In the run up to writing this entry, I found myself unjustifiably panicked regarding the apparent inordinate delay in updating my blog. In truth, having flicked through my notebook I discovered that it’s been ten days since my last post. Ten whole days. Considering I average an entry a week, that’s really not that long. So why, then, do I feel like I’ve been lagging behind? Why does that niggling voice tell me I’ve been sitting on my arse doing sweet fuck all these past ten days? Perhaps because that’s been precisely the case.
I last left you at the termination of activities in our local valley, lasting five days and throwing up more than a few colourful incidents. Since then, the New Year was anti-climactically reigned in with tensions not quite boiling over between the Legion and the French Marines in the age-old "I Can Sing Louder Than You" contest at dinner. To round off a truly forgettable evening, the bar was forced to close at 11.20pm due to chronic lack of alcohol and the gradual sobering of irate soldiers. Everyone returned to their respective rooms and the majority (myself included) turned in for the night. Happy New Year indeed.
2011 started as it meant to go on - sluggishly. The next two days were spent in lethargic preparation for a ten-day trip to another FOB in the province of Srobi. Here we were to remain on 24 hour QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for the duration of our stay. QRF is a standby element active in every FOB throughout Afghanistan. Missions unfold in the normal manner and, if at some stage it is deemed necessary to call in reinforcements, the QRF is sent out to the event site. Depending on whether there is an active mission underway or not, and depending on whether it’s daytime or night-time, appropriate response times are accorded and must be strictly adhered to. QRF is a bit of a double-edged sword in so far as liberty is concerned. Apart from mealtimes, one is pretty much left to one’s own devices and sleeping is more often than not the order of the day. However, one is occasionally free to hit the internet café or gym once a walkie-talkie is in attendance to deliver the dreaded rally call. Unfortunately one must rest in combat gear throughout the QRF service, and so apart from lifting a few weights exercise time becomes quite limited. On top of the restricted work-out regime, occasions have arose where, at 2am on a freezing cold night, I’ve received an unceremonious poke in the spine to announce that QRF has been engaged. Wiping sleep from my eyes and squinting the night vision in to focus is not high up on my list of preferred activities, especially when it’s -12°C outside. As for the FOB at Srobi, things couldn’t have been further removed.
Rolling up to the gates of this new FOB, I was very suddenly reminded of an incident at our own FOB right at the beginning of our tour. I was in the living area at the back of our building engaged in conversation with my lieutenant (the annual evaluation - even in Afghanistan the show must go on). Out of nowhere we heard the Sergent Chef screaming from outside for everyone to get down. Unsure of what was unfolding, the lieutenant cracked open the back door only to slam it shut again as the sound of whizzing bullets forced his retreat back into the living room. It transpired that a lone gunman had hidden in the undergrowth a mere fifty metres from the FOB entrance and was taking pop shots at our building, it being lucky enough to find itself at the end of the row of accommodation. From there on special effort has been made to eliminate our visibility from the outside; no climbing on walls, no outdoor lights switched on after dark, etc. Compare this with the sight which greeted me and my squad as we approached the FOB at Srobi, and it truly defies belief. Already the transition from rural countryside to increasing metropolitanism was obvious. The roadside towns gradually grew in both size and frequency as the road conditions blended from dirt to gravel and on towards full-blown tarmacadam. Still, upon our arrival at the gates of the new FOB, one couldn’t help but be taken aback. There, loosely grouped together, laughing gaily with sunglasses in place, five French soldiers raised a hand apologetically as they cut in front of our vehicle and continued jogging along on their lap of the FOB.....on the OUTSIDE!! Geographically we hadn’t travelled all that far but my God how it seemed like a completely different universe. I later spoke with a friend of mine from basic training who spent six months in this part of Afghanistan early last year. He confirmed that it had been a similar story for his company and their running regime. An implausible, nigh impossible idea back at our base and yet a few kilometres down the road it appeared to be life as if we were back in France. Almost.
Now before I lose my senses completely and paint this area of Afghanistan as all red roses and friendly neighbours, I must point out that during our stay at the FOB in Srobi, a Corporal Chef from the French Regular Army was killed in action after his vehicle hit an IED. A ceremony was held in his honour before we departed for our own FOB a few days later. Indeed this part of Afghanistan is where the infamous ambush on French forces occurred in August 2008, claming the lives of ten French soldiers (one of them a Corporal Chef from the French Foreign Legion). I remember the poignant if somewhat paradoxical (but altogether true) statement by our Sergent Chef back in our tent after the ceremony.
"Strange how we always remark how quiet it is here in Afghanistan, and yet there’s no let-up in the death-toll".
All in all though, the FOB at Srobi had our jaws constantly on the floor. Wifi throughout the camp (with two separate unlimited accounts set up for our visiting party of 9 lasting until our departure), a free laundromat operating seven days a week with a twenty-four-hour turnaround (compared to the two days a week we get to wash our gear normally), and a dining hall that very nearly stole the crown of «Greatest Eating Experience in Afghanistan» right from under the nose of Bagram. These guys even had their own proper chef with a cylindrical paper hat almost the same height as himself, serving up the tastiest soups and sauces imaginable in the middle of a war zone. Of course, seeing as the QRF wasn’t called into action on a single occasion during our ten day stay a few post-Christmas pounds were unwittingly piled on. Luckily, the fine folks at Srobi decided to remedy our unfortunate weight-gain with their very own sports day. Yes that’s right, in the middle of Afghanistan, in the middle of the war on terror, the French Army decides to see who can run the most laps around the parade square in ten minutes. Also available by way of activities were tug-o-war, seeing who could bench-press sixty kilos the most times in 10 minutes, and the traditional crème de resistance here in the French Army - volleyball. Our mixture of Legionnaires and French Regular army came second to the indefatigable French marines. Fair dues to them, they mightn’t know how to handle their weapons correctly* but wow do they love their sports. Top soldiers, the lot of them.
While we enjoyed ourselves sweating buckets and high-fiving, it was business as usual back at our own FOB. A legionnaire was repatriated to France quite unexpectedly during our absence. Having taken shrapnel from an RPG (now why wasn’t that an event at the Srobi Sports Extravaganza??), our camrade was flown to Kabul for routine testing to ensure all was in order before he returned to action. During these tests however, they discovered a dormant lung condition that had been slightly aggravated by the rocket blast. Wishing to avoid the risk of further aggravation or indeed complete respiratory failure during the next mission, the decision was taken to send him home. His replacement - another legionnaire from our regiment in France - is due to arrive next week sometime. So the faces change but numbers stay the same. One’s loss is another’s gain, etc etc.
Despite our little break, it was nice to finally return to the familiar (if somewhat hostile) surroundings of our own FOB. Since said return though, not much has gone on by way of missions, attacks or celebrity appearances. The increasingly cold weather is undoubtedly playing its part, as the distant mountain tops exhibit ever brightening layers of snow and ice. The Taliban may have gone into a form of hibernation for the time being, but we must be ready for when that big ol’ grumpy bear eventually wakens from its slumber. Until then, time may just crawl a little slower than usual.
*On our way to lunch in the FOB at Srobi one day, an almighty blast of gunfire exploded a few metres away from where we were walking. The French Marines were cleaning their rifles after returning from a mission, and one of their lads let off a volley of rounds by accident. With weapon security being the very first thing you learn and the last thing you (should) forget in the army, nobody could for the life of them find an explanation as to how the guy didn’t think to remove his magazine along with the round in the chamber before settling down to clean his FAMAS. He won himself seven days in jail for his troubles. Back at our own FOB another marine had to return to France having blown two of his fingers clean off. How did he manage that, you ask? By attempting to hammer a .50cal round back into place in its ammunition band using a monkey wrench. Children of the Republic, sleep tight tonight. Your security is in safe (if slightly deformed) hands. Still, first place in the Sports Day, big up!!