Day 29: homecoming rituals

Today was our final day in the MEAO (Middle East Area of Operations) – tomorrow we start the trek home on a chartered A340.

One of the homecoming rituals is sorting through your kit and cleaning off the dust of Afghanistan. The laundry whirs as people wash and scrub everything so that it will pass the quarantine inspection. Some boots are too down-trodden to be taken home.

Discarded, dusty boots at AMAB

Discarded, dusty boots at AMAB

Another RTA (Return to Australia) ritual seems to be shopping at one of the colossal malls in Dubai. The CSU (Combat Support Unit, see day 27) organises free buses to take people to and from Dubai twice a day.

Dubai from the bus window

Dubai from the bus window

There are acres of designer shops and department stores, and an indoor
“traditional” souk, if you can’t face the hot and dusty real souk (see Day 23).

exquisite desserts in a shop window

exquisite desserts in a shop window

If you get tired of  shopping, you can go ice-skating, downhill skiing, or visit the aquarium – all inside a shopping mall!

The front of the two story aquarium in Dubai Mall. It contains the largest, single piece of acrylic glass in the world.

The front of the two story aquarium in Dubai Mall. It contains the largest, single piece of acrylic glass in the world.

ice-skating rink, Dubai Mall

ice-skating rink, Dubai Mall

As well as scrubbing the dust off boots and bags, Australian females who deploy to Afghanistan engage in another cleaning ritual. They book in to the Sisters Beauty Salon for facials, manicures, pedicures, haircuts, massages… they say it takes weeks to expunge the smell of dust. The memories remain.

three-story waterfall at the Dubai Mall

three-story waterfall at the Dubai Mall

After working and travelling for 27 days straight, we had an R&R day in the mall. I was hoping to have the highest high tea in the world, on the 123rd floor of the Burj Khalifa, but our plans changed at the last minute. The view from the top was fabulous, but not as pretty as looking down on Canberra in autumn.

View from the Observation deck of the Burj Khalifa

View from the Observation deck of the Burj Khalifa

I think I’m ready to come home.

Sunset over the outer perimeter of AMAB

Sunset over the outer perimeter of AMAB

Day 27: Under her wings

Our one hour flight from Bahrain to Dubai turning into an 11 hour endurance test. After spending most of the night in the air waiting for the freak cyclone to ease and in the Bahrain transit lounge, we finally made it back to AMAB (Al Minhad Air Base) safely.

Rain is rare in the Middle East, but it has rained in every place we have visited. We seem to be taking it with us. I wonder if it will be raining in Canberra when we finally get home.

After doing a ‘brown bear’ (see Day 8), I interviewed the Wing Commander who is in charge of the Combat Support Unit (CSU) at AMAB. She has about 115 airforce personnel under her wings. This is a group drawn from across Australia who have not worked together before. They do a diverse range of tasks from providing firefighters at the airfield and security guards at the gates to the base, to organising visas for people coming in and out of AMAB. If someone needs to be evacuated from Afghanistan for urgent medical treatment, someone from her medical team will be there. They also provide chaplaincy and health services, and organise social events for the base. CSU run the popular gym, including providing a Personnel Training Instructor (PTI) to make sure that the blokes injury themselves in their desire to look like Rambo. This is the sort of behind the scenes work that makes a military base more comfortable.

Tigger and a purple monkey cling to the medical flagpole at AMAB

Tigger and a purple monkey cling to the medical flagpole at AMAB

One of her most important tasks is host nation liaison. Australia is allowed to have a base at AMAB because it has a good relationship with the UAE (United Arab Emirates). If anyone on the base does anything that offends the host nation, they could easily kick us out. AMAB is Australia’s gateway to Afghanistan.

Not all small, soft, furry creatures are benign - warning sign provided by CSU

Not all small, soft, furry creatures are benign – warning sign provided by CSU

The airfield is the link “into country” and CSU provide 24/7 support to the aircrew to make sure the airfield is always operational. They load and unload all ADF aircraft at AMAB and at two airfields in Afghanistan – and believe me, soldiers do not travel light! An airfield is much more than a runway and a wind sock. CSU do logistics and keep a supply of spare parts for generators, forklifts, powercarts and vehicles.

As well as having 115 staff to look after, the Wing Commander also has two young boys at home. She was away for her son’s third birthday and will miss her 15 month old learning to talk. This is her first deployment since having kids. It’s hard to explain to young children why Mummy has to go away for six and a half months. She has decided not to talk to them while she is away and to hear about them through her husband. Perhaps she doesn’t want her children growing up thinking that she “lives inside a computer”, which is what one young child said after interacting with her deployed father via skype. Nevertheless, I got the feeling that she was carrying a lot of pain.

Day 28: decompression

My room mate said to me at 9pm last night: “I feel like I should be doing something, that I should be working! I’m all fidgety and I can’t sit still”. She keeps checking her right hip for her pistol and her left hip for her military ID that she had to carry at all times on base. She has just returned to AMAB (Al Minhad Air Base) after spending six busy months working on logistics in Kabul. She worked 12 hour days that were punctuated by eating, sleeping and going to the gym. This is not “normal” life!

She is going through what the military call “decompression”. All Australian military in the MEAO come back through AMAB before going home. They are forced to do next to nothing for a few days. It can be hard to sit still and watch a movie when you’ve been constantly busy for six months. This is my first day with no interviews and no travel, but I can feel my body slowing down and wanting to sleep.

Part of the decompression process is RTAMS (Return to Australia Medical Screening) and RTAPS (Return to Australia Psychological Screening). The military need to know if you’re healthy in body and mind before you go out into the real world again. This is important stuff, particularly for detecting signs of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),but it doesn’t really help you adjust to “normal” life again. I think it will be a shock to some returnees to have to buy groceries, cook meals, wash dishes, clean the house and do the laundry after not having to think about this for three to twelve months. It will also be disorienting having to relate to people by who they are, not what their rank is. Military life is highly organised and regimented. Ordinary life is a bit more random.

PS. One of the more random things I encountered at AMAB was the presentation of desserts! The chef must have taken lessons in plating-up from MasterChef. I just hope the hungry hordes in the mess appreciated the artistry.

Vanilla slice

Vanilla slice

Apricot flan

Apricot flan

Apple pie with palm tree biscuit

Apple pie with palm tree biscuit

Chocolate gateau

Chocolate gateau

Creme Caramel

Creme Caramel

Day 26: Battle watch

We had a few spare hours before our flight departed Bahrain today, so G3 and I went to an old fort.  I was particularly pleased to get away from our accommodation, as I felt like I was under house-arrest. Not being able to leave the house without a male escort was stifling (see day 24).

Archways in the fort leading to the inner courtyard.

Archways in the fort leading to the inner courtyard.

The Qal’at Al Bahrain dates to around 2250 BCE. It is on a man-made hill at a natural harbour. It was at the centre of a commercial five-ways – archaeological finds show evidence of trade with China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Persia and eastern Arabia. The site is so rich in history that it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Coastal Fortress which dates to about 250BCE

Coastal Fortress which dates to about 250BCE

Over the past 4000 years, five small cities and three forts have been built there. Up to 1000 soldiers lived inside the fort at one time, guarding it from Portuguese and Ottoman attacks. Ships bombarded the fort with wooden and then iron cannonballs.  The Persian soldiers on battle watch were expert archers and picked off their opponents with bows and arrows.

Remains of the main fortress which was first built in 15th C and enlarged in 1561.

Remains of the main fortress which was first built in 15th C and enlarged in 1561.

In 2013, Leading Seaman Rhys Edwards keeps watch in a very different kind of fort. He sits in front of a computer screen in a US Naval Base in downtown Bahrain. It is fortified by about ten heavily armed US military at the gate and constant patrols. Rhys is a Battle Watch Assistant. His “weapons” are a sophisticated communications system that allows him to keep in touch with ships in the CMF (Combined Maritime Forces) using a secret form of online chat or telephone. Ships contact him for intelligence information about other vessels they encounter. He patiently tries to understand their broken English, accents and requests.  Rhys works a 12 hour shift, which can be eventful or awfully boring. On this deployment, he has learnt to make a mean espresso.

G3 and I planned to catch a taxi from the fort back to our accommodation in time to leave for the airport.  But the taxi did not come, and we were lucky to make it to the airport and catch the flight. I managed to spend all my remaining Bahraini Dinar in the duty free shops, but now I need some of that funny money!  The plane only made it to “the top of the drop” outside Dubai when it encountered cyclonic winds and had to turn around and come back to Bahrain. We have been stuck in the Bahrain transit lounge for 6 hours waiting for the weather to clear. I am about to face one of my fears: running out of things to read.

Day 25: Spooks

Danica is a naval intelligence officer. She sniffs out interesting information from a variety of sources and pieces together scenarios. Most of the scenarios involve the possible shipment of drugs from Pakistan along the “hash highway” or the “smack track” to the east African coast. Opium is grown in Afghanistan, processed into heroin in Pakistan and then shipped on small fishing vessels to Tanzania and Kenya where custom control is lax. Drug money funds terrorism so catching the smugglers is an important counter-terrorism measure.

Danica works long hours sifting through intelligence reports. She says naval intelligence work is like pole dancing: it sounds sexy but it’s hard work! The commander of CTF150 (see blog post day 24) will use her intelligence reports to decide whether it is worth asking one of the ships in the CMF (Combined Maritime Forces) to risk boarding a suspect vessel and searching for drugs. Sometimes they find nothing but sick crew members, and offer medical assistance, food and supplies. The boarding party switch from policing to PR.

However, sometimes the intelligence is brilliant. On 29th March, it lead to the seizure of 500kg of heroin which was hidden on a dhow sailing off Tanzania. The heroin has a street value of over $100 million in Australia.  It is now feeding fish in the Indian Ocean.

Interviewing Danica in my bedroom in Bahrain

Interviewing Danica in my bedroom in Bahrain

This drug bust was the culmination of months of work for Danica and the other 25 or so Australians working in CTF150. They deployed to Bahrain before Christmas and go home in about two weeks time.  Danica has a fiance and a pet Wimauma waiting for her in Canberra.  Her dog’s name is Spook.

Day 24: Bahrain

We arrived in Bahrain today.  This is my third country and my fourth currency (Emirati Dirham, Euros on the ISAF base in Kabul, US dollars on the multinational base in Tarin Kot and Bahraini Dinar) – I think it’s time for the Arab equivalent of the Euro.

Bahrain is an island nation, a kingdom and a city-state. It is ruled by the minority Sunni Muslims and the majority Shia Muslims are, understandably, not happy about this. We had a lot of trouble getting through customs and immigration with all of G1’s camera equipment. The Bahrain authorities are very wary of people with cameras, after some of their human rights abuses have been exposed.

Cranes reach skywards

Cranes reach skywards

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, the beginning of the Muslim weekend. Bahrain is linked to Saudi Arabia to its west by a 25km series of causeways and bridges built on reclaimed land. Saudi men like to come to Bahrain for the weekend because it is common knowledge that “Allah can’t see what goes on across the causeway”.  Women walking by themselves, or without a male escort are assumed to be prostitutes, and therefore available for Saudi men. “Force protection”* takes on a whole new meaning in this country.

Bahrain smog 7.30am

Bahrain smog 7.30am The buildings behind the freeway are barely visible

The one thing that Bahrain seems to have in common with Dubai and Kabul is air pollution! The air is thick with dust and smog.  All the buildings are cream or beige in colour: they remind me of giant sand castles. Development is rife in Bahrain and the buildings grow like weeds. Dusty palm trees line the major road, but otherwise there is  nothing to break up this monochromatic landscape.  I found this shocking when I first went to Tarin Kot, but I think I’ve adjusted to it now.

Bahrain skyline 6am

Bahrain skyline 6am

Bahrain is the site of a long standing US Naval base. They have their own cinema ($4 for a new release), childcare centre, shops, cafes, beauty salon, playground, bowling alley, ovals and newspaper!  Americans deploy here for two years with their family or one year by themselves. Some never leave the base.

There are about 25 Australians working here on CTF150 – Combined Task Force 150. The command of CTF150 rotates between Britain, Pakistan, Australia and sometimes the French and Canadians. They undertake counter-terrorism operations such as tracking ships carrying narcotics from Pakistan to east Africa – a global distribution point. The Australians are particularly good at sniffing out drug dhows – more on that in tomorrow’s blog post.

 

*Force Protection is protecting members of the Australian Defence Force while they are on deployment.  Fortunately it also extends to civilians travelling with them.

Day 23: 1971

After work today, we left the military camp on the moon (aka AMAB, see day 4) and caught the “R&R” (Rest and Recreation) bus into Dubai. We went to the old part of the city – Deira, and wandered through the old souk (markets).  Before I’d managed to glance at the colourful fabrics and spices, the stall holders were putting pashminas around my shoulders and handbags in my path.  I felt I was swotting them away like flies. The sellers in the grand bazaar in Istanbul were never this desperate.

Wooden boats that take about 25 people across Dubai Creek

Wooden boats that take about 25 people across Dubai Creek

We caught one of the old wooden boats across the Dubai Creek for 1 Dirham (about 30 cents) and found the gold souk. There was more gold jewellery in the most elaborate designs than I have ever seen in all my life. This was not bling, but the real thing.

Gold jewellery for sale in the gold souk, Dubai

Gold jewellery for sale in the gold souk, Dubai

We also went to the Dubai Museum which has interesting artefacts, dusty dioramas and terrible labels. It was good to get a sense of what the place was like before the oil money poured in. Today the commercial transactions take place in air-conditioned skyscrapers instead of in a souk under the shade of date palms. Dubai feels like it is a million miles away from Kabul.

Dubai Museum in an old fort

Dubai Museum in an old fort

In 1971 Latifa Nabizada was born in Afghanistan. In the same year I was born to parents from Australia and New Zealand and Sally Sara, the ABC journalist who has written about Latifa’s story, was born in South Australia.* We have all had such different lives, by virture of the opportunities our countries offered us.

Latifa lived in Kabul during the Russian occupation, fled to a refugee camp in western Pakistan when the Taliban took over the country in 1996 and gave birth to a daughter after an arranged marriage in 2004.  Latifa was lucky that her father encouraged her to get an education. Many Afghans cannot afford to send their children to school, and don’t believe it is a priority for females.

Most of the ADF personnel I have spoken to as part of this project did not connect their work to “making a difference” in Afghanistan or helping Australia achieve its four objectives in the MEAO (Middle East Area of Operations). They were just here to do their job. One senior soldier from the Special Forces rationalises his deployment as helping to stem the production and sale of opium in Afghanistan, as he believes this has a bigger impact on life in Australia than the Taliban.  I wonder how Latifa would view Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan over the last ten years, and whether it will have a lasting impact on her life, and the lives of millions of women like her?

* Thanks to my mum for pointing this out.