(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.
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.