The Other Side of War, Three Years Later

Jason Powers
Mar 11 · 3 min read

In 2005, I joined the military and learned Farsi, hoping to go to Afghanistan and spy on the Taliban. I went to Iraq instead. In 2015 and 2017, I finally used my military linguist training, but far from Afghanistan — after a communication mishap I found myself living at a refugee camp in Greece, assisting the Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

Last year, Medium contacted me to write an article about that experience. The story (found here) focused on my background as a former spy and how it led to me working at medical clinics in Greece instead of Afghanistan, helping a man named Sayed who had been tortured by the Taliban.

The original ending of that story was bleak. It captured my feelings on the hopelessness of the situation. Because my editor wanted a more uplifting story, I tweaked the ending it and said that Sayed was on his way to a better life, even though I wasn’t sure if it were true.

This is the original ending:

It’s been six months since I met Sayed. I suppose I should write an inspiring conclusion about his recovery, or a special connection we made, or at least mention where he is now. But not all stories have happy endings. I doubt he has recovered, we haven’t keep in touch, and he’s probably still living in a crowded, crumbling plastic shed. I haven’t kept in touch because as soon as he put his shirt back on and left the clinic, Sayed looked no different than any other Hazara seeking refuge. Torture victims, sex slaves, and children who watched their parents die were indistinguishable from anyone else in camp.

Somehow, the bleak ending is happier than the reality. Things have progressed from bad to worse, and from worse to hell on earth.

In 2015 when I was on Lesbos, the hundreds of thousands of refugees who would be processed on the small island were just beginning to arrive. The people of Lesbos and its main city, Mytiline, put everything aside to help the Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis literally washing up on their shores. Two islanders were nominated for a Nobel Prize, representing all islanders and volunteers. The police and volunteers were on relatively good terms and the islanders welcomed us with open arms. There were few rules or regulations and less organization, but the locals, NGOs, and unattached volunteers worked together seamlessly to make the best of a humanitarian crisis.

The mood was different in 2017. Instead of the police welcoming us, I had to bribe a camp official to give me a permit to work at their medical clinic. The doctors and nurses at the local hospital were sadistically rough when performing routine checks for patients. Many locals avoided talking to us in public. A doctor who told me he didn’t speak English suddenly learned the language, telling me on a Tuesday Listen now asshole, I don’t see him today. Come back the next week, when I was trying to get an exam for someone with an infected and spreading wound on his leg. We had already waited in an uncrowded hall for four hours. I saw contempt in some eyes while at restaurants and bars. A clerk at the blood lab told me, in perfect English, I can’t help you, we speak Greek here when I was escorting a former sex slave to get the results of her HIV test. My persistence in getting someone with a strangulated hernia seen by a doctor got me kicked out of the hospital where I translated in the mornings — I spent the next three weeks getting my morning shift by sneaking through the emergency department to avoid the clerks and security guards at the main entrance.

I didn’t think it could get much worse than having doctors refuse emergency surgery for someone with a deadly condition, or withhold the results of an HIV test for a former sex slave, but somehow things have.

Tomorrow, I’ll cover the teargassing of children, arson of schools and medical clinics, Neo-Nazis from Austria and Germany who came to “hunt refugees, ” beating of journalists, checkpoints set up by vigilantes to keep volunteers from volunteering, assault and expulsion of riot police by locals, and more.

Credit: AFP

Jason Powers

Written by

Explorer, aid worker, teacher, and the luckiest man alive. Everything: www.JasonPowersBooks.com

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