Ghor Province, Afghanistan – The wake-up alarm sounded at 0345, and by 0430, the Lithuanian soldiers were ready to roll. The Lithuanians had always arrived early, prepared for action before every mission, but this time we relied on an Afghan guide. The first part of the mission was to find the Kuchi. Normally, Lithuanian soldiers perform a reconnaissance before a mission, but they decided to skip the recon to find the Kuchi nomads because, well, they are nomads. Even if the recon were to locate the camel caravan in a specific location, the Kuchis would likely have moved by the time we got there. So we were relying on the local guide who had a cell phone number for the Kuchis. He was 21 minutes late and held up the mission by 27 minutes. One guy holding up about three dozen soldiers and a mission should be flogged.
The base at Chaghcharan sits at nearly 7,500 feet above sea level, so at night the Milky Way hovers in magnificence above the clean, dry air. But come morning, the stars fade as the sun rises with blinding vengeance.
As we rolled to find the Kuchi nomads and their camels, the six-vehicle convoy kicked up “moon dust,” which reflected the bright sun, causing instant blindness as if driving through white clouds. The convoy had to space out, else the vehicles would be driving dangerously close through the arid fog of dust. As we passed villages made of stone, mud, and straw, the white smoke from their cooking fires hung low, just above the villages, lightly blanketing their dwellings, as farmers were already heading to the fields. The Afghans are a hard-working lot. The cruel mountains must have killed off the lazy ones a long time ago.
About 45 minutes into the journey, the guide got a call that the Kuchi nomads had moved, and there was some confusion as to where they were. This treeless terrain might look wide open, but its vastness is like the sea and extremely difficult to search through. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Kuchis might know their way around here, for generations gone, few locals have use for maps or know how to use them. They couldn’t just give a grid reference to us. They might have known where they were, but not where that was in relation to where we stood. And so we kept going, stopping, and asking many people along the way.
Most of the men we asked were cutting grasses to feed livestock.
Lithuanian soldiers are good with maps, but nobody else was, so there was much confusion as to where the Kuchis might have gone. The grass cutters were of little help. The man closest on the left is a Pashtun from Chaghcharan and is the Kuchi representative. He’d never heard of Michael Jackson though the interpreter (pointing) had, and knew he had died. We turned around and headed off in a different direction.
After two hours of searching, we found the latest of many who were cutting grass: ‘The Kuchis went that-a-way!’
The Lithuanian soldiers had brought four doctors along to examine the Kuchis and offer simple medicines, and despite that the Kuchis actually wanted to be found, they were nowhere to be seen. In regard to the war, the Kuchis have a reputation for neutrality, and there are said to be about 5 million in the region. I see them in many places, but they are standoffish and have giant dogs that are called, not surprisingly, Kuchi dogs. Kuchi dogs look like they could rip a door off a Humvee.
The man in the middle is an Afghan doctor who studied medicine in Kabul. In my Humvee were two other doctors. The first was Vitaly, from Ukraine, and he was a laugh because every time we stopped, he wanted his photo taken several times in various poses with different cameras. The second doctor was from Georgia and I called him “Georgia.” The gunner and driver were Lithuanian soldiers whose English was only slightly better than my Lithuanian, so we didn’t talk much.
We moved again: ‘Gotta be some Kuchis around here.’
We came to a steep hill, with the road we wanted down below. The directions we were given to reach the Kuchis would lead us through a known minefield, so the Lithuanian PRT Commander, Colonel Alvydas Siuparis, radioed from base to find a new route.
The hill was so steep that most of us got out and walked down the hill.
I was already part of the way down when the image above was captured. None of the vehicles flipped and we continued the mission to find the Kuchis.