By Erin M. Cole
As a native Buffalonian, it was a dream to return home after traveling the world and contributing to the greater good in other people’s countries.
First, in the U.S. Army, by forcing the Iraqis out of Kuwait in 1991. Then, during the late ’90s, helping Russia establish a manufacturing base and spreading U.S.-funded small business support services across the country.
More recently, in Central Asia, I thoroughly enjoyed working with colleagues from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan to expand economic development and regional trade projects. These activities allowed them to increase their cross-border trade – something we take for granted in Western New York.
Collectively, these unique experiences introduced me to the world order, sane or otherwise. I embraced each opportunity as a means to learn more and work harder, but nothing prepared me for Afghanistan.
The early 20th century steel bridge that crosses the Erie Canal close to Wilson Road in Lockport is functional and well-tread for the average local citizen. For me, it is a portal through time, specifically back in time, both literally and figuratively.
Each time I approach the bridge from the Wilson Road side on my frequent walks, there is a palpable excitement, almost trepidation. The closer the bridge comes, the narrower my perception becomes – I am no longer in Lockport, crossing the bridge for a walk, but starting the nerve-wracking journey again into Hairatan, Afghanistan.
The Erie Canal is quickly replaced by the Amu Darya River. Instead of bucolic scenery in Niagara County, I see three pairs of armed soldiers standing several hundred meters apart across the Friendship Bridge’s expanse.
Do we have our papers in order? Did anyone warn them in advance of our approach? Will they shoot us? How exciting! I am leading a three-person delegation from the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan into Afghanistan. Our mission is to meet again with the Afghan Chamber of Commerce in Balkh Province and facilitate renewed ties with the Uzbek Chamber. For some reason, our months of planning and coordination failed to secure approval to drive across the bridge, as we did on our first trip to Afghanistan.
Have you ever walked by a place that you had driven past before? It’s astounding the level of detail that you take in on a walk, from the smell of the river below to the scowling expressions of the soldiers pointing rifles at you.
Taking photos here is a criminal offense, so I soak it all in with my eyes. The Afghan side is littered with unidentifiable trash, while the Uzbek side behind us is littered with foxholes and listening equipment. I focus on the mud brick wall at the end of the bridge, entrance into Hairatan.
Walking this 800-meter expanse is the same as walking back in time. On the Uzbek side, young students walk hand in hand, women wear Western-style clothing and the farmers’ market is filled with fresh produce and warm bread. On the Afghan side, the women are covered from head to toe and the men won’t shake my hand. The people who live in this dirty, transient town make hovels their homes, with no electricity or running water. This is “developing” with a capital D.
Finally, we reach the end of the bridge and enter Hairatan. Thankfully, our diplomatic colleagues are waiting for us in a huge, shiny black Chevy Tahoe.
Suddenly, I am jarred from my reverie by yet another big truck crossing the bridge, this time back in Lockport. The oh-so-real dust and excitement dissipate, and I am left longing to contribute to the greater good here at home.