No going back

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It took Terry Gordon all of five months to decide Afghanistan was not the place for him to be, the rich financial gains notwithstanding.

Gordon left Vietnam after five years, leaving behind an expectant Vietnamese wife to work as Manager for the Supreme Group of companies which supplies food for the 200,000 NATO troops stationed there.

With, as the New York Times recently reported, "the Obama administration ...increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014," there seemed to be no end to another protracted conflict initiated by the United States.

As one of only about 50 white businessmen in Kabul, Gordon felt conspicuously exposed to the dangers of a violence-racked nation.

Speaking with Thanh Nien Weekly shortly after the family reunion on his return to Saigon, Gordon said he had decided to stay on in safe and secure Vietnam, having got an offer to head the IP Software and Business Development division of ATI Telecom.

"I feel guilty not going back to Kabul because I have friends there," he said ruing the fact that he'd left without saying goodbye.

Gordon's wife Ta Thuy Ha said she had advised him to stay away from army people and wear clothes like the locals.

"To avoid worrying too much, I did not read about the war on Afghanistan during the time my husband was there. We chatted every night and SMSed during the day. He told me everything except the trips to the South or the North of Afghanistan," she said.

Ha is not surprised with Gordon's decision. "After a while he knew it's not worth staying on in Afghanistan. He told me that whenever he had to travel by car within the city he had a terrible feeling that he did not know what will happen."

Terry Gordon, one of 50 white businessmen in Kabul, at Mazar-I-Sharing, a city in Afganistan. He has just returned to Saigon after working in Afghanistan for five months. Photos courtesy of Terry Gordon.

Gordon said that in Kabul, he could earn three times as much money as in Ho Chi Minh City, with a 12-month contract netting a six-figure income. With that kind of money, he could have bought an apartment in HCMC soon. But Afghanistan taught him there were things more important than making a quick buck.

Gordon is a former administrative officer in the Australian air force. He came to Vietnam on a holiday and later returned to work as a tour leader for Intrepid, an Australian travel agent in Vietnam.

Gordon said that his wife let him go to Kabul because she knew she had no option. "I missed the time in the army. By the way, I promised her to come back in one year," he said.

Surviving in Kabul

"The thing that scared me the most was not the Taliban army but kidnappers. White people are prime targets for kidnapping. (And I cannot see who is Taliban and who is not.)"

According to Gordon, wealthy Afghanistan families who could afford to leave have already left. Those who stayed back are the ones who could not afford to leave.

In Afghanistan, he said everyone was out to get what one could and everybody was there for the money.

"They are lovely people but they cannot trust others. They have been constantly at war for hundreds of years," said Gordon.

He said that to avoid attention, he never used the army car and did not hire bodyguards. He always covered himself with a big blanket just like the Afghans.

I always took along a small package with passport, passport copies, clothes, water and matches in case I had to leave quickly," he said.

Another planet

Gordon said when he first saw the desert mountains ranges with small green valleys, he felt he was landing on Mars.

Working as an operations manager for the Supreme Group which provides food, catering, logistics, clothes and aviation services to NATO, Gordon said he worked with people from different countries.

To survive there, one has to be good at dealing with people, communication and understanding different cultures, he said.

Gordon said the only thing that made him feel good during the time in Kabul was that the company employed 1,000 local people which helped them support their families. And when his staff met him they put their hands on their hearts and said "thank you."

Early on in his assignment, Gordon found, much to his dismay, that he had to move from one place to another, which scared him.

He lived in a container tank; in an electronic world, with bodyguards, and protected by high fences, "just like a prison."

"I counted the days and months and the last month lasted so long. And for the last day, I was counting every hour". He was lucky that his place was never broken into, but he knows people tried to.

Gordon showed Thanh Nien Weekly pictures of children with old faces as if they'd never had a childhood. He said there were always children offering to take care of his car. At first there were around five street children and when he came back there were around 25 kids waiting for money from him.

He thought of sending Vietnamese people to work in Afghanistan, but reconsidered later. "I would feel guilty if I encouraged people to go where they could get hurt," he said.

Back in Vietnam, things have changed.

"Before he would get angry easily, but after his time in Kabul, he has become calmer. He has had a lot of time to reflect and now he appreciates life more," said Ha.

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