I consider it my duty to take time out at this point and describe my surroundings here in the region of Kapisa, Afghanistan. Often one might grumble and moan about the meagre wages and supplies offered to soldiers in comparison to the work they do and risks they take, but it must be said that the coalition force’s capabilities concerning the construction, maintenance and supply of FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) here in Afghanistan never fails to impress. Let me offer a first-hand example.
I’ve already spoken of the enormity of the U.S. air base at Bagram. Of course nothing could quite replicate that elsewhere in this part of the world, but the numerous FOBs dotted throughout the Afghan countryside manage to hold there own all the same. Our base for the 6 month tour of duty presents a relatively sizeable circumference of about 1.4km. The early-morning runs (on days of R‘n R) can therefore become tediously repetitive scenery-wise once toured 3 or 4 times. However, placed on the side of a mountain, they offer enough trail-like conditions to qualify as a decent work-out. Combined with an altitude of 1,600m, the lungs should be sufficiently expanded upon our return home. Aside from the make-shift running track, the camp also boasts a decently equipped gym with enough varying weights machines, rowing machines and exercise bikes to keep the non-runners happy and healthy. On top of this, our own little Legion shelter has the mandatory pull-up bar, parallel bars and punch-bag dangling by the back door. Apéritif en place!*
In fact, let’s talk a bit about the buildings here at the FOB. There is a healthy contingent of brick-and-mortar shelters throughout the base. Luckily, the company of French Regular Army soldiers with whom we are deployed got the long straw and with it, a place in the "Anti-Chicom" lodgings. "Chicom" is short for Chinese Communist, a delightfully playful term associated with a certain type of rocket preferred by our adoring adversaries. In 6 weeks, it’s rained more Chicoms than actual drops of rain (although it has been abnormally dry since our arrival). Besides, these year-round Christmas presents hardly ever find their desired target (touching wood frantically). Our heavy-armour houses hold about 20 soldiers, divided into 10 compartments containing bunk-beds, two wardrobes and a wall-mounted heater. At the end of each building lies a little TV room which often gets divided in two itself, the C.O.s needing somewhere to stock ammunition and set-up office while Shakira goes Loca Loca on the portable telly across the way. Those not fortunate enough to reside in reinforced buildings find themselves instead holed-up in tents. Plain ol’ fashioned can’t-be-beat (Chicoms unwilling) tents. The interiors are stretched out with wood panelling to maximise space, and despite sleeping on camp-beds, each resident does still profit from a wardrobe to arrange their affairs. If a Chicom alert is sounded however, all tent residents must throw on their Kevlar vests and helmets and head outside to ground-level bunkers formed from reinforced concrete. A recent Chicom alert lasted 2 hours (from 9pm until 11pm). That’s a pretty nippy time of day to spend outside in a concrete tube. I just hopped up onto my top bunk, threw a film on the auld laptop and waited it out. Ah yep yep yep!
The washrooms are also rocket-proof, they being considered - from a morale standpoint - one of the more valuable infrastructural installations here. The water is more or less hot and the toilets are mercifully traditional in the Western sense that there’s a seat and a bowl. (Those familiar with traditional French countryside toilets no doubt guard unpleasant memories and chiselled thighs). They’re cleaned twice a day by local civilians, a contingent of which work daily in the FOB in all areas from lavatory maintenance (fixed and portable) to waste disposal and construction. Several civilian contractors also live on base, the majority of whom are American but also hail from Sri Lanka, Italy and elsewhere. The Sri Lankan runs the internet café, a few Indians run the pizzeria (yes, there’s a pizzeria) and another mix of nationalities work in the little supply store where anything from biscuits to combat knives can be bought. If one is seeking lower prices at more questionable levels of quality however, there is a little container full of shoddy materials and Victorian-era food stuffs, run by a local Afghan who speaks surprisingly good French. Spray paint, light bulbs, hashpipes, sandals, hunting knives, sim cards, name tags, Pringles, you name it!
Of course the crisps and chocolate bars only provide supplemental nourishment to those not altogether satisfied with the on-site dining hall. Here is where the French element of the NATO effort really shines through. There were rumours of discontent concerning the cuisine on offer at Bagram. Unlimited energy drinks, ice cream, donuts, servings of every course. Who could possibly settle for that?
"Mais il est ou le fromage là??" **
Luckily, here at our camp each evening meal is accompanied by mountains of cheese to put the surrounding landscape to shame. Brie, Bleu, Camembert, Roquefort, Suisse, ooh la la how magnificent it all is!! Less agreeable are the little shards of plastic occasionally found in one’s serving, a testimony to previous failed efforts to self-serve using the pathetic plastic cutlery provided. Bringing along one’s own camping knife and fork is highly recommended. Breakfast time sees trays and trays of fresh croissants, pain au chocolat and Danish pastries rolled out alongside fresh fruit and yoghurts, all complimenting the basic cereal and fruit juice. Opening hours are fixed, however the staff adapt to the departure/arrival times of certain missions and open correspondingly, which can never EVER be appreciated enough by the weary heads coming in from 48 hours in the field and sitting down to a warm meal at 1am.
Apart from these afore-mentioned luxuries, we have a a post office for sending and receiving letters (nothing new learned there, not sure why I just typed that) and a laundry service that delivers clean clothes in under 4 hours, twice a week. Drying is at each soldier’s initiative, with clothes lines and pegs provided alongside each building (the tent men are on their own). The ever-essential vehicle repair station is found just beside the gym. Myself and my Bulgarian friend are frequent visitors considering the four-wheeled rust-buckets we’ve been dealt since our arrival, but luckily the frequency of visits is gradually receding. And apart from that, my friends, there is not much else on show here in the mountains and valleys of Northern Afghanistan. As you can see, we’re not too hard up but man how I can’t wait to get back to France and my weekends in Paris. Tick tock……
* In the Legion, an "apéritif" is a rather jovial term for pre-meal workout. Our belts and berets are arranged neatly on the ground before the whole section attacks the pull-up bar, rope and gravel for push-ups.
** "But where’s the cheese, like?"