Sunday, January 23

Tora ’n R

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!!

Thursday, January 13

Working Week and Someday Rest

(Part 3 of 3)

Entering the final furlong of this, our yuletide valley ramble, complacency kept a respectable yet keenly felt distance. It’s always the same ol’ song and dance as an operation draws to a close. Sights re-focus themselves on slightly more distant, comfortable targets such as the previously discussed 3 square meals, internet, shower and bed. Furthermore, on the day before New Year’s eve you can imagine how heads were turned more towards downing beers than downing bad guys. Still, there remained twenty four hours in the field before we could celebrate the end of 2010 and so at 2am we set off for one final round of ‘Knock-Knock’ with the neighbours. They were going to play a more active role in this closing ceremony than anyone could have guessed.

We made it to our destination - yet another compound - at about 3.30am. It took the translator almost five minutes to rustle up a peep from the patron as all the well-chilled, over-loaded soldiers huddled around the door waiting to be let in. Less than a kilometre away, another company were unveiling their own tactics for entering into the local compounds. We went with diplomacy, they went with demolition. I imagine it was the deafening blast of several kilos of C4 ripping apart the doors of their neighbours’ humble abodes that brought our own hosts scurrying to the door, keys in hand. The infantry rushed through the freshly unlocked entrance in single file, quickly spreading out across the internal courtyard. The small torches at the end of their rifles bobbed up and down the dry mud walls like a broken crate of oil-lamps floating on a stormy sea, searching for signs of tricky Taliban shenanigans. On certain split seconds, an inquisitive beam would flash across the frightened face of one of the residents, all of whom were huddled together in the middle of the onrushing waves of French soldiers. Somewhere a metal safe needed opening. The translator passed the message. A young girl arrived with a bunch of keys, struggling to bring her trembling hands under control as she alternated between concentrating on the safe door and flashing angry looks at the soldier standing over her. Finally she found the right key and opened the safe. Empty. Soon afterwards the echo-like sound of "CLEAR" bounced out through every door of every room around the compound and down to the Lieutenant standing in the middle of the courtyard. No bombs, no booby traps, no stockpiles of ammunition. Right so, time to hit the hay then.....but not before we fill a hundred or so sandbags and haul them up to the roof where a look-out post was to be constructed before daybreak. Heads hit the make-shift pillows (usually our own backpacks covered with a scarf) around 6am. Half an hour later the sun rose and with it, the local village awoke to its (almost) daily routine.

One of the first up was a guy from our own Legion squad. Having barely slept a wink, he quickly found himself in agony and having to go to the bathroom every ten minutes. Now diarrhoea is never convenient when out in the field, but this particular bout hit our guy hard. Within the hour he could no longer stand, and we had him hooked up to a drip immediately as the dehydration started to sap away his consciousness. Army medics were called in from a neighbouring compound as us Legionnaires took turns rinsing out the makeshift vomit catcher. Rather unpleasant business but eventually (and thankfully) brought under control. He was weak for most of the afternoon, but by evening he had regained enough strength to hit the road with the rest of us.

During his immobilisation however, the world and its sister had managed to make an appearance in the courtyard below. First up was the man of the house. A small, slight kid of only 15, Farya had keen, beady eyes and a weathered face that had most estimates putting him in the over 35s category. Never shy to practice his English, I was quickly called down the steps to see what sense could be made. The youngest of four brothers, he lived here with his sister, mother, Grandfather, a niece and a nephew. His three brothers had apparently crossed over into Iran to find work as farmers (cue raised eyebrows). He went to school in the local village and took English lessons three afternoons a week. He spoke rather well, I must say. His nephew, little three year old Haibar was a right little character. He never uttered a word, but would spontaneously break into Kung Fu fights with his prematurely aged uncle if not already occupied by all the free biscuits we lavished on him from our ration packs. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of fitting whole biscuits larger than his head into his mouth in one go. A few jaws softened watching this little maniac bounce around.

We were suddenly put on alert however, as Haibar’s buddy and father came to visit during the day. The father was routinely checked upon entry and seemed very friendly. His son, however, rolled in to town looking for trouble. Four years old with a head weighing as much in kilos, stumpy strolls in sporting full military attire. Two stars glimmered on either shoulder, making him possibly the youngest ever general in the history of.....well, the world. We certainly took no chances, backing off and handing over whatever biscuits remained. These kids meant business.

While we entertained the tots (or rather they entertained us), our translator had his work cut out with the rest of the family. Saiid is 23 years old and hails from Kabul. The second eldest of six brothers, he has been a translator for the last two years. Two of his brothers are also translators for coalition forces. Saiid spent his two years exclusively with French soldiers, but although understanding a little French still prefers to communicate in English. The French Army lieutenant speaks decent enough English, and so the rickety relationship rattles along well enough. On quite regular intervals, Saiid would mount the stairs to where we were camped out on a terrace overlooking the courtyard, relaying requests, demands or questions from the family to the commandment.

Saiid: The women need to go to the toilet in a neighbouring compound.

LT: OK. But if they leave, they must stay in that compound. We don’t have the manpower to check them 20 times a day as they leave and come back here.

Saiid: OK.

5 minutes later......

Saiid: They’re crying. They just want to go to the bathroom and then come back.

LT: Fine, but this happens once and once only, got it??

Saiid: OK. Also, a man wants to commit suicide.


Saiid: He is a young man. He says he is here without his father’s permission. If his father finds out, he will kill him. The soldiers won’t let him leave. He says he will kill himself.

LT: For Fuck sake, hey Guillbard! You keeping’ a guy locked up here?

Guilbard: Ah LT, he’s been in and out 5 times today. He’s a messer. We told him he has to stay here.

LT: Let him go, but tell him he can’t get back in, alright? Jesus!

Later on, an explosion was heard unsettlingly close by. Reports were sought as to what caused it. Was it an enemy RPG? An IED? Ah no, just the lads from the mortar section dropping a few shells into no man‘s land. Need to tighten up the aim there fellas, two hundred metres from friendly positions is usually considered "Danger Close". I tried to not to think about it too much. More chance of being hit by a bus, etc etc......hmmm.

Mercifully, there were no fire-fights or close calls throughout our stay in this, one of the livelier compounds we’d discovered during our five day exploration of the valley. As twilight swept across the horizon, we packed up, slapped on the night vision, bade farewell to little Haibar and his uncle and hit the road. Our sick comrade had found the strength to carry all his gear, saving the hassle of re-dispatching it across our own sacks. We marched quietly but quickly out of the village and towards the highway where our VABs awaited us. Inexplicably, however, the guys leading the extraction managed to direct us all into a freshly irrigated field of crops where we trudged knee deep in mud to the other side and up onto the road. Batteries in the GPS must have been running low, but with it being the last day of the operation, nobody could give a damn. We loaded up into the vehicles, rumbled back to the FOB and to (relative) civilisation. As a gunner typically confined to the VAB at all times, the mission had presented both an intriguing view into life on the ground as experienced by the rest of the lads. That said, it also provided a stark reminder of just how well-off I am sat up behind my .50cal machine gun watching the world go by. My first radio check back in the saddle for the next mission would certainly be a welcome moment. A moment spent savouring that one emotion that - complacency or not - never dulls as we roll through the gates of our FOB and to safety. Relief. Pure relief.

Saturday, January 8

Working Week and Someday Rest

Part 2 of 3

Back at the beginning of this five-day operation, it was envisaged that a period of twelve hours be afforded all troops standing down from a mission before returning to the field. Unfortunately the inevitable delays and general tardiness associated with the French Army resulted in a cheek-clenching six and a half hours to shower, shave, something else beginning with ‘sh’, and SLEEP. Certain soldiers decided to forego one or more of the first three in that list, but not a single person neglected to put head to pillow for as long as possible. Of course it was never going to be long enough.

At 5.30am we hit the road once again, only this time the destination was slightly apart from our previous compound capers. Hopping out of the VAB upon our arrival, we were greeted with a scene that resembled a gigantic construction sight more than anything. Large diggers, earth-moving machinery and trucks rumbled to and fro, the early morning sunshine effortlessly eclipsed by a slow-turning tornado of sand and dust. Our faithful Section Travaux (Construction Section) had begun work on a Combat Outpost (COP) beside a strategic crossing point on the main river running through the valley. Every which way one looked, a combination of French and American troops dotted the horizon in small teams posted across the mountain tops. A security perimeter composed of artillery posts and numerous VABs with their trusty .50cal machine guns encircled the works on ground level. It was (relatively) safe to say that one was (relatively) secure. Things are all very relative here in Afghanistan.

Our task on this fine morn was to secure the as-of-yet untouched sites for the construction teams, scanning the ground with our trusty metal detectors in case either a purposely placed IED or just a long forgotten UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) popped its unwelcome head out of the ground. A lengthy and methodical but critically important process, we took our time but ultimately found nothing. All the better. The green light flashed and the machines rumbled on. Just then, an Adjudant Chef from the mine/explosive specialist unit approached us on a short-term recruitment drive, needing a small team to accompany him on a brief but extremely steep climb up to the location of a future surveillance post overlooking the site of the future COP. Scanning with the metal detectors as we climbed, the sweat quickly began cascading down our faces. However, we quickly cooled and damn-near froze once we arrived at the top. Only then did the Adjudant Chef decide to inform us that it was on this very spot that our Captain had perished the week before. Momentarily overwhelmed by the morbid air of that fateful day, we quickly snapped to. The detection wasn’t over yet, and we were entrusted with clearing the site and confirming its security for the construction of the look-out post. To say that our work that day was meticulous would be a grave understatement of the care and attention employed in assuring that not a single trace of danger (mainly in the form of IEDs) existed on that lofty perch.

With nothing remaining in terms of detection work, our guys were afforded the rare luxury of crashing out for the afternoon, finding a sunny spot to stretch our weary legs while awaiting orders. Those orders eventually came through just before nightfall. We were to pack up and move out, deeper into the local village and coincidentally to the same compound where the infamous Battle of the Billygoat occurred the day before. Ready with a mean disposition and all the ration biscuits we could spare, we made for the compound. Now, some things here in Afghanistan can be far more unsettling than gunfire and explosions. For instance, arriving at a house where only two days ago we had been surrounded by people and farm animals to find it now completely deserted, door wide open, fire still lit with kettle on the boil. The radio reports soon came flooding in. All other units had found their target compounds in exactly the same condition. The entire area was a ghost town. It was clear that the Taliban had tipped off the locals. Trouble was on the horizon, best leave before it kicks off. Concerning the empty buildings and outhouses, we’d all received the training both in France and at Bagram with the American instructors. From here on in, every single step needed be taken with the utmost care. Trip wires, pressure plates, photosensitive triggers, everything and anything could await us in this deserted house. Well, where there’s a room to clear and booby traps to uncover, it’s Engineers AWAY!! So in we went, flash lights on the end of our rifles. Slowly pacing forward, scanning walls, behind doors, gently upturning mattresses, closely examining carpets and rugs for signs of foreign objects hidden beneath. The inspection took about 40 minutes but in the end provided nothing by way of hidden explosive traps. Phew!

And so we closed the doors, set-up a guard rota and settled down for the night. Oddly, no trouble came our way. A few bursts of sporadic gunfire periodically broke the sleepy silence the next day, but the arrival of the helicopters soon quietened down any insurgent activity. We stayed huddled and undisturbed throughout and, oddly enough, left on time for the return to camp. By 6pm we were home, dry and ready for a hot meal. The whole detachment involved in our five-day mission rejoiced upon hearing that the next outing wouldn’t be until 1am the following morning, giving us almost thirty six hours at the FOB. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, internet, shower, bed, laundry, it’s amazing how simple things become luxuries fit for a King once one is deprived of them long enough. The batteries began their recharging as one final twenty four hour outing remained. It wouldn’t be the most perilous or eventful in general, but it ended up being quite interesting all the same…..

Thursday, January 6

Working Week and Someday Rest

(Part 1 of 3)

Some clouds just aren’t destined to be parted. Here in the theatre of boot polish and unruffled officer cap feathers, the game of belligerent brinkmanship continues. Beginning on the birthday of our Lord, five days of perpetual stalemate saw French troops ruffle little more than the feathered pillows of unwitting Afghan locals in a series of manoeuvres ranging from the bemusing to the downright pointless, not to mention highly dangerous.

Generally considered on high as a show of force, we had previously been informed that the civilian niceties would be put on hold for the duration of the five-day operation. No more Meester Nize Guy, apparently. I began practicing my grizzled scowl in earnest, alas it wasn’t even called upon in the end. A shame really, what with the beard adding that extra sense of rugged nastiness that undoes the courage of men and bra straps of women in equal measure. Fortunately for all involved, the French Army’s idea of hardball consists mainly of extremely lengthy and polite discussions with the translators in broken English that almost inevitably result in the translator convincing the commanding officer to grant the civilians’ requests while simultaneously creating the appearance of having himself conceded. A clever bunch, those Afghans.

Right then, the plan was to penetrate deep into a neighbouring valley, taking up and holding positions in order to disrupt potential Taliban activity. Air support occupied the clear, crisp blue skies on an almost permanent basis. From an observation perspective, this certainly proved reassuring. The helicopters’ thermal imaging can pick up even the faintest of heat signatures at great distance, which can alert us to the presence off possible insurgents while still some way off. A solid system once all concerned stay in formation and/or lit-up by little infra-red glow sticks. Skip away for a whiz in the bushes twenty metres from your group without an infra-red indicator and 30mm shells may just start raining down on you and your most precious kit. Tinkle carefully.

The festivities kicked off with a good ol’ night-time infiltration. Lady moon made a welcome appearance, saving on batteries for our night-vision as silver breath softly whispered mercurial light all across the valley. Marching au naturel still succeeded in posing a few problems for the less well-adjusted en route to the target village though, several splashes and smothered profanities cracking camouflaged smiles across more than a few chapped lips. Barely had we arrived at the first compound than the call for the bolt cutters descended down the line like a syrup-covered slinky on crooked stairs. Blessed with the task of carrying said apparatus, I quickly mounted the wall of silhouetted soldiers until I arrived beside my squad leader. Pointing to the impudent padlock, he stood back as I worked my hydraulic magic and snipped the pesky perpetrator right off. This merry little overly-coordinated dance repeated itself twice more before my squad actually got to enter into the compound. Low and behold, we’d cracked a total of four padlocks all protecting doors leading to the same place. Excellent so, guard duty guaranteed for everyone as instead of a single point of entry, all four now demanded our undivided, heavily armed attention. "Wrap up but stay frosty" was the (oxy)moronic ordre de jour passed around the camp fire. It was going to be a long night.

The next morning, the wake-up alarm rang in the form of zipping bullets tracing invisible lines through the air above our heads. A few mischievous locals sought to let us know just how they felt about our show of force. Message received loud and clear.

Et alors??? On y va, CORVA!!!

Once the contact had died down, we regrouped from our various compounds and headed out to a second installation to set-up shop there while also checking for the presence of stockpiled arms. Along the way, our contingent of almost fifty soldiers inexplicably found themselves all bunched together, crouching in a wall-lined corridor measuring no more than fifteen metres in length. Concerned expressions barely had time to form on the many unshaven faces before that familiar zipping sound returned for Round 2. Seconds later a figure on the extremity of our combat-clad clump crumpled to the ground. The medics swarmed to his position and surrounded the injured party until outside light found itself choked into obscurity. Thankfully it was a mere flesh wound on his shoulder, and once inside the second compound the wounded warrior found himself sitting up, a little shocked and shirtless but otherwise destined to go on breathing.

It was only after the backpacks had been chucked in a corner of this second compound and a suitable seat found that we noticed the inhabitants regarding us rather curiously. A small girl of no more than seven briskly passed our weary, sprawled out figures and disappeared into a shed at the end of the yard. She emerged minutes later, clinging to two lengths of rope. We quickly discovered that one joined the neck of a slightly scared cow while the other connected to a more-than-slightly hostile goat. It appeared that we were fighting battles every which way we turned. We eventually surrendered and moved our gear and asses up to drier, higher ground as the gloating goat reclaimed the garden in the name of everything concerning indiscriminate ingestion. You win this round, Billy, you win this round.

Intel gathered on the grapevine later informed us that the cap-popping crusaders causing havoc since earlier that morning had numbered no more than two. The same duo continued to pepper our compound with volleys of high-velocity discouragement throughout the day. Air support in the form of muscle-flexing Tiger helicopters paid the twin Taliban a total of five visits as they sought to disrupt our afternoon siesta from a neighbouring compound. On each occasion, fingers were buried in ears right up to the knuckle as shower after shower of gigantic 30mm rounds pounded into the general area where the two insurgents were holed up. On each occasion, about ten minutes elapsed before the zipping returned. My squad leader snorted a bemused laugh as we discussed the day’s events back at our beloved FOB later that evening, having safely made it out under the cover of darkness.

"They have either the biggest balls or the smallest brains I’ve ever encountered. Fucking hell!"

Fucking hell is right, thought I. Four more days of this to negotiate. At least we had a period of twelve hours back at base to regroup, rethink and readjust the balls ‘n brains before the next outing. Both would be needed in equally enormous measure.....