This blog post is a bit of a departure from FRI’s normal topics no embed reporting, no strategies on how to win the Global War on Terror (GWOT), no great empowerment projects (aka the Fablab) to talk of, but I hope you’ll find it interesting none the less.
Tim and I go back about 3 or so years beginning with our time together with a company called WSI (a bad experience for both of us) and then as partners in a Private security company – VSSA. For the lion share of my time I was based in Mazar-i-Sharif (Northern Afghanistan) working as a Security Coordinator, while Tim was based in Jalalabad doing identical work. Now that I am back in country (after a much needed hiatus in Australia) I find myself at the Taj catching up with Tim. Whilst I was sitting at the Taj bar Tim asked if he could source some photos for the FRI blog from my time in Northern Afghanistan. After viewing a few shots somehow I volunteered to write an article for him not sure how that happened!
It took me some time to think about a worthy subject to focus upon. During the thinking process I reminisced about the good times had in Afghanistan and how much fun was packed into the little downtime available. This somewhat pedestrian topic then grew a life of its own and became yet another example of the vast difference between risk adverse deployments / organizations and the more low profile operators / organizations who live and work outside the wire in Afghanistan. I suddenly had my topic!
Living and working within the Afghan community definitely gives you a better idea of the culture and the feel of the people toward you. What is amusing is talking with some International Military personnel on the various bases about living within the community. Normally when you tell them you live off base down town, their bottom jaw drops to the ground with shock. I guess their perception is that once outside the wire it’s certain death which is certainly not the case, demonstrated by the numerous internationals and organizations that continue to live in the community with few problems. This topic is something Tim has talked about on numerous occasions regarding having the military living off the bases and FOB’s and amongst the community, which I fully support.
Another topic Tim has raised is the ability to move through much of the country in a low profile manner. With the exception of areas along the Pakistan border and Southern Afghanistan much of the North and Northwest remains quite permissive. The biggest risk factor in these permissive environments is probably being the subject of criminality (after dark on the highways) or involved and hurt in a traffic accident. If you’ve ever experienced Afghan traffic you’ll immediately know why, and what I mean. For those new to Afghanistan the traffic can be both a disorientating and disconcerting experience. Seeing cars overtaking each other on blind corners with inches to spare while avoiding the goats, chickens, cows, handcarts, taxi’s, donkeys, donkey carts and camels sharing the same bit of road gives you some indication of the chaotic nature of Afghan traffic. It can be a little freaky at first, but like anything, you get use to it and over time actually start driving that way too! The best advice I can give is to drive yourself, and not to travel the highways at night.
A couple of years back I bought a video camera along with a Digital SLR Camera to record my time and experiences in Afghanistan. I had done this specifically for family and friends in order to allay their concerns and fears about me being in a war zone. In those early years family and friends back home simply didn’t know what it was like on the ground in Afghanistan. The mainstream media depicted car bombs going off, pitched gun battles with insurgents, and soldiers being killed on a regular basis. Although these things occurred, they weren’t a daily occurrence and rarely occurred in Northern Afghanistan where I was posted. However, family and friends back home thought these things were going on everywhere in Afghanistan mainly because of what they saw and heard in the media. So armed with my new cameras I set out to show the folks back home what life was like for me in my little world. In doing so I captured some fantastic photos and videos to share with them.
What triggered all this camera activity off arose from a question posed by my brother back home – What do you do for fun in Afghanistan?’ I answered his question at the time, but thought by showing him, along with other family and friends it would give them a better understanding of my Afghan experience.
Just being in Afghanistan is an event in itself and finding ways to entertain oneself was a popular downtime activity. There are no nightclubs, bars, movie theatres or shopping malls in Mazar-i-Sharif (in the western context anyway), so expatriates like myself made our own fun, which typically was on the weekends. Fun experiences consisted of visits to ancient ruins in Balkh District, trips to check out the drug fields (also in Balkh District), picnics, swimming, watching and participating in Buzkashi, eating at local restaurants and party’s/dinner party’s in each others guest houses. The running of the Mazar Social Club (MSC) was an important part of the weekend process that provided much needed expatriate interaction. Unlike the Taj Tiki Bar which is static, the MSC was basically a roving bar invited to various guesthouses for a night of dancing, drinking and merriment. Most MSC nights ended around 0300 hours and for a lot of those parties I was there to the end. I couldn’t help it because I was the chief barman and a member of the MSC organising committee. Still, people couldn’t believe I hung in there till the end because I’m a non-drinking. What they didn’t realise was that after my 4th Pepsi or Coke I couldn’t sleep due of all that caffeine racing through my veins. I typically stayed on till the end of the nights proceedings because I was high on Coke (the black Panadol type not that other version from South America). Another reason I stayed was for the sheer comedy, pure and simple it got funnier as people got drunker!
In 2007 I hooked up with an Aussie called Mat who was heading up the northern office for a European Union (EU) funded NGO at the time. I have to say Mat is one of the funniest dudes I’ve met he cracks me up all the time. With cameras in tow, I started recording our little outings. These recorded events morphed into a little video blog I put together called The Un-Named Adventure.’ It was called The Un-Named Adventure’ because basically I didn’t know what we were going to do before we did it purely spur of the moment stuff. Nothing was planned or scripted it just kind of unfolded at the time. It has a comedic thread throughout because 1. Mat cracks me up, and 2. I wanted it to be fairly light for the folks back home. This was a creative way to the further answer my brother’s question and outline what life was really like here in Afghanistan.
I am a little hesitant to release this material in the public domain. It’s one thing to just have family and friends looking at it, and a totally different animal when people you don’t know check it out. On the other hand I am quite curious to see other peoples take on our little adventures. Although I do have some misgivings I think showing these adventures will support my case that living outside the wire is the way to go in Afghanistan. I recall the adage – ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ so in this case I’m hoping moving pictures tell 10,000 words.
A word of warning, the show is politically incorrect and has some swearing in it, so if you are easily offended you probably won’t want to watch it. The key to the show though is not to take it seriously, we certainly don’t. Just take it for what it is pure comedic genius (I am biased)! We are fair though – we take the piss’ out of ourselves and those around us.
The two (2) Adventures I’d like to share are
1. Adventure # 3 – Buzkashi, and
2. Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare.
Adventure # 3 The Buzkashi Adventure. Mat and I attended this particular Buzkashi game in Mazar-i-Sharif circa 2007. For those who don’t know, Buzkashi is the Afghan National sport. The game originated in the Central Asian steppes and is normally played in the winter months. It involves horseman trying to get a headless calf, goat or sheep’s carcass around a flag at one end of the playing field and depositing it in a circle at the other end. Riders wear heavy clothing, specialised riding boots and headwear (usually ex-Russian Tank headwear) and use whips, both on the horses and each other. Rules are you can’t trip the horses, apart from that – anything else goes.
As outlined in this adventure our take on the game is it’s the Afghan NASCAR’ everyone comes along to see a crash and/or carnage.
Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare. I think you’ll just have to watch this one, it’s pretty self-explanatory.
There are many more Adventures produced of free ranging outside the wire, but I hope you enjoy the little selection of episodes linked to this article. I also hope this gives you who are not here a better understanding that it’s not all doom and gloom; you can live, work and have fun here. LIFE’S SHORT LIVE IT TO THE MAX!!!
If you lot out there like these samples I may post a couple more Adventures down the track.
James – Guest Blogger.