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.
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’.
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?
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.