Inside the wire
Kandahar Air Field (KAF) is a sprawling NATO military base in southern Afghanistan, ringed by desert and mountains and home to some 10,000 foreign troops and support staff, all living inside the wire, meaning within a secure perimeter set up by foreign forces. It is built on a swamp and smells like it too. “Emerald Lake” is the festering cesspool emitting sulphur fumes that permeate the grounds. Pity the Romanians whose tents line its bubbling shores.
On my first day in Afghanistan, camp is a sweltering mess of muddy roads due to unheard of summer rains hitting the desert. Kandahar town is flooded and houses are collapsing due to a week of precipitation. Farmers crops are at risk of rotting, which could makea lean winter season even leaner. I’m here for a three week embed with Canadian troops and my tent, shared with several other Canadian hacks, is three inches deep in water. My folding army bunk hovers above the slop.
The base is impressive, with all the various nationalities of the NATO force living in their own tented areas, protected by reinforced concrete barriers. Most people gravitate towards the American facilities. They have a full-sized basketball court and Olympic-sized gym and weight room. There is a mini strip mall called the Boardwalk, complete with Tim Hortons, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Green Beans, which is just like Starbucks and provides all the usual options ranging from blueberry muffins and cheesecake to mocha frappe lattes, world music CDs and “Oral Fixation” breath mints. All the clients carry guns slung over their shoulders or on hip holsters. There was a sushi restaurant, but it closed down after a salmonella outbreak. The Amerian PX store is awesome, selling everything from Sports Illustrated (swimsuit issue) and Esquire magazines, recent DVDs, camping clothes and gear, hunting knives, gun cleaning equipment, junk food, pet food, foldable deck chairs, shelving units, stereos, computers and other electronics. I can buy none of these things where I live in Africa and since it’s all subsidised by George W., prices are fantastically low. I do some shopping.
Theres also a camp massage parlour, but without “the happy ending.” I try it anyway. The masseuse is a stocky Kyrgystani woman actually named Olga. She smells likes onions and beetroot and gives a massage that still hurts two days later.
Walking back to my tent, I’m offered a lift in a pick-up truck by a drawling grunt from Arkansas who introduces himself as “Bulldawg” and tells me a lewd joke about the difference between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Keeping to the speed limit, Bulldog takes me on a 16km/hr tour of the base, near the old dumping ground for all the rusting Soviet hardware from previous failed efforts to win a war here, and along the air strip where Chinook helicopters clatter in and out of camp.
This is a nice place to run come evenin time, good view of the mountains, nice sunset n all. But dont do it alone. A mortar round come in an tag you and you be stuck here, aint no-one to get help. Theres Taliban over there watchin us right now, you can be sure.
Bulldog laughs when I asked whether the Americans also have a rule like the Canadians about non-fraternization (i.e., no sexual relations allowed on base).
Awww, thats bullshit man. We can die any day and they want us to stop livin? Hell no.
The Americans do have the same rule about fraternization and the same ban on all alcohol, but the Dutch dont. They are allowed to drink and shag as much as they like. I wouldnt be surprised if they had another kind of coffee shop on their tented grounds.
I must stop writing now. I’ve eaten too many Oreo cookies and feel kinda sick. Plus, there’s a Chicken Royal with cheese dinner awaiting me at Burger King. Life is rough in war time. Soon I’ll find out how different life is “Outside the Wire.”
Finbarr O’Reilly is a Reuters photographer based in West Africa. Originally from Canada, he is on assignment in Afghanistan covering Canadian military operations against Taliban forces.