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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Generosity of spirit in a rugged land

Dr Marc Shaw, serving with the NZ armed forces provincial reconstruction team in Bamiyan, on about his experience of a Christmas far from home.
Marc Shaw in Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied.

Marc Shaw in Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied.

Christmas is coming to Bamiyan. I can tell this, not because people are walking around singing carols of good cheers but because the weather has started to change. Not just an average couple of degrees swing either way, but a severe disruption-of-the-environment-change.
Yesterday was a not unpleasant 4-8C dry tolerable cold, but today was the coldest day that I have experienced on my tour here in Afghanistan with the New Zealand Defence Force. Minus 5C, and that was the high.
Wrapped up warm, I shuffled quickly down to the shower before either my feet, legs or other parts of my body froze.
We joined Colonel Paiman, of the Afghan police, for a traditional Afghan breakfast, which was superb. A two-meat breakfast - kebabs and roast chicken wrapped in naan, with fried eggs. Add a cup of chai (local tea) and it was "wrap your laughing gear around this then".
I enjoyed it, and eating it with other Kiwis and Americans, we took the chance to remind ourselves of what Christmas normally meant in our countries. My eyes glazed over as I thought of hot roast turkey and cold ham, followed by Christmas pudding, pavlova and icecream. The colonel's mouth dropped open when I explained the dishes to him. He hadn't heard of them before.
Ra Koia, our military chaplain, and I talk about the Christmas that we will be having here as we pound the rocks and gravel of the Kiwi base perimeter athletic track, the sun not yet appearing over the tops of the hills.
"We'll be having a service in the morning of Christmas Day after breakfast and the traditional giving of presents to the troops by Santa," he says, winking at me.
He knows that as I am the only one with silver-white hair and beard, it is a sitter that I get to play the "Ho Ho Ho" record over and over on December 25.
"Then I have a whole lot of messages and videos from family back in New Zealand that I know the troops will want to hear and see. I guess there will be a lot of homesickness, and many will want to make phone calls to see how their loved ones are.
"A few tears will flow at both ends of the phone and then wishes of good health will pass along the line. The men and women here of the NZ provincial reconstruction team will hang the phones up a little sad.
"That is when the fun will start for us," he adds with a sparkle in his eye.
"Lunchtime and there will be an all-out effort to enjoy the day. No alcohol on this mission means that all of us will be very clear-headed for our celebrations, but it won't stop us from having fun.
"I also understand that Santa has a few little treats for the Christmas meal as well," he concludes, looking at me.
Showered and alert after my morning exercise, I ask my medical team what being here means to them at Christmas.
Leon, the nursing officer, Blu, the senior medic, and Kat Brown, a patrol medic, and I had gathered in our regimental aid post.
We were having a cup of warm brew. Mention Christmas over here and all of us tend to get a little reflective and moist in the eyes. "Being back home, we have a history of joys and pleasures of the festive season," said Blu. "But being here in a foreign country highlights the distance between us and our partners and kids.
"Christmas in Afghanistan, for me, emphasises the differences in our cultures and the gap that religion creates. It's sad that we will be celebrating, but the local Hazara people won't be."
I thought of what Blu had said and it struck a chord with me.
How grand it would be if we could get the conflict over by Christmas and spend our time here celebrating a lasting peace.
I know that can be considered as a forlorn and unsophisticated wish for a country that has known conflict for 30 years, but I was reminded today that there has been no serious conflict in this Bamiyan region for about eight years. That means there are children in this region who have known nothing but peace. Now that means something.
Especially to us New Zealanders who have been charged with looking after the safety and security of the local population that we are helping rebuild.
We will have a good and spirited Christmas and we will think of you all at home, and we will all hope and pray that we will return safe and sound to New Zealand. Perhaps you may think of us far away from our homes. We believe that where we are and what we are doing will help Afghanistan. Time and our attitude to the local population will decide if we were right.

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