Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More pics...

From the day we intercepted the IED outside Sharan.

Pics from the patrol.

Going on patrol with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment outside Sharan.

On Patrol!

Finally I get to go on a patrol with Blackfoot Company. It was an annual Victory Day for Afghanistan in celebration of the departure of the Russians so we expected to have contacts.

When we left the FOB it was on the radio that an Afghan Army outpost had a firefight with about 40 TBs! As our MRAPs raced towards the contact point we were told that we were not needed as the Afghan Special Forces already dealt with it. Disappointment! The boys of the 501st really wanted to get into a firefight!

Off to FOB Rushmore to rest up when we got another call to investigate an IED. We turned around and had just about left town when we were told that it was a false alarm. Another wave of disappointment swept through the ranks. We returned to Rushmore for lunch and sat around for a bit when we got called on again to investigate an IED. However, this time it was the real deal!

We were able to hook up with the Afghan Army that actually found the IED and found that it was across a small river with a high bank. The MRAPs couldn't make it through so we had to wade across the cold river. Ha! River crossing! The area was finally secured and the EOD guys were called in to deal with it. I'd leave out the details and can only say that by the time we were done it was nightfall. The Afghan army guys with us were getting really antsy at this time and the commander was screaming for us to leave as he was afraid of running into more IEDs and possible ambush. Yea... their anxiety got to me a little but I figured that we were rather well protected in the monster vehicles so what the heck. However, my wet boots and pants didn't keep me happy and I was pretty bushed by then from wearing that body armor and carrying cameras all day.

Finally, we packed up and drove back to Sharana. This was the most exciting day so far in my embed and for the boys of Blackfoot too! I must say that the province which I am in has been really quiet so far and that in itself can be a blessing!

Range day on Friday!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Some pics from today

Being an embed

So this is my 5th day as a media embed in FOB Sharana (Forward Operation Base). It was what I imagined and it wasn't but nevertheless, it has been interesting for the most part. So what is it like?

Since I was the first media attached to the PRT Paktika (Provincial Reconstruction Team)they have been pretty nice to me, assigned a room to myself (it was kinda their storage space), fixed me up with replacement parts for some of my kit and had managed to get me out on mission, albeit humanitarian ones, almost every other day.

My room is pretty simple but the toilet is outside and the nearest one is 30m away. The shower is even further but manageable. The only consolation is that whenever we go out on missions, the rally point is just next to my barrack. The chow hall is on a smaller scale than that on Bagram AB and the food is 99.9% American - maybe a chow mien and Chinese style veggies once in a while. AND We can eat as much as we want. SO food wise, I'm well taken care of but I must confess that I am missing non-American food terribly!

Going out on missions is pretty straightforward as this is a PRT so most of what they do is humanitarian stuff like helping with constructions, hospitals, schools and sometimes mediate between feuding parties. There has been a couple of attacks in the nearby town of Sharan but nothing on the FOB. When we go outside the wire (outside the base) it's usually in a convoy of MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles. Go read about them in Wikipedia and I've experienced nearly all the problems listed! :D Nearly tipping over and getting stuck in mud is pretty common!

The boys providing security are pretty good guys. Most are very young and even a couple of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are no more than 26 years old which makes me a dinosaur. Even though there were a lot of cynicism among the more experienced troopers most believed in what they were doing. I think there is a huge disparity between what we read in the media, how things are being done here within the political context and what the average ground troops are facing each day they operate in this hostile environment.

So what am I like when I go out on a shoot? Well, usually all decked out in body armor, helmet, photo gear and water. Pretty simple but boy, wearing body armor and a helmet for 4 - 5 hours can wreck your body. Most of the soldiers eventually have to deal with knee, back and neck problems.

So much for a personal insight... I've requested to join a combat patrol should one come up and I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Apparently the south of Paktika is experiencing lots of problems with IEDs.

Until the next time!
psst... the rifle I was holding is only for show! I'm NOT armed when I go on shoots. Just to look good here! Honestly!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Out in the country...

Tuesday, 21 April, FOB Sharana

Hallelujah! At 3.30 am as promised, all six of us journalists got picked up by the media van for a short ride to the flight line. Two newsmen from Fox News, a young freelance photog from Action Press, a seasoned print veteran from Le Monde, a Polish writer for the Polish Army magazine and me formed the motley crew. The check-in terminal was full of very sleepy soldiers and civvies waiting for their flight out.

So, 3 hours later we were still waiting at the departure ‘gate’ wondering if the flight was ever going to take off, as the weather is anything but great. Finally our flight was called and we shuffled towards a waiting C-130 transport aircraft. A single file in and we took our seat. The flight was uneventful except when the pilot decided to pull a very sharp turn and today, I truly understood the meaning of ‘g-force’! Oh, it was a minor g-force turn but we still sank into our seats and our hearts leapt into our throats!

Soon we landed and were chaperoned into the terminal by the media rep. So it turned out that we will all be going to different places and that means another flight out… but this time in a helicopter! Hurray! I’ve always wanted to ride in a helo and now it’s a dream come true. The first sign of things to come was when the powerful downward wash from the approaching CH-47 Chinook threatened to blow me away except that I was too weighted down by my body armor and helmet.

The first 10 minutes was fun, exciting, and OMG-I’m-riding-in-helicopter thrilling! Then the cold became very noticeable. My butt started to hurt from all that weight. Then the ‘joyous’ helicopter ride became unbearable! We flew and flew and flew. Picked some soldiers up, dropped some soldiers off, out of the aircraft for refueling, back in, more pickups and finally, after two grueling hours, the crew chief told me to get off. My stop: FOB Sharana!

Sharana probably looks like most of the bigger American bases in Afghanistan filled with helipads, runways, armored vehicles, mess hall, a PX, KBR, and coffee shop, etc. I got squared away pretty quickly and then was told to get ready for a mission first thing tomorrow morning! Ok, I must confess that the ‘mission’, as far as I can gather, would be a humanitarian one so no action would be expected. Tomorrow will be a brand new day…

Wednesday, 22nd April, FOB Sharana

It was a beautiful day to go out on a mission with a clear blue and nearly cloudless sky overhead. Mission briefing was held outside PRT Paktika (Provincial Reconstruction Team) barracks which also happens to be where my room was located. The convoy was divided into 4 MRAPs, a squad of soldiers, a couple of Afghan interpreters, and two civvies including myself. MRAPs are Mine Resistance Ambush Protected Vehicles and they are designed to survive an IED attack. We would be going out to Matakhan district to inspect a school and to check out a culvert under construction. I was assigned the last vehicle with ‘Bob’, a young, polite Afghan interpreter originally hailed from Kabul, and PFC Malcolm. Climbing into the tiny cabin space of the MRAP was a real pain when you are wearing body armor, helmet, and carrying two cameras! Thank God journalists are not expected to be carrying arms and ammo too! Finally with instructions to strap in real tight and to help the turret gunner with ammo should the need arise we were off! Hmmm… that would be real interesting.

The convoy set off and we bumped and grinded our way slowly to Matakhan. The MRAP is so heavily armored that it could only crawl along on what must be the worse road in this part of Afghanistan. I must rate it as one of the most unpleasant ride I’ve ever had! We finally arrived in Matakhan and got off right outside the school. There were only boys there and some had proper classrooms while others can only sit outside in the sun while the teacher taught with a portable blackboard and chalk. They were very curious about the presence of the foreigners and although some were friendly most of them were standoffish. Some did throw rocks at PFC Malcolm (who was assigned as my escort) and me.

All went well without any incident and we went on our way to the culvert. Suddenly, our vehicle seems to tilt violently to the right. We just got ourselves stuck in a ditch and the tall MRAP is in the danger of tipping over! We froze and hang on for our dear lives while another vehicle came around to winch us out of the ditch! That was a close call!

Finally we reached our objective and the engineer, together with a civilian consultant, talked to the village elders on the problem at hand. Nothing dramatic happened there and we wrapped things up pretty soon and started back for Sharana.

‘Bob’, the terp (interpreter) and the PFC told me it was the worse road they have ever been on! A rather memorable first mission!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bagram Blog

Sunday, 19th April

So I made it safely to Bagram Air Base (BAF), the biggest US/Coalition military facility in Afghanistan. The trip from Kabul was relatively uneventful punctuated only by the numbers of potholes in the road. Yet I was a little too tense to actually fall asleep during the ride, like I normally do when I ride in a vehicle.

We drove into Bagram under the watchful eyes of the Afghan Army. Helicopters and other jets were flying overhead while the odd armored vehicles patrolled the streets. Stepping into BAF was like going into another world. Military and other support vehicles ruled the roads while rifle toting men and women moved around. After being assigned a bunk my first act was to check out the PX. Ha! Shopping paradise! Ok, you can't really get EVERYTHING here but what was there served their purpose. It was like being in a small slice of America and 'Wal-Mart' was the biggest place to shop except that it's staff by Americans, Pakistanis, Afghans, Nepalese, Tajiks and it's tax-free. Oh! by the way, most of the shoppers are armed.

There's a barber, tailor, sports store, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen and a little American style diner. Well, you get the drift... One thing for sure, people are very well-fed on the base and if I had to stay here for my entire embed I would probably come back weighing more than when I left!

Monday, 20th April

It's 7.30 p.m. and we were finally told that the flight to our assigned base would be happening tomorrow morning and to be ready by 3.30 a.m. with our kit, body armor and helmet. That's going to be an interesting flight...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kabul Impression

Kabul… the name itself invokes a near mystical connotation of romances from the hippie’s trail of the 60s. How I envy those who were fortunate enough to have seen Afghanistan and Kabul in her heydays!

Kabul (and certainly all of Afghanistan) has been ravaged by more than 30 years of warfare. Although those whom I’ve spoken to seems to have different opinions of which era of the warring period is ‘better’ I feel an underlying current of resentment to the presence of the current crop of occupying foreign armies - most notably the Americans…

Take a walk in Kabul and you will see big SUVs full of bodyguards and their charges zipping by, enormous concrete barricades, concertina wires, open sewers, and INSANE traffic. Pedestrian crossings are either non-existent or for show and the lack of traffic lights make it so much worse. Trying not to get run over is definitely higher on the list than kidnapping or suicide bombing!

It is unfortunate that the reconstruction is going too slowly for most of the people in the country. Kabul, with all the international aids pouring in, seems to have seen very little of that: corruption is such a way of life here for the officials that it even puts China to shame.

However, the one thing that struck me most among all these was the resilience of the people. They make do! They survive! And yet they still find time to smile at a foreign (ok…I actually mean Asian as I’m referring to myself) face, offer tea and a chat.

Anyway, this is my last night here and I leave for Bagram Air Base tomorrow to report in for my embed. Stay cool, people!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Kabu'er (Kabul in Mandarinspeak)!

Oh, yes! When you see many white UN 4x4s, dusty roads, lots of soldiers, security forces armed to the teeth, you know you are in Afghanistan.

Leaving Urumqi, I can't help but feel a little queasy about the trip. Sure, many journalists who has gone before me had survived and brought back many great photos and stories but somehow this being my first brought butterflies storming in my gut.

I don't know where the Afghans train their pilots but mine pulled flying stunts that would put any flying acrobatic teams to shame! I never knew a passenger jet can make such sharp turns!

Kabul is exactly as I envisioned: dusty, pockmarked, many talib-lookalike, and lots of men with guns. Embassies look more like fortresses than a diplomatic compounds with layered blockages, heavily fortified gates, concertinas and armed guards. The money here is the Afghanis or greenbacks. People are really friendly although one can never be too careful. However, I have faith in people and if someone's going to do you in it would be pretty obvious.

Tomorrow will be my first full day in Kabul and I will be off exploring the local markets...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

'Last' day in China

Urumqi, Xinjiang, China.

My 'last' day in China before I get on an Ariana Afghan Airlines flight to Kabul on the morrow. The dodgy office where I got my tickets didn't inspire any confidence. The airline brochure that included an article on the aircraft they have and the fact that one of its kind 'operated by the American Airlines was stolen in Luanda Airport... and now believed to be operated by terrorists and/or smugglers.' didn't ease my mind. *sigh*

This adventure of mine to go to Afghanistan on an embed assignment is beginning to appear like a foolhardy idea! More later.