Monday, 5th October. FOB Blessing, Kunar Province
It has been almost a week since my arrival here in Blessing, Kunar Province, and I've already seen and experience more than my entire embed (with the exception of that one incident in May with the Talibans). Kunar Province is pretty green and lush and the Pech Valley where I am is no exception. The Pech River runs through it with green terraces of corn dot both sides of the rugged valley and trees hug the villages providing ample shades as well as concealment. It certainly reminds me of Michael Yamashita’s photos of some the places he travelled through when he went on an assignment for National Geographic on the Silk Road.
Yet, under this benign beauty lives the very soul of aggressive tribalism and the ever-violent Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Kunar Province has earned the title of the most violent province in Afghanistan and with good reasons. The craggy mountains and rugged terrains provide cover and concealment to both local Taliban and foreign fighters moving men and supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Pakistan is a mere 40 km from where I sit. Many of the Pashtun villages are inherently hostile or neutral towards the presence of foreign forces with the exception of a few friendly villages. Many of these hostile villages provide shelter and food to the fighters while the neutral ones will do so out of fear or the tradition of hospitality to strangers.
All these become a daily game of cat-and-mouse between the American forces and the Taliban/al-Qaeda fighters. Firefights happen almost on a daily basis and the resident big artillery pieces play a tune of deadly bombardment with the ever-elusive enemies. The very first time a 155mm gun went off in Blessing it sent a shiver of panic through me and left me wondering what is going on and if I should run to a bunker or something. A week later it has began to resemble occasional but necessary loud background noise.
On one occasion I went on a mission with the MP (military police), which was more like a courtesy visit, to one of the bigger police station. En route we passed a burning truck that was probably attacked by the insurgents in that morning and then we ran into a firefight. Bullets were plinking off the hull of the armored truck while the Americans responded in kind and the craziest thing happened: local boys were running in between our trucks, in the midst of the firefight, picking up spent brass cartridges! Apparently brass cartridges are worth their weight in gold in this area and with no concern for their safety these boys would try to collect as many as they can from the American trucks firing at the insurgents!
The stark contrast between the natural beauty of the valley and the man made conflict being inflicted is mind numbing. I guess if one is only concerned with survival then the appreciation of your environment pales in comparison to your basic needs of feeding mouths, clothing bodies and keeping warm.