Embedded in Afghanistan
Everyone will tell you that Afghanistan is a great place to take pictures. No one will inform you it’s a very difficult place to take pictures in the peak of summer, both for cameras and photographers.
It’s my second time embedding in Afghanistan, my previous embed was in February 2010, a time of year when the air is still clear after winter and the light is soft like no other place on earth.
This time I’m embedded in Kandahar in midsummer, at the edge of the Reg desert that spreads all the way to Pakistan and heats up to 45 degrees Celsius. The sunrise is at 4:30 and by 7:00 it’s already impossible to take any pictures due to the brightness of the sun.
I’m here to cover the last days of the Canadian army’s combat role, as they prepare to depart after 10 years and 156 soldiers killed, leaving only a small non-combatant force of trainers in Kabul.
The Canadian army now has about 3000 troops on the ground and from 2006 has held the command of the Southern province of Kandahar.
My coverage started with a ceremony at FOB (forward operating base) Masan Ghar in the Panjwai district of Kandahar, to dismantle the unofficial remembrance monument for fallen Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan.
The names of the dead were written on stones and a big Canadian flag painted in red on rocks. The soldiers of the 22nd royal regiment buried the memorial stones one by one, while two soldiers played bagpipes. They buried the flag at a later ceremony.
The unit I’m with are the 22nd royal regiment or Van Doos as it is known in Canada, a Quebec based Regiment and the only French speaking unit in the Canadian army. They are about to leave Afghanistan after 9 months and no casualties and will be the last Canadian combat force to leave.
I then moved to FOB Sperwan Ghar where a Canadian platoon is in the process of handing over the activities on the ground to an American platoon.
My main activity here is patrolling surrounding villages and looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in an area with high mud walls and agriculture based around grape vineyards, pomegranate orchards, and huge marijuana and poppy fields.
Carrying a bullet-proof vest, a helmet and two cameras, I still feel sorry for the soldiers carrying 25 kilos more than I as they scramble over 2 meter walls.
During these patrols the soldiers check houses and grape huts, a type of local barn made out of mud with small slit windows that let the light in.
On my previous embed with the US 82nd Airborne they were not allowed to search inside houses or barns, and seeing the potential for a great picture I had waited 15 months until this embed to go and take the picture I had in my mind.
It provided me with one of my favourite photos, of two Canadian soldiers, Sergeant Christian Larochelle and Warrant Officer Pascal Giagn from 6th platoon, Bulldog Company, climbing the staircase inside the barn as another soldier stands at the door with the light close to perfection.
Still I guess the photo that will be remembered from my stay up until now will be one of an American 155mm howitzer artillery piece as it fires.
When the container I am staying in started shaking from shelling blasts, I went to see what was happening. The soldiers from 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery were firing their howitzers about 200 meters from where I was trying to sleep.
I took some pictures of them shooting it and as they repositioned the piece and fired, the canon recoiled back and the gravel surrounding it was flung into the air.
I managed to get a picture where the gravel seems suspended around the canon and specialist Lucas Couvaras from Phoenix Arizona, who was there to reloaded the canon, surprising both him and me.
As we keep on patrolling my wish is to try and focus more on the civilian side of the ongoing war here as there is not a lot of interaction between the coalition forces and the population, and to cover the close out of the Canadian army and their journey home.