This is Christmas in Afghanistan, and it ain't pretty.
Americans, Britons and Christians from across the globe find themselves stuck in Muslim Afghanistan this Christmas, sacrificing a cozy celebration at home with their loved ones in hopes of bringing peace and joy to a place that has seen precious little of either during the past 23 years of war.
"Lots of small things are making it OK to be here. Things like hot water, hot chow," said Derek, a U.S. Army first lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division battalion stationed here at Afghanistan's only functioning airport. Under U.S. military rules, troops cannot be identified by their full name unless they request it. He said he is from the Dallas area but declined to give specifics.
Derek, like most other soldiers, opted for as little identification as possible, citing the potential threat posed to families back home by sympathizers of al-Qaida, the group blamed by the Bush administration for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
He said serving the United States in Afghanistan over Christmas is a tough but worthwhile sacrifice.
"Especially around the holidays, I can't help but think about all the people back home who can't be spending this time with their families around Christmas" because of the terrorist attacks, Derek said. "My heart goes out to them ... I'm not sad being here. I'm just trying to make the best of the situation."
Creating some semblance of Christmas spirit involves a bizarre mix of Muslim sympathetic tolerance and Christian goodwill.
Muslim shopowners on Chicken Street in downtown Kabul have lined the streets with what appears to be chopped-up pine branches imbedded in buckets. Each tree is festooned with shiny blue, red and green tinsel and other odds and ends that the merchants could scrounge up.
Under the recently ousted Taliban regime, the display of Christmas trees and consumption of alcohol would have brought swift and harsh punishment - even death - administered by agents of the disbanded Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Today, it's not quite clear what the rules are, but nobody seems very intent on enforcing them.
At Bagram, military commanders plan to present troops with their own version of a Christmas tree: a long post draped with green mosquito netting and decorated with desert brown MRE food packets.
MREs, or Meals-Ready to Eat, are routinely derided by troops as some of the most unappetizing food on the planet.
At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, marine guards joked about their plans to raid the MRE box and pull out the most detestable food packets for gift exchanges with their friends. Lance Cpl. Derek Atkinson, 20, of Tecumseh, Mich., won loud votes of approval when he nominated pork chow mein MREs as the best candidate for gift-giving this season.
All U.S. and British troops will be treated to a Christmas party, including turkey and gravy with all the trimmings. As a special treat, American media companies are donating free time on the satellite phones journalists use here, so the troops can phone home.
"We all still have a family, right here," Atkinson said during an interview in an embassy recreation room, which, until earlier this month, had not been occupied since the embassy closed its doors in 1989.
Marines who were still in grade school when the embassy was evacuated, during the Soviet occupation, are discovering new joys such as vinyl LP hits from the `80s, a record player, and 1989 issues of Time, Newsweek and Playboy. "We've all grown pretty close, so it's not like you're that far from home," he added. "We're all like brothers here."
At Bagram, a group of carolers, holding Chemlite disposable chemical torches, are planning what one singer described as a "mercifully brief" sing-along session.
"What I miss most is not having family here. You know, the atmosphere, the family, the lights, the trees," he said, adding that his father is a retired military officer who understands the requirements of wartime service. "We have a mission to perform, and we're going to carry it out."
At the U.S. Embassy, marines and diplomats have spent several days planning a Christmas party for American passport holders in Afghanistan. The scraggly tree they erected in the entry hall of the embassy is festooned with red, white and blue streamers, a Santa ornament and a special Christmas "angel" on top: a doll dressed in the head-to-toe cloak known as a burka.
Journalists, who appeared to outnumber marines 2-to-1 during a late-afternoon interview session on Christmas Eve, repeatedly asked the marines to express their feelings about being so far from home. The marines were often less than responsive.
As a CNN crew zeroed in on four black and green military socks taped to a wall, a producer realized one of the men he was interviewing owned one of the socks. It had a gaping hole in the heel.
"Now, what would your mother say if she saw you had a hole in your sock?" the producer asked, pushing hard for an answer that would produce a few laughs for the viewing audience back home. The marine, apparently suffering stage fright, simply shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
With camera rolling, the producer pressed again. A long silence followed, after which the marine responded, "Uh. Well. I don't know." One of his friends, enjoying his discomfort, finally decided to bail him out, yelling to the camera, "She'd probably tell you to wash your stinking feet!"
At a British encampment inside the hangar of Bagram airport, commandos sent here as part of a peacekeeping mission have been banned from sending mail or phoning home. As one British soldier lamented that he had no way of letting his mother know he was safe despite being in one of the world's most dangerous places, a television cameraman came up with an innovative idea.
He handed the soldier a pen and notepad, then videotaped him writing a message to his mother. The message is being delivered to his mother over the airwaves on Christmas Day.