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Under a bizarre policy that echoes the days of segregation in the United States, Afghans who work at the NATO base at Kandahar Airfield must use separate toilets marked "local nationals only."

Several Afghans told The Globe and Mail the practice is insulting, but they are dependent on NATO for their livelihoods and reluctant to speak out.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Blevins, the U.S. officer in charge of administrative contracts, said the segregated toilet policy exists because the bathroom habits of the Afghans are different from those of the North Americans and Europeans who work at the base.

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"We've always had this policy," Lt.-Col. Blevins said. "It's not based on a racial thing; it's just how they use the toilets. They're not used to toilets. They use squats, or holes in the ground."

One Afghan, who has worked at the base for five years as an interpreter, laughed at this suggestion.

He can't give his name because he works with the coalition and is afraid of being targeted by insurgents.

"I don't see any reason for separate bathrooms," he said. "Everybody is human, so it should be one [toilet]"

He said that foreign soldiers told him they wouldn't use the same toilets as Afghans because they are afraid of catching something contagious.

"Soldiers say they're scared of local people who might have disease," he said. "Personally, I [do]not like that, but this is the way of the army so you have to respect that."

The issue came to light when a Globe reporter tried to use the toilets near the main gate at Kandahar Airfield. The guard on duty directed the reporter to toilets 30 metres away, saying the ones directly in front of him were for the Afghans.

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Lt.-Col. Blevins said he thinks of the policy as a cultural accommodation, and it makes life easier for the cleaners.

"When they [the Afghans]use our port-a-potties, they stand on the seats and it causes quite a mess," he said. "I think it's just a cultural thing."

The toilets reserved for Afghans typically have the words "local nationals" written on the door, and are a different colour than the ones reserved for non-Afghans. The toilets look the same on the inside, except the plastic seat is sometimes removed from the local national toilets. Afghans say there aren't enough toilets to accommodate them, and theirs aren't as well cleaned as the ones reserved for foreigners.

"It's not fair," said Qaseem, an Afghan interpreter who works at the base.

He said some foreigners will use the local bathrooms when the lines are long and it suits them, but local Afghans can't use the bathrooms reserved for the foreigners.

"Some of the army guys, they use the local bathroom, so we should be able to use their bathrooms, too."

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As he speaks, his uncle comes over to say that the separate bathrooms are very nice, and that he's grateful to NATO for coming to Afghanistan and he hopes they will stay a long time.

Other Afghans who stand in line waiting to be searched as they leave the NATO base said they can accept having to use separate bathrooms and don't see it as a significant hardship.

A few Afghan employees have the privilege of being able to use either set of toilets because they have worked with the coalition long enough to be considered trusted agents.

Qaseem said the problem comes down to the way Afghans use water to clean themselves before praying. The foreigners don't like it, he said.

Lt.-Col. Blevins said there can be problems if water bottles, used by the Afghans in their ablutions, have to be fished out of the toilets. Although Afghans are strongly encouraged to use the toilets marked "local nationals only," they wouldn't be prevented from using another bathroom in an emergency, he said.

There are also security issues to be considered, he said. Some foreign-only bathrooms are close to the soldiers' sleeping quarters, which need to be protected.

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More than 1,200 local people come through the gates of Kandahar Airfield most days, according to the Canadian guards who operate the main entrance.

They work in a variety of jobs, from manual labour to translation. They are the Afghans who, in a conflict increasingly characterized as a battle for hearts and minds, have the most direct contact with coalition forces.

Relations between the workers and military personnel range from collegial friendships to wariness and suspicion. Translators, partly because they speak English, can become quite close to some officers, while labourers required to have a permanent military escort are not treated with the same consideration.

They are hired under an Afghans-first policy, which seeks to employee as many local people as possible to ensure they see the economic benefits of the foreign presence.

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