It’s been an incredibly busy week here in Kabul. We have held our Project Steering Committee meetings, which took a full day, and were invited to present to 42 teacher training college directors and their deputies who were in town for a series of meetings. We spent over an hour with the Canadian Ambassador, who is originally from New Brunswick, chatting with her about Afghanistan and the post-troop environment. Our Canadian Forces personnel who have been training the Afghan National Army for the past year or so are all heading back to Canada in March, and our military mission to Afghanistan will officially wind down.
It will be a bittersweet day I’m sure, especially for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. They were the troops who were deployed to Afghanistan in 2002. This was Canada’s first deployment of an Army unit in combat operations against a declared enemy in five decades, and they suffered the first casualties when four soldiers were killed in a ‘friendly fire’ incident that April. The Princess Pat’s were in Kandahar in 2006, and are the regiment currently deployed, who will be present at the lowering of the flag in March.
First in, last out: a noble rallying cry for the regiment.
Last Friday two colleagues arrived from Ottawa. For one it was her first time here, and it has been interesting to hear her observations. Her main surprise, she said, was to find that people are living normal lives here. We were out for a drive on Friday, down around the old palace, and there were families walking and young men playing cricket. She had not expected this, even though she has read all our reports. She still felt, intuitively, that people were living cowed lives, hiding in the shadows, worried all the time for their safety and security.
There are people living like that, I think – the expatriate community is visible by its absence. By choice or diktat they are in “lock-down” mode, staying confined to their compounds even more than they did before. We were at lunch the other day in a small restaurant, and there were no other customers. We have heard stories of places laying off staff members, and of others where they are making major modifications in order to meet newly mandated UN rules for restaurant security. It must be terribly hard for small businesses which cater strongly, although not exclusively, to the internationals who live and work here.
It must be hard for the expatriates as well. We chatted to an old friend of one of our colleagues, a Ugandan who is working with war-disabled children and youth. He has been here for nearly five years, heading home to his wife and family every six weeks when he gets a leave pass. He pointed out something that was, in fact, plain to see. “You guys,” he said, “if you go out, and people don’t look too closely, you might be Afghans. But me, no.” We looked at him and agreed that there weren’t many Afghans with coal black skin.
Our major concession has been that now we rarely go out at night. Tonight is an exception – there is the semi-final of the Olympic men’s hockey on tonight, and two colleagues have gone to the Embassy to watch it on the big screen TV in the dining room. I’ve stayed behind – I mean really, I could understand it if it was a football (soccer) match!
During the day, however, for some meetings we still have to travel an hour or more through the crazy traffic of Kabul, and it is impractical to then try and get back for lunch before turning round and heading back again. So we don’t go to the same place twice, we take our lunch break at different times, and we try to go to places that are set back from the street, with a small garden to cross between the gate and the restaurant. Small measures, perhaps, but second nature now.
We’ve also spent a lot of time at the Canadian Embassy, where we’ve been having a series of meetings. Although our colleagues there can come to our office, for we passed a security review, it is still a lot of work. They have to have a Close Protection Team with them, basically a bodyguard, plus a driver and a second car for assistance should that be needed. Then they have to register with the Embassy security people, travel on specific routes, leave and return at exact times, and so forth. All this is possible but it does take organization, and the coordinated efforts of a large team.
We, on the other hand, go and call our driver from the small room where he rests and chats with the guards who are on duty. We tell him we are going to the Embassy, and he drives us there. We usually spend about 10 minutes getting through the various security gates and checks but that’s not too bad. So it’s a lot easier for us to go to them.
Last week I was there and noticed for the first time that there is a small memorial area.
This reminded me that I wanted to go and see the newly refurbished British cemetery, so I asked our liaison if I could talk to the military attaché. I figured I would get the name and phone number of the guardian / caretaker of the cemetery, then drive over there one day for a look. The attaché looked at me like I was mad.
“It doesn’t work like that any more. It’s a public place, but you have to get permission from the British, who have taken over responsibility and are paying the caretaker. They have to phone him and tell him you’re coming, you can’t just walk in.”
“But it’s a public place?”
“Technically. Anyway, we can take you if you’d like?”
“Really? Yes please!”
So he made some phone calls and we set a time and place, and yesterday I was at the Embassy at 1000 for our scheduled rendezvous. We were standing by the car chatting with some others of the security team when all their phones started bleeping. It turned out that there had been a suicide bombing about 1.5 kms from the cemetery, so it was decided we would delay for an hour while things calmed down. The Deputy Attaché took me for coffee in the dining room, and as we chatted I discovered that he was a gunner and had been an instructor at Gagetown when Nichola was on one of her training courses there. My daughter left a long shadow.
An hour later we left and wound our way through the streets. Normally I’m sitting in the front, wearing my pakul, chatting away. This time I was in the back, wearing a flak jacket, and listening to instructions about all the things I was supposed to do if something happened and they all jumped out of the vehicle. Rule #1 was that I couldn’t follow them out of the vehicle, I had to stay inside by myself. That didn’t sound like much fun but I kept quiet and just nodded.
We arrived at the cemetery without incident and entered through the gates. The new (or rather, newly refurbished) Canadian memorial really stands out, even on a grey February day.
When I got closer I saw that the names had all been carefully etched in to the slate, and it made me smile to see that the quotation on the base was from St. Timothy. I was also pleased to see that it was not just soldiers who are honoured there, but also others such as Glyn Barry from DFAIT and Michelle Lang, the reporter from the Calgary Herald. It is a sad but fitting tribute to all those men and women we lost over the past twelve years.
Sadly, I noted, there is a space at the end, should it be needed for more names. Hopefully it won’t be needed.
Driving back through Kabul after my visit we suddenly heard a distinct “whumph” sound. Some policemen in the back of a nearby pick-up truck jumped to their feet and pointed their rifles at a white mini-van in front of them. It was about 10 metres away from us. We could smell the cordite of an explosion, and my driver moved us quickly away. Or at least, as quickly as one can drive in Kabul traffic. We don’t know for certain but think it was likely an attempt against the police, perhaps by someone in the van whose suicide vest did not properly explode. I was glad that it didn’t, that would have been far too close for comfort.