The juxtapositions can make your mind reel. Donkey carts carrying computer equipment. Hungry children digging through garbage piles using shovels from a Mickey and Minnie Mouse sand-castle set. In other parts of the country, life is more complicated. Taliban troops speed around Kabul in their clean new Toyota pickup trucks, tricked-out, hip-hop ghetto rigs. On the sides they have painted pseudo-American phrases: ”City Boy,” ”Fast Crew,” ”King of Road.” Inside, young solemn-looking Taliban men sit in their black holy dress, sporting Ray-Bans. In one camp, an old man showed me a bowl filled with rotten cow bowels, grass poking out in places. ”This is what we eat, sir!” he said, wiping away tears with his fist.
This is their life. They can’t change the channel.
Taliban troops and police are always easy to spot. They have black flowing robelike clothes, long hair and big silky black turbans with long tails running almost to the ankles. (These accouterments are meant to identify them as direct descendants of Muhammad.) They are often tall and imposing, even impressive. ”The Taliban troops are like gangsters,” a colleague told me when I first arrived. ”Tough guys.” But there is often a particular dandyism in them; many wear black eyeliner (part of the descendant-of-Muhammad costume), and their hair is long and curly. I once saw one buying Prell shampoo at the bazaar. They carry themselves like supermodels.
There is a propensity among some aid workers (usually younger ones) to work endless hours during a crisis. You cannot take a break, it is argued, when children are hungry. You cannot sleep, have a beer or lie in your bed. You have to act. And so you work endlessly. And then, inevitably, you crack: you go nuts, start acting righteous and weird, and your colleagues come to despise you. Ultimately, your organization evacuates you on psychological grounds — a procedure churlishly referred to as a ”psycho-vac.” You end up back home: unemployed, asocial, crazy, useless and pathetic. ”We had to get 5,000 latrines built, like immediately. But I’ll tell you, he was gone, man — his brain was fried by trauma. He had been at Goma” — in the Congo — dead bodies and hacked-off limbs in a pile, and they had to clean it up. I guess he was scarred. Anyway, he got like a pound of pot from some Albanian mafia playboy in Tirana. He would drink huge amounts of that terrible instant coffee, Nestle’s — I think they put speed in that stuff. He was high all the time. He didn’t talk to anyone. He just drank that crank coffee and smoked pot. He worked like a madman. But we did it, man. We built those 5,000 latrines. They psycho-vac’d him a little later though. He lost it.”
A U.S. citizen returns from his humanitarian work in Afghanistan only to find the carnage of where he was had come home to the States. He describes Afghanistan: (registration required)