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Peals of laughter from a few lucky Afghan children

Sebastian Rich /NBC News

A young Afghan boy plays with NBC cameraman Sebastian Rich's helmet in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during a U.S. Army embed in June 2011.

 By Sebastian Rich, NBC News
KABUL, Afghanistan – Through my work as a photojournalist, I have reported from Afghanistan for over 30 years. I have known great happiness, pain, fear and sadness in this beleaguered country – sometimes all in the course of the same day.

I have experienced the fear and terror of being under teeth-rattling mortar shells, machine gun fire and the ever-present danger of a roadside improvised explosive device ending everything in an instant. I’ve had the pain of being wounded and the sadness of losing a friend.

But at times my life has never been happier than in Afghanistan. I have been surrounded by some of the most wonderful children in some very bizarre circumstances.

Recently I was on a hot and miserable patrol with the U.S. Army in Helmand Province – an area of Afghanistan where the Taliban are fighting fiercely for the control of opium production.

Sebastian Rich/NBC News

A mother waits to weigh her child at a UNICEF therapeutic feeding center in Herat, Afghanistan in September 2010.

Our platoon, suspecting an enemy had detected our position, laid low for a few minutes in the dust to gather intelligence. Out of nowhere half a dozen dusty, ragged children between the age of 5 and 11 years old swarmed over me like friendly honeybees.


My fading tattoos were apparently of great interest. Little fingers started trying to pick aging butterflies off my arms. My helmet vanished gently from my head as if by magic and appeared on a 10-year-old rascal grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Just 20 yards from my position with the children a first sergeant was scanning the horizon for danger with eagle eyes.
 
The sergeant in a moment of, shall we say forgetfulness or he just didn’t care, passed wind with an almighty crack. The children and I for an instant looked at each other with wide eyes of disbelief then erupted in howls of laughter.
 
If the enemy didn’t know where we were before they did now!

Sebastian Rich /NBC News

A child sleeps in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan in March 2011.

The children were laughing hysterically with tears of joy. The sergeant bent his head low with a little smile and was christened with a new nickname: “Sergeant Fart Pants.”

But these children were lucky to be here at all. Afghanistan is not a good place to be a child.

Afghanistan has one of the world's highest infant mortality rates – one in five children do not live past the age of five, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.  

Sebastian Rich /NBC News

A badly malnourished child is held at a local medical clinic in Herat, Afghanistan in January 2011.

It’s not great for mothers either. Women have little or no access to basic prenatal and postnatal care. As many as 1,400 women die from pregnancy related causes for every 100,000 births annually, according to UNICEF, which specifies that those are “reported” deaths, many non-governmental organizations estimate that the real numbers are much higher.

Nevertheless, compare that figure to the U.S. where 24 mothers die out of every 100,000 births. Childbirth can literally be a death sentence for a mother and her new baby in Afghanistan.

One of the main reasons for the high fatality rates among mothers and their new born babies is that many women give birth at home without any medical help. The children that do survive in the first years of their lives often succumb to preventable and treatable illnesses like diarrhea, malnutrition and respiratory infections.

A major shortage of medical professionals doesn't help – according to estimates by the United Nations Development Program there is only one doctor per every 50,000 Afghans.  

Sebastian Rich/ NBC News

The feet of a mother with her severely malnourished baby at a hospital clinic in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in March 2011.

Traditional cultural practices in a deeply conservative and patriarchal Afghan society contribute to the fact that Afghanistan remains one of the most awful places for a woman to give birth. For example, even if there were more doctors in rural areas men often do not allow their wives to be treated by male doctors.

“Move out,” shouted a grim-faced lieutenant. My helmet was playfully handed back to me.

As I left my new found little gang in the dust of their village I could hear imitations of fart noises and looked over my shoulder to see wiggling bottoms impersonating “sergeant fart pants.”

The children made my day and for a few moments all the trepidation of being on patrol in very hostile territory seemed a little less nerve-racking.

Sebastian Rich /NBC News

A child runs to school across an open sewer in Panchir Valley, Afghanistan during January 2011.

Of course the children had no idea how lucky they are to reach the ages they had.

The serious and deadly business of being on an army patrol in Helmand was brought back to me when a stern instruction from our lieutenant bellowed into my face.

“Hey Mr. NBC Cameraman, keep your distance from the man in front of you, I don’t want two men killed instead of one.”

World Health Organization Afghanistan Health Profile  

UNICEF Afghanistan statistics