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PCV Profiles: A different time in Afghanistan

Jerry Smetzer recounts his time in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps and how it changed his life.

Posted: November 4, 2012 - 1:04am

Let’s play a word game. When you hear mention of Afghanistan, what is the first thing you think of? Is it war? Jerry Smetzer might think differently. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kandahar, Afghanistan during a time of peace in 1968 to 1969. He experienced the land, the people, the culture and history first-hand, and not on a tour of duty as many see it today.

Peace Corps Volunteers find themselves in countries across the globe, though not Afghanistan since the 1970s, with difficult jobs to do in a foreign and sometimes difficult environment. Though maybe not necessarily as foreign or difficult as we can imagine.

“I grew up on a farm in northern Ohio. When I attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks I mostly lived in a variety of log cabins with wood heat, and no plumbing or running water. When I first arrived in Afghanistan from the states I lived, briefly, in a hotel with central heating and flush toilets. To my mind, therefore, the phrase “less developed,” is relative.” said Smetzer about serving in a less developed nation.

The skills that came in most handy for Smetzer, and what led to his Peace Corps placement, were his summers during college working as a surveyor for the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, the State of Alaska Department of HIghways and the United States Geological Service.

“Because of my experience as a field surveyor, the Peace Corps assigned me to the Afghan government’s land survey program. The program was headquartered in Kandahar, about 250 miles southwest of Kabul.” Smetzer said. “I served as a field advisor to an all-Afghan cadastral survey crew working in the rural areas far distant from the capital at Kabul. The field crews I worked with worked as far southwest as the Iranian border at Chakansour; in the west around Herat, and in the northeast, north of the Hindu Kush mountains, around Kundoz. The field project closest to Kabul occured in Ghazni, about 100 miles southwest.”

The Afghan government had established a program with the help of the US Agency for International Development to establish a land survey control system in the rural areas of the country.

Though the work may have been familiar, there were still plenty of differences to elicit feelings from frustration to fulfillment.

“(I felt) excited, scared, challenged; constantly in awe of the sturdy Afghans, their tough country, their unfailing hospitality and their warrior culture and history; (and) overwhelmed with the experience.”

Despite having spent two years in the country, Smetzer has not been able to return, and the Peace Corps has been out of Afghanistan since the 1970s.

“The Peace Corps has not had a delegation in Afghanistan since the early ‘70s, and I do not expect any attempt to re-start one until the country is again at peace. I have not had contact with any of the Afghans I met and worked with during my Peace Corps service. I only hope that they have survived the awful decades long wars, and the millions of land mines that look like butterflies and tend to blow the legs and arms off their children.” Smetzer said, “I do occasionally meet Afghans in Alaska, and whenever I come across an Afghan restaurant — in New York, Paris, and Vancouver for example — I will always sit down to a great meal of pilau, nan, kabobs, and chai, all followed by a tasty Firnee for dessert.”

The country has seen many changes since his departure, and he keeps up in the news.

“Shortly after I left Afghanistan, the Russians sponsored a coup against King Mohammed Zahir Shah, followed by a take-over of the government by the previously insignificant Afghan Communist Party. This takeover was followed in the late ‘70s by an invasion by the Russian army. Afghanistan has been either on, or close to, the front pages of the world press ever since.” Smetzer recounted, “The Afghan Mujahedeen, with weaponry supplied by the US (see “Charlie Wilson’s war”) literally threw the Russians out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and the Russian empire collapsed shortly after. Collapse has been the fate of the invaders of Afghanistan since Alexander the Great tried to take the country for Greece in 323 BC, was frustrated, and eventually died on his way back home.”

And as change is the way of life, Smetzer was changed by his time in Afghanistan, perhaps for reasons one may not have expected.

“I married a woman I met in Kandahar who was also a Peace Corp volunteer. We are no longer married, but we did raise three children, all of whom are now grown, building their careers and raising our beautiful grandchildren. If not for my service in Afghanistan I might never have had the great challenge and great joy that comes with family life.” Smetzer said.

One of the most fantastic things about spending time abroad is experiencing the utterly foreign ways of life. Smetzer was able to paint a vivid portrait of the Afghanistan he knew.

“Some people think of camels as horses built by a committee. Those people have it all wrong. Horses are actually camels built by a political campaign staff. To me, a camel is possibly the most beautiful and most valuable animal on the planet. The camel is noisy, ornery, slobbery, and independent-minded, they bite people they don’t like, and they won’t take any crap off their owner. However, when the owner knows how to work with them, they will cross huge swaths of trackless desert under a full load with very little water or grass, and with no complaint. The Afghan people cannot function, and certainly cannot prosper without their camels; a fact verified by the high auction prices received for healthy animals in the camel bazaar.”

“During my work in the field with Afghan survey crews, we often crossed paths with one of the many camel caravans that have criss-crossed Afghanistan for thousands of years. These caravans, comprised of dozens of camels, hundreds of sheep and many donkeys, all herded along by men and woman, young and old, who are all members of the caravan’s large extended families, were wondrous to behold. Unlike the popular vision in the west of an Afghan woman covered from head to toe in a baggy “Chaudry” or “Burka,” the Kutchee (caravan) women do not cover their faces; they wear all kinds of jangly jewelry, and have no problem going into the bazaar and haggling face to face as full equals with the shopkeepers in the villages they passed through.”

For Smetzer, and for many others, the Peace Corps offered an opportunity to learn and grow while exploring a new world. Most former volunteers harbor fond feelings for their home those short years. With the country currently war-ravaged, Smetzer said he has no doubt the Afghan people will ultimately prevail, “just as they always have.”

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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