Celebrating my birthday in Afghanistan!

Captain Jeremy Hann writes about birthday celebrations, or the lack of them, in war-torn Afghanistan.

It was thirty three summers ago that ‘The Minstrel’ underneath Mr Piggott won the Derby; that Elvis left the building and that I arrived in the world to much celebration and ward-wide plaudits (except from my darling mother who complained to the Doctor that ‘he cannot be mine, he is far too ugly”).

Today is my birthday, and to the best of my knowledge it is the first time I have celebrated by a good day’s work.

The usual modus operandi of having champagne poured into myself and forgetting to say when, and generally over indulging, was replaced by an ice-cream and a ungentlemanly amount of sweating.

Amongst many kind emails that I have received, the one from an old friend in Brighton hoping ‘that you get totally messed-up’ was surely the strangest to send to someone in a war zone. I get the sentiment Toby, but I am glad the day is drawing to a close without the aforementioned eventuality becoming a literal reality…..

Someone with a much greater gift for memorable writing than I said that being on an operational tour is 99% boredom, punctuated by 1% extreme violence. It is to the boredom that I wish to turn. Guarding against the complacency that inevitably accompanies the repetition of the daily grind is one of the hardest tasks of remaining professional whilst on operations. It can be difficult to keep morale high whilst staring into the abyss of monotony, and how one occupies oneself outside of the patrols and other bits that make up the daily workload, defines how one deals with the unglamourous side of being away.

This is doubly hard when returning from mid-tour leave. Going from summer in England to Afghanistan is like going to bed with Marilyn Monroe and waking up with Susan Boyle.  On the whole it has been a very quiet week in Kandahar, which has meant time has dragged for us, but we should be thankful that the operation is now starting to yield a positive outcome for the people of this city.

Over the course of an operational tour, unless one has an online auction addiction, a sizeable sum can be squirreled away. This is where SOUPs (Single Officer Unnecessary Purchases) start to grab the imagination. These can run the gamut of extremes from a Malacca cane with rapier inside, to 1960s sports cars, a monocle to an ivory-handled riding crop. The key is they must be entirely unnecessary. Suggestions are most welcome and shall be passed on to the wider Royal Dragoon Guards Officer community. The most original or best idea will be presented with a baboon skull penholder; no writing bureau can ever be called complete without one.

Wildlife update….. The gargantuan ants are conspicuous by their absence and the goats are still merrily going about their daily graze, although I can’t imagine that the sand is particularly delicious or nutritious. The new guys on the scene are lizards. August is obviously the month that the Afghan lizard community carries out its business with gay abandon. They are in plentiful numbers and seem unperturbed by events leading up to the Afghan elections.

Heat and dust: First impressions of Afghanistan

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. He writes about his first glimpses of Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

County Durham, Oxfordshire, the Gulf Region, Helmand and finally Kandahar constituted my rather circuitous route to what is to be my home for the best part of the next seven months. (I know, I know, carbon footprint and all that! But I simply had far too much luggage to cycle with.) And so, having feigned sleep in order to avoid the airline meals, I arrived in Afghanistan as hungry as an Ox, but far too excited to be able to eat, and tired, but my head too full to sleep.

The first few days have passed in a whirlwind of disorientation; new faces, names (most of which instantly were forgotten) and heat. The pre-tour training in North Yorkshire, Norfolk, Wales and Wiltshire, whilst very good in most respects, has not attuned my sweat-glands to the continuous hard graft they are going to have to put in over the upcoming weeks. The mercury is bouncing around in the mid-thirties and whilst a touch too warm for some tastes, it is at least bearable and should help me acclimatise before the summer sun sets in and I have to carry out my work in the ‘high forties’.

A view across the city of Kandahar

A view across the city of Kandahar

Before entering a country for the first time one’s pre-conceptions are constructed from a disparate cocktail of the opinions and stories of others, any media coverage and one’s own experience in similar climes. And so for me (in my head at least) I have been using my experiences of Iraq as a benchmark for misconceptions and erroneous judgements. There are some similarities. It is hot, there is a lot of sand knocking around, and the country is littered with all manner of unexploded ordnance. Whereas Iraq had itself and the Iranians to thank for the proliferation of legacy explosives, Afghanistan can doff its cap to Russia for its sub-surface treasure-trove. Some eagle-eyed historian will no-doubt be able to credit other factors to the above statement. I, however, am in no way a historian.

The differences I have noticed so far have been both subtle and geographically obvious. I have a pleasant mountain view of the north of the province and some flora, thanks to the river Tarnak. Irrigation here would appear to be much more difficult as the volume of water does not compare favourably to that of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Iraq had huge wealth poorly distributed, and my guess at first sight of Afghanistan is that it has huge poverty well distributed.

Over the coming months I hope to be able to elaborate on the culture, society and the nuances of serving here. For starters though one of the first happenstances to grab my attention is the use of nail varnish by some of the younger men. This does not occur in the ‘action-transvestite’ Eddie Izzard sense, or indeed the Soho drag queen tableaux, but is merely an adornment of the hands, possibly to impress others or possibly as a part of taking pride in their own appearance. The male ‘friendships’ are much more public than in other Arab Nations I have visited. There is a touch of the courtesan here.

Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second city and is a bustling, if small by European standards, low rise connurbation, almost all of which nestles at two storeys or lower. It has a similar feel to the outskirts of somewhere like Gwalior or any other town in Muhdra–Pradesh. The roads are flanked by fruit-sellers (a lot of which would not make it onto the shelves of our national supermarkets – the bananas being a touch too umber for the English palette), bicycle and tyre vendors, road-side food stops and gaily coloured general stores. One competes for space on the tarmac with a veritable assortment of ‘jingly trucks’, livestock, tuk-tuks, battered cars and that perennial favourite, the Toyota Hi-Lux. Anyone who has driven around L’Etoile in Paris, or attempted to navigate their automobile through Athens on a busy market day will have a good grasp of the level of road etiquette, and the level of application of a clearly defined highway code, assuming such a thing exists at all.

Many of the locals smile and wave as we pass in our armoured vehicles, but it would be an untruth to suggest that all do. This dichotomy of reaction from the population is perhaps no different to the one I garner when travelling around Yorkshire, and is probably three-quarters more genial than the general public in London. I suppose the key is how superficial this amicability is?

Out in my vehicle on patrol

Out in my vehicle on patrol

Animal life will be a running theme over the next few months, and so I’ll kick off with a couple of ignorant generalisations. The livestock I have encountered are about half as big  as those on England’s lush pastures. That is to say the cattle, sheep, donkeys and horses look roughly the same shape as they do in the green and pleasant land, but it just looks like they are standing further away. Most could fit comfortably into the size ‘S’ bracket and the goats would have no problem squeezing into kid’s clothing.

To address this balance, the Creator has compensated by making the average insect unfeasibly large. The ants are gargantuan, and had Queen Cleopatra known of their existence, she could have enlisted the help of a good half-dozen or so to carry her and her throne to Rome for her rendez-vous with old Julius, and given the rest of Egypt a well-earned day off. You would struggle to squeeze more than three of the native bumble-bees into an Airbus without a liberal helping of goose fat, and the moths have a wingspan comparable to that of Brighton’s seagulls.  If any enthusiastic naturalist has the misfortune to read this, an explanation for this phenomenon would be greatly appreciated.