Monday, June 29, 2009

In Lashkar Gah, Meeting Some Trouble

When the world was mourning the death of Michael Jackson, I was heading to Lashkar Gah in a British army convoy from Camp Bastion. An IED that was apparently waiting for us few miles down from Gareshk, had blown up early that morning, tearing a blue sedan into pieces.

A second IED that did not go off still lay there on the side of the road. Leaving the IED behind meant giving the Taliban another opportunity to use that IED at another time and place. So the commanding officers decided to wait until an IED team arrived and detonated the bomb. But waiting there in one of the most dangerous highways meant that we could come in contact with the Taliban any moment.

Luckily, we didn't. Why the Taliban were not tempted to attack while the convoy waited in a hot zone for almost an entire day, is worth wondering. It could be the heavy firepower the Brits had. It could be the intense heat during the day that made the Taliban fall asleep under mango groves. Or it could be because of the Gurkhas.

Some British officers told me that the Taliban are usually afraid of mounting an attack on the Gurkhas. "The Talibans often say not to engage with the Mongols," said one of the British soldiers, referring to the Gurkhas. A young soldier from the Royal Gurkha Rifles did not hesitate to agree with his British counterpart. "We are bigger in number right now," he said. "We could chew them raw." ["Chewing something/someone raw" is a Nepali slang for an easy victory.]

After a grueling wait in the hot sun for several hours, the IED was detonated - the ground beneath me shook for a second as an orange ball of fire went up in the air. Tired from an entire day's worth of sun, I was fast asleep on the back of the Ridgeback, when I was suddenly woken up by two shots. As we entered the bazaar in Lashkar Gah, one of the officers had fired two warning shots to keep the local vehicles away from the convoy.

Suicide bombers often target the security forces in Lashkar Gah. So the soldiers warn every driver on the street to slow down with hand signals and fire "mini flares" into the air. If that doesn't work, a warning gun shot follows.

Over the last couple of days, I've gotten a glimpse of this busy little city. Locals usually give a thumbs-up and a smile as the troops patrol the city. But there are the usual frowns and suspicious stares on the faces of some locals. A kid who was barely six-years old held his thumbs up for a second, then gradually shifted it downwards and stuck his tongue out at one of the soldiers. Another kid screamed and threw a pear at us while we were driving by. As simple as it is, not everyone seemed to adore their guests.

But the biggest problem in Lashkar Gah is not the inconspicuous hatred from a few little kids. It's the dish that the Taliban serve full time - deadly attacks. Every day during patrol, we heard about Taliban running over one of the police posts and killing ANP members. Soldiers told me about suicide bombers who drove their white Toyota sedans and motorcycles into ISAF and ANP vehicles in the busy bazaar. As one soldier put it to me, "You take your eyes off for one minute, and shit is bound to happen."

Driving down a busy market, it is hard to tell which one among the hundreds is waiting to meet his virgins in heaven. The troops make sure every single vehicle comes to a halt until the convoy drives past them. Gunners on top of the Landrovers have their fingers ready on the trigger just in case someone makes a move.

Knowing that someone could run into you and blow himself up is a scary thought. But it is that very fear that keeps me standing with my camera, next to the gunner the entire duration of patrol. What I get in return is a chance to capture normal (and sometimes abnormal) lives in Lashkar Gah.

As I wearily stand on the roof of the snatch Landrover
holding my gadgets, strange faces stare at me, tempting me to get back into the vehicle and stay put. But my camera is too arrogant to shy away, even for a minute. Because when sh*t happens, my camera wants to witness it.

Click here to see my photos from Lashkar Gah.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

PHOTOS: One Day in Lashkar Gah

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan - Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is a city that was once brought down to ruins by Genghis Khan. Almost 800 years later, the city still looks barren and demolished. Well, not entirely. Lashkar's marketplace is a vibrant center where you can get everything from yummy-looking loaves of Nan-e-Afghani, Afghanistan's national bread, to a motorcycle's spare parts. We rolled along the city in Snatch Land Rovers with the British Gurkhas, who are part of the Police Mentoring Team (PMT), helping train the Afghan National Police (ANP). More on PMT, ANP and the Gurkhas in posts to follow.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

A Soviet era tank sits outside one of the ANP posts in Lashkar Gah.

An Afghan woman walks along the streets in Kashkar Gah.

A group of women sit on a heap of luggage on a tractor.

Boys take a ride on a donkey, the most popular form of transport for goods.

Local boys scavenge on a nearby streetside in Lashkar bazaar.

An Afghan lady enjoys the shade by the wall along the roadside.

Well, you know what these are.

A member of the Afghan National Police sits with an old radio, his best friend.

Children along the streets of Lashkar show thumbs-up to the convoy.

PMT team drive in the city during regular patrol.

A young boy signals as he sits to sell Nan-e-Afghani, the delicious bread.

A British service woman makes an attempt to pull-up in the gym.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Journalism and Embeddism

The first time I heard the word “embed” was in sixth grade Physics class – the protons are embedded to the nucleus like sesame are to a bread, so forth and so on. As I embarked on the first ever embed (sadly it’s a noun now) of my life, traveling with the security forces in Afghanistan, the only thing I didn’t want to be was the sesame that fell of the bread.

Like protons, I was positively charged – maybe a little overcharged – about coming to Afghanistan. Reality about the dangers of going out on patrol with the soldiers did not hit me fully until I took a first aid class with the Canadians at the Joint Task Force base in Kandahar Airfield. Faces blown up, bones sticking out of limbs, blood gushing out of the arteries – all of these made me look like a fool who packed a dozen handiplasts I bought from the CVS pharmacy in DuPont Circle. When I arrived at the base, I was given a tourniquet, the grand daddy of all handiplasts, the use of which could mean a likely amputation. (Likely, but not always.)

Half of the fear about embedding comes from the fact that you put on a flak vest that weighs about 25 pounds and holds two ceramic rifle plates; a Kevlar helmet tied tightly around the chin; a pair of ballistic-proof glasses and a pair of fire-retardant gloves. I gladly put them on.

I climbed the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) and sat toward the edge. The two Canadian soldiers who were guarding the convoy, spoke French and very little English. As the LAV roared on the dusty road, one of them increased the volume on the stereo to the maximum - the theme song for the ride was Papercut by Linkin Park, their favorite band. It reminded me of the HBO series, Generation Kill where the American marines shake their heads to AC/DC in their Humvees on their way to invading Baghdad. The only difference was that the Canadians weren't as pumped up as the Americans - because they weren't invading, they were rebuilding.

Once we got to Deh-E-Bagh, we waited in a small building where the shura between local leaders from Dand district and Canadian officials was about to begin. The war against terror probably changed the meaning of a traditional shura. While the idea of consultation remains the same, most of the shuras these days are spent listening to the grievances of the locals, which usually comes with a long wish list, and then getting vital intel about the Taliban. But at the least, shura gives an opportunity for the members of coalition forces to show the locals that they care and in return expect them to provide information about activities of the Taliban in local areas.

After the shura, we spent about 20-30 minutes in a small bazaar in Deh-E-Bagh, an area under heavy protection by members of the Afghan National Police and the Canadian forces. I mingled with the locals, who looked all excited to see their photos on the screen of my digital camera. "Akhbaar, Akhbaar," they said, asking me to put their photos on a newspaper. I was excited to see the locals, but was quite surprised that there were no women in this bazaar, not even little girls.

We got back on the LAVs and headed back to the base at Kandahar. Midway during the journey, the armored vehicle in front of us suddenly stopped. A cross-street electricity cable was hanging low obstructing the road. The pessimistic side of me immediately thought it was some kind of ambush - but before I could even ask what happened, the soldiers were able to push the wires up and we were moving again.

I hope to go back to Deh-E-Bagh again, except this time without being embedded. People tend to respond to your questions quite differently when they don't see a robust man with a massive gun sitting next to you. As safe as these embeds usually are, it is hard to move around flexibly if what you are really trying to get at is the lives of the locals in these small towns. But again, without embedding, I would probably make a really good feast for the Taliban.

One of the first books I ever read on war correspondents was “Chechnya Diary” by Thomas Goltz in which Goltz skillfully narrates his reportage as Grozny burns into ashes. The last book I read on war correspondents was “Forever War” by Dexter Filkins, a man who I hope would make me his disciple and teach me everything about reporting from conflict zones. The difference between these two books could be the best explanation for how modern war reporting has changed, as embedding with the military becomes a necessary evil, at least to get a lopsided view of the war.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PHOTOS: Soldiers, Locals and a Small Town

Deh-E-Bagh, Afghanistan - I traveled to the town of Dey-E-Bagh in Dand district yesterday with the Canadian soldiers. Here are some of the photos from the trip.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

A man sits outside a local ration store in Deh-E-Bagh.

A soldier stands guard off the roof of a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV).

Residents of Deh-E-Bagh wait to see the governor of Kandahar.

A Canadian officer shakes hand with a local Afghani kid.

An automatic weapon sits at one of the command posts in Dey-E-Bagh.

Deh-E-Bagh, a town right outside city of Kandahar, boasts an amazing view.

A Canadian soldier patrols the premises of the outpost at Deh-E-Bagh.

A local Afghani rides past the checkpost inside the command post.

Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar listens to the local leaders during a shura.

Tribal leader from Dand district attend a shura at Deh-E-Bagh.

Member of the Afghan National Police sits on patrol at the post.

A young Afghani police sits at guard inside the Deh-E-Bagh post.

An ANP member sits on patrol inside the post.

Members of the ANP arrive inside the command post after patroling the town.

Bullet scars remain on one of the buldings after a fight with the Taliban.

A soldier stands guard off the roof of a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV).

Soldiers prepare to leave on an operation outside the base.

A Canadian officer looks on as he prepares to leave on an operation.

An Afghan journalist shoots the video of the shura between Canadian officials and local leaders.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

Building Small Towns to Keep Taliban Away

Deh-E-Bagh, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's fate would sound much like one of Aesop's fables to someone who has been aloof from the horrors the country has been through in the last three decades. The country has been a playground for wars and left in a rubble every time it tries to pick up the shards from a gruesome conflict.

But as the United States prepares to ramp up its fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda, its neighbor to the north is utilizing their chance to stop kicking the doors and start focusing on rebuilding and challenging the local Afghans to rebuild their country, one community at a time.

Canadian Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance and Canadian Rep. to Kandahar, Ken Lewis, sit in a shura with local leaders in Deh-E-Bagh.

A few of the most vibrant examples of Canada's six stated priorities - mentoring security forces, basic services, humanitarian services, democratic development, political reconciliation and border security - can be witnessed in a small town of Dey-E-Bagh in Dand district, a few miles south of Kandahar.

Residents of this little town now have a few solar-paneled streetlights, new roads, small concrete buildings and a revamped irrigation system for their crops - all made possible by the Canadian dollars, technical assistance and major security enforcement. The plan is to provide as much of such assistance to the local communities so that they can rebuild themselves under the security of Canadian forces. That is hoped to push back the influx of Taliban into these towns from where they launch frequent attacks on NATO forces.

An Afghani local works on the solar-powered streetlights built on the main road.

But the questions that quickly comes to mind are - What will the villagers do once the Canadians leave Afghanistan? How soon until the Taliban comes back into these villages, destroys the streetlights and irrigation system and executes the villagers for siding with their enemies? Whether these questions have been taken into consideration, no one knows. For now, it might be worth to notice the smiles on the faces of Deh-E-Bagh residents, happy about the new resources underway and menace from the Taliban far away.

The Canadians have plans to expand these kind of programs into broader communities in Kandahar province. And they have the support of the big guy in the province, Tooryalai Wesa, Kandahar's governor since last December, and a man who himself spent over a decade in Canada.

Residents of Deh-E-Bagh gather to listen to Kandahar's governor Tooryalai Wesa.

At least in one town, it is encouraging to witness that the soldiers are no longer considering kicking doors and pointing guns at the local Afghans. However, given Taliban's fanaticism for terror and the Canadian forces' uncertainty to long-term commitment, Deh-E-Bagh could very likely end up being a new chapter in Aesop's fables.

A Canadian soldier looks out for trouble from a command post in the town.

More soon.
Note: Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

VIDEO: An Afghan's Love for Afghanistan

During my trip to Deh-E-Bagh today, I spoke to a member of the Afghan National Police. I used my horrendous language skills to communicate with him, to which he responded with enough passion. Here is a short bite: [Translation after the video]

Translation: Don't pick a fight with Afghanistan. Build it. If you want to build it, do it. Otherwise, I will begin my work. This is real talk. I am not going to sell my country. I will sacrifice everything for my country.

I asked Samad what he meant by "begin my work." He said he would be willing to take the lead and die for Afghanistan if the country does not back in shape.

When Not in War, Fun in the Air

Kandahar - The marine brushing his teeth at the basin next to me was carrying his M-16 cross chest on his back. The gun stared right at my limbs. I rinsed my face and as I looked up, another soldier appeared to my right. He raised his arm to brush his teeth and his revolver peeked out of the case under his arm. I thought to myself - Where else in the world could I be rinsing my face in the presence of two no-bullshit guys armed with weapons? And still be able to get out alive?

Call me stupid, but I might very well be on the safest place on earth right now.

At the base, it's easy to witness a life far from the war. Sure, there are faces overrun by emotions - some who've lost their friends, some who'd just landed in a bizarre desert so far from home and some who'd seen it all and were ready to face it all. But these same fingers that are ready to pull the trigger are also seen scrolling their iPods, playing fussball, holding a non-alcoholic Beck's or even swinging away their guitars.


Like any other profession, the soldiers here make it clear that to produce results, you have to stay sane. If anything is different, it's how they choose to absorb that sanity.

My personal favorites are the bathroom doors. It almost seems like the first person updates their facebook status and a serpent of comments follow it. The one that immediately comes to mind is from this morning. Someone started, "Chuck Norris is a coward." Here is what followed:

Chuck Norris is a faggot.
Chuck's not a faggot. You are.
When Chuck does a push up, he doesn't push himself up, he pushes the world down.
Fuck Chuck [...]
Drill Baby Drill.
When the soldiers are not chatting about Chuck Norris in the "ablution room," they go to one of the refreshment houses - and most member countries have one of these club-like lounges for their troops - where you can get everything from a haircut to a non-alcoholic beer to a ping pong table. The other lively place is known as the "Board Walk" - a mini version of a stadium, built with wooden planks. Inside, local Afghanis set up shops to sell paintings, arts and crafts.

But the best entertainment for some of these soldiers is us, the journalists. I could hardly claim a good sense of humor but some of the Canadian journalists down here are hilarious. Immediately after finishing a briefing today, where we were told that the Afghan National Army and the Security Forces had a successful operation in Salavat, a fellow journalist offered a tactic to lure the Taliban next time around.

"Call the pizza place and tell them to deliver it to the Talibans," he said. "We could call them Pie-EDs."

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Mighty Base

Kandahar - The Taliban reportedly shoot a rocket into the base every two days or so. Although the base itself is like a mini-country well protected by some of NATO's best, the mountains pose the biggest challenge. You never know where one of these rockets came from.

Even "mini-country" might be an understatement for the Kandahar base. I can't lay out the infrastructural part of the base, for obvious security reasons, but let me say this - if the kind of money that gets poured into a base like this was spent in one of the poor countries in Africa, that country could solve its problems very soon. Well, except the fact that it would have to be invaded first.

As Afghanistan awaits the arrival of 20,000 new American troops, the base continues to expand fast. Soon there will be new tube-tents, new offices, new shops and if the guys are lucky, maybe even a Starbucks. (That's my assumption because the Canadians get their Tim Hortons.)

What's comes to mind looking at the base here is that this war will not end anytime soon. Trying to fight a fanatic and determined enemy and win against them does come with a heavy price tag, literally.


Made with Slideshow Embed Tool

The thundering sounds of Apaches, Chinooks and Harriers keep the base alive and busy. But what keeps the soldiers at the base alive and busy is the endless drinking of bottled water, most of which comes from the UAE. As one of the journalists here put it, "Somebody in Dubai is making sh*tload of money from all this."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

First Impressions

Kandahar - If the desert did not exist, landing in Kandahar would be no different than landing down in Kathmandu. Steep rugged mountains squeeze the airfield here. And its probably because of these mountains, dust and haze refuse of leave the base - an hour into my arrival here, I was covered in white dust.

Kandahar Int'l Airport, which was built by USAID in early 60s, is now used as a military and partly civilian airfield. The airfield is under the command of the Canadian forces, with whom I'll be spending some time this week.

Other than the fact that this is a war zone, not much is different here. My dust-covered tube tent has a squeaky twin bed and the store inside the base sells bedsheets and dust cleaners for prices that are cheaper than Wal-Mart's. The cellphone shop inside the store plays bollywood songs at a low volume but loud enough for the shopkeeper to groove his head and shoulders. Packets of Marlboros and Camels (not the animal, of course) seem like the most popular items here.

But nothing makes this base more Canadian than a freshly brewed cup of Tim Hortons, a two minute walk from my bed. Pizza Hut is down the road. Oatmeal and Omlette for breakfast taste better than the cafeteria food at my undergraduate school. Walking by the cafeterias (they call them DFACs), it's hard to escape the smell of hot food, whatever they maybe.

Food aside, there is another peculiar smell one cannot neglect inside the base. The stench of feces made it impossible to sleep last night. But apparently this is the smell of Kandahar. By this morning, it has become a way of life.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dwelling Inside Dubai International

Dubai Int'l Airport - The flight to Kandahar has been delayed. I've been sitting at the transfer terminal for the last six hours trying to figure out what's next but the airport officials here seem to not care much. One of the gentleman looked at my passport this morning and asked me to wait in a line along with several dozens of migrant workers from Bangladesh and Nepal who were waiting to board the plane to Iraq. Shockingly enough he chose to apologize in Hindi - "Mujhe laga tum bhi yin logo ke saath ho" [I thought you were with these guys also].

The airport is quite a scene - most of these laborers heading to Iraq have been sleeping all over the aiport, many even on the floor. They have a huge group - a Bangladeshi group, a Nepali group and a Filipino group - each group identified by a colored hat that they've been asked to wear.

I approached two gentlemen from Nepal who were going to work inside the International Zone in Iraq . Dilip Kumar Shah, a native of Lahan, who'd already spent couple of years working in Malaysia, has a job lined up as a cook inside the American base. Uttar Kumar Rai, a retired Indian army who hails from Okhaldhunga, will be working as a security guard inside the base.

But the surprising thing was neither of them had a ticket to Iraq - they were put on a plane to Dubai from Kathmandu and were left to sort out their travel plans to Baghdad by themselves. Rai says he would be making about $1,500/month while Shah said he's expecting around $500/month. But that wasn't a written agreement. That's what they're told they would make.

Uttar Kumar Rai and Dilip Kumar Shah are heading to Baghdad to work.

And here they were, wandering in an airport without any kind of ticket or a certainty of getting to their destination.

I'll be running into more of Rais and Shahs once I get to Afghanistan. Hope to work on a detailed story.

Meantime, here's what a Bangladeshi guy told me when I asked him why he was going to Iraq - You are going to a hell hole because you chose to. We are going to a hell hole because we don't have a choice.

More soon.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Storytelling from a War Zone

Washington, DC - Body armor, check. Kevlar helmet, check. I flipped through the pages of my notes from the Conflict Reporting class I took with Judith Matloff at Columbia Journalism School one last time this morning. That's where I first started learning the tools of this trade. For the next three weeks, I'll be putting those notes into practice.

After a half-dozen internships, a graduate degree and almost a year into my job as a full time journalist, I'll be doing something that I've always dreamed of - telling a story from abroad.

I've never been to a war before. The closest I've come to witnessing a war was seeing a dozen Maoist rebels in western Nepal armed with old rusty barrel guns - hardly any need for bulletproof vests and ballistic proof sunglasses. I would pay 100 rupees and roam around a village like a free man.

Neither have I ever ran into trouble. The closest I've come to danger was when I was chased by two prostitutes outside a telephone booth in downtown Rome. And never have I embedded with soldiers carrying automatic weapons. The last time I was in company of nice men with guns was when I went deer-hunting with my friend's father in a friendly jungle in Virginia.

I hear Afghanistan won't be anything like that.

But I'm excited by the opportunity to report from the frontline of what could very well be one of the greatest wars of our generation.

More to come soon.