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.


Day 22: Uniform(ity)

Having lived on army bases for the past 19 days, I am surrounded by a sea of camouflage. The uniform for men and women is the same: “camo” cargo pants and long sleeved shirt, boots, t-shirt and a hat whenever you are outside, even at night time. The only thing that makes people look a little bit different is the insignia which tells you their rank, and the patches on their sleeves which tell you the unit they belong to. But these are symbols that enforce a group identity, not individuality.

Soldiers in uniform eating at the Mess, Al Minhad Air Base

Soldiers in uniform eating at the Mess, Al Minhad Air Base

The dress code even extends to hair and accessories.  Men have to shave (unless they are serving on a ship or in the Special Forces) and women have to pin their hair up in a bun with no escaping wispy-bits! No jewellery is allowed, including wedding rings. One young woman I spoke to who had been married less than a year before she deployed, said she wore her wedding and engagement ring to bed at night, but took it off when she dressed in her uniform each morning.

Military personnel are usually allowed to wear their own clothes for PT (personal training), but not at Multinational Base Tarin Kot. Here the CO (Commanding Officer) of 7RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) Task Group followed the American lead and organised for his troops to have a special PT uniform of t-shirt(with their logo), black shorts and cap. They were to wear a uniform at all times, and could only wear “civies” in their bedrooms. They had to wear their proper uniform to the mess and always carry a weapon. He called this “posturing” – always looking organised and ready for whatever the enemy might throw at them. He didn’t want any of his troops to get caught out like the chap in this photo by David Guttenfelder (scroll down to no. 33).

When Ben Quilty painted Australians serving in Afghanistan, he asked them to pose nude. He stripped away the protective covering of their uniform and asked them to expose themselves physically and emotionally.  Naked, they have no rank, no armour, no weapon.They are human beings at war.

I’ve been wearing a similar uniform “in country” of long pants, t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, boots and a hat (when I can find it) every day.  While it is nice not to have to think about what to wear, and handy to have clothes with so many pockets; I don’t like it. It makes me feel asexual. The uniform is so shapeless and exactly the same for men and women. I suspect this is a strategy to deter fraternisation! Not being able to wear any jewellery, fancy hair clips or nail polish also stifles my self-expression. I feel like I’m back at school.

From what I’ve observed, the strict uniform code doesn’t extend to tattoos. Is this because tattoos have some connection with warriors? Think of the Maoris and the Picts from Scotland with their blue woad. In Australia, Aboriginal men scarify the bodies of adolescent boys as part of their initiation rite. The markings also indicate that they are now FAMs: Fighting Age Males.

While the tattoos of most military personnel are covered by the neck to ankle uniform, I’ve seen a few peeking out of collars and cuffs. It’s the one mark of individuality and self-decoration they have left. Perhaps tattoos are common in the military because they help people state: this is who I am and this is how I’m unique.

LCpl Tamara Jesenkovic's tattoo. Her sister has the same design on her ankle. They had the tattoos done together before Tamara deployed to Afghanistan.  Photo by G1.

LCpl Tamara Jesenkovic’s tattoo. Her sister has the same design on her ankle. They had the tattoos done together before Tamara deployed to Afghanistan. Photo by G1.

Day 20: Easter without eggs

It’s Easter Sunday and I am feeling deprived because I have NO chocolate eggs to eat. When we went to the European DFAC (Dining FACility) for brekky, I consoled myself with a croissant dipped in hot chocolate.

We have been SO busy in Kabul, that there hasn’t been any time to go to the gym. But I have had to wear my bone-crushing body armour every day, which is like walking around carrying 23 kg of weights at altitude’s higher than Perisher, Smiggins or Blue Cow in the Snowy Mountains. So I think I’ll have another croissant.

"The French Quarter" where the French forces sleep) at Kabul

“The French Quarter” (where the French forces sleep) at Kabul

I have finally found a recycling project in Afghanistan! This one warms your heart. The blue plastic lids from the umpteen water bottles which get consumed in Kabul are collected, sent to the clever people in Turkey, and turned into wheelchairs! Now I can have another bottle of water to wash down the croissant(s).

recycling water bottle caps - photo by Steven Bullard (G2)

recycling water bottle caps – photo by Steven Bullard (G2)

keep collecting those lids!

keep collecting those lids!

Today I interviewed a young soldier who is training members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in logistics. He is helping them order, dispatch and keep track of the sort of goods you need to keep an army ticking: weapons, boots, vehicle parts, etc. This is a pretty challenging job in a country with low literacy levels in Dari (see day 19) and when the goods arrive labelled in English! Teaching people how to use a computer and move from a paper-based to an electronic inventory is even more challenging. Fortunately, this soldier has a fairly laid-back, relaxed attitude which helps him get along with the Afghans and do his job. He is much better suited to it than his American counterparts who want things done NOW and done THEIR way, because it is the RIGHT way.

I’ve had to be inventive when it comes to finding places and furniture to do the audio interviews. Note innovative table made of water bottles below:

Interviewing Tod Peronchik at the Central Supply Depot, Kabul.

Interviewing Tod Peronchik at the Central Supply Depot, Kabul.

The G-force joke that I keep inviting different men into my bedroom, because sometimes that is the only quiet place for an interview!

My "recording studio"/bedroom in Kabul - note dual purpose rubbish bin

My “recording studio”/bedroom in Kabul – note dual purpose rubbish bin

But G3 has been sleeping with three under-age women each night: Tinkerbell, Snow White and Cinderella. I’ve been sleeping with Barbie and G2 with Dora the Explorer. All the doona covers are cartoon or Disney characters.  Is this telling us that war is child’s play?

Going to bed with Barbie

Going to bed with Barbie

Day 19: the streets of Kabul

Today we went “outside the wire” again through the streets of Kabul. The insurgents keep thinking up new ways to attack enemy vehicles with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), so much so that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is struggling to create new acronyms to keep up with their deviousness! However, I felt quite safe in our “up-armoured” 4WD, wearing my body armour, helmet and ballistic eye protection and being driven by two experienced Australian soldiers. (By now you’ve probably heard the news that five soldiers – two from Australia and two from the ANA were injured in an IED attack on Easter Sunday).

IMG_0618 resized street in Kabul Nth

Street in Kabul – none of the roads we travelled on were sealed – some were graded

I managed to take a few photos through the window of Kabul.  We were travelling around the northern outskirts of the city, not far from where the book “The bookseller of Kabul” is set. I can highly recommend this book for its objective portrayal of life in an extended family who have lived through 30 years of Afghanistan’s turbulent and violent political history.

IMG_0603resized houses, scrap metal yard behind CSD Kabul

Scrap metal yard and houses on the mountainside in Kabul

Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan in 330 BC as did Genghis Khan in 1204. Venetian Merchant, Marco Polo travelled through Afghanistan and possibly stayed in Kabul during the 13th century. Kabul was the capital of the Mughal empire from 1504. Britain fought three wars with the Afghans before the Russians invaded in 1979 and the Taliban in 1996. The country has only known 40 years of relative peace and stability in the last 200. No wonder it’s so impoverished.

IMG_0593 resized goats in Kabul

goats sometimes share the road in Kabul

I felt a sense of despair travelling through Kabul. The nation needs peace, and an educated workforce of men and women – but only 43% of adult men and 12% of adult women are literate.

IMG_0592 resized bicycle repair shop

Bicycle repair shop, Kabul – many Afghans are expert bush mechanics

The ADF is part of an international effort to build up the capability of the Afghan National Security Force (army and police); but what about building the capabilities of the country’s teachers, doctors, accountants, farmers etc.?

Fruit sellers, Kabul

Fruit sellers, Kabul

girls herding hairy goats, Kabul

girls herding hairy goats, Kabul

Day 18: not really here

Today we arrived in the capital of Afghanistan: Kabul. We are staying at Kabul International Airfield – North (KAIA-N), home to defence personnel from many countries who have joined the fight against the Taliban. This is my second trip into Afghanistan – the first was to Tarin Kot (TK) but then we flew out to the UAE again. On neither occasion was my passport checked nor stamped. It’s as if the two military bases I have worked and stayed in are island enclaves within the country. The military talk about going “into country”.  I feel like I’m geographically in Afghanistan, but not really here. I haven’t tasted any Afghan food, heard the call to prayer or seen any feasting celebrating the Afghan new year (Spring Equinox – 21 March 2013).

I feel more like an intruder, than a visitor. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), lead by Hamid Karzi, welcomes the support of countries like Australia, so I guess my intrusion under the umbrella of the ADF (Australian Defence Forces) is sanctioned.

The majestic mountains around Kabul are part of the Hindu Kush and are closer than those around TK. They look ripe for climbing. If Afghanistan had not been at war for most of the last 200 years, it could have a thriving nature tourism industry.

IMG_0577 resized sunrise looking sthwest from KAIA-N base

sunrise looking South West from KAIA-N base

For the first time, I have gone ‘outside the wire’ “in country” as we drove to the other side of Kabul to visit the burgeoning Afghan National Defence University. This is where Afghanistan will train its military officers and soldiers. A coalition of nations – Australia, Britain, USA, France, Romania, and a few others – are helping Afghanistan to establish its “Sandhurst of the sands” (although “Duntroon of the dust” is more accurate, in my opinion.) One of the subjects in our portrait project is mentoring Afghans in their roles as company sergeant majors. He finds this easier than negotiating the politics around security and SOPs (standard operating procedures) at a multinational base where every country has their own way of doing things which they think is best.

Women are able to join the defence forces, and segregated accommodation is being built for them at the base. ABC journalist Sally Sara tells the story of two Afghan sisters who had to overcome entrenched discrimination in order to train and work as helicopter pilots in the Afghan airforce –

Although it was Good Friday when we arrived in Kabul, there were no hot cross buns in the mess. I don’t think the Easter Bunny will hop into Afghanistan, even though he won’t need a passport.

The Easter bunny hopped in to the Kabul ISAF airbase, but didn't bring any eggs :(

The Easter bunny didn’t bring any eggs to Kabul ISAF airbase 😦

Day 16: staying connected

No modern soldier goes to war without a laptop. This was an observation that Sally Sara, the ABC’s former foreign correspondent in Afghanistan made.  Sara reported that when some troops who were stationed at a remote patrol base and hadn’t been able to have a shower for three months were offered the choice of having showers or internet access installed, they chose internet.

When you’re sent on a 6-12 month deployment, chances are that you’ll miss significant events like birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversaries, or your child’s first day at school. One mother I spoke to participated in her son’s 5th birthday via skype. The family had the i-pad on the table and put a party hat on it. She sang ‘happy birthday’ to him with the rest of the family and watched him cut the cake. She said it was as good as it could have been, given the 11,600 km and seven time zones between them.

Some people, particularly mothers who deploy, try to stay very connected to their family while they are away. For example, one mother listens to her son read his school reading books and another gave advice about the making of an Easter bonnet via skype. Another mother was very hurt when she returned from a six month deployment and found her now 18 month old son was initially very cautious and wary of her. It was a day or two before he would accept physical affection from her.

There is some debate in the ADF about whether this is a good thing – whether it is good to have deployees emotionally connected with their families back home. In previous wars, people waited weeks or months for a letter to arrive, so they couldn’t be as involved or connected. Will today’s ADF employee be distracted from their work if they are watching the clock to see when the time will be right to telephone or skype? Will they miss a warning sign in a battle zone if they are thinking about how to help their son stand up to the school bully, or help their daughter adjust to kindergarten?  I think that if you want to have highly skilled women in war zones, then you need to make it as easy as possible for them to be there. Reducing the amount of contact with your family doesn’t reduce the pain of separation nor the need for emotional attachment. You never stop being a mother.

Day 10: Army aesthetics

When I arrived at Al Minhad Air Base (AMAB), I felt like I’d landed on the moon.  But Multinational Base Tarin Kowt, located in southern Afghanistan, is even more desolate and stark.   There are no soft surfaces here. The base consists of shipping containers stacked beside razor wire, metal girders and steel staircases.

razor wire, shipping containers dusty roads

Accommodation is in double storey reinforced demountables.  Concrete paths carve straight lines through grey rocks which are about the size of golf balls. The buildings are numbered as it is hard to tell one from the other and easy to get disoriented.

Hesco barriers around accomm TK

Hesco barriers around “hardened” accommodation at Tarin Kowt

 The only curves are in the hesco barriers – walls about two feet thick made of rocks and rubble, held together with wire and hessian that can withstand rocket attacks. Many of the buildings are designed to withstand an IDF (Indirect Fire) attack. This means they have low ceilings, no windows, sealed metal doors about 15cm thick and utilitarian fluorescent lighting.  

concrete paths Hesco barriers TK

The palette ranges from hazy grey to beige. The red fire extinguishers are the only splash of colour. Everything is covered in dust.  In the Aussie mess there are huge photographs of mossy rainforests on the walls – are the designers trying to provide some welcome relief from the aesthetics of the base or taunting us? A few gum trees are struggling to grow outside the mess.

gum trees growing outside Aussie Mess TK

I found some weeds which provide some welcome green and softness. I felt like picking the little daises and putting them in a cup in my room.

daisies TK resized

Australians share this base with the Americans and Afghan National Army. However, due to the ‘green on blue’ attacks, there is now a big wall, guarded 24/7 between the ANA and coalition forces. Soldiers are required to wear their uniform and carry a weapon at all times.  Seeing men walking around with semi-automatic rifles makes me feel less safe.

A white blimp, called “the eye in the sky”, hovers over the base relaying pictures of the surrounding landscape back to HQ.  It can see if there might be any insurgents out there. I feel like Big Brother is watching me, for my own good.

Beyond the large military base, I can see the mountains of Uruzgan province. The soldiers tell me that the green zones in the river valleys are beautiful, particularly in the spring when the pomegranate trees are blossoming.

The troops seem happy enough.  The food is good and plentiful, the beds are soft and clean and the free wifi works. ADF personnel get paid a lot of money (tax free) to deploy to Afghanistan. I don’t think any amount of money could convince me to live and work here for several months. It’s as if there was a battle at Tarin Kowt between security and beauty and security won, as it should in a war zone. I just didn’t think the two were mutually exclusive. No wonder AMAB is referred to as “camp cupcake” compared to this.

PS. Above is the toned down version of my initial response to the Tarin Kowt base. I had to write the emotional, subjective one first to help me deal with it!