Last September, 56-year-old olah was called up for duty in Afghanistan.
By RHONDA SPIVAKPublished: SEPTEMBER 5, 2009 09:36Advertisement
Last September, Orly Avior, a 56-year-old Israeli living in Netanya, received a surprising letter. It was from the US government, and it informed her that she was going to be sent to Iraq for active military service.
"Eight months earlier, I thought the army had agree to put me in the Retired Reserves, given my age and physical condition," said Avior, who made aliya in 2005. "When I got the letter from them, I said to Ariel, my husband, 'my retirement has come through.' Then I opened it and saw they were sending me to Iraq. Ariel thought I was joking."
But Uncle Sam wasn't done with his surprises. Plans changed, and Avior was instead sent to Afghanistan for eight months. She returned to Israel in August, newly decorated with a Meritorious Service Award, which she received from General Huber of the 33rd Infantry Brigade, a Certificate from the Afghanistan Ministry of Education for her volunteer work reviving girl scouts in Kabul, and a long, blue burqa.
"I can show people how hard it is to see through the burqa, and how uncomfortable it is to wear," she says of the traditional Muslim garb.
In Afghanistan, Avior spent much of her time on base, where she worked as an Equal Opportunity, Non-Commissioned Officer. Her job was to receive complaints from any American soldier who felt discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin.
"One soldier who gave a female soldier a pat on the butt was sent home," she says.
But Avior's experience went beyond the office. She joined American security forces on "dismount" missions to Afghan villages, where she was witness to the fragile balancing act which determined life or death for the soldiers in the field.
In one village, for example, the Americans learned on their excursion that the local school needed supplies. They provided the school with what it requested, after which point the villagers were "more likely to give us information on Taliban activity in the area."
"One time the village let us know that the Taliban had set up an improvised explosive device on the roadway, which we disarmed, preventing deaths of soldiers," she says.
Their missions also brought Avior face to face with the cruel nature of the Taliban. While some Taliban terrorism was limited to burning books and humanitarian supplies, other actions were far more gruesome. In an e-mail to her family and friends last May, Avior told of the Islamic group's activities in the Zabul region, near Pakistan.
"They are blowing up roads and forcing teachers to shut down schools," she wrote. "They sliced off the ears of one defiant teacherâ€¦ a few months ago the Taliban threw acid in the faces of some of the girls walking to school to keep them from being educated."
AVIOR RECALLS another incident, in which an Afghani man worked with the US army by identifying suspicious vehicles at the front gate of her army base. "The Taliban was not happy with him for helping, and when he was not at home, they went in and killed his wife and his children."
"He knew if he went back to his home they would also kill him," she says. "We let him live in an old building nearby [as he continued working with us.]"
While Avior recognizes the progress that has been made in Afghanistan since the US-led coalition entered the country, she expresses pessimism about whether American policy in the region will ultimately succeed.
The Afghani National Army "is not forward thinking,"she says. "If [Afghani] soldiers don't need something right now, they sell it. There isn't accountability."
"We're trying to teach them to keep the supplies they have," she continues. "If they don't need it today, it doesn't mean they won't need it tomorrow. But the Afghanis will sell supplies to whoever will give them the most money, and that could even be the Taliban."
"One thing I learned is you don't trust anyone there," she says.
But the situation is not hopeless, she says. Although progress is slow, Avior emphasizes that patience is key.
"We've been there for nine years," she says. "Obama has had to put in more troops. It could take a generation - maybe 20 years - before the Afghani army will be strong enough and educated enough to control their country."
FOR MANY Afghans, life is a daily struggle, Avior recounts. Beyond the war and terror which grips the nation, ordinary citizens find themselves challenged by the lack of basic services which most of the world takes for granted.
"The villagers live in huts. A lot of the villages don't have running water so they have to go to a central pump to pump water. Some houses don't have electricity. There's garbage and sewage. Everything is dirty," she says.
There is also no postal system in Afghanistan, something she discovered after a stamp collector in Israel asked her to bring him some stamps.
"I went into shops looking for them and learned that there weren't any, since there is no mail delivery," she explains. "Afghanis have e-mail and cell phones, but you can't send any letters or parcels by mail! The country used to have a postal system many years ago, before it fell into chaos, but I don't know when."
"It's hard to believe it was once a functioning country," Avior says. "I was able to find my friend antique Afghani stamps at a bazaar."
The country has a long way to go beyond just rebuilding infrastructure, Avior says, pointing to the plight of women in Afghan society which she terms "intolerable." In Kabul, which is the "most modernized" city, women used to be required to wear a burqa and be escorted by a male every time they left the house. Following the fall of the Taliban, Avior says most women still won't go out by themselves.
As a female soldier, Avior was also acutely aware of the discrimination endured by women in the Afghan army. Relatively few in number, these women suffer much injustice, the worst of which is the prohibition against them carrying weapons.
"The craziest thing is that many of the women in the Afghani army serve as security guards," Avior tells. "The women are in uniform, but they're unarmed!"
"One of our captains asked an Afghani general about this and the general said it was because the men are afraid that the women will shoot them, so the army doesn't issue them weapons!" she says.
WEAPONS WEREN'T the only items these women lacked, Avior says. She had noticed that the female soldiers in the Afghani army were all wearing civilian shoes, not army boots. "This is because the women get the leftover men's boots and they are all too big to fit. When I realized this, I donated some of my boots," she says.
Being an American soldier in Afghanistan holds its share of challenges. Given the traditional nature of Afghan society, female American soldiers have slightly more difficulties to overcome. Yet American soldiers who are not only women, but also Jewish and Israeli, are faced with an even greater obstacle.
"Afghanis hate Israel," Avior says. "We hired Afghanis to set up Internet for our soldiers. To improve our system, we ordered parts, and one of the parts said, 'Made in Israel.' The Afghanis wouldn't let the part into the country."
For this reason, Avior decided to keep her identity secret, and only revealed it at the end of her service.
"There were two leaders in the girl scouts that I became really friendly with, and when they asked for my address, I said I was Jewish and lived in Israel," she says. "I thought that they'd react more than they did, but it didn't seem to matter. But I never told the parents of the girl scouts, because some parents may have taken their kids out of the program."
In the eight months that she was in the country, Avior was confronted with many unusual aspects of Afghan life. But one thing she simply could not understand was why the villagers, who were so poor and had so much difficulty raising enough money for food, would still have five to 10 children.
"I asked my Afghani interpreter one day why women didn't believe in birth control," she relates. "And he said that most Afghanis have about five to 10 kids because they know that half of them aren't going to make it."
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