Thursday, 7 June 2012

‘Your normal freedoms do not exist over here’ – daily life in Afghanistan

I HAVE BEEN here in Afghanistan now for ten months after arriving in July 2011 to the bustle and surrealness of Kandahar Airfield. I had taken up a post working for a Danish construction and maintenance firm which works to support the forces within NATO/ISAF military bases in Afghanistan.

I took up the role of construction manager in our construction division. It was a massive challenge, but also an opportunity: given the perilous state of our home and business life over the previous few years, I saw this post as a genuine opportunity to help me and my family after a run of difficult years since the crash of “Lehman Brothers” in 2008, as we like many other small business owners back home were crashing and burning.

I have moved around primarily between the three southern provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand. On this particular deployment over here, I have split my time between Tarin Kowt and Camp Bastion.

At this stage, after spending so much time here, I really can’t wait to get home to Ireland in a few weeks to see my family and friends and walk around freely for 3 weeks. Lots of people ask about what the experience is like working in this military environment, and it can be hard to describe but I will attempt it.

Identity cards, observing curfews, and following the rules
First of all, military bases such as these are temporary by nature. Soldiers here live in anything from containerised units to tents.

We have a compound of our own on each base, and my room is a 20-foot containerised unit with a good quality, bed, wardrobe and desk. I have a TV here in Bastion so I can now tune into BFBS (the British Forces Broadcasting Service) and get the latest TV from the UK. Meals here are taken at the Contractors Dining Facility which again is very well run.

The daily experience of working within military bases is primarily that your normal freedoms do not exist to the same extent as they do back home any longer. You must appreciate that you are under the protection of a military force that is at war and does not have the support of the native population living here.

This means carrying identity cards at all times, observing curfews and observing entry control rules in and out of bases, among other things. This process is very understandable – if indeed tedious –  given the well reported attacks and protests that have been extensively reported in recent weeks both here in Helmand and also over in Kandahar. They have been very sad and regrettable events that only increases each side’s mistrust of each other.

Dealing with attacks and threats
I have experienced a number of heightened alert statuses during my time here, which can be stressful. Often it is the not knowing that can be most distressing. These can be events that last 20 minutes to up to 5 days (!).

An alert status can be an actual threat, where a rocket has been fired at the base, in which case an alarm and drill system is in place; or it can be raised threat status, where something may be expected to happen. Oon these occasions, you may be required to carry body armour or your restriction may be curtailed even further.

Working here, you are always in the “alert” state in your own mind. However stressful that may be, bear in mind that service men and women work outside the bases all the time where they are exposed to danger all the time and do not have the protection of the base, as do many contractor and transport personnel – not to mention the Afghan people themselves, who take risks each and every day.

Being a Westerner in Afghanistan
There is also an aspect of being confined that is also worth noting: as a Westerner working as a civilian contractor, you generally do not go outside the base –  well I don’t, at least, although others do but only with the required security involved.  Being confined to the same area, even though it’s quite big,  can become claustrophobic. You can’t just go for a walk in the woods to clear your head, for example, so that can be an issue and can take some getting used to.

Routine becomes essential: getting up at a regular time every day and eating at regular times is important. Long working hours are a big part of the lifestyle that can both help you but also drain you, and I have found that it is only when you go out on leave that you take a deep breath and appreciate how exhausted you really are; when you are here, you are always ‘on’ and always alert.

Working with Afghan people
There is also an opportunity to work with Afghans, who are essential to any construction activities here for supplies, logistics and labour. I have found this the most interesting part and have got to know some pretty well who will speak openly about their damaged land and the massive effort that it will take to rebuild the country. They will speak about their children, how they wish for the best for them and their education and their hopes for the future.

It has given me a chance to understand their culture a little better. They do have some way to go here in terms of education and rebuilding but I have absolutely no doubt they have the knowledge and ability to do so despite the huge challenges. More than thirty years of conflict and many power struggles from different political and religious beliefs have left a lot of divisions here that will take many years to heal, but my experience of Afghan people is of a warm welcoming people, focused on their families – though like any culture there are unfortunately those who spoil it for others.

Obviously, the most challenging thing of all is being away from home for long periods. When I next get home I will have been away for 16 weeks which is tough, and there is no way a Skype Call can replace what’s been missing (that’s assuming it works in the first place, which isn’t always guaranteed!).

Simple stuff can be the most cherished: having a meal at home, chatting with my wife, tucking my sons in at night, comforting them when there’s a problem, helping them with homework or just a good old ‘mess-fight’ with Dad when they can have the pleasure of beating 10 colours of shite out of me  - all simple but glorious things!

I am heading back home soon and looking forward to touching down at Shannon and meet smiling faces and open arms – and of course that long awaited pint…

Published on 13th May 2012 in - Ireland's online Newspaper