Monday, February 21

Super Malek Sweep

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).

Scrub ME!

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.

Wednesday, February 9

Familiar Killer

C’est la routine qui tue. *

Never have truer words been spoken. My last blog entry (a whopping two weeks ago - my sincerest apologies) whined and moaned about the deceleration of activities and overall esprit here at our FOB in Afghanistan. It seemed that both sides of this conflict had relaxed the plotting and scheming, taken the foot off the pedal and opted for a break in hostilities. A break in hostilities? Do such things exist in modern warfare? Well, evidently not.

Towards the end of January my team and I found ourselves filling the roles of QRF (Quick Reaction Force) Cowboys on a regular basis, staying fully clothed and close to our vehicles should the call come to rush out and save the day (or rather park ourselves on some hill overlooking the action until the order to return to base came through). Inevitably the call came. An IED had been discovered not far from the FOB on a frequently travelled road. Local Afghan forces were already on the scene, ready to direct us towards the exact location of the device. An unfortunate and primarily unfounded suspicion constantly and rather accusingly hangs over the discovery of any improvised explosive device by the local Afghan population (their armed forces included). You see, the correct identification of an IED and subsequent alerting of coalition forces to its whereabouts results in a monetary reward. Therefore the more cynical observers ("realistic" is how they prefer to consider their own mindsets) tend to insinuate the deliberate placing of viable devices in the environment by the very people who later come knocking on the gates of the FOB leading the way to the devices’ discovery (and to the helpful citizen’s sudden improvement in finances). Personally I tend to lean more towards the "innocent until otherwise proven" side of the house, others might argue that a certain level of paranoia is necessary in the fight for survival out here. It’s a murky time in a murky place (both geographically and metaphysically).

Off we went, as our orders dictated, in search of the IED in question, and low and behold a juicy unexploded mortar round lightly covered in the sands of the region and connected to two separate containers with electrical wiring lay in waiting. The full installation of this crude yet ingenious frown former had not yet been completed and once some partial uncovering had been achieved by our engineering outfit, the specialists then stepped in to remove each of the components in plastic evidence bags for further analysis later on. All very CSI if you ask me. At least it spelled one less obstacle in the battle to, well, arrive back in France in three months time with our arses still attached basically. Perhaps higher up the hierarchy the view stretches further, offering a greater sense of progress. But for us grunts on the ground, feelings at the end of each mission fail to spill over in to anything beyond relief at having scraped through unscathed. We tend to count days on the calendar while the top brass focus more on counting the square metres of ground won, lost or blown to smithereens.

Of course one can’t be expected to find every IED dotted throughout the landscape here. That’d be far too easy. February had barely the chance to show off the colours of its calendar pages when a prime example of what we’re up against presented itself. Our lads had been out on an overnight mission while myself and the driver held back at the FOB. Collection for the guys was due before lunchtime, but at about 8.30am word reached us at base. A VAB had hit an IED. The reports came flooding in but only in random patches. No deaths. Positive news. It was the medical team’s VAB that was hit. Shit. In less serious circumstances the irony would have registered a significance with me, but all anyone could think of was the different guys in the medical team whom we’d gotten to know over the course of both this mission and the preparation that had gone before it spanning almost an entire year. Who had been involved? Were they OK? Questions ricocheted around the base with no discernible answers making themselves known. We awaited further news with bated breath.

The time had come to collect our troops down in the valley, word of the IED quickly spreading as they lumbered towards the vehicles and onto the seats. By the time we arrived back at base, the medics’ VAB was sitting alone in the vehicle maintenance area. A rather sorry sight it most certainly was. The front wheels had been completely blown off, one hurtling almost fifty feet through the air before coming to rest in a field. The gun turret on which the .50cal machine gun rests was also unceremoniously detached from the vehicle, finding itself flung to the ground like a wet sock. The driver, a young French girl, suffered a broken ankle, a broken collarbone and spinal damage. It’s believed that the shock of the blast threw her upwards against the unforgiving metal roof with considerable force. The gunner beside her had miraculously escaped with minor injuries to his arm. Reports state that for some reason or other, he had ducked down into the vehicle just as the device was detonated. Had he been up top manning the .50cal, he might have found himself included in the afore-mentioned wet-sock simile. Despite the relative lack of severity concerning his injuries, both he and the driver were immediately repatriated. Reports have since confirmed that both are doing much better in hospital back in France. Theirs was a lucky escape.

Unsettling as it was to hear (and witness the effects) of an IED blast on one of our vehicles, slightly more disturbing was the location where it happened. Situated right before a more-than-frequently used bridge crossing the main river in the valley, the device had been buried under a pile of earth which had remained indisputably undisturbed for more than 2 months. Apparently it required no more than to be « plugged in » and BOOM - Bob’s your uncle. Needless to say we each began fixatedly replaying every single time we’d passed that fateful spot on various missions, coming, going, stationed nearby, how easily it could have been our vehicle that fell victim to it’s pyrotechnic prowess. Best not to dwell though, sure we’d never get anything done otherwise.

A recent and uneventful five-day mission came to a close a few days ago where, yet again, myself and my trusty Bulgarian chauffeur waited it out like true professionals in our cosy bunk-beds while the rest of our group roughed it in local compounds and on rain-soaked rooftops. While they manned the guard posts and scraped clean their trusty ration tins of tuna salad, I enjoyed morning runs (whenever it wasn’t raining - rain resulted in hedonistically lengthy lie-ins) followed by steaming hot showers, three square meals expertly prepared by the kitchen staff, the entire four seasons of The O.C. on my laptop as well as several newly-delivered books. If I’m making this sound like the imbalance between soldiers’ functions here in Afghanistan is slightly too much, rest assured that in a few days time the guys head out once again for little under a week to brave the elements once again, and yours truly shall be accompanying them. A rotation of duties was decided for the longer missions to allow as many of the guys as possible a rest, manning the trusty .50cal and trying to decipher the mostly inaudible and incomprehensible transmissions on the radio their only responsibilities aside from eating well, sleeping even better and of course expanding their literary accomplishments. Just watch out for the IEDs lads, eh?

* It’s the routine that kills