Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Hey, pick me up a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a box of rocks ... not too pointy

Those of you with delicate sensibilities may want to skip ahead to the next post, which is quite nice and deals non-controversially with other blogs I like.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) was headquartered in Kabul, and didn't have any standing garrisons outside of the capital. Instead, they would rotate a brigade or so at a time out into the countryside, then bring them back to Kabul, pay them, and put them on leave for a few weeks. (The banking system was nonexistent outside of Kabul, so soldiers from outside of the capital would have to get paid, and travel home to give money to their family. At least that was the reasoning behind the system, although I suspect the men enjoyed getting two months off out of the year.)

Every four to eight weeks, we'd pick up a new rotation of Afghan National Army soldiers for a four to six week tour of duty at our camp. We typically got half a battalion worth of ANA soldiers - about 130-150 men - coming into camp to work with us. That meant that, at first, every month or two, we were starting over with a new group to evaluate, bring up to speed, and finally, take out on operations. Later, we got some of the same soldiers rotating through a second time, which sped up the process considerably.

One of the biggest issues with a new group was enforcing the rules about camp hygiene. In the Afghan countryside, there wasn't a lot of emphasis on public health and disease mitigation. Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of the Afghans were "ground-shitters." If you needed to go, pick an unused spot, screened from view, and have a go at it. That wouldn't do inside the camp, for aesthetic reasons as well as health reasons, so we spent a lot of our time convincing the Afghans to use the latrines.

Thanks to the primitive nature of the facilities at the camp, the process for dealing with bodily functions was a bit elaborate, and must have seemed a little ridiculous to someone used to letting fly in any convenient corner. We had four plywood latrines built for the Afghanis - the latrines were basically an upright, raised box with a door and latch, and a hole cut in the bottom of the platform. Underneath the hole was a 55 gallon drum, cut in half, that acted as a receptacle. No seat required - Afghanis came from the Asian squatting tradition instead of the Western sitting tradition. If you needed to crap, that was the place for it. The contents of the barrel had to be burned every day or so, by mixing in diesel fuel, stirring and igniting. That process had to be repeated until there was nothing but ash left, which could be dumped and buried. That meant that there needed to be as little liquid in the barrel as possible, so the poo and diesel mixture would burn efficiently. That meant, in turn, that if you only needed to piss, you used one of the "piss tubes" set up to the side of the latrines. The tubes were 2" PVC pipe that routed the piss outside the inner wall, into a pit containing a mixture of rock and lime. Explaining all this, and fielding the questions that followed, through an interpreter, to a bunch of guys who came from a culture that was in many ways painfully modest, was always a fascinating experience. The rules were usually greeted with a good bit of skepticism and some resistance - the latrines and tubes were placed to be out of the way and close to the wall, while the Afghan soldiers were staying in tents in the center of the compound, and the Afghan officers were sharing the one good building with us. That meant that any late night elimination required a bit of a hike, unless one chose to use one of several handy patches of ground that were much closer.

We learned a lot of lessons during the first ANA rotation, and some of them were about how to deal with the whole hygiene issue. We found out that the whole "piss here, crap there" was pretty foreign to most of the Afghanis, even with their basic training in Kabul, so we had to set the rules out early and really push the Afghan chain of command to enforce them. We also figured out, that, with the limited amount of time we had to train and work with the Afghan soldiers, it didn't make a lot of sense to use them on fatigue details. During the first ANA rotation, we had a designated detail of soldiers (usually ones who had managed to piss their sergeant off in some way) assigned to camp maintenance and improvement projects - every day, they would fill sandbags, build fighting positions, clean up the camp, and burn the latrine barrels. None of them liked that duty (who would?), and it cut into our training time with them, so we decided to hire locals to take care of those things. We hired two men from the local village just to burn the barrels and shovel lime into the piss trenches. They got the munificent salary of seven dollars a day (about twice the going rate for a day laborer in the area, and two dollars more a day than we paid the locals who were filling sandbags for us) and two meals a day in exchange for taking on the most distasteful job in the camp.

We hired our labor detail right after the first ANA rotation left the camp, so for about two weeks, the sanitation engineering management contingent had it pretty easy. All they had to do was take care of one barrel used by the small Afghan security contingent left in the camp, and the one barrel from our latrine. (Our latrine was right next to the Afghan's, but was distinguished by a raised plywood platform with a toilet seat screwed to it, and by a combination lock on the door, placed there after we found muddy footprints on our toilet seat one too many times.) Neither barrel would become very full from a day's use, so the burn crew was only working about an hour a day. That would change once a new contingent of 150 men showed up, of course.

We felt like we were ready for the second rotation. A few of us convoyed up to Kabul and picked up our boys, and brought them back down to the camp. The camp rules were first discussed the Afghan officers and sergeants, and then, with their help, read and explained to the entire contingent. We managed to make having civlilians handle the shit burning detail into a useful tool to help enforce the camp rules: any Afghan soldier caught going on the ground would find himself assigned to help with the barrels for a few days, which we figured would cut way down on the recidivism rate - as long as we could catch a few and make an example of them.

That night, one of our guys went up into a guard tower overlooking the compound with a pair of night vision goggles(NVGs), a handheld umpteen million candlepower spotlight, one of the American ETTs (embedded tactical trainers: soldiers assigned full-time to training the ANA) and the Afghan Sergeant Major. Sure enough, it was dark, and there were some secluded spots that seemed much easier than the trek to the latrines. Cue our first victim, squatting peacefully in the dark. The NVGs got turned off, the spotlight got turned on, the Sergeant Major identified the culprit, who was pretty horrified to have his private reflections interrupted by the bright and shining beam of authority. Word apparently made it around the tents, because, after the second victim, everybody else walked pretty ostentatiously back to the latrine area. And that, we thought, was that. We had dramatically established a zero tolerance policy for poo in the camp.

Our grand hygiene strategy, though, failed to consider the cultural diversity of the Afghan people. A few days later, we hear a complaint from the Afghan soldiers - one of the barrels isn't being burned, and some of the soldiers can't go until it is. We checked, and, sure enough, one of the barrels was full to overflowing. That raised two questions - why wasn't this particular barrel being burned, and why couldn't the soldiers use one of the other latrines. The Afghan sergeant answered the second one for us. This rotation included some soldiers from near Herat in the southwest part of Afghanistan. Iranian influence was pretty strong in that area, both politically and culturally, and a lot of the soldiers from that area were Shi'ite Muslims instead of Sunni. The Shi'ites had taken to using one latrine exclusively, and that was the one that was overflowing -and the one that pretty quickly became known to the Americans as the "Shia Shitter."

So our medic went and found our burn laborers - why wasn't the barrel being burned? He told us later that he was afraid that the answer was going to turn into some religious dispute over Sunnis burning Shia waste, so he was relieved to find out that they had a practical excuse: The barrel was too heavy. The obvious question got asked, "How can the barrel be too heavy for two men to lift?" The unspoken question was "What are you people eating?" The laborers didn't know why, they just knew that they couldn't lift it, so they had left it in place. Our medic had one of the Afghan sergeants round up a detail, and went out with them to deal with the barrel of heavy poo. Sure enough, four men could barely maneuver the thing out from under the latrine and out through the gate. Once outside, our medic had the barrel dumped into the burn pit. He told me later that the barrel was full of small rocks mixed in with the crap.

It turns out that, out Herat way, the custom is to use a rock in lieu of toilet paper. Our Shi'ite soldiers would pick up a small rock on the way to the crapper - easy enough to do, since we had gravelled that part of the camp - and discard it into the barrel when they were finished. So, another rule had to be added to camp policy - use the toilet paper, not the gravel.


Blogger Raptor22b said...

Oh man, this is priceless. I stumbled in here via another blog, some girl whose boyfriend is deployed to Afghanistan now. I forget the name of her blog. I was in Nepal a while back and there they use their left hand in lieu of small rocks. I think rocks are better than your palm though!!!

6:55 PM  
Blogger JACK ARMY said...

it is funny the little things we take for granted at home that turn into real issues when dealing with other cultures. I bet you have several stories like this... but potty stories are usually the most fun.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Watch 'n Wait said...

Sitting here laughing. There's nothing in this world like culture shock. All sides think the other sides have a screw loose. I see now why those rocks are "not too pointy". :))

12:34 AM  
Blogger Toni said...

First I was laughing after I read the mudprints on the toilet seat. At first I had a blank in my mind "why?" and then it hit me. Ohhhh. They squat. That was funny but the rocks is hilarious. omg - I just can't fathom how, ahhh eee. Well enough said on that. I sure would hate to be the one having the burning job....the smell has got to be oh kinda like a smell from a paper plant.

3:48 AM  
Anonymous joekujo said...

A rock. A rock? Damnit, a piece of gravel? How in the...

You know what, I don't care. I'm not shaking hands.

6:02 AM  
Blogger thinblueline said...

New meaning to the phrase .. shitting bricks

7:02 PM  
Blogger Barb said...

ROFL! That is too funny! Brought me back to the first trip I took to India ;-)

Followed the link from Mudville, this is grat stuff!

8:49 PM  
Blogger JA said...

hilarious! you had me rolling--and i thought the squat toilets in china were rough....thanks for the great story!

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Lilly said...

Gross but funny story :) Reminds me of that little church up in Monteverde, Costa Rica my Dad used to pastor. Ever try using a latrine in a pretty pink dress? Ugh.

10:52 PM  
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2:35 PM  

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