Aiding Afghanistan: One family tries to help
In the first of a two-part series, reporter Eric Welsh looks at the year-long effort by a Chilliwack RCMP member to bring order to the chaos of Kabul, and the impact of that assignment on his family at home.
There are times when he wonders, ‘Why am I here?’
Chaos surrounds Chris Robinson in Kabul, a city torn apart by decades of war. It isn’t safe for him here, and every moment spent in Afghanistan’s capital city is full of anxiety. He tries to remind himself that he’s here on a mission, but several times a day he catches himself wishing he was back in Chilliwack.
Even if just for a moment, to be back in his home, where everything makes sense.
He looks around and sees a nine-year-old boy using a hammer to fix a door frame. Children even younger than that boy wander the streets selling handmade bracelets, scarves and other trinkets, taking whatever they can get to help put dinner on the table for their family.
Chris pictures his three children, living in these conditions, and it almost makes him cry. He pictures Salim and Malika, two Afghan children he’s met, seeing a Canadian playground for the first time.
‘What look would they have on their faces?’ he wonders.
They have an edge to them that children that young should not have.
But as they put their little hands on his, he realizes that not all of their innocence has been lost. They’ve not yet been hardened to the point of hopelessness. They still believe that change is possible, that their lives can be better.
And that answers his question.
‘Why am I here?’ he asks again.
How do you start that conversation?
Is there an easy way to say, ‘Soooo.. thinking of going to Afghanistan for a year. Whataya think?’
A police officer with 14 years of experience, Chris did some interesting things in the past. He went to Nunavut for a month. He worked 2010’s protester-filled G20 Summit in Toronto.
“He’s always been a bit of an adventurous type, you know?” Jolene said. “When he brought up an idea of an international peace-keeping mission, I was thinking maybe a six-months kind of thing. When he said one year, holy smokes!”
They looked over the details.
Twelve months in Kabul, the capital city. He’d be working with the RCMP’s International Peace Operations Branch, which deploys up to 45 Canadian police officers to the country on an ongoing basis. Working alongside Afghanistan’s Kabul and National Traffic Generals, Chris and his team would focus on building functional and sustainable traffic departments.
They talked about the implications.
He would be leaving her at home with three children; 12-year-old Carson, 10-year-old Cole and seven-year-old Caylin.
Life wouldn’t freeze-frame while he was gone.
This wasn’t the first time Chris had talked about a mission trip. He’d mused about it many times before. But this time, Jolene saw in his eyes that he was serious.
“The kids are young, but not too young,” she thought. “It’s not like I’d be dealing with diapers and things like that. Caylin is self sufficient now, so maybe it’s a good time.”
Chris had to go through an application process. He’d put in his paperwork, with no guarantees he’d be chosen to go.
“If he’s selected,” Jolene reasoned. “Then it’s meant to be.”
Once their decision was made, Chris started to casually float the idea at the dinner table, to gauge reactions.
“What would you think about Dad going to Afghanistan for a year?”
“Not happening,” the kids said.
How could he help them understand? It was in his nature to want to help people. It’s why he became a police officer, and he knew his training and job put him in a unique position to do some good in the world.
The kids weren’t going to care about that.
For a military man it’s part of the deal. Sign up, get sent to wherever you’re needed and your family has to deal.
But this was volunteering. No one was making Dad go anywhere. He wanted to go.
Was he going to be here to cook us dinners and read us bed-time stories?
Then forget about it!
Learning a bit about Afghanistan at school, the boys were more receptive to what Chris wanted to do. They knew the basics about the country’s wars, the devastation left in their wake and what was going on now. When he talked about where he’d be going and what he’d be doing, they slowly came around to the idea. In fact, they were proud of him.
It was a fine line though, between telling them too much or too little. He wasn’t going to the Bahamas. Chris was heading into an active war zone, with guns and grenades and people blowing themselves up. How on Earth do you explain suicide bombers to children?
The Taliban? Mujahideen? People willing to blow up themselves, and others, for a cause? If adults can’t wrap their heads around this stuff, how are kids supposed to?
Chris and Jolene tried to be as straight-forward as they could.
“Yes, Dad is going to a dangerous place, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be completely safe while he’s there,” they said. “But it’s a peace-keeping mission, and there will be lots of people doing their very best to make sure he’s OK.”
If the final decision had been left to Caylin, Chris likely wouldn’t have gone.
But in early December, her objections overruled, there they were at the airport in Abbotsford, saying tearful goodbyes.
The kids were kept out of school that day and the family went for a brunch.
The five of them sat at their table, none of them wanting to talk about Afghanistan. For a few minutes, they played pretend and avoided the inevitable.
On the car ride to Abbotsford, barely a word was spoken. None of the, ‘Dad? Are we there yet?’ comments Chris usually heard. Everyone wanted this trip to take forever.
It was going to be four months before they saw him again.
Chris insisted beforehand that the family not wait for his plane to depart. They pulled into the five-minute unloading area, grabbed his luggage and had a big group cry.
“I was probably the biggest baby of them all, to be honest,” he said. “Thirty minutes later I was Skyping them again to say goodbye again. After I hung up, that’s when I knew the adventure had really begun.”
It takes a long time to get to the other side of the planet.
Twenty three hours in flight plus layovers, from North America to Frankfurt (Germany), then to Dubai (United Arab Emirates) and on to Afghanistan. The view from the air was amazing. Snow-capped mountains blending into a desolate desert.
Getting off the plane, the first thing hitting Chris was the stench, an overwhelmingly pungent odor that smelled like a mix of diesel fuel, burning tires and garbage. He didn’t know it yet, but many in this country were forced to burn garbage to heat their homes, and he would eventually come to know this pollution as the source of the ‘Kabul cough.’
Chris was quickly outfitted in protective equipment (C8 rifles, ballistic vest/helmet, load bearing vests with extra ammo, first aid kits, backpacks with extra food...etc), and shepherded onto an armoured convoy for the journey to Kabul. As he peered out the dusty window at the countryside beyond, he noticed for the first time the sense of urgency that would be palpable over the next 12 months.
No one was interested in stopping for a look-see.
No one wanted to be out in public for a second longer than necessary.
As the convoy wound its way into the Afghan capital, Chris was shocked by what he saw.
“You were surrounded by war-torn infrastructure, military equipment, barbed wire, bunkers and rubble everywhere,” he recalled. “It was surreal to see what decades of war has done to the city.”
But one other thing caught his eye as the convoy rolled through the chaos.
Amidst all the desolation, a sign that someone, somewhere, had a plan to fix it.
On Friday: Chris Robinson on the ground in Kabul while Jolene and the kids adjust to life without him.