Monday, September 28, 2009

To Blessing...

Monday, 28th September. Kunar Province

My time in Paktia Province has come to an end and it was with a little sadness that I said goodbye to COP Herrera and the boys of Charlie platoon. The change in demeanour of these soldiers who has gone through intense combat in July is apparent and the ‘go-out-and-get-them’ attitude is now less evident. Self-preservation has become the motto and in the words of a platoon leader the combat loss of one of his man probably won’t hit home until they return stateside.

Being embedded also means that I get to meet a myriad of journalist, photographers and private contractors whenever I am in transit and they invariably always surprise me with their colourful characters. Take Richard, a seasoned 64 years old (yep, 64!) journalist who started off as a photographer and is now a writer. He covered the Iraqi invasion for over a year and was in Afghanistan in 2002. He was a joy to talk to, an inspirational character and living proof that at 64 one can still be a conflict journalist wearing heavy armor and go on missions with soldiers the same age as his sons. However, the price he paid is a bagful of medication for various symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Then there is Tony, a private contractor, working in Afghanistan for a security company akin to the infamous Blackwater. A man, who was in the British SAS for many years and dished out great doses of Brit humor which felt like a fresh breeze in the company of mainly Americans. The people you get to meet are certainly never your average Joe!

After countless flight delay I find myself being offered a place on a convoy going from Jalalabad to FOB Blessing in the Kunar Province. From what I heard it is the most violent province in Afghanistan but is probably now in the same league as Helmand Province (southern Afghanistan). It is also pretty green and wooded. As Lady Luck was smiling on me, I arrived without any incident although we had to stop off at an outpost because there was a firefight on the road ahead of us. Now I find myself in a pretty neat FOB surrounded by mountains on all sides and given one of the best room I’ve ever slept in since I arrived as an embed!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Being a 'war' photographer

I think the very word ‘war photographer’ seems to conjure up romantic images of a profession that is actually far from being romantic. The image of a grungy, unshaven and cameras slinging photographer maybe immortalized by real personage like Robert Capa and Ernest Hemmingway and portrayed in film by Dennis Hopkins (Apocalypse Now) and James Wood (Salvador). The truth, however, is much more and much less than that.

Covering a conflict is never glamorous and very often dangerous. The number of local and foreign journalists/photographers that has died since men took pens, notebooks and cameras into places that has experienced armed conflicts and civil war is a testament to the danger involved. The Iraq war saw the highest number of journalists killed in a single conflict and that doesn’t even take into consideration those who were wounded during combat action, kidnapped by insurgents and arrested by the military. The worst outcome would be a beheading by your kidnappers. The case of Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and later executed by his captors in Pakistan is one unfortunate example. There are journalists and photographers who would go to great length to get their stories and pictures but the price one pay can be very high. And we have yet to touch on the mental aspects of the job.

Why do journalists and photographers deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for stories is anyone’s guess but for each and everyone you ask, you will hear a different answer a different truth. For those covering conflicts that bear a connection to their homeland, things will and must take on a different meaning than for others. As a Singaporean in Afghanistan embedded with the US forces, I tend to have a less emotional link to it: none of my fellow countrymen are dying everyday from combat action in a foreign country that isn’t really welcoming us with open arms. However, forging a bond with the troops you are embed with is somehow unavoidable and that becomes painful when you hear about or even actually experience the loss yourself. The fear of being wounded or killed while doing your job becomes plausible and real. The look I’ve seen of some men who has survived combat while their brother-in-arms didn’t is something that words cannot describe adequately. One can’t help but think of how the families of fallen men cope with their loss and the time they will need to heal from the emotional wounds.

Being a photographer or journalist covering conflicts can be exciting, dangerous, strenuous, and perhaps, rewarding but it can never a ‘dream’ job. Because there is nothing dreamy about the death and destruction of the land, the people, and most of all, the body, mind and soul of those involved.

A night mission and a near miss...

Thursday 17th September. Paktia Province

Not much has been happening the past few days as the weather have turned significantly cooler and it has been raining almost every afternoon till evening. This means ‘Red Air’ gets called (no flights) and missions has to be postponed. This is also the time for soldiers to relax, carry out maintenance and minor work on the base.

However, we did go on a night patrol on midnight Sunday. It was to be a short recon mission into a nearby village that has known to harbor insurgents and IEDs has been found on this stretch of trail. Everyone was carrying the minimum kit and ammo and we were to use night vision devices also known as NODs (Night Optical Device).

Now the NOD looks good when you see it on TV or the movies where everything seems to be casted in an eerie greenish glow. It actually is pretty cool, for the first 10 minutes anyway! Then you need to constantly try to stop your helmet from slipping down your face due to the weight in front, and your vision screwed because you don’t get any depth perception and you see everything through only one eye. Trying to walk a narrow trail without any depth perception and a fall means into a small river or a deep ditch makes the entire walk a royal pain in the butt! Whenever we walked past a house or two the dogs would raise hell and that was unnerving. I could only pray that we won’t get contact this night. As we walked past a house, the dogs started again and a light suddenly came on. I could only see the silhouette of the man who came out with a light and then he fired a few shots into the air! That’s when you hear the safeties go off the rifles and everyone braced for a possible incident. Tense minutes later the guy went back into his house and we decided to turn back. Whew!

It was soon getting light and I realized that we have walked for nearly 5 hours. The return trip was much more sedated and we walked past several fields of marijuana. The pungent smell of these plants tickled my nostrils and it was a shame I couldn’t take any photos of it!

Nearly 6 am… The entire platoon was dead tired and we trudged along the trail and finally made it back to the COP. And we were hurting!

Later in the afternoon, an IED went off just outside the COP on one of the roads that lead up to it. No one got hurt but we realized that had the platoon taken the other road this morning to come back to the COP it would have hurt much more than the 5 hours walk…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A couple more pics...

Just another day in Afghanistan

Thursday, September 10. COP Herrera, Paktia Province

So I’m finally back in COP Herrera after a 3 months absence. Much has changed here since I left: new buildings, new personnel, new regulations banning the use of Humvees vehicles and the mood in the boys of Charlie Troop.

Charlie Troop has since lost one man killed in action, and two with serious injuries. The countless ambushes and close calls has seen the men unwilling to take more risks than necessary and many were happy if missions were scrubbed. It’s hard to imagine what’s going on inside the heads of these men who are so young and yet seen brutal combat.

I’ve seen old friends and made new ones and I’m happy to be with them even though my time is limited here. I will eventually say goodbye in a week or so and move to another outpost.

Anyway, I went on a foot patrol a couple of days ago with the new MP unit here. It was a patrol combined with practical exercises for the local ANP (Afghan National Police) whom the MPs has been training. Walk, set up checkpoint, search vehicles, people, hand out leaflets and ‘tag’ military age males. You know, military stuff. Once again, my physical condition is being called into question and even though it wasn’t walking down a steep mountain and carrying lots of shit, it was rough going walking at over 2000 metres. The patrol included two females MP and the only thought going through my little head was that I can’t ‘lose’ to them! Ok, the fact that they were half my age, each with a pack, one carrying a SAW and the other an AT-4 rocket means that I cannot be a ‘malu’. Such is the pressure I face! :D

Last night, they had a fire mission with the 120mm mortars and no, I didn’t get to shoot it but got a couple of cool photos through the night vision device.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More pictures from the arty

Fire in the hole!

After 5 days of boredom I finally had something to do! I'm gonna keep this short as I'm tired and badly in need of a shower. First off, I went up to the shooting with a couple of guys from the artillery unit - just to shoot off some rounds. They let me have a go at the biggest, baddest sniper rifle ever: the .50 cal Barrett Sniper Rifle. It was big, long and had a surprisingly mild kick! I mean that in relation to the size of the weapon. Pretty impressive!

Then the artillery unit had a fire mission on their 105mm field gun late in the afternoon in support of a patrol base. The guys were pretty professional yet relaxed about the whole thing. And the bonus: they let me actually fire the last round! (BIG GRIN!) Now that's the biggest gun I've ever fired!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Of BBQ, flash flood and boredom

Tuesday, 1st September... Still in COP Wilderness

I've been here 3 days now and has yet to go on any mission and most of it is because of 'Red Air' - a term for bad weather that may prevent medevac helicopters from evacuating causalities. So the entire COP pretty much sits around and wait. Yesterday, the intrepid boys in green decided to have a BBQ/cookout and invited everyone to come over. Hamburgers, steaks, hotdogs and baked beans. Then the base got hit - with a giant thunderstorm! So intense that it caused a flash flood and took away the road and nearby bridges. From the safety of the camp the flood looked like a raging river. Now no one goes anywhere because there isn't a proper road anymore... This is the mountains and unpredictable weather, they tell you.

No rain today but the main road is still in a shambles and I'm still not getting anything done. Nothing except reading, watching videos, napping, and eating. A couple of pictures of men cleaning big guns and the local Pashtun guard by guardhouse. Maybe I'll go to the gym tomorrow.