Over the past year, I have taken many photographs of sheep in Afghanistan. I never got very close to them. But on today’s mission, not only did I get close, but a baby lamb got quite “intimate” with me.
A few weeks ago we received notice that our AF Group Commander, several squadron commanders and select staff would visit our
camp. This would be an opportunity to meet and greet, shoot at the range, and if time permitting, visit some of the historical sites here. The original plan was to meet in the morning and then after lunch drive to the shooting range. Two vehicle breakdowns delayed our guests from arriving on time so we started the day later than planned.
While driving to the range I noticed all of the snow has melted and the craggy mountain peaks have returned to their barren ugly brown faces. We set up our targets for the small arm weapons and mounted a 50 caliber machine gun on an up-armored Humvee.
The 50 cal would shoot at an abandoned Soviet tank at 800 meters. I knew it would only be a matter of time until the village children would show up in hopes of collecting
the brass casings. According to Omid my interpreter, the children can make $40-50 off the brass we expend in one outing.
It didn’t take long before the children heard the thundering pop of the 50 cal and they came running from their village. One boy was shepherding a flock of sheep and some baby lambs. As a safety precaution the ANA soldier didn’t want the children near the shooting range. Of course I knew this wasn’t the primary reason, because the ANA soldiers like to collect the brass casings and make additional money too. I gave the
ANA soldier some hygiene and toiletry items and convinced him to permit the children to come closer while remaining outside of harm’s way. Immediately the children responded and ran up the hill to our location. The oldest boy spoke a few words of English and I reciprocated with a few greeting words in Dari. I was curious why the
children weren’t in school. They explained they already attended school in the morning for 3 hours. There aren’t enough schools to accommodate the large number of children who want to attend. So to facilitate the crowds, the school normally runs 3 shifts of 3 hours each.
Now that the children were present, we would have to entertain them until the target practice stopped. The boys came prepared with fertilizer sacks to retrieve the spent brass casings. I went back to the MRAP and retrieved a soccer ball. Their eyes really lit up when they saw the soccer ball. I asked my interpreter Omid about a fair way of presenting a gift to one of the boys. We entertained ideas of rock, paper, scissors game, drawing straws, etc. Omid came up with the solution and
each boy wrote his name on a slip of paper. Then a random slip was drawn and one of the boys would be declared a winner. Before presenting the ball, I wanted to ensure they would all play with the ball. One little boy declared since they were all from the same village, then they would share it together.
After I gave the boys the soccer ball, one of the little boys went running
after his sheep and chased down a baby lamb. It was so cute to see him struggling to carry this baby animal in his arms. But then it donned on me, perhaps he was going to
reciprocate and give me a gift. Knowing this was his family’s livelihood, this would be a gift I would have to turn down. Instead, he wanted me to hold his baby lamb. I couldn’t refuse this friendly gesture and he got a kick out of me holding this lamb along with my teammates who took pictures. While holding the lamb, it got the urge to nuzzle against my neck and then slurped my face with its tongue. This was a real crowd pleaser …. lol. After the pictures I put down the lamb and it went running back to its mother. Now I had to find something to wash my hands, because this animal smelled with odor and so did my hands.
My AF Squadron commander wanted the opportunity to present some gifts to the children too. He brought along some handmade quilts that were donated by a private organization in the US. Once again the children gleamed with excitement. They told Omid, nobody has ever given them any gifts at the shooting range, other than bottled water and MRE packets. The children also saw my pen and asked about school supplies. It totally slipped my
mind about bringing some pens with me on this trip. The boys also complained that nobody gives their school any supplies, but the US mentors have visited a nearby all-girls school twice.
While my commander was giving them some Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), I went back to my MRAP and recalled there was a box of Beanie Babies stored inside. I wasn’t sure how these stuffed animals would be received. Perhaps the boys were too old to
appreciate them. I was totally wrong. These children loved their Beanie Babies which were donated by Beanie Babies for Baghdad program. What really surprised me is all
of the boys put the Beanie Babies on their head and posed for pictures. One of the boys would habitually render a salute in the photographs too. As you can tell by the
smile on my face, I was having a great time interacting with the Afghan children. For a few hours, the war was inconsequential and nonexistent even though down in the adjacent valley was a village of Taliban sympathizers.
Meanwhile my teammates and guests were finishing their target practice. Everyone who wanted to shoot was given an opportunity to practice their marksmanship. The Afghan boys patiently waited for us to leave so they could collect the brass and earn some additional money.
Our convoy of vehicles departed the range and we stopped at the former Soviet Officer club for a small tour. Our guests really enjoyed the birds-eye view of the Darulaman and Tajbeg Palaces. I also pointed out some of the other 14th century ruins and sites while on top of this mountain and gave my historical recollection of the events that transpired in this area.
The last stop on the visit was a tour of the Tajbeg Palace (Queen’s Palace). It still amazes me how large this structure is. Unfortunately it was destroyed during the civil war and is in a state of constant decay. I’m uncertain of the structural integrity of the building, because the bricks on the outer façade are continuously dropping and the metal roofing is peeled back and occasionally a piece of it flies away during a big wind storm. Whether it can be salvaged and restored still remains to be seen.
Our guests really had a great time today. Many of them never get to leave their FOBs and only see the confines of their camp and the surrounding concrete walls and razor
sharp concertina wire. For some of them, this was the highlight of their deployment. Today was a memorable occasion for me too. Being licked in the face by a baby lamb was not on my “Things to Do in Afghanistan List.” My interaction with the children and seeing their smiling faces reinforces my commitment in fighting this war, despite knowing they are still living in fear and squalid living conditions. Perhaps when they grow up, they will remember me not just as an American soldier, but as an American who put aside religious and cultural differences and cared enough to give them a gift of kindness. Perhaps one day they will enjoy the freedoms we take for granted and will enjoy a prosperous life.