Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What follows is a preview of my essay in the current issue of Vancouver Review, so fresh off the press that its cover and its contents page don't even appear on VR's website yet. You will want to get yourself a copy from the newsstands if only to read Trevor Boddy's Olympic-themed critique of Vancouver's hideous new architecture, Lalo Espejo 's excellent commentary on weird Bible-reference justifications for cuts to arts funding, poetry from my old neighbourhood's Renee Sarojini Saklakar, and a grand wee work of short fiction from Oliver Kelhammer, a former UBC Creative Student of mine, no less. And that's just a sampling. Better for you to take the plunge and subscribe.

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD –It might help to imagine this place as something out of a science-fiction movie, set in the distant future, on a desolate, searing-hot and faraway planet. More than 30,000 earthlings from 42 different countries are hunkered down in a vast and heavily-guarded mining colony in the middle of a windswept plain. Groaning, lumbering vehicles rumble around dusty streets. Strange pilotless aircraft circle overhead.

Every once in a while a siren wails and a robot voice announces: Rocket, attack. Rocket, attack. It’s the hostile aliens again, firing explosive missiles into the middle of the place. You throw yourself on the ground. You stay there for two minutes, then you hurry to the nearest bomb shelter. You wait for the all-clear siren.

You rejoin the streams of determined and ragged-looking machinists, engineers and technicians constantly shambling to and fro, their trades, nationalities and ranks indistinguishable except for the most subtle peculiarities in the patterns on their overalls, or in the weapons they’re carrying, or in the barely-discernable insignia on their epaulettes. They file in and out of warehouses, two-storey, double-wide ATCO-type trailers, supply depots, cafeterias, and command-and-control centres of one sort or another.

You can’t walk very far without getting dehydrated, so there are huge stacks of boxes on every corner, and the boxes are filled with plastic water bottles. You grab one and keep walking. Sometimes you hear a siren that sounds like an air horn. That’s the enemy-infiltration alarm. When it blasts, you stay off the streets and wait for the all-clear signal.

That’s what it’s like here.

Kandahar Airfield nearly tripled in size in 2009. By this coming summer, close to 45,000 people are expected to be here. That’s like West Vancouver, except it’s in the desert, and the streets are seething with Rumanian infantrymen, shadowy, bearded special-ops characters, Tajik restaurant workers, bubbly Australian travel agents, and even the occasional Mongolian army officer. Every so often you will see men driving around in beat-up little white Toyota pickup trucks with Omani licence plates, but no one seems to know who they are or what they do.

There are also mysterious and dangerous little arachnids, the nastiest kind of scorpions, ferocious porcupines, and rabid dogs. There are also tick-riddled, feral cats. There are notices pinned on cork boards warning you not to go near the cats.

There are lots of rules.

No wearing headphones while running. At all times, avoid loose talk, especially about outgoing flights and cargo manifests. Military personnel must be armed at all times. Civilians must not wear open-toed footwear or sleeveless t-shirts in dining areas. Soldiers should not salute their senior officers (something to do with a field order to protect the brass from being inadvertently pointed out to snipers). Nobody should toss stray ammo into the garbage (all the trash here gets burned; somebody could get killed). Try not to get caught downwind of Crystal Lake, the deep and vile lagoon where all the sewage goes. If the breeze happens to turn to your disadvantage, there is nothing anyone can do for you. You have no idea.

The main thoroughfares have names like Bronco Road, Chinook Road and Screaming Eagle Boulevard, but traffic moves mostly on foot, and mostly through the warren of gravel alleys and dirt backstreets, roughly conforming to a grid, all lined with high blast walls and concertina wire. If you are out walking somewhere at night, you wear a reflective yellow belt so nobody runs you over by mistake (this has happened). A 24-hour shuttle bus will get you around the place. The sprawling American district is known as South Park, and there is also The Ghetto, so called because it’s always so dimly lit and scary. In the Canadian neighbourhood, there’s an ice-less hockey rink, tax-free cigarettes, Labatt’s Blue with the alcohol somehow drained out of it, and the gym offers beginner’s Hatha yoga. Description: Gentle stretching. Instructor: Li. Pizza Hut delivers, open 24/7, call DSN 841-1235.

At night, a lonely moon hangs above it all in a black and cloudless sky, and that is what tells you that this is not a mining colony on a distant planet. This is not some strange science-fiction movie set. This is a very real place in the real world. Kandahar Airfield is now the busiest single-runway airstrip on earth, a constant roar of Blackhawk helicopters, pilotless aerial reconnaissance vehicles, pilotless armed drones, and Harrier fighter jets. There are C-130 Hercules transports, Phantoms, F-16s, and huge, flying warehouses called Globemasters.

A year ago, I arrived at Kandahar’s civilian airport on an Ariana Airways flight from Kabul and roared off towards the city in a fixer’s beat-up early ‘90s Toyota Corolla. If we hadn’t immediately got stuck behind an International Security Assistance Force convoy that was backed up behind a jackknifed oil truck, I might not have noticed that the regular airport was immediately adjacent to the busy post-911 airstrip that had become Kandahar Airfield. I never even visited the place. This time, I wanted to get a glimpse of the Afghanistan that soldiers see, so I hitched a ride in on a Polaris airbus out of the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ontario. A couple of days later I found myself looping out of the sky above Kandahar in a Hercules, strapped in a sideways row facing another sideways row full of soldiers, all of us wearing the regulation helmet and body armour you have to put on as the plane makes its whirlygig missile-avoidance-manoeuvre descent.

. . . It’s much harder work to find excuses for otherwise intelligent Canadians who know nothing about Afghanistan but who will still earnestly proclaim with a straight face that what’s going on here is really all about oil, and that Canadian soldiers are here only to advance the sinister aims of American imperialism, and the plucky Taliban resistance may be animated by a sense of decency we might not share, but none of it is any of our business anyway, and we should just leave.

It’s like the script from some other science-fiction movie. What gives this one away is a constellation of distinctly non-American (and indeed non-western) soldiers in Afghanistan from countries like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, and Singapore, plus there isn’t any oil. Go up the chain of command to the Afghanistan Compact, which set the terms for the whole NATO-led project here back in 2006, and you’ll find that among the 66 co-authors and sponsors are Brazil, Finland, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. There is also a galaxy of readily-available public opinion polls undertaken across Afghanistan over the past six years that have consistently shown that Afghans are savvy enough to appreciate the necessary work the NATO-led forces are attempting to do here, no matter how half-heartedly or incompetently the work sometimes get done. The most recent polls show Afghan approval ratings of the UN-mandated NATO efforts at between 60 and 70 per cent. Support for the Taliban hovers, as usual, around four per cent.

The Taliban’s ingenious “improvised explosive devices” kill ten times more Afghan civilians than soldiers, and that’s just another little story that never seems to get told about the war in Afghanistan. Still less gets told about the peace in Afghanistan, and what that’s like. This is a country teeming with bright and hopeful young men and women, hilarious Dari-language sitcoms and political satires broadcast daily from Kabul, crazy call-in radio shows, lively universities, and promenades in the cool evenings along the ancient boulevards of Herat. What we get is mostly just the news from Kandahar. And sometimes, we don’t even get that. . .

It should go without saying that all honour goes to such journalists as Michelle Lang, who was unsatisfied to simply report from "inside the wire," where there is nonetheless a lot of important reporting to be done. It should also go without saying that the "embedded" journalists at KAF, not least the CBC's James Murray, with whom I was pleased to stay up late one night under the stars to talk about these things, routinely and bravely venture out with our soldiers into the teeth of death and mayhem. It should go without saying, but because it is so fashionable to sneer at "embedded" journalists, I'll bloody well say it anyway. So there. Said it.

I'm headed back to Afghanistan within the month. I won't be inside KAF, but instead, like the time before, I'll be embedded with the people, as I like to say (I was on CBC Radio this morning here in Victoria giving out of myself about these things).

Meanwhile, in related writing-trade news I see the railway worker John Howarth, an important elder and collaborator in the strange train journey from Jasper to Prince Rupert that won me a National Magazine Award and also ended up a centrepiece in This Ragged Place (thanks again, John) is the latest partisan to appear in Bill Horne's brilliant Solidarity Series, linking wage workers and cultural workers.

Good to see you again, John, if only in a photograph:


Blogger Nathan said...

That's a great account of KAF. I was there for a year (2008) and everything you said is very true. Good luck!!

11:46 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Thanks, Nathan.

8:47 PM  

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