Thursday, March 20, 2008

To Kandahar Airfield

At Canada’s forward logistics base near Afghanistan, flags fly at half mast for Trooper Mike Hayakaze, killed by an IED Mar. 2, 2008 near Kandahdar, the 80th Canadian to lose his life in Afghanistan. The flags of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, NATO and the base’s Host Nation flutter in the late afternoon breeze beside a grey granite memorial to all of Canada’s fallen soldiers. One can not help noticing that there is a great deal of empty space on the memorial and it must give pause to every soldier who pays his or her respects at this site to think that their name may be the next on the wall. Behind the memorial are three, 6 by 8 foot patches of arguably the best manicured lawn in Islamdom. Signs invite visitors to walk on them but no one does because their lushness seems too miraculous in this arid country to trample under foot.

The base is a way-station for Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Everybody and everything that is travelling to or from Kandahar Airfield (KAF) passes through this place at some point. Its location is officially classified, although it is actually something of an open secret. Signs every where on the base remind visitors that photography is strictly verboten. In some ways the place has the feel of a summer camp. Each barrack has been given a distinctively Canadian name like Hell’s Gate Lodge (British Columbia) and Joe Batt’s Arm Lodge (Newfoundland). And although the base swarms with soldiers and supplies between troop rotations, it is otherwise an almost torpid, sparsely peopled place where time seems at a standstill. Guardhouses are staffed by two people even though, during my three visits thus far, I didn’t think there was enough work for one. The mess hall, which is open 24 hours a day, has two large screen TVs, one in English and the other in French blaring the day’s newsbytes and hockey highlights in an endless cycle. Mealtimes are easygoing affairs that begin with a large helping of mashed carbohydrate thrust abruptly on to your plate by an industrial-sized spoon attached to the beefy arm of a matronly Australian army cook. Assisting her are half-a-dozen fine-boned Indian men adorned in blue chef’s frocks and white paper serving hats who, thank Allah, add tastier items like tandoori chicken or vegetable curry to your meal.

Outside, behind the basketball court, is the ball hockey rink, behind which is a soccer pitch, where I watched barefooted members of the host nation’s army playing the beautiful game early one morning. It gets much too hot to play later in the day.

There is also a barber shop and a poorly stocked library and a little building that is used as a music studio. Peering in the window to investigate the sounds coming from within, I saw an off-duty soldier alone with his electric guitar in a reverie of the Blues.

The day I am to leave for KAF I pick up my PPE (army-speak for personal protective equipment) which consists of helmet and flack jacket and although I feel goofy wearing it I am grateful for the protection it offers. Last year I had to wear it during two rocket attacks on KAF. I spend awhile reluctantly reading about burns and hemorrhagic shock in children, which are the scenarios I am most afraid to encounter. I review and commit to memory the outward indicators of thermal airway injury and the approach to fluid resuscitation in children. Then it is time for a work-out. Entering the nearly empty gym I sally over to a machine that promises to bulk up my long neglected pectoral and trapezius muscles. Thank God no one is looking I think for most of the next hour. At lunch I find my work-out has done me no good when I am thrown forward and off balance while trying to slide open a refrigerator door to get at the chocolate milk inside. Perhaps if I lack the fitness to open the refrigerator I shouldn’t be eating what’s inside?

That night at about 10 pm, those of us heading to KAF don our PPE and stand out on the tarmac behind 40 soldiers who have just flown in from Canada and have had all of an hour to stretch their legs before getting on the next C17 Globemaster flight to Kandahar.

In stark contrast to the heat of the day the nights are still very cold at this time of year. The role is called.

“Civilian Sherk!?” cries the Lieutenant.

“Here Sir!” I croak from the back.

The last duty before climbing aboard is for the soldiers to clear their weapons. Each soldier must present his or her gun for inspection, open the bullet chamber showing it to be empty and then pull the trigger while pointing in to a barrel of sand. My travelling companion this night is a fascinating man who works for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. He is returning to KAF from Sarajevo where he spent his two week leave visiting with his daughter and wife. He has spent the last 10 months or so living in Kandahar City with the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Here I think is a man who must know as much as anybody about Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan. He is very obliging with me but I sense he is more than a little weary of my sort of questions.

Progress is almost imperceptibly slow he agrees, while explaining that rebuilding Afghanistan is a task measured in decades or generations rather than months and Canadian election cycles. The security situation in Kandahar is very tenuous. And he knows whereof he speaks; he was a close acquaintance of Glyn Berry the Canadian diplomat killed by the Taliban in January 2006. He expresses, in the most restrained and diplomatic terms, the apoplectic frustration that Canada feels with other nations who will not make a commitment of troops to secure Kandahar province

“We’ll probably pull out if we don’t get some help” he predicts.

He has an unvarnished disdain for the Senlis Council who delivered an unflattering report on the efforts of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Kandahar. He also disagrees with their assessment regarding conditions at the Mirwais hospital — the only civilian hospital in the province.

“CIDA had another consultant — I think a physician from Queen’s University -review the hospital and it’s nowhere near as bad as they [Senlis] say it is” he tells me, although he admits he has only been there once on a brief visit. He takes a pragmatic view of Senlis’ recommendation that Western nations should purchase the opium crop and turn it in to medical morphine.

“It will never happen. The Americans will never go for it” he says bluntly adding that Canadian soldiers are not actively involved in poppy eradication.

Finally I ask him to confirm a report I read in the Victoria Times-Colonist several days before I left Canada. It was stated that Kandahar city receives only 3 to 6 hours of electricity per day. I was astonished by this for two reasons. First, electricity flows in an almost obscene supply at KAF which is only kilometers from downtown Kandahar. And second, we’ve been trying to “stabilize and rebuild” Afghanistan since 2001 and after seven years one of the country’s main cities has only a few hours of electricity per day?! I was incredulous.

He explains that the Kajaki dam in neighbouring Helmand province was built to house three turbines. In three decades of war the dam has had next to no maintenance. Of late it has only had two turbines and one of them broke several months ago leaving just one to supply the region with power. There is a brand new turbine waiting to be moved to the dam, but repairs and renovations on the dam proceed at a glacial pace because of how badly the country’s infrastructure has been damaged by ceaseless war.

High above southern Afghanistan the lights along the cargo hold of the C17 change from green to red and we prepare for the plane’s descent. A tactical landing is a stomach churning manoeuvre in which the plane dives down sharply toward the landing strip rather than following the long slow descent more familiar to commercial aircraft. This is done to make the plane a more difficult target for anyone attempting to shoot it down. Trying to hold on to my supper as I feel my stomach rising to my throat, I watch in amazement as some of the soldiers throw their hands in the air the way riders on a roller coaster do. I guess you have to find entertainment wherever you can get it!

The muscular whine of the C17s engines recedes behind me as I cross the windblown tarmac, taking in the familiar surroundings without really watching where I’m going. I see they’ve finally condemned the old Soviet era hanger whose roof contained more mortar and bullet holes than actual metal and which always made quite an impression upon new visitors in case they had any doubts that they were in a war zone.

“Dr. Sherk?” says a man dressed in desert fatigues who I had not noticed standing beside me.

He looks a little like William Osler in battle dress. This is the Armed Forces’ Chief Internist, Col. Neil Gibson, a man who has a friendly, reassuring face, carries himself in an upright, capable manner and says what he’s thinking with an economy of words. Despite the late hour and an unpleasant cold brought on by being on-call continuously for two months, Col. Gibson is kind enough to carry some of my luggage to a borrowed Toyota 4X4 so choked with dust that the only way in is through the front passenger door. He helps me to my accommodations where feeling both excitement and apprehension after my travels, I crash in to a dreamless sleep.

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