Robert Evans III, Indy soldier and artist, documents his experiences of war
When Robert Evans III joined the Army to help finance his education at Herron School of Art, he could scarcely have imagined the series of events that would eventually follow: that hijacked airplanes would destroy the World Trade Center, or that the U.S. would declare a global "war on terror," or that he would find himself living in a tent on an Army base outside the village of Bagram, Afghanistan. Evans, a photographer active with the local arts group Primary Colours, a husband and father of three daughters, assumed his alternate identity as a specialist with the 377th Military Police Company last fall. He took two cameras with him to Bagram, the war-torn former frontline of the struggle between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and has been documenting his experiences there from the unique dual perspective of both a soldier and an artist. "As an artist, I wanted to see the world," Evans says. "That"s part of the reason why I joined the Army.
Children in Bagram, Afghanistan; according to UNICEF, one in every four children die before reaching age 5.
"The first day I got there, I was told that three hours prior, someone had driven off the road and hit a mine, killing four people and injuring six. That happened every day for a while, but after a while you get used to it, and it just becomes another place, another job," he mused during a brief visit to Indianapolis last December. About 10,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan. Overall, Evans says relations between the American soldiers and the villagers of Bagram are fairly good, though cultural differences sometimes elevate tensions between the U.S. troops and the local Afghan militia. "It seems like every male over age 13 carries an AK-47," he observes. "The kids have really old faces. You have kids who are 16 or 17 who look 35, easily." Most of the children Evans has photographed on the streets of Bagram seem wary and watchful, though the occasional grin surfaces here and there. After decades of near-constant conflict, it"s no wonder that children in Afghanistan grow up quickly. Most boys begin work as early as age 9 or 10, and Evans recalls one 9-year-old who earns a living driving trucks at the Bagram base. "The little boys are extremely bold. They"ll do anything. I"m sure the wars have had something to do with that - they"re expected to be brave, to show strength from a very early age. They"re expected to take care of themselves. One tried to trade me a goat for my 9 millimeter." With most of the ground fighting and bombing campaign over, children around the country are returning to bullet-riddled school buildings. When he"s able to, Evans visits school in Bagram, bringing with him art supplies donated by patrons of the J. Martin Gallery. Evans began collecting art supplies when he realized "there"s no fun there - not the way we see it." Evans thinks that making art helps the Afghan kids to deal with the difficult, often violent reality of their lives - their drawings often feature images of paratroopers dropping out of the skies, of the liberation of Kabul, of Afghan soldiers with AK-47s, women in burqas and concertina wire fences. "What I"m trying to do is give them the tools they need to do what they want with," he says. Besides art supplies, the school desperately needs up-to-date globes, maps, elementary-level textbooks, as well as English texts for all ages. When Evans finishes his tour of duty in March, he hopes to establish an ongoing effort to keep Bagram"s school well-stocked with books and supplies. "Every kid that goes to school is one less potential terrorist - that"s what it comes down to," he says. Although U.S. media attention has shifted away from Afghanistan and towards the eminent conflict with Iraq, the U.S." work in Afghanistan is far from finished. The country remains in urgent need of new roads, hospitals, schools and businesses, and humanitarian services ranging from landmine removal to safe childbirth kits, but only 12 percent of the $5.25 billion in aid promised at the Tokyo summit last year has gone towards humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The World Bank estimates that twice that amount is the bare minimum needed to stabilize Afghanistan over the next five years, and a Human Rights Watch report issued in December found that many girls and women still face human rights abuses, including assault, discrimination and lack of access to schools. Though President Bush, at the urging of a bipartisan coalition including Sen. Richard Lugar, signed the Afghan Freedom Support Act of 2002 at the end of last year, Congress has not yet budgeted the additional $2.3 billion in aid and $1 billion to expand the international peacekeeping force. Nor does it appear in Bush"s 2003 budget. Evans seems not to mind that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is no longer under an intense media spotlight. "It gives us more freedom to do our work, and be constructive, instead of worrying about the media all the time," he says. Evans believes some progress is being made, but rarely gets reported by the media. So what is the good news about Afghanistan? "The good news is that there are more jobs for people, that kids are going to school, that [U.S. troops] are starting to learn tolerance for the culture, and building alliances. Our job is to pave the way for the humanitarian aid." According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children"s Fund, the need for humanitarian aid is extreme. Afghanistan has some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the world: Half a million women die in pregnancy and childbirth each year, and one in every four children die before reaching age 5. Of those children who do survive, half are malnourished. Eighty-seven percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water and sanitation, which leads to preventable deaths from illnesses like diarrhea, cholera and respiratory infections. Evans acknowledges that there were periods of time when he saw a dead child brought to the gates of the Army base every single day, and other children badly maimed from landmines, like 3-year-old Nebzeullah, described in Evan"s journal entry on the opposite page. He has obviously seen a lot during his time in Bagram - some of which he"s not authorized to talk about, and some of which he would prefer not to discuss. Other experiences are recorded in his intimate, immediate photographs. He doesn"t want the American people to forget what he"s seen and he plans a show of images from Afghanistan at the new Primary Colours gallery space in the Harrison Center later this year. "One thing I really want to do with my photography is to engage people, and give them an opportunity to experience a part of what I have. I don"t want to shock anyone, but there"s so much that people need to see."
Text from Robert's journal
Here"s a story for you. There was this little boy in the hospital. His name was Nebzeullah. He was about 3, really cute. Big grinning face. He was looking at me when I walked in. They are not used to blacks here - they call us "Africa." He had scars from his chin to what I could see of his stomach. The scars over his stomach looked as if he had been ripped open, just had a chunk of his body lifted out. It was red and swollen. I thought of a rotten steak left out to fester. Dead skin pealed away where the burn was beginning to heal. The scars on his arms were so swollen that it looked as if worms crawled under his skin. The right eye was the worst of his face as it looked as if he had been born without the socket and it was surgically added. All over his body he had puncture wounds that had healed. They were so large you could stick a pencil in some of them. They are entrance points of shrapnel from an anti-personnel mine. He rolled over, covering himself with his blanket when he noticed me examining him. I thought he was hiding his scars. Then he creeps slowly around the blanket, exposing first his hand, crawling like a spider, and raises out laughing, grabbing at me, making me jump before rolling back over giggling under his covers. I realized that I had not seen his legs so when I came back later that night I raised his covers while he slept. His legs looked to be intact. The doctors had circumcised him recently. I wonder at what kind of mine had damaged him. He must have been walking with someone who triggered it and they caught most of the blast. At the very least this is one life gone, one life scarred. I am going to visit him today since I am off, take crayons with me and draw with him. That is Afghanistan. A toddler who is most likely an orphan, scarred for life, already having suffered more then most people ever will, than anyone deserves ... just wanting to play Peek-A-Boo. -Robert Evans III