Guernica / Smoke Screen
Shopkeepers close their doors when U.S. troops patrol Bagram Village just outside the American base of the same name.
Their shelves hold Army pants, boots and knives sold to them, they say, by Afghans working on the base, gifts to them from American soldiers but more likely stolen. Either way, soldiers confiscate these items on sight. The shopkeepers sit in the shade watching traffic inch past, motorcycles weaving between cars. They hear the saws and hammers from nearby construction. They watch steam rise from restaurant kitchens.
Sipping tea, the shopkeepers wait for my questions while keeping a wary eye on the passing soldiers. What is it like living so close to an American base? I want to know. I expect them to grumble about the soldiers searching their shops. Instead, they tell me about a strange odor they say comes from the base. It smells of plastic.
The odor, the Afghans said, comes from a burn pit, a huge open dump site used on U.S. bases to consume mountains of trash, unleashing harmful chemicals. Burning plastic, for instance, releases carcinogenic substances that may increase the risk of heart disease and respiratory ailments, cause rashes and damage the nervous system.
Computers, television sets and mobile phones release cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can also damage the nervous system and the kidneys.
As of last year, the United States Central Command estimates that there were 114 open burn pits in Afghanistan. According to a public information officer at Bagram Airbase who asked not to be identified, there were twenty-two burn pits in Iraq as of 2010. Used since the beginning of both wars, burn pits have consumed metals, Styrofoam, human waste, electronics and even, in some cases, vehicles and body parts. Diesel and jet fuel keep the pits burning, adding their own mix of dangerous elements.
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