A magical, tragic place
By David Moats
Herald Staff | October 08,2008
Forty years ago they were a group of young women traveling into the mountains of Afghanistan, into villages where people had never seen a Westerner before, or a car. They were bringing small pox vaccine, and their job was to vaccinate everyone — infants, old people, women, men. From their sheltered lives in the United States, they thrust themselves into one of the poorest, most primitive places on earth, and they had a job to do. Decades later the United Nations declared small pox had been eradicated around the world.
I knew about those vaccinators. I, too, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan. The vaccinators had a reputation as among the most daring of all the volunteers in the country because of the danger and difficulty of their job. That they were women made it all the more dangerous and difficult.
At the time I lived with another volunteer in Khanabad, a town in the far north. We taught English in the local school, and our paths seldom crossed with the paths of the vaccinators. So one day when a vaccinator came through our town, we were happy to give her dinner and a place to stay for the night. It was always a treat to have a visitor. Her name was Jill Vickers, and she told me she was from upstate New York. I never saw her again.
Forty years later Jill Vickers lives in Bridport, Vt., and she has made a film for which she tracked down a dozen or so former vaccinators and interviewed them about their experiences. Afghanistan changed each of them. It was another world — "Bethlehem 2000 years ago," one of them said, — where people were living at a subsistence level. The vaccinators came back to America, and most had a hard time conveying to friends and family the fullness of their experience. Jill Vickers has given them another chance to tell their stories, artfully weaving the individual stories of each woman into a larger story encompassing the pathos, humor and hardship they experienced in Afghanistan.
The interviews are spliced with film footage of Afghanistan from 1965, plus numerous affecting photos of Afghan people and places, including photos of the vaccinators when they were young. In this way the film becomes the story of these women's lives as they look back on their 24-year-old selves.
They are not shy about talking of the difficulties they faced. The vaccinators are identified in the film only by their first names, and a woman named Lizette described the time she encountered an Afghan woman who was dying of bone tuberculosis. The woman knew she was dying, but she insisted that her children be vaccinated so they could have the best possible lives. Forty years later, the emotion was still present for Lizette. "She was just a wonderful woman," she said. And she remembered thinking, "The world doesn't owe me a damn thing."
The Peace Corps used female vaccinators so they would have access to the Afghan women, and so the volunteers got a rare glimpse at the lives of women who for the most part were hidden away behind mud walls. They found that some of the women were treated with love and respect. Others took them aside to show them their bruises.
A vaccinator named Linda — Linda Berryhill of Shrewsbury — recalled that Uzbek and Turkmen women were saucy and that nomad women were tough and a little scary. She remembered a tiny young girl setting down the two buckets she had been carrying on a yoke over her shoulders and leading her by the hand to see her mother, who was dying. "There was nothing I could do," Linda said.
The women experienced dire illness and the unwanted attention of men, plus the ordinary hardships of traveling in a remote place far from home. But there were rewarding moments that have stayed with them all these years.
Linda recalled the time a "magnificent" village woman took her aside by the hand, gave her tea and sat with her, establishing a "human connection" that was beyond words. "Those magic moments you can't program," Linda said. "They're a gift that life gives you. When they happen, savor them."
The women encountered the unrivaled generosity of the Afghan people. "They give you everything," a vaccinator named Pat said. So they learned not to eat everything offered; if they did, someone else would probably have to do without.
The history of Afghanistan since the 1960s has bestowed upon the Afghan people hardship far more extreme that anything encountered by the Peace Corps vaccinators. A vaccinator named Rita was asked at the end of the film to sum up Afghanistan in one word. She searched for the word. Then she said, "Tragic." She paused, feeling the full sadness of the nation's history. "That's one word," she said.
The film describes the different paths followed by the women when they came home. It wasn't always an easy adjustment. But they had helped eradicate small pox. They extended some lives, even if it was into a tragic future. They gave themselves, and perhaps some of the Afghans whose paths they crossed, some of those magic moments.
The film, titled "Once in Afghanistan," will be screened at 3:30 and 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Casella Theater at Castleton State College.
David Moats is editorial page editor of the Herald.