What exactly constitutes a military occupation? What is the difference between an army having a "presence" in a foreign country and occupying it outright? As we sat around the rusted 3-legged cooking stove soaking up the paltry heat offered by the burning twigs stuffed crudely inside, we pondered quietly.
"I think that we have to be considered as an occupying force. I mean, here we are sitting in someone’s home, using their firewood and sleeping in their living room while they spend the night with relatives." I ventured somewhat cautiously.
"Yeah, but they get reimbursed for their troubles, and rather handsomely too!" replied a Hungarian colleague sat beside me.
"All the same, there’s negotiating an accord and then there’s forcing a family to leave their home with a view to retrospective reimbursement." chimed the Brazilian as he poked some glowing embers back to life.
The quiet pondering continued.
Of course, liberties have been taken with the above translation. A direct conversion from Legion French to English would require far too many explanations of exotic swearwords as well as responding to the inevitable and intriguing question ‘Just how DOES one mix Bulgarian, English, Polish and French into one sentence and label it "French"?’ Ponder that!
So an operation lasting six days saw us camping out like boy-scouts in a local village just south of our little FOB. Arriving at our humble (yet not so humbly acquired) lodgings on the first morning, we were greeted with familiar faces as French soldiers made ready to leave the compound in question for the comforts of a hot meal and an even hotter shower back at base. Having been resident for the preceding six days, the reigns were gleefully passed to our clean-shaven, fresh-smelling band of warriors. Those attributes would quickly disintegrate.
Our mission was simple. During our week or so stationed amongst the locals (the rudely displaced yet handsomely reimbursed locals) we were charged with searching their homes, their gardens, their fields, even their lavatories in the hope of uncovering stockpiles of ammunition and other sinister materials. We got off to a minor false start as the first field to pop up on our radar had in fact already been checked by the previous soldiers. "Not too worry" mused our Lieutenant to himself as his finger caressed his laminated map. "We’ll just head over here to this little field". Now, I might not have a Masters Degree in Topography but even I could see that our Lieutenant was forgetting one small detail. To "just head over there" can - depending on the scale of the map - involve a rather punishing march in full gear, burning heat and well, in Afghanistan!! Also, fields tend to look a lot smaller on laminated A4 maps. Nevertheless we huffed and puffed our way to the designated site and set to work. The field was rather large and so the decision was taken to focus on the borders. Setting to work, the metal detectors would occasionally wail concernedly, we would dig accordingly, the empty Pepsi can would pop his head out into the sunlight and off we’d go again. Only it wasn’t just Pepsi cans we managed to dig up.
On the first day we uncovered a combat vest with machine gun ammunition, together with various components used in the assembly of IEDs, all tucked neatly into a plastic bag and buried under a tree. Nice one. Only our early success had now served to spur on our commanding officers to intensify the searches, enlarge the target areas and basically break our backs unearthing every stray chewing gum wrapper within a five kilometre radius. That said, the second day saw five gleaming rocket-propelled grenades get pulled from the ground, once again sporting the traditional plastic wrapping. We were on a roll. Day three drew a more muted response as only a single solitary M16 magazine along with some stray cartridges managed to make an appearance. To compound matters for our own squad leader, word trickled through over the wire of some prolific discoveries by the second squad in our section. Among other things, they had managed to unearth an AK47 in full working order, a case of .50cal rounds and most crucially, a stash of papers whose contents can not be discussed but whose significance merited a personal congratulations from the General in command of French operations. Wowee indeed!! Meanwhile, we had our good ol’ Pepsi cans to keep us company. Well you can’t win ‘em all.
Our hot streak abruptly halted, the following couple of days saw tensions strained as we found ourselves frequently dispatched to houses, fields and gardens in apparent need of searching only to find that they had already been thoroughly rummaged through by the last lot. In one field, we even came across the used batteries from a mine detector that had obviously been replaced mid-search. Wonderful! Our relationship with the Pepsi cans turned rather sour as well. Their garish blue/red design, mocking us, taunting us with tinny laughter and inspiring several outbursts of frustration as shovels, pick axes, helmets and - on one occasion , rifles - found themselves unceremoniously flung to the ground, anguished cries of despair echoing through the mist-shrouded, immense and immensely formidable valley. OK, that may be a tad exaggeratedly dramatic, but we were fairly fed-up in any case.
Throughout the six days, regular supply drops were made at a crossroads not too far from where we were camped. The first time round, a rather ambitious attempt at ingenuity saw one of the medics commandeer a small motorbike with an attached trailer. Having finally succeeded in starting the thing, he then proceeded to swerve dangerously (but at the same time rather hypnotically, given the steely blue moonlight) towards the rendez-vous point. Of course no more than twenty metres had passed under the bike’s wheels before the engine spluttered to a morale-sapping stop. The bike was shuffled to the side of the path and rifles were slung over backs for the return as every available dexterous limb was required to precariously transport the goods back to the compound. From there on in, each drop was tackled with empty rucksacks to recuperate a repetitive mix of batteries, cereal bars and bottled water. Fool me once....and all that. However, it must be said that we were kept rather well supplied during our time out in the (handsomely reimbursed) wilderness. With that said, the morning of our replacement by the returning troops of six days earlier was a joyful moment. Back at the FOB I tackled my own list of priorities in a most methodical order.
Scrub the weapons and material.
Go for a run (no sport in six days during which one ate relatively comfortably = pounds to shed).
Trim the beard and shave the head (Jesus I LOVE a freshly shaven head).
Throw all the smelly gear in the linen sack and drop it off at the Laundromat.
There, a task for every day spent outside. I wonder if my little list will see any (un?)welcome additions after we come back from our next six-day outing in a few days. Ah sure once I manage to tackle them methodically, I’m sure I’ll survive. After all, that’s what being a Legionnaire’s all about.