Outside the wire

July 20, 2007

┬áHunting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan with Finbarr O’Reilly

SANGSAR, Afghanistan, July 17 (Reuters) – The grinding metallic noise of tanks and diesel engines fade into the desert night and the only sound is our breathing and the crunch of dozens of army boots on dry earth.

It feels like we are alone in the barren, moonlit landscape, but we’re not. Somewhere out there lurk the Taliban.

A cacophony of barking floats through the heavy air as dogs from nearby mud villages pick up our scent.

Foreign troops from the NATO-led coalition and the Afghan National Army (ANA) are on the hunt for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province.

It is a strategic point in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban drug smuggling routes into neighbouring Pakistan.

As a photographer embedded with Canadian troops, I tag along for combat missions.

“When the shooting starts, your heart rate will go up to two or three times its normal rate,” says a medic, explaining the body’s and mind’s reactions to combat.

Covering Africa for six years, I’ve experienced conflicts, armed clashes and civil unrest before, but I’ve never marched directly into battle with a unit intent on engaging the enemy.

I follow in silence for two hours as the patrol moves from the open desert into grape fields lined with mud walls providing welcome cover, but also perfect hiding ground for Taliban.

Using night vision goggles, the troops take positions around targets, mud compounds where dozens of insurgents are camped.

Then we wait. This is the worst part, the tension of waiting for contact, but not knowing where it will come from.
“They usually hit us at first light,” says the Warrant Officer in charge of my unit.

The Muslim call to prayer drifts from mosques just before dawn. I can’t help thinking that some people in these dusty fields are hearing it for the last time.

A coppery taste fills my mouth and my bowels shift uncomfortably.

Under fire

UNDER FIRE

The first shots ring out as darkness fades. Then shooting erupts from seemingly every direction. I stay down until there’s a brief lull, then move closer to the action.

“Remember you’re not bullet-proof,” says one soldier, as if I need reminding. My flak jacket, ballistic goggles and helmet only make the rest of my body feel more exposed.

Crawling along mud walls and ditches, I reach a unit coming under heavy fire from Taliban positions 20 meters (yards) away.

I see a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) whiz past the treetops above our heads. A mortar explodes 10 meters (yards) behind us. Bullets hum through the air and rustle nearby bushes.

“How’s your heart rate now?” asks the medic lying next to me in a dry riverbed.

Like I’m on crack cocaine, probably. But fear has been replaced by adrenaline and I concentrate on keeping low and getting pictures of the Canadian soldiers.

The Afghan and Canadian troops move up and I run too, shamelessly using troops as a shield before stepping briefly in front to snap some pictures of them rushing forward.

Under fire II

After about an hour, air support strafes the Taliban with hundreds of high-calibre rounds.

Canadian and ANA troops move in to pick up the pieces. RPGs are found next to one of the two recovered bodies and two wounded Taliban are treated and evacuated by helicopter.

Several Taliban have been killed, including a local leader. The only Canadian casualty is a soldier who shot his own left index finger off in the heat of battle.

The thin, barefoot Taliban in pyjama-like outfits look frail and weak next to the meaty and tattooed Canadians loaded with heavy equipment and supported by aircraft and armoured vehicles.

But while NATO-led forces train to stay alive, the Taliban are ready and willing to die, making them a formidable foe.

The operation is not over until everyone is safely on base. One Canadian soldier has been killed in combat during the past six months in Afghanistan, but roadside bombs have killed 19.

Less than 24 hours after our operation, six Canadian troops and an interpreter are killed by one such bomb while returning from a similar mission.

Roadside bombs have become the favourite weapon of the Taliban, who are overpowered on the battlefield, but know how to erode political will for a long and bloody foreign presence in their country.

On this day, the battle is won by NATO and ANA forces. But Afghanistan’s long history of resisting outside influence suggests that winning the war against the insurgents will be a much longer, more difficult task.

One comment

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Hey Finbarr! your account of covering Afghanistan with the Canadian soldiers is very eye-opening especially for persons interested in being journalists and covering war-tone regions. I love it! I can almost picture myself scampering for safety when the shoot-out begins…and diving into the mud trenches when the RPG wheezes by unsuspectingly.
Just ghw are you able to keep your cool, ensure your work is “iconic” and still come out of there alive? I think it takes alot of courage and will power to even want to cover such areas. Are you sure you’re sober when doing it or do usually have to sniff abit of “something” to help you stay focused and alert?
You’re my hero O’Reilly…you’ve made my day. You really have. Thanx and keep up the good work :-)

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