A Moment Alone


From our continuing Afghanistan series, “Snapshots of a Fading War”

Photo by Neil Shea

By Neil Shea

January 14, 2013



KUNAR PROVINCE—The showers on this base are crammed into a wobbling trailer that smells of mildew and damp soil. Three stalls line the wall, each curtained with thin, milky plastic. Sometimes there is hot water, often not, so soldiers bathe strategically. Late-night, when fewer people shower, is best for warm water, and for privacy. The same can be said for bases throughout Afghanistan. But on the smaller ones, like ours, communal living, military intimacy, is the norm. The shower is one of the few places you can find solitude. If you’re unlucky, your post doesn’t have a shower. Then solitude comes only on the toilet.

I stumble toward the trailer one morning, praying for hot water and wearing flip-flops–flip-flops because the showers, shared here by a hundred men, are never really clean. Though I have seen them scrubbing and mopping, the Afghan janitors have never mastered the concept. Or they understand filth differently.

A lieutenant says hello as I pass and makes a joke about the absence of hot water. A platoon recently returned from a mission, he says, and many men headed straight for the stalls, for the release from dirt and grease and truck exhaust, for escape from the faces of the men they see day after day. Another joke, untold, surfs the lieutenant’s laughter.

“Is there a certain shower I shouldn’t use?” I ask.

“None of them,” he says. “They’re all covered with semen.”


Neil Shea is a Scholar contributing editor. He is also a regular contributor to National Geographic, where he has written about conflict and cultural change in East Africa. His Afghanistan reports for the Scholar include “So This Is Paktya” (Summer 2010) and “A Gathering Menace” (Spring 2012). Follow him on Instagram at @neilshea13.

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