A healer heads home
For more than 3,000 years, Afghanistan was the world’s crossroads. During the past year for Capt. Roy Addington, Afghanistan was worlds away any place he was used to.
From August 2003 to this February, Addington, who now lives in Eagle-Vail, served as a medic with the 10th Mountain Division’s Forward Support Battalion in a combat hospital at the Qandahar air base in southwestern Afghanistan.
“The 10th Never Sleeps,” so says the famed division’s motto. That, says Addington, means whatever it has to mean – making war and building peace.
“The troops there have a sense of mission,” said Addington, lived at Ft. Drum in upstate New York and Germany before moving to the valley. “Afghanistan is not as sexy, or at least not as high profile, as Iraq, but it’s more successful so far.”
For a country once at the center of everything, Afghanistan is a long way from anything. It’s more than 1,200 miles from the nearest seaport. Textiles, semi-precious stones and the occasional opium shipment come out. Gas and oil are there for the drilling, and the crews are preparing to head in. They won’t be blazing any new trails, however.
In the 13th century, Marco Polo marched through on his way to China. He was traveling a trail left by Alexander the Great around 325 B.C. The Soviets tried their hand at conquest in the 1970s – finally abandoning it as the invasion became their version of Vietnam. The terrorists who killed more than 3,000 people at New York’s World Trade Center attack were based there, which explains how the United States military and the United Nations got involved, and remain so.
After Sept. 11, winning the war in Afghanistan didn’t tax the military machine all that much. Winning the peace has been more complicated, but the light at the end of the tunnel no longer looks like an oncoming train.
The now-deposed Taliban, like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during and following Vietnam, tried to eradicate all symbols of Western influence, including slaughtering Western-trained educators.
Afghanistan’s not perfect, and it’s not close. Parts of the country still see fighting and unrest. Addington said refugee camps near Qandahar and other parts of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border could continue to be a source of trouble as long as oppressive poverty exists.
But Afghans are practical people. Addington said after years of brutal Taliban rule many Afghans see their lives beginning to improve.
“There was no infrastructure,” said Addington. “Everything has to be created.”
Less than three years after Sept. 11, the Taliban is banished and Afghanistan is being lifted out of the equivalent of the stone age – Operation Enduring Freedom, it’s called. Addington said he hopes it’s long on the “enduring” part.
There’s a strong Romanian military presence, part of the United Nations coalition that’s still there, helping keep order as the ancient nation finds its new way.
Roads are being built, schools are opening, water is running where none had run before. Humanitarian assistance, food and medical supplies keep coming, filling a need that remains constant. Afghans recently ratified their first Constitution. Next month they’ll vote in their first democratic elections.
The adults are pleasant, Addington said. The kids swarm like they do in many Third World countries.
“The Afghan people don’t see us as occupiers,” said Addington. “We represent their best employer. They want opportunity. We sometimes see doctors and computer operators working with military personnel, because it’s one of the only ways they can earn a living for themselves and their families.”
Addington is a healer by nature and training, working in a world of war. He was one of 13,000 serving in Afghanistan. More than 130,000 currently serve in Iraq. While the numbers are different, the ratio of soldiers-to-civilians are about the same, as are the casualties resulting from enemy tactics.
Like the 2-for-1 tactic.
In January an explosive device went off near a school yard near Qandahar. When the kids gathered around, a second device exploded. Addington saw 38 of the wounded in his hospital.
“The hospital is utilized by anyone who needed it, and all kinds of people do,” said Addington.
And then there are the land mines.
Farming happens, even in the continuing aftermath of the Soviet occupation. The Soviets abandoned Afghanistan, but their legacy was left behind in millions of land mines.
“The Soviets mined deeply,” said Addington. “Our farmers watch for rocks. Their farmers watch for mines. If they find one, they dig it up. If it explodes, they try to get back in their fields as quickly as possible, even with an appendage missing.”
More things buried in the Afghanistan earth can kill and maim you than in almost any place on the planet. The Web site unicef.org rates Afghanistan as the fifth-most mined country, while planetark.com rates it at No. 1.
Either way, no one strays from the beaten path if they intend to stay out of harm’s way. “If you walk anywhere besides a well-established foot path, you’re risking death or serious injury,” said Addington. “The mines brought in more people than anything else.”
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is trying to reclaim land by de-mining several countries, including Afghanistan. Jody Williams shared the Nobel Peace Prize for helping put together the 1997 international treaty that bans the sale, use, manufacture and stockpiling of mines.
Williams said Afghanistan signed the Mine Ban Treaty, and that their de-mining program is among the best in the world.
“They’re really pioneers in shaping how humanitarian mine clearance is carried out,” Williams said in an NPR interview. “Humanitarian mine clearance, of course, is clearing every mine from the ground so that families can return to their villages and plant crops and survive.”
It’s slow work. Williams said in 1996, the last year for which the French government provided statistics, 36 French farmers hit World War-era land mines when tilling their fields. She said in the time she has been studying the issue, mines have claimed between 15,000 to 20,000 new victims.