Handan and I were watching a movie in bed when the first mortar fell on FOB Shindand. We had just come back from eating dinner at the canteen and were relaxing before bed. As we settled into our pillows and lost ourselves in the movie, Taliban fighters loaded a mortar tube in the village of Deh-e Ali Beyg, just across the road from our base. The insurgents launched the mortar at our base. But mortars are finicky and difficult to aim, and this bomb was truly a shot-in-the-dark. Launched with little more than a prayer, it struck an uninhabited and remote part of the base. The blast wave radiated outward, quickly losing its destructive force and becoming a concussive sound wave. When the concussion hit our trailer, it felt like someone had slapped me in the sternum with a loud BOOM. FOB Shindand had experienced several of these attacks since it was first opened. The base had sophisticated electronics able to track the origin of any incoming projectile. For this reason, the mortar tube was likely mounted on the back of a pickup truck. Once fired, the insurgents simply drove away. They would never be caught, and they were free to fire as many mortars as they could procure.
Handan and I jumped out of bed and ran outside to see what had happened and what we should do. We were supposed to have bunkers in our camp – shelters where we could all run in the event of an attack. The bunkers were never built, so most of us wandered around in the night seeking high ground, as if a good vantage point would make some difference in the dark. When no more explosions pierced the night, we all drifted back to our homes to get some sleep.
When Handan and I arrived at Shindand, mortar attacks on the base occurred once every month or two. The one described above happened in April 2011, about a month after we arrived. As spring gave way to summer, the attacks increased. Once a month became twice a month. Twice a month became once a week. By the time we left in September, it seemed like the attacks were an almost daily event.
It may sound strange, but we acclimatized to the mortar attacks. Most were far enough away (their kill radius is about 50 yards, and the base was several square miles) that they were no danger to us. They arrived to our camp as forceful sound waves, nothing more. But two attacks stand out in my mind, neither of them mortar attacks. I was able to get photos of each.
The first occurred around 7:30 one morning. Handan and I were in our office drinking coffee and getting a start on the day. The morning was like any other: sunny skies and the sounds of heavy machinery moving earth and rock. Through the din of a big loader operating near our office, a huge explosion rattled our trailer. It was loud and sounded close – far louder and closer than any mortar we’d heard until then. I bolted out of the office like a dog after a squirrel to see what was up. Handan, displaying her usual sangfroid, flicked her eyes up from her computer screen.
“Be careful, my babes.” Her eyes moved back to the screen, thoughts of bombs already gone from her head.
I ran out and looked around. Over the top of the canteen, I saw a large plume of smoke. But I needed a better vantage point. I spotted an Afghan worker nearby and called to him.
“Allo! Merdiven bana lazim!” This was the best I could do in Turkish to say, “Oy! I need a ladder!”
He found one near the canteen, and we leaned it against one of the trailers. Once on the roof, I could see that the blast site was about a mile and a half away, over towards the Herat highway.
We found out later that a contractor doing work near that road hit an IED. The driver escaped with only minor injuries, but the passenger was killed instantly. Seconds and inches. Life and death.
The next attack also took place in the morning. Again, Handan and I were in the office when the first explosion shattered the morning calm. I grabbed my hardhat and ran out. Handan stayed with her spreadsheets and emails.
More shock waves rolled though our camp, followed by the reports of small arms fire. This was more than a hit-and-run mortar attack. This was a battle!
I could see that the fighting was just over the perimeter fence, about a half mile away. Dust plumes rose into the morning air, as military vehicles scrambled to gain cover and advantage. I ran down to the batch plant, the closest area to the fence and the fighting, yelling for all the workers to get down from any high points and head back towards camp for safety. I ran back towards the offices, stopping at a big pile of gravel on the way. I scampered up the gravel, got my camera out, and snapped a photo.
The green fence above is the perimeter fence of the base and the edge of our camp. A few hundred meters past the fence is the road the meets up with the Herat highway. We later learned that an Italian army convoy was ambushed by the Taliban on that road, just past the village of Moghulan-e Now outside our camp.
I watched as Italian military vehicles crisscrossed the arid land. I saw white Taliban pickup trucks fire RPGs at the Italian troops. All the while, a staccato symphony of gunfire and grenades echoed through our camp. While I watched, one of the Afghan workers ran up the gravel pile to watch with me. I turned and nodded to him, an expression of awe and wonder on my face. We stood there, he and I, Afghan and American, and watched while his countrymen tried to kill our allies. What a world, I thought. I wondered what my fellow observer thought of the situation.
Just then, we heard a curious sizzling noise rush over heads. I exchanged a puzzled glance with my gravel buddy. He shrugged.
Moments later, another sizzling, this time louder and closer. I could almost feel the air crackling just over my head, like it was being torn apart. It sounded like a swarm of electric bees. Realization hit, and my blood ran cold.
Those weren’t bees. They were bullets. Two, in close succession. Two, just above our heads. I grabbed my Afghan friend and yanked him down the gravel pile with me. When we were back on the ground with the gravel between us and the fighting, I mimed the situation.
His eyes went wide.
“Yeah, I know, right?” I laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. We walked back towards the LSA, he towards his compatriots and I towards my wife, both of us walking on the shifting sands of cultural alliance.
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