The boy in blue
By Lucas Jackson
One of the ubiquitous presences when traveling through Afghanistan on an embed with U.S. soldiers is that of scores of children either watching the soldiers passing in convoys or patrolling their villages. It is not uncommon for dozens of faces to be staring at you, often while standing mere feet away from the obvious out-of-towners.
The soldiers do their best to either ignore these multitudes of staring eyes or to interact with them but most often the children react shyly when confronted or when someone tries to talk to them. As a photographer traveling with these soldiers I also stand out, even more so than the soldiers which they are at least used to seeing. I am dressed differently and instead of a rifle I carry something they see far less often – cameras. For me these trips are as frustrating as they are interesting. I try to catch moments when these children are interacting to the presence of the military in their town or with each other. But I often find that as soon as I point the camera, I either become the center of attention or my young subjects turn and run away.
A young girl carrying a baby, as she went to the town’s well to get water, kept a watchful eye on my camera, while pumping water as her friend stared. Groups of children, earlier pointing and laughing, immediately turned and hid behind a lamp post as soon as my camera was raised to my eye. The children waiting to pick up the spent bullet casings after a small firefight were not at all shy of the noise of machine guns and sniper rifles, but they instantly look down or cover their faces when a camera appears. It is a fascinating fact of life here; these children understand better and are more comfortable with guns than with a camera.
Except one. Granted, there are plenty of children who will wave or smile or pose if they do not run when the camera is pointing at them. But, one small boy I saw only minutes after a firefight with insurgents on a ridge above his home didn’t seem to see me at all. He caught my eye as I stood near Lieutenant Kenneth Rowe as he spoke with village elders working to improve the relationship between that town and both the U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers who would be defending it.
Out of the corner of my eye I was drawn to a small boy dressed in blue climbing over the wall leading from his home to the street. I raised my camera to take a photo as he jumped down from the top of the wall. He moved differently, acted differently. He did not stand and stare or walk up to one of the several groups of children that surrounded him but he walked straight and quickly to a small hole and sat down. I saw he had a swollen eye. I took several photographs as he looked and acted so different to the other children who he seemed not to want to interact with.
He obviously preferred his own company to that of those around him. After sitting, he began to place used MRE bags upon his feet to use as impromptu shoes. It was a striking image to me. It was most definitely different, but more than that he still didn’t cast a look in my direction. Once his shoes were on he began to play by rolling marbles out of his shirt into the dirt, picking them up to roll them into the dirt again. He watched the soldiers for a bit and seemed to go out of his way to stay out of the other children’s way as they walked past. I wondered if he were a street orphan and whether or not he had a home. I had no idea how to ask. And even though he seemed to not have many friends, he didn’t seem anything other than happy to be out and about.
As I turned my attention back towards the elders speaking with Lieutenant Rowe the boy began to stand and I noticed his rope belt had come loose and his pants had fallen down. Some of the other children teased him and laughed and he ran to the wall he had originally climbed over to toss his MRE bags back over. Now, with bare feet, he walked back towards us holding his pants up with his hands.
He scampered down an embankment to the road and made his way towards the village elders speaking with the soldiers. He walked right up to one of them and tapped him on the shoulder. Without missing a beat of conversation the man turned to tie his belt giving the boy a loving smile as if this was something that happens all the time. With that the boy ran off, back to his yard and I didn’t see him again.
After the elders were finished with their discussion, I got the interpreter to ask the elder (the father) for the boy’s name. He replied “Shera Guden,” then explained how the boy was still recovering from a wasp sting near his eye. It made my day to know that this child had a father who took such good care of him. It reminded me that even in a war, where children think nothing of the presence of guns, bullets, and bombs that there still remains love. The Afghans are trying to make a life for themselves. I don’t see them being on either the USA’s side or the Taliban’s side, but as people caught in the middle of these opposing forces, trying to provide for their family as best they can. I hope that one day Shera will be able to tell his children stories of the American soldiers visiting, as he grows old and lives a long happy life.