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Afghanistan Journal

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, who just returned from assignment in Afghanistan, shares his observations about life in a country now in its third decade of war.

October 11, 2009 at 1:55 PM

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A tough earth yields life

Posted by Hal Bernton

Kabul -- I spent much of the two weeks exploring the irrigated farm lands and villages of the Arghandab Valley in southern Afghanistan on foot patrols with Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wa. This was a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of a way of life that is rooted in centuries of tradition, and makes an amazing use of the dun-colored earth that covers this land.

This is not a soil that I would want in my backyard. It often dries to a tough hardpan that in some fields resembles a kind of pale dried clay that appears hostile to plant life.

Then, when water is added, this soil turns into an unstable muck.

But on these foot patrols, over and over again, I was impressed by all the ways this earth supports the people who live here. And while this might seem like a bit of digression in a journal about Afghanistan at war, I think it's important to note how important this earth is to the people here in the Arghandab that America is trying to assist.

The earth is used to sculpt canals that funnel water, so essential to life here, from the Arghandab River to the surrounding lands. I have hopped over, walked along and occasionally flopped into an intricate network of these mud canals.


Mud-walled canal

These waterways range from deep, rapid flowing channels that are too wide to jump to smaller rivulets that then can be closed off -- when water must stay in a field -- by using the mud to form a kind of mini-dam.




A soldier crosses a small, temporary mud dam that keeps water on a field

The Arghandab Valley has long been considered one of prime agriculture areas of Afghanistan. The decades of war have taken a toll on agriculture here as some fields in the middle of combat zones are neglected. In others, farmers brave the occasional gunbattles, and the risks of buried bombs, to venture into crop lands and orchards.

With water, the soil here does grow all kinds of things.

I already have written about the pomegranates orchards with trees that are a deep green foliage and big red fruit that hang like lollipops. The land also grows purple and yellow egg plants, tomatoes, okra, beans, grasses, mint and amazing stands of marijuana that last week, as soldiers marched by, were in impressive full bud.



Marijuana patch

I wanted to make special mention of the vineyards here because the earth is used to form the trellis system. The grape vines lower sections are actually encased in a kind of clay covering that I presume takes in water as the fields are flooded. Meanwhile, the top of the vines poke through the clay into the sun to bear the grapes.

At the end of each field, mud walls are used to mark property lines (These walls during of times of war also offer cover to troops under fire, or those plotting ambushes)

As we move from the fields into the village, the streets are formed of packed earth.
The streets are bordered by tall walls formed from mud bricks coated with more earth.

A main street of a farming village in the Arghandab Valley


The homes have walls and roofs formed from the earth. Typically only a front door is made of metal.


When villagers pass away, their bodies return to this earth. This final photo is a view of a grave yard near farm fields.



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About the author

Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has roamed widely around the Northwest for regional reporting and to help in the newspaper's military coverage. His oversees assignments have taken him to Russia, Algeria, Aceh Province in Indonesia and Iraq in December of 2003 and January of 2004.

Related links

Afghan News Center
Pajhwok.com: News of Afghanistan written by Afghanistan journalists.
McClatchy News Service: Dispatches from Afghanistan and beyond.
Talking with the Taliban: A Toronto Globe and Mail series.
Foreign Policy Blog on Afghanistan
Michael Yon: Embedded blogger Michael Yon posts front-line dispatches.
Washington Post's Afghanistan/Pakistan site
Abdulhadi Hairan: Afghan writer reflects on events in Iraq
GlobalPost's Taliban project: Features wide-ranging coverage of Afghanistan.