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For anyone who has driven anywhere in Afghanistan, you will appreciate the unnerving moment when a sudden, sharp *crack* indicates something hard has just impacted the side of your uparmored vehicle. This will often happen in or near villages. In a brief moment of panic, you look out the window to scan for the culprit and see…
…a bunch of boys, staring smugly back at you.
These sounds aren’t those of bullets or rockets, but of kids throwing rocks at the passing Americans. For those of us fortunate enough to be tucked inside the vehicle, it’s annoying more than anything, but the gunners–prime targets with their heads and torsos poking out the top of the trucks–are often less than amused. I can’t count how many times I heard them muttering curses and searching for something to throw back after a volley of incoming rounds. The more experienced ones usually got smart and had a small stockpile of their own rocks stashed away in the turrets. Sure, it may not have been very, ahem, “polite” to throw rocks at kids, but you can only get smacked in the head so many times before you lose your temper. Trouble was, the kids usually had better aim than the soldiers. In fact, their aim could be downright impressive, and every once in a while, amid the curses, I would hear a low whistle.
“Did you see the arm on that kid? I don’t even know how he hit me from that far away, especially since we’re a moving target.”
But often, the soldiers took it personally, and as a sign that people in the village were hostile–or at least not very welcoming–toward us. As the “culture expert,” I had an Army staff sergeant come up to me one day in frustration and ask,
“Doc, why do they do that? Do they really hate us that much?”
“Umm,” I replied, “not necessarily.”
“How do you figure?”
“Imagine being 12 again. You’re mischievous, you’re bored, you don’t have an X-Box to keep you occupied, and it’s a lucky week if your school is even open. Along come the Americans in their giant trucks: big targets, but tough to hit because they’re moving and a bit dangerous because you never know when a bunch of crazy Americans might come flying out after you. Now that’s a challenge. What would you do?”
He was about to make some kind of smart remark, but then stopped short. His eyes got wide for a moment as he realized something.
“You know,” he started slowly, “when I was a kid, about 12, a couple friends of mine and I were bored one day. For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to go hide behind a berm next to the major road in our town and throw rocks at all the passing cars. No reason, we weren’t angry or anything. It was just a lot of fun, keeping score, watching people get mad…at least until we hit a cop car and had to run before he turned around and caught us.”
He stared at me for a long moment and then smiled while shaking his head. “It’s the same. I did exactly the same thing. I forgot all about it til just now.”
I smiled back.
It can be easy to forget sometimes, that even though you’re in a different culture, people are still people.
Especially when those people are ‘darn kids.’
P.S. Kids aren’t the only people who threw rocks for fun. When bored, Afghan men would set up objects in the dirt and try to knock them over by flinging rocks at them. And Americans, when bored, were known for throwing rocks at trucks, each other, and passers-by.