Showing the Taliban
Masum Ghar, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Operation in Sanjaray
Embedded with the Canadian Army in Kandahar.
On May 16th I reached the forward operating base (FOB) after traveling in an convoy of armoured vehicles that left from Kandahar Airfield.
We set out from the FOB in a different armoured convoy traveling for a “secret cleaning operation” in Sanjaray village. I was told that the only condition for me to go was to not send pictures until the end of the operation.
We followed the tracks left by the tanks in the burning desert sand, surrounded by orange-colored mountains, until we reached an improvised base belonging to the Afghan National Police (ANA). This base offers a view of Sanjaray and the entire valley.
The Afghan soldiers based there don’t have electricity or running water, and they sleep on blankets stretched over the ground under a half-constructed building that still has no windows. We spent the night sleeping in the open next to the tanks.
The joint operation in which more than a thousand soldiers from Canada, the U.S. and Afghanistan were participating, was one of the largest ever carried out in this region considered to be rife with Taliban fighters.
At daybreak on the 17th we were already on the march into the valley. We watched the sun rise from behind the mountains as we entered Sanjaray. Our goal was to hike between three and four km each day, and thus cover the 12 square km in which the operation was focused.
The soldiers hiked for hours but advanced slowly with their backpacks weighing some 30-40 kilos. One other factor that determined their speed was the work of mine-sweepers that cleared the way ahead with the help of dogs.
The streets of Sanjaray, where the call to prayer is heard morning and night, are a capricious labyrinth of mud-brick, circular houses with not one straight line; no two windows or doors are the same size. No houses are alike but they all have their courtyards full of grape vines and cherry trees. Their fields abound in wheat and sorghum, as well as poppy and wild cannabis.
The landscape is biblical with waterholes, small streams, men with long beards walking their donkeys and children dressed in shirt-like robes. The mechanized soldiers with their high tech equipment are practically extraterrestrial.
The searches began early in houses and compounds that were on the soldiers’ list. At one house they found material to make homemade explosives (HEDs), and at another they arrested three men suspected of belonging to the Taliban, but they didn’t allow me to photograph them. I was told they were taken immediately to Kandahar.
We continued until noon checking courtyards, yards, stables and kitchens, and interrogated those present and asked about those family members that were absent. They took photos, climbed up to attics, jumped over walls, crossed rivers, and on and on. They stopped to rest often in the shade, and as the day went on they stuck closer to walls for cover.
At the end of the day we found a place to sleep, a narrow strip between cherry trees and a stream, where the village gives way to wheat fields. A Chinook helicopter landed to replenish our food and water. We had consumed five or six liters of water each after a day that peaked at 45 degrees Celsius.
The following day began a 4 am. In just a few minutes the soldiers had their sleeping bags rolled up, did a quick wash-up and swallowed some form of energy to begin the nine hours of hiking to come.
We crossed through plantations searching the mountains that crown the valley to the north. Helicopters flew overhead all day long as we hiked for hours together with an Afghan Army platoon working parallel to us. For hours we found nothing and nobody, crossing one river with water up to the waist and another by walking across a pipe that serves as a bridge.
The heat and lack of water finally made us stop, and a Chinook brought us more. We got ready to spend the night in what looked to be a quiet place, until we were ordered to sleep with our boots on.
I was told that the Taliban planned an attack for that night. Sure enough at around midnight I awoke to the whistle of rockets, but I couldn’t tell where it came from. A sergeant told me not to worry. If you could hear the rockets it meant they were aiming for someplace far, he said, because the rockets travel faster than sound.
More rockets followed and then came flares to light up the night for snipers, and that continued until almost daybreak. It was only later that I found out that the rockets were fired by the Canadians, and that we weren’t attacked. They told me that the Taliban had “decided to remain in hiding.”
A Chinook woke us at 5 am when it brought more supplies, landing very close to us and blowing towels and bags around the camp with its powerful rotors. We were ready for the final hike.
The second officer in charge of the operation assured me that it had been a success, with the best result being that all his men were unharmed. “We showed the Taliban that we can come and go whenever we want.” Even though they never showed their face.