Another story from Ru:
In late 2010, I found myself freezing to death in eastern Afghanistan. I was embedded with a US army unit, charged with moving out into the villages around a provincial capital, which had not seen coalition forces visit them for several years.
This was due to the caveats, or conditions, laid down by the eastern european forces, who had previously taken charge of the capital. They had taken the idea of putting the Afghan National Security Forces in the lead so seriously that they rarely left the base. This meant that, apart from a small area directly around the city limits and their base, the rest of the province was ruled by Taliban shadow governors. The Taliban provided law courts, schooling and even delivered food to needy families.
The new US army unit didn’t have the same caveats. Since arriving a couple of weeks before I joined them, they had gone out on foot patrols every day and, usually, at least one of their platoons had come under fire.
The commanding officer was a captain, previously enlisted, who was greatly respected by his men. He was the sole of hospitality and brought me into his “rock drills”, as I recorded in my journal of the day (actually ROC – rehearsal of concept, but quite often they use actual rocks to illustrate positions, so you can see why I originally wrote this).
After the drill, I was asked whether I’d like to join A, B or C platoon. Looking as much like I knew what I was talking about, I chose the middle option, B.
The next day, we gathered at 0400 in a typical case of rushing about to then wait around until the sun rose. For the first few hours the patrol was uneventful. We went from unfriendly village to unfriendly village, occasionally questioning men and occasionally taking them in for questioning at the bidding of a shady looking Afghan, who was a member of the NDS – the Afghan equivalent of the secret service.
Girls cried as we led their fathers and brothers away. Some women openly berated the American forces.
Around 1400, we were walking from one village to another across some fields. During the morning there had been a few people around, mainly young boys playing and a couple of men on motorbikes. All of a sudden I noticed it was very empty and very quiet.
When the bang came, we all stopped in our tracks and looked around sheepishly at each other. It was pretty far away, but still awfully loud. Without any idea of what it was or who it had hit, there was no point standing still. We continued to march along in single file.
I sidled up to the nearest guy with a radio. He told me that 2 “clicks” (kilometers) over, C platoon had hit a roadside bomb. He knew nothing else.
We came to yet another field, this time squeezed between a set of abandoned mud houses, their walls crumbling. By this time, the soldiers in our platoon were huddled together. The situation has become slightly worse. Apparently C platoon had come under fire and a young soldier had been shot in the face. They were extracting themselves from the area. We had to do the same. Quickly.
I can’t remember when we started to hear actual gun fire. It quickly seemed like it had always been there. Unlike some encounters with firearms in my life, there was no sound of close incoming fire (like a mosquito’s whine) or little puffs of dirt on the ground as rounds hit. However, I didn’t have much time to reflect on where fire was coming from. I had another problem. I had to run.
I had come to a stop in the middle of the field and, in probably one of my most stupid moves, let my camerawoman instincts take over and turned the camera back on the soldiers behind me to get the shot of them advancing on me. Only, I hadn’t noticed that they were running. This probably means I should too.
There’s a piece of camera footage somewhere in my archives that sees the lens swiftly drop towards the ground, while an American voice shouts in my direction, “it’s a fucking infill! Fucking run!”.
I whip around to where the head of the patrol used to be. They are swiftly running towards a wall ahead of us, one by one jumping over and sheltering behind.
I am roughly 60 kg/132 lbs. I am carrying around 20 kg/44 lbs of equipment, 7 kg/16 lbs of body armour and a camera. I am not what you’d call athletic. I mean, I’m not fat or out of shape, but the last time I jumped over a wall, even unencumbered was…I’ve never jumped over a wall.
I start running towards the wall. As it approaches, or, rather, as I approach it, it seems to double in size. There is no way I’m jumping over this thing. A mad, desperate idea forms in my mind. The wall is made of mud. Dry, crumbly mud. Maybe if I run towards it with enough speed and force, I might be able to run right through it, like Wile. E Coyote. At the time this seems a perfectly reasonable and, indeed, my only option.
Gathering speed I screw up my face for the imminent collision. At the point just before the wall hits, there is a large bang and, simultaneously, I feel a hand connect with me from behind. The surprise is so striking that I jump a foot in the air. The hand grabs the seat of my trousers and lifts me further into my sudden launch from Earth.
Instinctively, I hold out my hands to brace for the impact. Hands from the other side of the wall reach out and grab me. In an undignified pile, I fall in a mess of limbs, camera and dust. Other soldiers hop effortlessly over the wall and skip around me.
Once everyone’s over there is silence. Sitting quietly for few minutes, I try and make sense of what just happened. It’s only when we all get up and start walking back home with, apparently, no further worries about attacks, that a young soldier approaches me.
“Er, you, er, jumped a bit early there. I just thought I’d give you a push, know what I mean?” He looks meaningfully at me.
“Yeah, yeah”, I gratefully agree, “thanks, man.”
The rest of the patrol is uneventful and quiet, as I spit dust out of my mouth and recover my composure. I never found out what we were running from or to. I never got the chance to ask. The young chap who had been shot later died. I retired to my little tent and resolved to stay out of everyone’s way.
The super-cool Rokonnection Records aims to bring power back to the fans and musicians when it comes to releasing music. That’s why we pleased they’re psyched about the DIY release of our debut album, Landlocked. Read their piece on us HERE
We’re welcoming a lot of new fans to the White City gang right now and the biggest question we’re always asked is about our experiences in Afghanistan. We love the country, the people, the passion despite years of war. We know that people are at risk of fatigue hearing about Afghanistan, but we’re hoping that our music, in some small way, will help keep Afghanistan on the radar and in people’s minds. In support of that, we’ve decided to start sharing some experiences with you. Some are funny, some are sad, some are just unusual. All are but one tiny detail in a rich, bewildering and beautiful tapestry that is Afghanistan.
First up, here’s Ru with a re-post from her blog DryMouth with her story about an afternoon motorbike ride that nearly went very wrong.
The area of Taimani, a district of Kabul popular with ex-pats, who couldn’t afford/didn’t want to live in heavy fortified and guarded compounds. Here, we lived mostly without problems side-by-side with our Afghan neighbours, who didn’t complain too much when we had loud parties and cheerfully shouted good morning, as we stumbled with hangovers to our local greasy spoon (which catered almost exclusively to hungover ex-pats).
But during 2013, Taimani was shaken by a number of kidnappings and burglaries, where ex-pat households were specifically targeted. Although Kabul may strike most of the world as a dangerous place, the ultra-conservative version of Islam practiced here meant, at least, that muggings, robberies and burglaries were virtually unheard of. The Afghan home is sacred and to violate its walls without invitation is probably the greatest affront to their values. Just think of the stink regularly kicked up about night raids.
Therefore, the news that foreigners were being attacked in their homes, often with horrible stories of torture or rape thrown in had got people very afraid. A friend of mine, learning that I was living alone with no guard, my flat-mates being on an extended holiday, came round one day and offered me a temporary loan of a gun.
Now, although one is surrounded by guns in Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean that they’re perfectly legal. Actually, it is legal for each household to have a shotgun, which is available on the black market for around $100. Shotguns are classed as “non-lethal weapons”. Make of that what you will. However, this weapon was not a shotgun. It was a 9mm Taurus handgun – a PT609 Pro, to be precise. Small, girl-sized, but with enough punch and accuracy to discourage any intruder. I accepted the loan, but there was one problem – I’d never shot a gun in my life.
My benefactor came up with an idea. Instead of finding a range that would take me, a civilian and not in possession of any Afghan, American or international paperwork that would permit me to have such a weapon, we would drive out to a deserted piece of land and practice firing the gun.
So, one Friday afternoon, he drove round with his motorbike and I packed my Taurus, his Norinco, some bottles of water and a roll of cash in a backpack and hopped on the back.
We drove outside of Kabul city and on the new road to Bagram air field. The road is surprisingly well-kempt and, on a Friday, which is traditionally a day for prayers and family, pretty empty. We drive until we find a piece of wasteland, all rocks and dust with absolutely no-one around. The occasional truck sweeps by.
We turn off the main road and drive around 100 yards into the wasteland. Parking the bike, we start piling up rocks as a target and loading our weapons. Standing at a distance of around 50 yards, we spend an enjoyable 20 to 30 minutes blowing the said rocks to pieces, pausing only to crouch down and reload. Being that this is my first time firing a gun, there are a lot of tips and notes to take on board, so it’s not surprising that we’re both so engrossed (and half-deafened by repeated gunshot) that we don’t notice the three Afghan policemen hiking over towards us.
We’re reloading for the fourth or fifth time, when my companion looks up and recognises the distinct grey uniforms of the Afghan National Police. “Oops, the police. We’d better stop.” Eager to be good citizens, we head back to the bike, climb aboard and slowly trundle to the main road to explain ourselves.
On reflection this was a bad idea. To their eyes, here were two foreigners – one bearded and unkempt and one, seemingly a woman, but dressed in combats, shirt and a beanie – shooting high-powered handguns without any regard for or prior notification of local police. In Afghanistan, foreigners are generally bad news. Foreigners out of uniform with weapons are probably terrorists.
As we draw level with the road, we hear a shot. For a moment, we pause, one tyre on the road, one still on the dirt. Then it sinks in. The police have levelled their AK-47s at us and are about to open fire. “Shit!” says my companion, “Fucking go!”, say I. He kicks the bike into gear and hauls it away from the direction of the police. They, in turn, let loose. I hear crack after crack, some with the unmistakeable mosquito-whine of incoming fire that’s really too close for comfort.
All I can think is, “I’m on the back. It’s me, who’s going to get shot”. I try and make myself as small as possible, hugging into my companion. I really hope the ANP are as bad a shot as I’ve heard. We roar up the Bagram road, easily reaching 100km/h. The shots die off. I muster enough courage to look back and see they’re not following in a vehicle.
A short pause of relief before I think the next terrifying thought. The road to Bagram – the most populous and notorious centre of American activity in Afghanistan – is highly protected. This means that there’s more than likely to be a police checkpoint up ahead and all it will take is for the guys behind us to phone up their mates and tell them to be on the lookout for a couple of foreigners on a unhelpfully distinct white Honda.
I shout this in the ear of my companion. He goes silent a while before taking a wrenching turn left, off the road and careering across bumpy wasteland yet again, only at a much higher speed this time. I hold on for dear life. After ten or so minutes, he explains, shouting through a mouth full of dust, that there’s an old road parallel to this one that will eventually take us in a circle back to Kabul.
The next half an hour is the most anxious of all my time in Afghanistan. I am convinced we’re about to be picked up and locked in Pul-e-Charki prison for all eternity. In an unbelievable example of pathetic fallacy, as I’m having this thought, the heavens open with huge, golfball-sized chunks of hail. Now we’re bruised and wet as well.
Miraculously, the road is completely empty and, as the gates of Kabul approach, I give myself a little sliver of hope. Mistake number two.
Going through the gates of Kabul, there is a police checkpoint. I’m not too worried about these guys, as they probably aren’t aligned with the out-of-Kabul cops from before. However, after an hour of dust, hail and fast getaways, we look highly unusual and are pulled on sight for a shake-down.
I am suddenly keenly aware of my backpack – full of two unlicensed weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. My companion is doing his best to chat to the police chief and two of his minions, but one young fellow comes around to me and asks, in Dari, for my ID. Due to the dust, my face is covered with a scarf and, with my beanie pulled down, only my eyes are visible. He asks for my ID again and pats my backpack roughly, asking what’s inside. This time he attracts the attention of the police chief, who joins him. Bugger.
There’s only one way out of this – I’m going to have to dazzle them. I pull down the scarf and whip off the beanie in one swift move, my hair breaking loose onto my shoulders. Smiling my best smile, I turn to the police chief and, in terribly broken and ungrammatical Dari, I say hello sir, how are you sir? I’m from England, this is my husband. We were having a picnic today and now we’re going home. Isn’t the traffic bad today, sir?
Having gushed all of that out in one big, messy sentence, there is a palpable pause. The police chief looks at me in bafflement… then claps his hands and laughs a big belly laugh. “She speaks Dari! Isn’t she cute!” He thwacks my companion on the back. “You have a very nice wife! But she should wear a headscarf.” With this, he waves us on. It’s a bloody miracle. “Don’t question it,” I tell my companion, “just go.”
We go. About 10 feet. Then the engine conks out. To my everlasting astonishment, the very police, who were unknowing inches away from throwing us in jail for the rest of our lives, help us push the bike to the nearest garage and give us a friendly wave goodbye.
The journey back home is pretty hazy. We were both too tired for words or to really discuss what had happened that day and how close we’d come to death or incarceration. I do remember I went home and made myself a really strong cup of tea that day.
Our video for ‘Perfect 10′ has landed! Watch us mess around on bikes in the Afghan desert. Everyone we met was friendly and supportive and we had the best time just riding all day.