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Avior with Afghani Child

Avior with Afghani girl scouts



Rhonda Spivak

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post in August 2009:,  and the Vancouver Jewish Independent in October 2009 ]

Orly Avior, a 56-year-old Jewish Israeli citizen, living in Netanya, was awfully surprised to get a letter in September 2008 from Uncle Sam telling her that the U.S. army was sending her to Iraq for active military service.

"Eight months earlier, I thought the army had agreed to put me in the retired reserves, given my age and physical condition.... When I got mail from them, I said to Ariel, my husband, my retirement has come through.... Then I opened the letter and saw they were sending me to Iraq. Ariel thought I was joking," said Avior, who made aliyah from the United States in 2005.

Avior grew up as Gigi Banjak, living in Sharpsville, Penn. Although her husband, Ariel, thought it was dangerous to send her – a Jewish Israeli middle-aged woman – to Iraq and began to make efforts to contact the U.S. State Department, Avior was prepared to go. "Her patriotism compelled her," said her husband.

Plans changed, however, and Avior ended up being sent to the United States for two months of training and then, via Kuwait, to Afghanistan for eight months. She returned to Israel this August, with a few souvenirs: a Meritorious Service Award presented by Gen. 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 burka. "I can show people how hard it is to see through the burka and how uncomfortable it is to wear," she said.

In Afghanistan, Avior worked as the equal-opportunity noncommissioned officer, receiving 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 said.

In addition to handling discrimination complaints, Avior got to sense firsthand the unpredictable pulse of life in Afghanistan. She met many Afghani soldiers, whom the United States is arming and training against the Taliban insurgency and al-Qaida.

Avior joined American security forces on "dismount" missions, where a convoy goes out to a village, "while a gunner and driver stay in the vehicle and the soldiers walk through the village speaking to elders and townspeople to try to get some intelligence."

It is through these missions that Avior said the Americans "get to know which villages are for us and which are Taliban sympathizers."

She said, "None of the women will talk to us, just the men talk and the women leave."

In one village, for example, the Americans learned on their dismount mission that the local school needed supplies and, accordingly, the U.S. army dropped off the supplies. "Then they [the villagers] were more likely to give us information on Taliban activity in the area," said Avior. "One time the village let us know that the Taliban had set up an improvised explosive device on the roadway, which we had disarmed – preventing soldiers' deaths."

Another time, the Americans did "a humanitarian drop of school supplies but then the Taliban came and burned the books and supplies.... We built several schools, but some are sitting empty because unless you are a boy and in a Taliban school, the Taliban doesn't want you in school. Luckily, we've had more success stories with schools than not."
The Taliban also has used children armed with improvised explosive devices. "They use the children because they know that the American soldiers are always giving them candy," explained Avior. "The Taliban made it impossible for us to be nice to the kids, for their own protection."

Last May, Avior e-mailed her family and friends, reporting on the Taliban's activities in the Zabul region near Pakistan: "They are blowing up roads and forcing teachers to shut down schools. They sliced off the ears of one defiant teacher.... 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. This is one of the reasons that we are getting 20,000 more soldiers, mostly to be sent to Zabul to prevent the area from falling back into chaos."

In addition to building schools, the American army has set up medical centres and "teaches the Afghani National Army medical aid." However, unfortunately, the Afghan army "is not forward thinking," according to Avior.

"If [Afghani] soldiers don't need something right now, they sell it," she said. "There isn't accountability. We're trying to teach them to keep the supplies they have. If they don't need it today, it doesn't mean they won't need it tomorrow. But the Afghanis will sell supplies to whomever will give them the most money, and that even could be the Taliban.... One thing I learned is you don't trust anyone there."

Avior is pessimistic about America pulling out from Afghanistan in the near future: "In the early 1970s, Afghanistan was a modernized country. We've been there for nine years. Obama has had to put in more troops. It could take a generation – maybe 20 years – before the Afghan army will be strong enough and educated enough to control their country."
Avior didn't tell people she was Jewish or Israeli. "Afghanis hate Israel," she said. "We hired Afghanis to set up Internet for our soldiers. To improve our system, we ordered parts and one of the parts ordered said 'Made in Israel.' The Afghanis wouldn't let the part into the country."

There is no postal system in Afghanistan, something that Avior discovered when an Israeli child in Ramat Poleg who is a stamp collector asked her to bring him back some stamps.
"I went into shops looking for them and learned that there weren't any, since there is no mail delivery," she said. "Afghanis have e-mail and cellphones but you can't send any letters or parcels by mail. It 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. I was able to find my friend antique Afghani stamps at a bazaar."

Women in Afghanistan are treated "intolerably," Avior said. In Kabul, which is the "most modernized" city, the Taliban ruled a woman had to wear a burka and be accompanied by a male family member, otherwise "she could be beaten." Now, Avior said, in Kabul, most women won't go out by themselves but they will go out with a child. "Up to about 30 percent of the women in Kabul don't wear burkas but just wear a scarf," she added.

In the Afghan army, there are some women who enlist because, Avior said, "they have to feed their families." But, women can't make the rank of officer, only sergeant.
"The craziest thing is that many of the women in the Afghan army serve as security guards but the army won't issue them weapons. The women are in uniform but they are unarmed! I asked why don't they allow women to have weapons. 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."

Avior also noticed that the female soldiers in the Afghan 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," said Avior.

As for the military accommodations on Camp Pheonix, Avior smiled and said, "We called the place we lived Lego Land. I lived in my own Conex Box, which was one bed wide and about a bed and a half long. We called it Lego Land because they [the American army] would take these Conex boxes and stack them one on top of another, and put one next to another, with a walk way between them. My Conex Box didn't come with a toilet, which was down the street."

This was deluxe accommodation, however, when compared to the B-Huts, wooden buildings that were shared among lower ranking soldiers.

"One of the B-Huts caught on fire and a couple of soldiers died, because it turned out that a whole hut could burn in only 15 minutes. That's because the Afghan locals we hired to do the work would thin their paint down with kerosene. So, you can't smoke or even light a candle in one of them, or else it can burn down very quickly."

Only at the very end of her time in Afghanistan, did Avior reveal that she was Israeli.

"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. 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, as some parents may have taken their kids out of the program."

Avior said one thing she wondered about the most during her time in Afghanistan was why the villagers, who were so poor, would have so many children, knowing how difficult a struggle it would be just to feed them.

"I asked my Afghani interpreter one day why women didn't believe in birth control 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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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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