(Alternate title: When Borders Need To Heal….)
When we got to the Southern Afghanistan-Balochistan camps the first thing we noticed was the quiet. Even more strange than the lines of donated tents, the numbers of people, and the bizarre floating appearance of the inflatable camp hospitals dotting the landscape, was the relative silence. This surprised us.
Inside the largest camp hospital we found the recovered bodies of the missing Afghan-Americans. A make-shift morgue had been arranged with each body properly tagged in a kind of digital tattoo ink that kept a running score of the date of death, body temperature and presumed cause of death. The previous group of traveling NGO physicians (our hospital ship was semi-stationed for the duration at Balochistan Port) had left a good set up. Above each body “hovered” a bodily representation – a CT/MRI compiled projection – so that the morgue had the appearance of something spectral and otherworldly, the souls of the dead afraid to leave, anxious to ensure the truth.
Ours was not a typical refugee or disaster victim virtopsy. Those we had done in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, on international hospital ships in rough and calm seas both. We only needed the scans to do those. The bodies were not ours and were disposed of as the locals or families saw fit. (Presuming the families would let us scan them. This was sometimes difficult to arrange.) From the scanned images, however, we could compile data and enter it into the open database that our physician-NGO group provided to the public. We shared our conclusions with a world-wide audience of academics, the curious, the bored, the skeptics, war proponents, human rights activists, nationalists, speculators, terrorists, cranks, freaks, perverts, politicians – whoever felt like “tuning in.”
It was better this way. You couldn’t keep the data under wraps anyway. And still people never believed you! It got to the point that you learned to be a performer when imaged or filmed, you squinted your eyes in a simulacrum of compassion, wrinkled your brow in pretend concentration and consulted procedure manuals in a slow deliberate fashion so that the audience knew you played by international rules and norms. Even if we were an international NGO, even if we were careful to disassociate ourselves from the governments, they didn’t believe us. Paranoia is easy when you’ve got lots of numbers to sift through.
When you first start examining a virtopsy it’s like peeling an onion. You go in layers: the epidermis, the dermis, the subcutis and so on. Viscera can be examined separately and we always tell the medical students that rotate with us to look at each organ individually at first. From there, you can examine the various connections, the way the vessels course or the nerves wind. After you peel the onion, digitally of course, you slice and dice it and put it back together again. This is the advantage of a virtopsy over a traditional autopsy: each life, a “rewindable” story.
(I have no idea what Afghanistan will be like in 2050, but I am making the – reasonable, I think – assumption that various borders will remain contested leading to a chronic low-grade tumoil ready to be exploited by various regional actors and alliances. Populations will move from contested areas to zones of relative quiet or safety. Like many people, I have a tendency to look out at the world within the context of my own narrative (always a mistake) and that is the narrative of an immigrant raised on stories of “the old country,” of passions borne of the Partition, of flows and resettlements of peoples that continue in some fashion until today. In short, in some parts of the world the borders need to heal.
I predict the regional sorting out will continue for the next few decades, some of it good, some of it bad, and this will result in other regional insurgencies picking up steam. Something called Afghanistan will still exist, I just don’t know what the borders will be and what it will include. The interconnectedness of people across space will likely result in international humanitarian efforts becoming more open-sourced, more aggressive, more interactive, and private groups will continue to develop very sophisticated ways to do this. The people will not wait; they will lead their governments.
Predictions like the above are easy, though, aren’t they? A prediction by itself don’t cost anything, but wrong predictions sure do cost an awful lot.)