Sharana Bazaar, Paktika Province
It was my first week of real patrolling in Afghanistan and the second time I had the opportunity to stroll through this bazaar. A bazaar, for those who don’t know, is basically an outdoor mall with stands for everything you could think of. Sharana, as a city, had some really nice areas of their bazaar, with buildings and glass windows, and a not-so-posh side with tents where they sell more in the way of food and less in the way of motorcycles.
I was out with my partner/trainer, buying things and dodging crowds to find people interested in talking. While interviewing a fruit vendor, he told us that the biggest problem in his village was that they had no water supply, which was causing inflation (I wasn’t sure about the logic there since inflation is a national problem and local villages tended to only produce crops for personal use, not for sale, but I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. Yet). My partner asked why they had no water and the man explained that their karez system was clogged up.
A karez is, of course, a 3000 year-old irrigation technique that originated in Persia and spread rapidly from Morocco to China. They’re basically artificial, underground channels that bring water down from the mountains. Oddly enough, they don’t work very well if they’re not cleaned out pretty regularly.
When we asked why the village didn’t clean it themselves, the man replied in a huffy tone that they should get paid to do it. I took the lead by asking how it had been cleaned before the Americans had arrived and started handing out money.
The man frowned. “We cleaned it ourselves without getting paid. But you should pay us for it now!”
“Because there’s so much inflation since the war! We don’t make enough to live and it’s your fault so you should help us.”
I’m no economist, but most of my instincts seemed to say that paying people to do what they normally do on their own seems like it would only contribute to inflation, and just helping his village probably wouldn’t affect regional prices all that much. But he sure wasn’t buying that.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, it’s your responsibility to help us. Isn’t that what you’re here for? Reconstruction?”
“Amongst other things, but your government is really responsible for projects like that—you have to apply to them if you want help. That’s how we give out money.”
“Well our government is nothing but corrupt officials!”
“How do you think we could fix that?”
“It’s in Allah’s hands,” he snapped.
Well that hit a nerve. I started firing back, and my interpreter jumped in translated a Quran verse to the tune of “God helps those who help themselves.” The vendor looked back and forth between us, grudginly conceded that was true, then threw up his hands anyway and stomped off, yelling that there was nothing he could do about it, thank you very much.
End of my first solo interview in Afghanistan. That went well, I thought.