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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.
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