Lt Matt Galante is an officer in The 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. He commands a Police Advisory Team (PAT) in Southern Nahr-e-Saraj district, Helmand province. This is Matt’s second tour of Afghanistan.
Oblivious to unique situations
This may be a ridiculous statement, but sometimes it can be very easy to completely overlook the fact you are actually inAfghanistan. I’ve often wondered why this is, why soldiers seem oblivious to some of the unique situations we find ourselves in. How can an operational tour just feel like another day at the office and not some big adventure? The only explanation I can offer is that, when your entire working life leads up to six months in Afghanistan, all the training and preparation dulls you to the reality of actually being out here – the exceptional becomes pretty mundane, and all of a sudden you find yourself completely nonplussed about sharing your bedspace with rats and being occasionally woken by gunfire.
Sometimes, however, you are faced with those unmistakable moments that remind you this is actuallyAfghanistanand not just another exercise on Salisbury Plain. Take for example today, where I found myself sat in a traffic jam of camels – all completely oblivious to my tight schedule, and all wearing that smug grin that camels always seem to have.
Another sight that never becomes tiring for me is the Afghan tendency to wring every last inch of useable space out of every mode of transport they own. A two-seater motorbike? Definitely capable of seating four. Battered old saloon car? Why wouldn’t you fit four adults in the front seats and two donkeys in the back? (I never did work out how the driver changed gears…) An average-sized tractor trailer? Best fill it with 25ft of wheat, and put your son on top of it all to weigh it down. These are the little sights that separate my tour from all the training leading up to this point, and they never fail to make me smile.
The realisation that ‘actually, this is a little bit fun’ can strike at some odd times. Any soldier who has lived or worked in the Green Zone will attest to the fact that half of every foot patrol is spent climbing in and out of flooded irrigation ditches. Normally, wading through waist-high, dubious-smelling water with seven stone of kit on your back can only be described as horrific, but once the first man starts laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation the giggles become pretty difficult to contain. I have often wondered what the local farmers think of the numerous groups of half-laughing, half-broken men slogging through their irrigation ditches every day, but am usually too exhausted to ask.
On a slightly less horrific note, one of the more pleasant experiences – and one that sums up the whole ‘Afghan experience’ for me – is the shura, or meeting. In my line of work, impromptu informal shuras tend to be a daily occurrence as my team and I patrol from police checkpoint to checkpoint, visiting the patrolmen and discussing key issues with the commanders at each location. I am pretty certain that foreigners arriving unannounced (and soaked in foul-smelling water) at our place of work back in theUK would be given a frosty reception at best, but the welcome we receive at each checkpoint is quite the opposite.
Pashtunwali, the code of conduct for the Pashtun people who make up the majority of Helmand Province, calls for all strangers seeking refuge to be treated impeccably. I can confirm that this is the case: my team and I usually arrive at a checkpoint to hugs and handshakes, before being ushered to take a seat on the Afghan equivalent of our sofa – the trusty rug. Before long the Chai appears (green tea in small glass cups), along with the obligatory boiled sweets, which are usually politely declined on the basis that they are covered in swarms of enormous wasps. The patrolmen are incredibly slim – as are all Afghans – and have a habit of crouching rather than sitting, which is difficult to mimic even without 20kg of body armour. Every effort is made to feed guests, and no request is declined. Goodbyes are an equally drawn-out process, and the whole experience gives a real insight into the Afghan culture – which, I have to say, is very enjoyable.
Yes there is hardship in being on an operational tour, and yes we all miss our family and friends – but each day brings unique experiences that we are unlikely to forget in a hurry. And the Afghan weather is far nicer than on Salisbury Plain, which is always a bonus.