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.

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