Sunday, January 25, 2009

Patrol, pt.2 - Dand District Centre

If you haven't read it, here's Part 1 of the story.

* * * * *

I expected it to take a lot longer to travel from Double K to the Dand District Centre. I don't know why - it's not like I knew the distances involved or the timings we were trying to meet. I was simply doing what the guys in uniform told me to.

I should say guys and gal, singular. Our medic, Private McKenzie, was a female, the only one on the patrol. I chatted with her briefly at Double K, and she seemed friendly and competent, but quiet. Like she relished whatever calm she could find outside the wire, knowing she'd be the busiest soldier there if anything went terribly wrong. A quiet doc is a good thing.

The drive to Dand District Centre for the weekly shura turned out to be uneventful. Somewhat comfortable, even, since I'd belatedly figured out how to properly adjust the five-point harness that buckled me safely into the RG-31. With the windows unfogging as the sun rose higher in the sky, I actually had a view other than the side of the gunner's head, and Maj White's open mouth beside me as he caught a moment of rack time in transit.

The Centre was bigger than I had imagined it to be. A big plot of mud, enclosed by a high concrete wall topped with razor-wire and cornered by guard towers, with two decent-sized buildings in the middle. One was an ANP building, and one was the administrative building for the local government. Both were enclosed by a shrapnel-pockmarked wall that had served to protect a much smaller compound before the new perimeter had been constructed. Short months ago, a suicide bomber had somehow made it past the ANP guarding the outer wall, and detonated near the inner gate. I was told that the blast shattered windows in the admin building. Looking up at the distance from the gate to the windows, I got a sense of just how powerful the explosion must have been. The self-immolating zealot/idiot didn't have nuts and bolts or ball-bearings or any such shrapnel-enhancing paraphernalia in his vest, but as you can see in the photos below, he still made quite the impression on the surrounding infrastructure.

One of the first things we did was wander around the site with the SET engineer, WO Dagenais, and the Political Officer Alex Caratte - the pointy-end DFAIT guy at the KPRT. Alex explained that one of his tasks for the day was to check out rumours that some of the equipment and materiel that had been bought for the Centre and for the ANP station had gone missing. And if that was indeed the case, to deliver a message that "we're here to help, but if you don't take care of what we give you, more might not be forthcoming." In other words, it was inspection time.

We headed over to one of the guard towers with the Afghan site supervisor in conversation with WO Dagenais through the Terp. Two ANP with dirty blue-grey uniforms and wild hair walked up to me. Neither looked to be out of his mid-teens yet, although one was on the big side for his age. The kid extended a dirt-encrusted hand, which I dutifully shook, and nodded a greeting to him. He spoke one word to me: "knife." What? One of the soldiers assigned to make sure I didn't do anything stupid caught my bewildered look and explained "He wants your knife. They're not shy asking for what they want." I turned back to this "policeman" and shook my head: no. It seems that was the answer he was expecting. His mien didn't change one iota as he turned and walked away. I made a mental note not to snack on the energy bar in my pocket on the way home: I wasn't putting anything in my mouth without washing and sanitizing my hands thoroughly first.

We climbed the stairs to an observation post on top of the admin building. Sheet roofing material was being laid down by a walking fire-hazard of a man who seemed all too cavalier with his torch, poking the roofing roll forward with a sneakered foot. The insurance guy in me had to laugh at the situation: I take pictures of work sites all the time, but I'd never seen one where workplace safety was the least of the dangers in your day. In the picture at left, WO Dagenais had just moved the propane tank from where the worker had placed it, about a foot away from the flame. The underwriters I know would have puked in their mouths with worry.

From the top of the building, we had a decent view of the compound and the countryside around it. For the first time, I noticed a building outside the wall, but attached to it, and with its own protective enclosure. The relatively new and unblemished building was apparently the local school. It had originally been inside the main security wall, but that had required students to pass through the compound checkpoints just to get to class. That was potentially dangerous for the students, and for those inside the compound. So the wall had been extended to partition the school from the rest of the Centre, with just a small gate between the two. The kids and teachers could now enter and exit the school directly through its own main entrance.

Just as I was beginning to wonder when the shura was supposed to start, we were called down to the District Leader's office. It looked to be the only room in the building with furniture, and it had a beautiful rug spread out on the floor. I felt genuinely bad to be tracking mud into the room on my boots, but when I remarked upon it to one of my keepers, he said it's been explained to them that we can't take off our boots when we come in, and they seem to accept that. Tough to make a run for it in stocking feet, I guess.

Still, we all removed our helmets and ballistic eyewear when we entered the large office, which doubled as a meeting room. The Dand District Leader came over and shook all of our hands, one by one. At only twenty-eight years old, Ahmadullah Nazik is surprisingly young for his post, especially in a land where age is so venerated. But he displayed no uneasiness while we were in his office, either with the Canadian soldiers, or with the Afghan elders in attendance.

We were served hot chai tea in clear tumblers, and I remembered the admonition of WO Keith Dubé: "Don't drink the chai. It's not the water, it's the glasses that'll get ya. They don't wash anything properly. My Lt decided to take his chances, and pissed out his ass for a few days. I dropped by the can while he was in there moaning and reminded him: told ya so, sir." I needed no reminder that a Warrant who was on his third Roto was well worth listening to: no tea for me. So I was surprised to see both WO Dagenais and Maj White sipping contentedly at their beverages beside me. Vance explained: "Once you've gotten GI once, you're good to go." Yeah...I'll stick with Dubé's advice, thanks very much.

The initial part of the meeting was between Nazik, WO Bastow (the CIMIC guy), and Alex Caratte. The juxtaposed image of these two Canadians, one an NCM reservist firefighter, the other a PhD in PoliSci from the foreign service working seamlessly together will stay with me for a long time. Alex delivered his message about the potentially "lost" equipment beautifully - a hammer covered in velvet. Barry Bastow covered some administrative points that seemed to be a continuation from the last meeting, and then asked what I'd been wondering: where are the shura representatives? Nazik replied that they were arriving one at a time.

He explained to the Warrant that some weeks lots of representatives come, some weeks only a few. The weeks that they make excuses not to come when he talks to them, he knows they're scared of something. He lets them know he can send a contingent of ANP to escort them, but most decline.

The elders began to file in for the shura, and each walked around the room shaking our hands in greeting before taking his seat (thanks to Jean Laroche for the photo). Only nine came this week, less than the fifteen or so that I was told was about average. There are twenty shura representatives in the district, who cover a total of 172 villages. Nazik and Bastow, through the Terp, reminded those in attendance that the local population is supposed to bring security and development concerns and issues to the attention of the shura representatives, who can then address those with the Dand District Leader. The men all nodded their heads - this obviously isn't new for them. The discussion then segued into which villages at one particular district border belonged to Dand, and which to another neighbouring district. There's some confusion, apparently, and some of the elders joined in animatedly, with loud voices speaking over each other, and sharp hand gestures.

Administrative business taken care of, apparently, the Warrant then began to excuse the Canadian contingent. But before we left, he offered to host a meal the next time they gathered. Nazik replied that although there are only a couple dozen shura representatives, they'll each bring drivers, helpers, a full retinue. "Offer to pay," Nazik said with a smile to Bastow, " and you'll have too many here!" We all laughed, Afghan and Canadian alike. Then we made our manners and filed out.

After one more brief inspection of a building, we were back at the vehicles. I was about to step up on to the back of the RG when WO Dubé said to our PAffO "Sir, I can take one with me in the back of the LAV." Vance turned to me, and I grinned and said "Sure thing." Don't have to ask me twice.

Am I ever glad I did. I was expecting to get stuffed into the back with the rest of the Force Protection troops. Instead, Dubé opened up a second hatch for me beside him, showed me how to hook up on the intercom, and off we went, looking out the back of the rear LAV in the convoy. The soldiers, who had been outside the building standing guard the whole time we'd been in Nazik's office, were talking about the ANP detachment.

"Holy shit, could you smell the pot coming out of their barracks?"

"Yeah. How old do you think they were?"

"About as old as my kid brother."

The countryside was beautiful, as long as you didn't look too closely. Focus on the distant landscape, and Kandahar is spectacular. Up close, I found it sad: dirty, decrepit, and poor beyond anything I'd ever seen. At least that was the impression I got in the rural areas we passed through, from the mud walls at Double K, to the bare concrete and mud at the District Centre, to the villages we passed on the way back to to town.

But in the back of the LAV, countryside gave way to the south of Kandahar City quickly, and soon we were surrounded by ramshackle buildings, open shop-fronts, and throngs of people. The shops were amazing - fruits and nuts, car and truck wheels and tires, sides of meat hanging from hooks in the dust and sun. Side by side by side by the road, with boys and men sitting in front of them, staring at us as we went by.

Most of the kids waved. Very few of the adults did, unless they were wearing a uniform. I toggled my intercom switch and asked WO Dubé, who was intently focused on his responsibilities to the rear of us - especially local vehicles that he thought were getting a bit too close - about the waving.

"Warrant, I noticed on the chopper on the way in to camp that the door gunners seem to have been instructed to wave at the locals. Do you guys have to do that?"

"I got more important things to worry about than playing fucking Queen in the back of a LAV."


"Yeah, we wave sometimes."

I waved, whenever I wasn't snapping shots with my camera. At least, I waved back when I was waved at. Some of the kids threw rocks instead. I was told it's like snowballs back home - you throw what's at hand. I don't know about that. Apparently you've got to watch one doesn't hit you in the face. The guys have them ping off their helmets all too frequently, and one had some skin on his nose peeled away just recently.

But the kids who waved...I had to wave back. There was this one girl, she couldn't have been more than five. Dressed in aquamarine blue, far brighter than what most people were wearing. She was standing all by herself against a wall to the left of us as we drove by, waving and watching. I waved back, and when she saw me, her arm shot up above her head and she started jumping and twirling with excitement. I watched until she disappeared from view.

Most of the time, you keep your emotional walls high around you in a place like this. It's dangerous, it's unfamiliar, you're surrounded by serious people, and there's a job to do. Mocking sarcasm, poking fun at each other, that's OK among the soldiers. But looking at that little girl, I felt a whole lot more than that, and had to shut it down pretty quickly. As a parent myself, I wonder what's in store for her. God, I hope it's a better life than she would have had without the Canadians in Kandahar.

The Warrant shook me out of my thoughts, explaining what he was watching for, pointing out some of the important landmarks as we navigated the congested streets. Some ANP were stopping traffic to let us through quickly, and everyone seemed to know the ground rules: move to the side of the road, and don't approach the convoy too closely. Dubé only had to wave a car back away from us twice the whole way back.

And then we were on the final leg into the camp. In case you can't hear him properly, just as I'm waving at a crowd of kids in the video below, the Warrant tells me that this is the street where Glyn Berry was killed. That was years ago, and the situation in the city is far different now, but it was still sobering.

We passed through the ANP checkpoint, then through the Canadian one. You could feel the tension bleed away, like air hissing out of a tire. The LAV ground to a halt on the gravel, the rear hatch descended, and we were out on the ground. The troops headed off to clear their weapons in the barrels by the wall, and I shook WO Dubé's hand: "Thanks for the ride, Warrant. It's one I'll never forget."

* * * * *

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Blogger Raphael Alexander said...

"I got more important things to worry about than playing fucking Queen in the back of a LAV."


"Yeah, we wave sometimes."


9:46 p.m., January 25, 2009  
Blogger military granny said...

Once again a great post. Thank you for bringing Afghanistan into my home.You have taken a trip to places we only read about, now I will understand when my son tells me there is no place like the turret of a LAV. Great writting and video's. Thank you.

11:24 p.m., January 25, 2009  
Blogger Jay Currie said...

Link Posted.

Great story and great reporting!

Thank you.

1:05 a.m., January 26, 2009  
Blogger JR said...

Great stuff, Damian. You paint a clear picture of what the troops have to deal with over there. They have a daunting task!

Your descriptions of the people, markets, etc bring back memories of my travels to the hinterlands of Morocco where the impression was - 'straight out of the Middle Ages' (minus the violence of Afstan, of course).

2:43 p.m., January 26, 2009  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/27/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

9:42 a.m., January 27, 2009  
Blogger MaryAnn said...

Really good stuff, Damian. Love the combination of text, photos, and video. Looking forward to your next post.

Make sure to tell the guys how much we appreciate all they're doing.

2:54 p.m., January 28, 2009  
Blogger SapientSequitur said...

"Dont drink the chai" LOL! My boyfriend is over there now and he told me he puked in his mouth a few times trying to get the "tea" down. Got stuck in his beard, could smell it for the rest of the day!

11:37 a.m., July 14, 2009  
Blogger SapientSequitur said...

"Dont drink the chai" LOL! My boyfriend is over there now and he told me he puked in his mouth a few times trying to get the "tea" down. Got stuck in his beard, could smell it for the rest of the day!

11:37 a.m., July 14, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dont Drink The Chai

I was the Cimic guy for Dand/Daman District for 6 months

Drank Chai with Amhadullah Naziks Shura and Saraj Muhammad's Sura twice a week

The repspect the acceptance to thier hospitality

12:12 a.m., August 31, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great article. I was stationed at the Dand for a few months back in Jun 09. What a place eeesh.

I found a little orange kitty in the district center and brought him home with me. A little reminder of the Dand that now lives with me.

11:44 a.m., February 13, 2010  

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