Noor waves over the top of the Hesco barriers, then stops to readjust what some people would call the bed sheet and Afghans regard as a fashion statement wrapped around his head and shoulders. I am standing at the front gate of the base waiting for him and the rest of the contractors to line up and be searched prior to be allowed onto the airfield where I am working.
The barriers provide a notion of security here. They are manufactured by a company called Hesco, and therefore all carry the name of their parent stamped out in 24-inch blue capital letters. People don't refer to them as blast barriers, fencing, or anything else – they're simply Hescos. More often than not, they're “Fucking Hesco(s).” Typical usage runs something like this:
“Don't burn the fucking trash there, you'll melt the fucking Hesco liner and Sergeant Major will flip his shit again.”
- or -
“Stupid bastard kids from that compound were on the fucking Hescos and throwing rocks. Fuckers keep fucking around like that, going to get their asses shot. Man.”
Note: We don't shoot kids. We just talk about it because being periodically pelted with rocks is mildly annoying.
The policy is that local workers are searched by the Afghan security force. This is interesting, as the security guys take their jobs pretty seriously, and whether their duties consist of neatly organizing cellular phones (Afghans aren't allowed to have or use cell phones on base), searching people for suicide vests, or standing at gate with pinned irises and mumbling to themselves after smoking too much hash over lunch – they're serious guys. I motion for the guard in the shack and through a combination of halting English and hand signals, we manage to establish I've fifteen workers and three trucks coming on this morning.
It will take them ten minutes to work through the line and then pile into the back of the Toyota HiLux I use to get around base. Noor goes through the gate first as the interpreter, I rely on him to get Pashto, Dari, and Persian into English and vice versa. Additionally, Noor is useful in that he asks a very large number of difficult to answer questions about America, American policy, politics, and what it is that I do on the base.
Someone, in their infinite wisdom, determined that although squids are quite good at damage control and fixing anything any manner of objects coated in gray paint we are (for the most part) quite useless when it comes to the Shit Killing Department. Therefore when we go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan we are first subjected to a huge number of medical examinations and then sent through something called Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training, or NIACT. Here you learn how to be in something that is not quite the Army and not quite the Navy, which we refer to as being in The Narmy.
There are two ways to explain NIACT, one of them is a scaled up version of the first 45 minutes of 'Spies Like Us.' The second is Diet Army Basic Training, whereby you get all the cool parts such as Shooting Things for Beginners, Driving Large Armored Vehicles in a Very Tactical Fashion While People Shoot at You With Blanks, and Constantly Being Bored Out of Your Fucking Mind. You get to skip all of the getting yelled at, marching, and folding of clothes, which is quite handy since most of us are entirely too cynical to take that sort of nonsense seriously.
One of the things that they pound into your head at NIACT is that you don't talk about certain things with the locals. For starters, politics, religion, your family, politics, your actual purpose for being in country, politics, and religion, are all no-go areas. Which leaves you with the conversation that Noor and I are having at the moment.
“Yurei, how are you this morning?” Noor asks, holding out his hand. I grasp and then shake with both hands while bowing slightly at the waist, then release and place my right hand over my heart for a moment. He mirrors my own motions, this being the Pashtun way of showing respect.
“Noor, I am doing well.” I finish folding my sunglasses and place them in the collar of the Army-issue insulated pullover I am wearing as defense against the next topic of conversation. “It is somewhat cold this morning.”
“Yes, it is,” he says, smiling, “there were no clouds, during the night, makes the night very cold.”
“True.” Sniffling, I look toward the gate where one of the Afghan security guards is hassling a kid picking their cigarette butts out of the dust and rock at the base of the Hesco. Apparently, he has not picked up enough to merit being paid and an argument concerning fair pay for work has broken out. The man, who has an AK-47 with the bluing polished completely away, snaps at the kid in Pashto. The kid, armed with a pair of rubber sandals and a bag of trash, backs down and resumes picking up spent cigarettes. “Should warm up today though.”
“Yes, it should.” Noor says and then lapses into a silence that lasts until the remainder of the workers and trucks are through the gate.
Assembled in the back of the truck, Noor and I climb into the front seats. The workers are not allowed inside the truck as this is apparently part of some Afghan social pecking order to which I, as an American, am not privvy. We arrive at the work site after jolting across the washboard dirt roads after a few minutes, workers leaping from the back of the truck carry cases of bottled water and Halal meals I'd picked up prior to going to the front gate. The Lieutenant I work for is quite adamant that we're here to help, and any kindness counts.
I agree. After all, they're taking their lives in their own hands by being here.
“Yurei?” Turning I find Noor with his hands clasped together in front of him. “Mr. Harry says you are leaving.”
“Yes Noor, I have to work somewhere else.” This in reference to the fact that I am being sent from the central airfield to an outlying Forward Operating Base to replace someone due to rotate home. Mr. Harry is what Noor calls my Lieutenant, since none of us wear ranks or names on our uniforms he has no idea who we are.
“You are going near Gawgrin?” Do not mistake someone that does not speak English well as someone who is stupid. Noor missed an excellent calling in the intelligence field, as with a few snippets of information can piece together some fairly interesting observations.
“You should be careful there. Many Taliban in that area.” Again, here we have the Afghan analog of James Bond. “I could not go there, the Taliban would shoot me.”
“Really?” I shake my head while the voices of NIACT instructors ring through my head about being as non-committal as possible and not, under any circumstances, to get involved in political discussions. I suck at paying attention to directions. “Noor, forgive me for saying this, but that's very bad.”
“Because they know I work for Americans. They threaten us all. Tell us they will shoot us, kill our family.” His voice has picked up an atypical fervor. “But, I work with you anyway.”
“And I appreciate that Noor, I really do.” The risk this man is taking by standing on this base, working with us, is almost incomprehensible to me. I grew up in suburbs where the greatest danger we faced was the occasional wasp nest, angry dog, or drunken idiot screaming around in their Thunderbird thinking themselves a wee bit too much Smokey and the Bandit.
Noor has three children, that much I know from a previous unauthorized conversation. His kids face land mines left over from the 14 year Soviet involvement here, random shootings, unexploded American and Russian ordnance, and that other thing.
“You know there was a suicide bombing at bazaar in Gawgrin?” He asks, something urgent in his voice.
“Yes Noor. A very bad thing. A very cowardly thing.”
“The man who did this, he was not Pashtun.” This with a mixture of both disgust and indignation.
“Yes,” exasperation, more disgust and indignation, “he was from Pakistan.”
“Interesting.” I am trying quite hard not to be drawn into the morass of Afghani politics, but there is something that says following policy just isn't right here. “Pakistan should be doing more to stop these people.”
“Yes, Afghanistan would be much better off if Pakistan would leave it alone.” Noor is suddenly excited by our newly found shared common interest.
“Noor, they told me not to discuss politics with you. So please forgive me for saying this.”
“It is okay.” He nods earnestly, and there is a certain paranoid part of me that wonders if this is being surreptitiously recorded. My words could wind up on the Afghan equivalent of the Walter Cronkite news hour, yet I speak anyway.
“I think that Afghans and Americans share something, which is a desire to govern themselves. Now we're not the same in many ways, but we're both very much independent and want to be able to control our own destinies.”
“Yes, yes, I understand.” There is a beaming happiness radiating out of his face, a certain paternal pride creeping onto Noor's face. Perhaps a validation that working with the Americans is a good idea after all. “It is very good, very good you say this thing.”
“Thank you, Noor.”
One of the workers motions him over to translate for the crane driver who is delivering another pallet of Hescos to the work site. We shake hands before I leave, repeating the process from earlier in the morning. My flight to Gawgrin leaves almost without notice later that morning and I am unable to say goodbye to him. Looking down on the landscape from the back of the helicopter cargo ramp, it occurs to me that Noor and I are the same age. Which means that while I was worried about Han Solo action figures and swimming, Noor was likely concerned about the Spetznatz kicking in his door and stepping on unexploded ordnance.
When I hear the bazaar where Noor and our construction workers assemble in the mornings before coming on base is attacked with a suicide bombing some days later, I immediately call the Lieutenant at the other base. There is a pause from the other end as the delay in the line works the usual frustrating magic on trying to communicate over secure phones. He eventually manages to inform me that our guys came to work early that day for a concrete pour.
“Why, what's up?” He asks.
“Nothing, just wanted to make sure everyone was okay.”
“Yeah, I was pretty relieved our guys were all right as well.”
“Yeah sir, but it sucks there are people who aren't.”
There is a long pause, longer than is needed for the phone system.
“Yes, yes it does,” he replies.
For some reason I think about the fact that for all the solidity of the Hescos, concertina wire, automatic weapons, and cameras surrounding this base there is no real security. This isn't a base, it is a ship plying the waters of terra incognita while the world moves on in ignorance.