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.