Friday, January 11, 2008
All Quiet on the Western Front
This past week I had the chance to visit the frontlines in southern Afghanistan where much of the battles are taking place. About 40 km west of Kandahar is an area that is well known to be a haven for Taliban fighters. There are many Canadian and Afghan soldiers deployed in the region and they often encounter Taliban resistance on an all too frequent basis.
Required to travel to the district to speak with Canadian soldiers on the ground, I made my way by road as a part of a re-supply convoy. The drive out was an uneventful one, yet it was an interesting experience in itself to witness the countryside and the required journey through Kandahar City. Convoys through the countryside are common and locals are well versed in the necessary actions to take when faced with an approaching convoy. Due to the high risk of potential suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices that are planted on the side of the road, the convoys move at a quick pace. They own the road as they travel. On the front and back of almost every vehicle is a prominent red sign instructing all vehicles to pull over to the shoulder of the road when a convoy is approaching and to maintain a safe distance. Any vehicle that gets too close is considered as a security threat and is given the necessary warnings to back off. After several years of convoy drills, most vehicles are quick to comply. It is an impressive sight to see every vehicle pull over to the shoulder road as we pass by. It reminds me of Moses parting the Red Sea.
Once we arrived at the forward camp, the first thing that caught my attention was the landscape. The small camp that I visited was on the slope of a large mountain giving it a vantage point overlooking the entire valley that is stretched out below. The land was completely flat except for the several mountains that almost shoot up directly out of the ground as if to create a wall around the entire valley. Also, despite the fact that the valley itself was made of fertile land dotted with some sparse vegetation, the mountain itself was completely barren and looked as though what one would expect to see on the planet Mars. It was nothing more than red and gray rock and gravel without so much as a single blade of grass making its way through the earth.
Aside from the lay of the land, it was remarkable to experience the living conditions that the soldiers deployed on the frontlines experience on a daily basis. There are no creature comforts that those who live at the Airfield are accustomed to. One must walk around at all times in protective helmet and vest, indoor washrooms do not exist, sleeping quarters are nothing more than large protective cement blocks stacked one on another and the small cramped workspaces and command posts are all located underground. It is exactly as one would imagine a similar compound to be during World War II.
For many soldiers, this is how they spend their entire deployment, only venturing into the Airfield once every several weeks to take a break from the front lines and enjoy a bit of down time. For these soldiers that live and work on the frontlines, I can only imagine that time must pass by slowly. But, such is the life of a deployed soldier. Most of their time is spent trying to find ways to pass the time until that moment when they are called into action. I have heard it described as periods of prolonged boredom intermixed with short periods of intense action. It is a life of complete contrast within only a few seconds. In my view, these soldiers that spend their time on the frontlines live with deprivation, they live with risk and they live in a hostile environment with the enemy around them on all sides. In my view, these are the true heroes of this fight.