitamin depleted
    from the bread, rice and potato dinners, we end up having glassfuls of it. Nothing like sitting around over a
    glass of breastmilk substitute debating whether it’s safe in a place key to the worldwide heroin trade. It
    doesn’t bring back any memories. Then there was gunfire today around 5 pm, but they said it was for a
    wedding. I wonder what it’s like for a quarrel. The trucks roll in once a day to take the poppy away or to
    take people to Gorziwan to get the good poppy seed. Seems this area is on the rise for opium production,
    but that this just started large scale in the past year or two. It is considered a shameful behavior though,
    and people said if agencies would come here and give them a few options for their own survival is the only
    way to curb it. I don’t know if the UN strategy of subsidizing people not to grow poppy is working. I would
    like to apply for money not to grow 1,000 hectares.

    I’ve been sick again for four straight days. My immune system just can’t recover in a place like this.
    Palestine is most likely cleaner. There is shit everywhere and it becomes a dust you breathe along with the
    choking smoke from the cooking fires, done with small smoky shrubs, which stays at ground level. There's
    air about four meters up, but I can't reach it. There are a lot of ancient places around here so I’m told, but I
    haven’t seen any yet. Traders come from Mazar to pick up the things people loot from graves of previous
    cultures. I asked how they would feel if someone dug up their mother and they said they don’t bury people
    with jewelry. The pc crowd loves to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There is no doubt here. People
    in this village are illiterate and ignorant and something went seriously wrong. The kids are completely wild
    and uncontrolled. They said we have to park the vehicles away from everything or the kids will break the
    windows. They’re isolated here from even cities in Afghanistan, so they don’t understand our purpose at
    all, even with repeated explanation. The local staff is trying hard to finish so we can get out of here. They
    don’t like the feel of what’s going on or the people here.


    Well today is Halloween morning. The day should be scary enough naturally. But I miss that fun stuff as a
    kid. I liked the Michigan fall weather and all the stuff surrounding events from Halloween through
    Thanksgiving and Christmas. January would kind of blow, kind of like here in this village today. I can see
    blue sky above, but between the constant burning of shrubs for cooking, often in the next room, and
    people sweeping the dirt outside, there’s a choking cloud of smoke over everything and I can’t breathe. It’s
    like LA circa 1972 with no wind. I really don’t feel afraid though. I feel like I should just to be dramatic or
    write like a news journalist for effect, but it’s just me here for the moment and don’t feel much more than
    wanting to get out of here. I think I may be protected by a higher power. I have a few more decades of
    ridiculous stories to experience.

    Dare I say it? I’m bored on this trip out to the field. Or maybe it’s just the isolation of not being able to talk
    to anybody. Did go on a hike today though up the windy mountain by myself.

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