Friday, December 31

Bits 'n FOBs

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?"


Sunday, December 19

L’Alpha et l’Omega

(written on Friday 17th December 2010).

It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s funny how people say "it’s funny" when really, it’s anything but. It’s funny how people feel when they can’t quite articulate how they feel, so they continue feeling "funny". This evening I went to mass for the first time in a long time. Standing there in the middle of a tiny cardboard chapel with 30 or so fellow faithful combat-clad followers, innumerable emotions swelled up inside of me, dragging my scraggy thoughts through seeming eons of reflection. Writing this, I’m still undecided on the best way to describe just how I feel, so I guess we’ll all have to make do with "funny".

Today at 13.42 local time, Capitaine Benoit Dupin of the 3rd Company of the 2eme Regiment Etranger du Génie was killed in action while on a reconnaissance mission in the Tagab Valley. That’s my regiment. That’s my company. That’s my valley. That was my Captain.

Standing shoulder to shoulder in that make-shift church tonight were more than a few non-believers. They weren’t there out of some panic-driven conversion, nor out of a sense of grudging obligation. Those who carved an unfamiliar path to that church door this evening did so out of unshakeable, unquestionable respect. Respect for a man who, in his short time as Commandant d’Unité of our company, made such an indelibly positive impression on all who served under his command that reddened eyes from even the hardiest of Legionnaires was nothing short of entirely expected as the news broke. Here was an officer that unwittingly, unflinchingly, effortlessly defied the status quo re: French officers. A Captain who shook hands with the young Legionnaires he encountered in the morning, on the way to the washrooms or breakfast. A Captain who, in his free time, toured the FOB to see if any under his charge were engaged in the reparation of vehicles or construction of combat posts, to chat with them, offer support, encouragement, a chirpy word which, from your CDU, was always uplifting and dare I say inspiring. A Captain who enjoyed his sport and whose fitness levels motivated all his men to progress to or maintain similar standards. A Captain with a company of Legionnaires who would follow him anywhere and everywhere. A Captain with a beautiful wife, Alicia, and an adorable 4 year old daughter, Helena.

This evening the FOB became a ghost town. All posts were abandoned, all buildings emptied, all tents zipped shut. All void save for the Parade Square at the Western most point of the base, where more than 500 men and women assembled to pay homage to Capitaine Dupin. The flag descended to half-mast as a lonely bugle sent forth the solemn "Aux Morts". Bathed in toxic, mercurial moonlight, the congregation stood to attention before a backdrop of sky-scraping mountains. Bizarre shadows spurted and sprawled across the concrete floor as the moon’s silver rays collapsed on the distinct berets of les Chasseurs Alpins and rebounded furiously off the glimmering flames of the Legion’s insignia. Not a word, not a sound. Even the wild dogs in the valley below rescinded their howls momentarily. It seemed as if Mother Nature herself felt compelled to agree that even in a war such as this, surely on this occasion they had gotten the wrong man.

One month out of six has passed and with it, one of the finest leaders one could hope to have served under. The road ahead is long and paved with danger. Of course, we apparently already knew this at the very beginning. Only today has it actually become a reality. Capitain Dupin, you will be sorely missed, you will be fondly remembered, you will be courageously honoured by all those fortunate to have called you "Mon. Capitaine", comme il faut.

NB* Hours after the writing of this, French Special Forces launched an assault on a known Taliban strongpoint in the Valley. Initial reports told of 12 insurgents killed. This number later grew to a none-the-more-reliable 23. One French soldier - a sergeant from the French Marine Commandos - died during the operation. In the wake of the attack, a local tribal elder approached our FOB seeking words with the Colonel. He requested a temporary cessation of activity to allow for the burial of the deceased insurgents. His request was refused outright.

News has already broke in France concerning Capitaine Dupin’s passing. For us, life goes on. The mission continues. Capitaine Dupin always insisted how "Il n’ya pas des petits missions". From here on in, every mission’s being treated with the enormity it deserves, exactly as it should be. Exactly as he would have wanted.

Tuesday, December 14

Beginner's Luck

Teething problems. Everyone and everything has them. Normal, you say. Par for the course, you say. Not when your ass is on the line in a war-torn country, I say. But we’re past this. My cynicism has gotten the better of me on previous occasions, and so a concerted effort is now being made to present events as objectively as possible. " possible". Hmmm.

Leaving behind Bagram with all its culinary excess and diligent instructors, the time inevitably arrived when we had to depart this violent, vulgar, alien stain on the arid Afghan landscape and progress towards our home for the next 6 months or so. - our FOB. The chopper ride out to our permanent post was tense enough, partly due to the rather incredible mess of an embarkation which unfolded on the airstrip. At least watching 40 guys load up one-by-one to drop their bags in the aisle, before then hopping off again only to all embark again at the end had me inaudibly chuckling to myself (it gets fairly loud once those rotary blades start spinning). Wherever you go, whatever you do, the Legion’s still the Legion baby. Thankfully, nothing befell us during the brief flight out to the FOB, which is more than can be said for the porta-loo sent unceremoniously tumbling a hundred metres as the chopper set itself down inside the walls of our little combat-clad colony quarters. Our first casualty and we hadn’t even set foot in the base. Ominous?

How about oppressively rushed? The final loosened pebbles had only snuggled down for the night following the return of the helicopter to Bagram when word came through that we’d be heading out on our first mission at 7pm that evening (heads hit our dusty, dishevelled pillows at about 1am). Jesus! So much to do, organise, orientate. Minimal sleep was had that evening as our C.O.s plotted and planned all things concerning an operational patrol in the new neighbourhood. As it turned out, the mission was quite simple: drive the 18 or so kilometres north from our little FOB to our much-larger, considerably calmer sister FOB. Once there, we’d kip in some make-shift tents before returning the next day with an extra vehicle or 3 in our jolly convoy. Leaving after dark, responsibilities and hypotheses diminish to a digestible level. If someone shoots at us, we put the foot down. If someone tries to flag us down for whatever reason, we put the foot down. Considering the foot would already be lowered to just within the boundaries of physical capability, there really was very little room for confusion. Or so we thought.

What to Do When Your Vehicle Breaks Down at Night in Afghanistan

1. Stay Calm.
2. Report Clearly and Concisely what the problem is.
3. Attempt to resolve the problem as quickly and competently as possible.
4. Restart the procession and arrive at destination.

What Was Done When Our Vehicle Broke Down at Night in Afghanistan

1. Shout random French words over radio so as to resemble childbirth being broadcast through a guitar amp.
2. Get into argument with driver over what problem is.
3. Watch as door is almost ripped off hinges by passing vehicle attempting to set up a tow-cable.
4. Spend 20 minutes looking for entrance to sister FOB before eventually entering by initial gate encountered.

Oh, and all this without night-vision as that particular delivery had not yet been realised. Delightfully frightful for our first ever mission in Afghanistan. Once safely inside the sister FOB, there was no time to waste as a new VAB (French armoured personnel carrier) had to be found and equipped before the return journey once day broke in a few hours time. A replacement was found, but my poor driver’s calf muscles were roaring red by the end of the entire mission, as our "new" VAB was sadly without hand-brake. And there were a lot of hill starts. On a more positive note, my repertoire of Bulgarian swear-words had grown impressively in just 24 hours on the ground in Afghanistan (Bagram aside). Who knows what the next 6 months hold in store....