Minefields, Gunfire and Pomegranates

“Oh look they have pomegranates! I’m going to get one.”

On this day, Rouses, the grocery store chain in Louisiana, had pomegranates for sale so I couldn’t pass one up. Natural eating and good fruit, tends to make you fine going without fruit rather than buying out of season. Grocery store anything is usually without flavor.

“If it’s not in season and it ain’t local, I’m not eating it” I said.

But this time was a bit different, it is a pomegranate and until the pomegranates on the farm start producing, I will only have access to this fruit when its available. I learned first hand about this odd, usually red fruit many years ago by a couple of peculiar fellows that I relied upon with my life. Nowadays, just one look at a pomegranate brings me back to when I was walking in the heart of pomegranate country, of which this time was no different.

A Few Years Back

Look left. Look right. Continually keep your head on a swivel. I’m doing that while looking out into the distance. There’s dust everywhere and all I see is desert, hills, a ghost city to my rear and the objective, a small town, to my front. By this point basic instincts have taken over with just a hint of training. When I am not watching my feet, the people with me or off in the distance I can’t help but be taken in by the natural beauty of this place. It looks just like the foothills in Southern California.

Only this wasn’t California. This was Now Zad, Afghanistan July 2009. The once prosperous city of NowZad, complete with vast pomegranate orchards and innovative agricultural earthworks, now lay in ruins, abandoned, landmined and left to the dusts of time. Now Zad is considered one of the most dangerous and most mined places in the world, still.

Not but one day before, Marine Corps Operation Khanjar “cleared” insurgents from the surrounding areas and was now preparing to have a special visitor arrive for a unique shura. A public meeting.

We Were the Too Early Party

We had been sent to establish contact with locals and determine the suitability of this meeting, that was going to happen regardless of any suitability. Us early party consisted of a shadowy bunch. About a dozen rough trained Afghan National Army soldiers, Capt Shelly from the Marine Corps’ Provincial Reconstruction team, our only “interpreter” Shamsi the high level government official that was a shadowy CIA informant and myself the “intelligence” who was more focused on unraveling political and economic power structures than looking for trouble myself.

The original plan had a squad of marines but with every organization timing and coordination is usually thrown up in the air when people step off. So we had none, just the Afghan boys.

In just a few hours, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the governor of the province, would speak on bringing better governance to the area and prepare the residents for the up and coming presidential vote, a first for the area in some time. As I walked across the desert I kept thinking about how odd it is to clear insurgencies one day, and then literally the next say that the “government is here to save you. Go vote!” No not the democracy aspects, but the obvious absurdity of some real world political gestures in action.

We arrived

Shamsi steps off to start making acquaintances with the local villagers. The just-above-ragtag soldiers take position around the perimeter.  And the two of us Marines stood like heavily armored doofuses in the middle of town. In the rough real world, they apparently live without helmets, unlike us. Regardless, we’re out of place, very out of place.

“There’s not much to this town.”

Every building was built with dirt with walls at least 12″ inches thick. These walls can stop dead the largest caliber bullets modern militarys carry. No cars. Just a lot of adults sitting around in the shade. Oh and a peculiar man with a fruit cart.

And like that, children of all ages began to rush around us.

The young ones are quite joyful and looking to get anything they can. The older ones, actually kind of scare me. Maybe I see too much of a rough version of myself in these kids. Their faces looked like they were plotting shenanigans. They’re pointing at my pockets and every now and again an older one swoops in and tries to get a handful of my clothes.

We have nothing to give, we came to read the populace not give out candy. Seconds turned to minutes and minutes turned to over an hour.

“Where in the hell are they?”

Machine gun fire erupts in the distance.

It’s a back and forth somewhere. It’s seems like a small skirmish, but its exact location I cannot really confirm. Should we be concerned? The Afghan soldiers, still are lazily propping their feet up and the locals aren’t really reacting. These are tough people who probably hear gunfire fairly regularly, so who knows but because my eyes see nothing, my body doesn’t react.

Then it dawns on me, if we needed to call out, we didn’t even have communications equipment. I may be the “intelligence”, but I definitely wasn’t the brains behind this. There’s no way to call back to the base, or to signal support from the aircraft above and the half-assed “send off” we had when we left makes me think nobody even knows we’re here.

“Keep your eyes sharp.”

Then that lost squad of marines finally shows up.

“Those motherf%(ers…..” Blurted out my mouth without even thinking about it.

In walked the squad, taking securing positions. Just behind the Marines was the familiar crew that I was used to working with. The old man I ultimately worked for, General Nicholson and with him was his familiar office staff (all Colonels) and Governor Mangal. With the tense frenzies with the kids and gunfire around the corner this seemed just in time.

And thus the shura of Nowzad began.

Everyone was crowded and corralled into a walled off area. Presumably the whole town is here. Kids are all over. Many customs around the world are similar but in Afghanistan, they’re very different. Young boys no older than 8 scurried around happily holding hands, brandishing painted nails.

Gov. Mangal spoke.

“I come from Lashkar Gah. I am with the government and I am here to help.”

I don’t know if that’s what he said exactly, but I’m fairly sure that was the summation. With all of the grand political jestures coming to an end, this “noteworthy and historic event” ended without anything noteworthy actually happening. Except for the empty politicking. Hard to blame the guy considering he was likely met with more skepticism and the Marines and yet he was there, just like me.

“We gotta go.” Arif, another trusted government interpreter stated.

This kind of “Afghan tip”, from “this kind of guy” definitely gets people moving and I wasn’t going to hang around in this disheveled town for another moment. Up on a truck and on our way out.

The Afghan Government Got their Votes. Sorta.

The outskirts of Nowzad did participate in the presidential vote, but it was marred in issues.

And yet at least 8 years have since passed and nothing has changed. The Taliban, once swept away throughout the province in Operation Khanjar have since returned. All of the blood, sweat and tears poured into clearing and repairing this region of the world has been blown away with the sands of time, and all the pieces have been reset right back to the way they were.

Back to the Present.

Afghanistan is known as the “country of pomegranate fruit.”

The pomegranate I held in my hand and ultimately brought home, was nothing special. This pomegranate, as many others just happen to bring me back to the first time I discovered real food, a culture that produces it, and their struggles to build a quality life, retain their liberty, and be profitable into the future.