The beginning of an experience is a good place to start.After almost a year of anticipation, I finally arrived at this place and experience that is the US Embassy Compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. The experience of living in this American compound could almost be anywhere. Yet, it is situated in the middle of a large city which is remote and unreal. There is no sense that you are among a few million people in this capital city that live their own daily lives.
Here, I am surrounded by about 1000 other Americans or those who work for us living in a construction zone with walls around us, bunkers and sand bags to protect us from the possibilities of danger. Contiguously is a NATO (ISAF—International and Security Forces) military base which has members of the Italian, German, British, American and other forces. Additionally, nearby or around the city there are other similar bases of various sizes and stages of drawing down. Helicopters at time buzz over us to land somewhere nearby (always two of them). But surprisingly, it is very quiet here on the side where I live with the exception of the constant hum of the compound’s generators or the air conditioners-all background white noise. I did have the opportunity a couple of times to go to the top roof of one of our buildings (5 floors). At the top, you see all over Kabul, a third world city trying to recuperate from years of war. Only then, do you realize what surrounds you.
The compound has two sides separated by a road with an underground tunnel connecting the two (people just love going up and down those two flights of steps). The one side houses the more permanent office buildings and apartments with 3 other buildings under construction for offices and apartments. On the other side, where I live, are the less permanent buildings including the majority of the 2 floor stacked container housing units (CHUs) and some offices. On this side where there are long warehouse type office buildings and through the tunnel are very large (10 by 40 foot) photos on canvas of scenes from all over the US. My favorite is the orange poppy field that occurs in the spring in the desert in Antelope Valley California. This is where I lived at one point as a kid and return to see if I visit there at that time. When I come out of my room (Hooch), I see Cannon Beach, Oregon—(a fond recent memory from a visit with my sister in April). In the limited green space and in containers, the facilities’ people have planted gardens with flowers or vegetables which really does help with the monotony of all the concrete and construction fences.
My room is small but adequate with my own bathroom, twin bed, desk, bureau, armoire, a microwave, small refrigerator, etc. I have my own coffeemaker for my morning dark roast brew to get me through the day. I have tried to make it a home for me—and it is fine except I am situated on the lower level which means I don’t have much light through my small window. If you come with a spouse, you enjoy living in a relatively nice apartment with a kitchen and a large bedroom. I could choose to be on the waiting list to share an apartment—but I figure it is safer just to be on my own in this small room for the duration. We are limited due to security as to where we can take photos--but I am allowed to take photos of my room.
|Desk and phone with a US area code|
|A memory of the war in Afghanistan and a local ottoman|
There are two DFACs or cafeteria that manage to feed people three meals a day. The food is decent given the situation and there is always a salad bar and fruit option. There is an effort to give a variety although already the choices are becoming tiresome. As the food is plentiful including many desert choices at all meals, one could manage to gain quite a bit of weight. Luckily, there are many gyms and work out opportunities from treadmills to a variety of weights, spin, yoga, core fit classes and running groups (the running option around the compound is limited, however). I work out regularly at the gym and also enjoy the high intensity spinning classes in the morning at 6 am along with yoga classes in the evening and the dance classes.
We are not allowed to travel outside the compound unless for mission necessary travel or on your way in and out to the airport. Since my mission is inside the walls, I stay here for the most part (although I have gone out to pick up medical supplies at one of the military bases). There is an effort to keep people busy with activities such as game night, quiz night, dance classes, movie night, wine tasting and whatever else people are willing to organize. There are a few bands that get together and perform at the “Duck and Cover” bar. There is a real effort to keep people entertained and busy. There is a saying before you arrive that is passed along—Will you become a “hunk” (works out all the time) a “chunk” (eats a lot and gains weight) a “drunk” (obvious) or a “monk”- (These people keep themselves busy by working almost continuously, leave late and take their meals to their room). Luckily, there are people who choose to be a combo of all at various times.
We have satellite TV that has AFN (Armed Services Network) stations that show a variety of shows from US with military messages as commercials. Additionally, there are a number of English speaking stations from India showing American movies, sit coms from US, UK as well as some Indian sit coms (with alot of commercials). Rounding it out are Afghan stations only in Dari and although I don’t understand what they are saying, it is interesting to watch their limited offerings from news to political discussions, movies and game shows.
There is a wide variety of people here from various agencies, contractors from all over the world coming and going. Many are the contracted diplomatic security forces who carry weapons and patrol the compound. This security force is made up of Americans and third country nationals such as Nepalese, Peruvian men. They live on another compound of their own. The mix of male to female on the compound is about 75/25 with a mostly younger population and not too many more mature ladies like myself. There is a group of older white men working mostly as contractors of some sort that come and go. The typical State Dept. tour length is one year but those who work for USAID (a lot of contractors) stay 1-2 years while folks working for Dept. Justice, DEA etc. stay 3-4 years. The people who stay longer tend to be those who go out to the places where there are camps or field stations (PRT) setting up programs, doing education, working with the military, etc. So, they are not “stuck” on the compound for extended periods. Presently, there is a large turnover of people during the summer transfer season although there is always turnover with so many temporary duty people coming and going. Since I was one of the first of the new people coming, I stepped into the established groups who not only had their own friends but also had one foot out the door. It has been difficult to make many friends although people are always friendly and basically all in the same situation. So, slowly, I do know more people and making some superficial friendships.
The Health Unit is the largest one so far where I have worked. Presently we have 3 FSHPs (Foreign Service Health Practitioner), a DOS doctor, a family member Nurse Practitioners, 2 psych social workers and an American nurse. Additionally, we have a local doctor who runs our lab, a local nurse and 4 local office support staff (all men). There was only 2 office staff, but we were given 2 other young men to help out when they were brought to Kabul from other parts of the country. (They worked as translators for Special Forces and when the operation concluded, they were brought to Kabul to basically wait for their special immigration visa. There are a number of people working in the Embassy in such a situation after working for the Americans.) I am the first person in the new group that is arriving this cycle and have tried to find my position in an established group who have been here for 2 years. The redundancy of staff is designed to make certain there is enough staff as someone is always away on leave. Additionally, there needs to be enough providers available in an emergency. While we still provide routine care, we are also are equipped for emergency care as well as training first responders for mass casualties given we are in a war zone. Additionally, we have few local resources and look to the NATO military bases for additional medical support. On the compound, the contracted security forces have medics trained to assist in an emergency. One of the FSHPs leaving in August is not being replaced, so I look to take on some more duties as tasks are being reassigned. I have taken on the new duty of shooting X-rays which has been fun to learn to do. It is also a challenge to procure medications and supplies. As the military draws down, one of our reliable sources will be diminishing. There will be a turnover of physicians in September and the third FSHP will be replaced in November. The replacement for the American nurse leaving on October as not been announced.
As there are areas in the country where we have mission members serving in other parts of the country (provincial reconstruction team or PRT) , someone from the Health Unit travels occasionally to these locations. There is a consulate in the west in Herat that has mission members. It is located in a former hotel which now houses both offices, including a health unit and living quarters for those 30 plus who serve there. I did travel there a month ago to serve those at the consulate and also to review the military medical facilities at one of the remaining NATO bases there. As in Kabul, there is minimal movement outside the much smaller compound on non-mission related business. Since most of these people are healthy, there is little clinical work to do but provide morale boosting. The consulate does have much better food and a lovely view of the city below. I will make a visit again this week. It is uncertain how long or if the consulate will remain open after the draw down of the troops.
We work Sunday through Thursday as Friday and Saturday are the Muslim days off. However, most everyone works on Saturday and the Health Unit is open half day. We rotate working on this day and taking medical duty call. Friday is the one day where you feel comfortable walking about in shorts and T shirts. On alternate Fridays, there is no construction work going on and it is nice to enjoy the quiet. Besides catching up on sleep, laundry, cleaning, many people enjoy shopping the local vendors that come to the Embassy compound or on the ISAF base. Others play volleyball, tennis or sit at the pool all on the compound. At the base, there are softball games that must interrupt their play if the helicopters have to land on the field.
The news of the ongoing attacks in all parts of Afghanistan is received through the usual media sources here. At times, I receive other news that I may not want to know about. Within the first week of arrival, there were two “duck and cover” alerts causing us to suit up in our personal protective gear and waiting in a hardened structure until the threat had passed. There has not been any direct attack on the compound but in areas nearby. During another attack in the city, I was at the airport waiting to fly to Herat (via Embassy Air)—got out of the compound just in time. Since then, it has been quiet nearby but security has tightened during Ramadan. I learn every day how we spend the taxpayer’s dollars—better not to make comment at this point.
The weather has been hot ( upper 90’s in the day—cooling off at night) and very dry. At 6000 feet, it is cooler than in Herat or in other lower altitude cities. The dryness and dust wreaks havoc with your skin and eyes and leaves a constant layer of dust on your clothes and furniture. The summer winds have not yet begun in full force and I have been told, it can be nasty. With all the construction, most of the clothes and shoes brought will be left here.
As it is the holy month of Ramadan and this is a religious country, most Afghans fast from sun up to sun down. The summer can be very difficult for them due to the heat and the longer hours of the day for fasting. The schedules of the workers are accommodated and the pace of getting work completed slows considerably. I have noticed, that the construction work seems to stop in mid-day and continues after sunset for a few more hours.
I am planning my first of five trips that I am allowed to take away from the Embassy. I have a choice to take 3 R&Rs (a plane ticket to the US/London or a cost construct to your destination of choice) or 2 R&Rs and 3 regional rest breaks (plane ticket to Dubai or cost construct). The rule to receive all your benefits is that you have to have “boots on the ground” 300 out of 365 days for the tour. My first trip will take place mid-August to Beijing and Hong Kong. I started the process only to find out that the Chinese consular in Kabul has not found any American visa applications acceptable for the last 8 months (I imagine it is because there is no extra cash with the application). So, I hope to fly to Hong Kong first where I don’t need a visa and obtain the Chinese visa there. I hope to visit the doctor with whom I worked in Ankara who is now posted in Beijing. I am looking forward to the break from here and seeing another part of the world.
I posted some photos to Facebook of my stop in Dubai on my way to Kabul. Additionally, I also have photos of my air trip across Afghanistan between Kabul and Herat as well as some scenes from Herat and some photos from the 4th of July party on the compound.