The Last Journey

September 5, 2010 COP Turbett

“School Days”


Today is Sunday, September 5.  It was the first day of school in these parts in the little town just outside the COP.  The community is called, “cooch-a-ray”.  I do not know the exact spelling of it.  For the past few days, preparations have been being made for this event.  Education is something that the Taliban frown upon yet the kids here really seek out to learn.  Tents were set up just to the east of the COP as temporary facilities for school while the permanent structure is being built.  Final touches were put in place around 0600 hrs with the Marines setting up concertina wire where the entrance to the school is.  By about 0700 hrs, students began trickling in for the first day of school.  The turnout was the big mystery.  By an hour later, the place was filled with children mostly from ages 9-12 and the place was bustling with activity.  By all practical measurements the first day of school was pulled off at this point with success. 

Education is the key for the next generation of Afghans.  There is no disputing that.  The children are for sure eager to learn and like children everywhere across the globe, they are equal in desire and for all practical purposes void of the matters of war that cause so much problems in this type of setting.  Throughout the morning I observed a steady stream of children coming into the school area registering for class and taking their places in the tents.  The tents were set up by Marines and Afghan police and the joint effort proved worthwhile.  Many of the Marines on this day had purchased local attire in advance and when the time came for the students to arrive, there were Marines looking like Afghan locals standing guard to make sure all went well.  There were also various patrols in and around the area keeping a watchful eye on the school in the event that the Taliban tried to cause problems on this day. 

I spent a fair bit of the morning photographing the whole scene at school.  During this time I befriended three students.  Their names are; Barrelli, Ahmed Ali, and Samuela.  These three students captured my attention right from the beginning.  The one named Barrelli is small in stature but seems to be quite bright and picks things up right away.  He is very mannerly and eager to get right down to business.  He has some English skills.  The one named Samuela is quite attentive and is probably the most eager to want an education.  He also seems to be the one that will most likely to problem solve the quickest among all the students I observed.  Ahmed Ali is the strongest physically of the three but is just as intelligent.  He is kind of the glue that holds the three of them together.  As I watched him I could see him being the one that could become the most bored in the shortest amount of time if school is not a success.  I snapped many a shot of the three of these guys and as the morning unfolded I kept an eye to see how their reactions would be with all of today’s events. 



The children arrived mostly on foot but many were dropped off via motor cycle.  Some rode bicycles and one or two actually drove small motor cycles.  A few parents came with their children.  But not very many.  And never was a mother seen.  This was pretty much a male only event, but, there were about four little girls that walked by more than once observing but hurriedly scurried off when asked to come.  Schooling for young girls is definitely a cultural no-no.  One of the girls was reported to actually be crying and really wanted to come to school.  There are three females here at the COP, one linguist and two female engagement team members specifically here to accommodate the female local population.  Part of their job is and will be to assist with young girls wanting to attend school.  This is a fairly new program here and still in the developing stages.  Once again, time will tell how success will be measured.


During the opening of the school, the owner of the property that the temporary school is set up on came by and observed all that was going on.  He was quite happy to see all the children in attendance.  An older man, quite tall and with a full white beard came by.  His face was quite weathered but he was in good shape.  He seemed to carry some authority as do most men with full white beards.  He came by and also was quite pleased to see the children all around enjoying the event.  I took his photo on several occasions as he chatted with the Marine officers via the translator. 


There were also some older men that were not as enthusiastic about the school event.  They engaged in some conversations with the Marine officers once again via translators.  Just by watching their body language and listening to the tone in their voices it was obvious they were not all that happy about the kids attending classes.  This was expected but is not the majority around here, at least so far as I have seen up to this point.  During some of these conversations a truck with many “elders” drove by with all of them filling up the back portion of the bed of the truck.  It was like they were driving by to see what was actually happening.  Again, all this was expected.  All in all, putting things into perspective, the first day of school here is not all that much different than the first day of school back home. 


Yes, there are men with guns making sure that the well being of the students is first and foremost.  But, when I think about it, the same things could be said for many schools in the inner cities across America.  Then there are parents who really don’t want their children to be educated via some system.  But, once again, when I think about it, the same thing could be said for parents back home in the USA who choose to home school their children rather than subject them to any governmental system.  Then there is the matter of the cultural influences such as here, with the so called elders driving by and checking things out.  If one thinks about it long enough, back in the USA some church leaders have taken it upon themselves to try and influence particular school boards regarding specific curriculums.  All in all, like I said earlier, first day of school here in Afghanistan is not too much different than the first day of school in America.  It is just at a different level on many different fronts.  Children are children all over the world.  Watching the kids enjoy their first day at school in this community with conditions far beyond rough, made me forget for the time being at least for about four hours, that there was a war going on all around us and that this is the drug infested capital of the world in the middle of Islamic fundamentalists seeking to radicalize the entire population.  What I saw this day was typical nine, ten, eleven and twelve year olds really desiring to obtain an education.  Coming to school not only provides them with such an opportunity it gives each and every one of them a break from the difficult daily life of a young Afghan child here in Helmund province, Afghanistan.  It was just one of those scenes that I’m glad I was a witness to at this time in my life. 


School for this day was pretty much done by about 11 am.  The kids were all lined up outside the main tent and a group photo was taken.  There were well over 100-children for the first day of school.  That is considered a great success.  Up to this point nothing too eventful had transpired as far as attacks or disruptions in or around the school.  The photos were taken, the kids were dismissed and a stream of kids exiting the area could be seen just like anywhere else in the world when school is let out for the day.  Bicycles were gathered, kids were running and playing, students were comparing their new backpacks that had been distributed to them and typical young kid activities were taking place.  It was the end of the first day of school in “cooch a ray” Afghanistan, outside combat outpost Turbett.  The Marines, trained to fight strong battles in war were on this day successful in building a school, making sure over one hundred students got to school on their first day and received classroom supplies and were dismissed without incident.  Lots could be written about this day but I’ve only decided to write what I can. 

I talked with one of the Lt’s here who helped set this whole thing up.  We discussed the book, “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortensen and his new book, “Stones Into Buildings”.  Mortensen is quite famous for building schools in this region.  We both agreed his help here would be quite beneficial.  In a small way, what I saw today is on the same scale as what Mortensen accomplished.  In these parts, a lot can be done with very little.


Later in the afternoon someone from the bazaar area fired a weapon at post one here at the COP.  This is pretty much unheard of here, as most do not attach from or on the bazaar.  All of us knew that it was a statement of sorts concerning the matter of the first day of school.  A patrol was quickly sent out to look for and apprehend the person or persons responsible for this attack.  I accompanied the Marines on this patrol and one suspect was apprehended.  Later, on a subsequent second patrol, which I did not attend, another suspect was taken in and detained for awhile.  By the late afternoon, a large crowd of locals had gathered at the ECP demanding that the suspects be released.  There is a system for all this and it pretty much is based on the elders or other persons in authority vouching for the person being detained.  Eventually those detained were released, but not before large crowds gathered and began to border on becoming a bit routy.  I was there with my camera just in case it became a bit more interesting.  One never knows what can happen here.  It’s always something different on the same day over and over again here.  This is Helmund province, Afghanistan and this is what I saw on the first day of school, just outside to the west of combat outpost Turbett on September 5, 2010, a Sunday. 



Jim Spiri