Thursday, July 24, 2008

Kandahar: Desert heat and the Taliban nearby

Photograph: Main Avenue. Actually, the compound's only avenue.

The 1965 movie “The Hill” depicts a British prison constructed in the sands of the Libyan Desert to house deserters and other miscreants whom the Brits believed had disrespected their royal army. The hill, for which the movie is named, is a manmade construction in the middle of the brig that the prisoners climb as punishment for infractions or lax discipline. What was most memorable for me about the film, however, was the cinematography that captured the white heat and merciless sun of the desert: rarely did a scene show shade, the Brits were forever drenched in perspiration, the walls of every building were a bleached white, the sand and rock covering the ground looked like hot blanched charcoal … as I watched the film, on television, I instinctively reached for my sunglasses as I felt my retinas might be simmering.

Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I have been the past week, could provide the setting for a sequel to “The Hill” should the Afghan government ever decide to promote movie production as a revenue source for the country. The days here begin temperate at 75-80 degrees, but the pleasantness ends at about 06:00 when the southern Afghan sun burns through any lingering haze and begins to bake the earth below it. The temperature most days has reached 110 degrees, sometimes 115. Many people comment that “it’s a dry heat,” something akin to a “clean gunshot wound.” Adding to the comfort is the flame-resistant uniform issued to us that seems to bestow protection by keeping your skin so warm that any additional heat and fire results in a relatively minimal and painless aggradation in temperature.

The base where I temporarily am working is a relatively small (150 x 200 meters) collection of faded tan sheet metal buildings and plywood shacks the color of newsprint completely bleached by the sun. An asphalt driveway runs the perimeter of the base, but a few inches of loosely packed gravel cover the rest of the ground. Your steps produce a crunch and pop as you ambulate around the grounds, fooling your ears into thinking that they are inches from a very large bowl of Rice Krispies with new milk added. Shower trailers are available, although they now have no electricity as last week a guard from a private security firm died after electrocuting himself while bathing in a stall with improper wiring. Such a small base offers few amenities, but for what it lacks in comfort it compensates with excitement.

The first night featured parachute-slung flares dropped within 500 meters of the compound’s walls to illuminate the surrounding fields for special forces units hunting the Taliban fighters who use the area to launch rockets at a large nearby airfield. My compound hasn’t been targeted directly, and soldiers here pass the story that a local warlord owns the property on which the base sits and put out word that his land, for which Americans supposedly are paying an outrageous rental fee, will be left unscathed. Although I have no doubts that warlords continue to exercise considerable power throughout Afghanistan, I find it difficult to believe that the Taliban would be so cooperative. The insurgents come very close to the compound and induce reactionary measures from coalition forces nearby, threatening damage in the warlord’s neighborhood. Also, the land on which this compound sits is an expanse of sand and rock, which had little to no development until Americans built a base. The supposed warlord/landlord has no infrastructure upgrades he needs to preserve.

My belief is that the rockets the Taliban typically fire at our bases are not exactly laser-guided missiles; and the insurgents are happy if they can place the ordnance anywhere within the wall of a compound. As this base is extremely small, especially when compared to the nearby airfield, the Taliban chooses to ignore it as one of their rockets, if at all wayward, would likely miss the compound altogether.

The excitement continued the next morning as I awoke at 05:45 to two explosions followed by machine-gun fire from one of the compound’s guard towers. I had planned to jog around the base perimeter at 06:00 or so, but delayed the run as the gunfire from the tower continued intermittently for the next 30-45 minutes. No alarm sounded on the base, and there was no assault on the walls, so I went to breakfast and chuckled when I saw that “Natural Born Killers” was playing on the large screen TV ubiquitous throughout US military dining facilities and seemingly preprogrammed to play, at high volume, only action films that feature gunfire and gore.

As I exited the dining facility I saw three Chinook helicopters descending as they flew over the base, and several people standing on a platform peering over the compound wall. I scurried up to the platform in time to see the helos disgorge soldiers in the mud-brick village only 500-750 meters from the compound, in the direction of the explosions I heard earlier that morning. The aircraft lifted off after a short time, and I couldn’t discern any more activity in the distance. Only then did I take notice of a terrible stench pervading the air around me; and, after looking more closely at my “platform,” discovered that I was standing atop a sewage collection tank, and next to a venting pipe open to the waste below and emitting miasmic vapors.

Photograph: Me atop OP Septic Tank.

I spent the remainder of my first full day on the compound wondering just how hot the place can possibly get, and was not surprised at nightfall to see more parachute flares. But the night and the next day waere quiet, until another loud explosion in the near distance sounded in the early afternoon. I learned later that a suicide bomber started to approach a convoy of vehicles from this compound when an Afghan policeman recognized the danger and shot him, but not before the bomber detonated his explosives. He was too far from the American vehicles and soldiers to cause them any damage or injury, but a local Afghan woman and a child reportedly died in the blast.

I’ve heard soldiers deployed to Kandahar and nearby Helmund, the heart of the Pashtun ethnic group and a stronghold of the Taliban, openly mock the relative safety and luxuries of “cosmopolitan” Kabul, as if those of us in the nation’s capital are enjoying the Afghan equivalent of a Sedona spa while they remain in the south of the country fighting the real war. Their vision of Kabul doesn’t correspond to reality, but I cannot blame them for overestimating the comfort and safety of their comrades to the north as I have been in Kandahar only one week, and I can report first-hand that it’s not pretty down here, and too often frightening as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ron, appreciated your reflections on Kandahar. Will use blogsite when I teach Farewell to Arms this year. One bit of advice: wear a helmet next time you climb atop the tank to peer over base wall! Stay safe, "Fr. Bill"