An Irishman's experience of working in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Ghana & Tanzania
Friday, 9 December 2011
All I knew about Afghanistan was years of war
Friday, December 9th, 2011 at 8:53 am
This time last year, Noel Scanlon couldn’t afford to bring his sons to see Santa. Since taking a job in Afghanistan, his mortgage is up to date and his family can afford a holiday for the first time since 2008
I SET UP a small architectural-services company from my home in 2003, and within a few years I had five staff and a small office in Limerick. I really enjoyed running my own business, but in August 2008 we hit problems. Lehman Brothers went to the wall shortly after that, and as anyone involved in construction knows well, that was when things went seriously pear-shaped.
In the space of just one month, our turnover was down by 70 per cent. It was a scary time. By Christmas we had closed the office and moved the business back to the house.
My wife Laura, who had been working for the company, went back into hotel management and I took a part-time job with another firm. We entered 2011 with a few months’ arrears on our mortgage, and last Christmas we really struggled to put things together for our two boys, Daithí (who is nine) and Oisín (six).
I got a phone call in May from a friend and former client asking if I knew someone who would be interested in taking a project-management position with a construction firm in Afghanistan. I called around to a few people I knew, and one of them said to me: “Noel, would you not do it yourself?” I hadn’t even thought of it before. I discussed it with my wife, and within a week we had decided it was the right thing to do.
I wasn’t concerned about the work itself, but the safety element and the long periods of separation from my family were a worry. The work was to be exclusively within a military base, and I was assured it would be safe. So I went for it and arrived here at the Tarin Kowt base in Uruzgan province in July. There are 4,500 people stationed at the base, which is jointly managed by the US and Australian armies.
All I knew about Afghanistan before I took the job was what I had heard in news reports about the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, years of war and suicide bombers. I didn’t have any illusions: I knew it was a very dangerous country. But I also knew that the area I was going into was protected. Every time I have to move away from the base, it is always by military helicopter.
Copenhagen Contractors, the Danish company I work for, was founded by a former military man. It provides services for areas hit by war or natural disasters. Ninety per cent of my work is for the Australian military, building and managing accommodation and services for the soldiers.
The environment within the base is very work-focused. I get up before 6am, start work at 7am, and usually don’t finish until after 8pm, six days a week. We work long hours, but I’ve never been averse to hard work. To be honest, it comes naturally when you’re here, because there’s not a lot else to do when you have spare time.
We have one coffee shop and a gym, which I try to use on my days off. We are living in an enclosed compound, so doing some exercise helps to dispel the sense of claustrophobia. I’ve also started a blog about my experiences here and about the books I’m reading.
I was home for two weeks in October, which was great, but leaving again after the fortnight was very difficult. I felt like a visitor in my own home, living out of a suitcase and then packing up again to go back. It was a weird experience. But I’ll be home for another two weeks at Christmas, which I’m really looking forward to.
The Ailwee Cave, near Ballyvaughan in west Co Clare, has a fantastic Santa’s workshop every Christmas, which we have gone to every year since our first boy was about two years old. It is a great day for the kids, but there is a cost to it, and last year we just couldn’t afford it. This year we have had it booked since September and I’m coming home a few days early so we can all go together. To me, things like that make the time away worthwhile.
We have noticed a huge change in our finances over the past few months. Last June I couldn’t afford to wind up my own company. Since I’ve been over here we’ve been able to do that, and our mortgage is back up to date. One of my sons is now doing guitar lessons and, heading into the new year, we’ll be able to plan a holiday for the family, something we haven’t done since 2008.
If someone had told me last Christmas I would be living in Afghanistan in a year’s time, I would never have believed them. I’ll stay for a year, and hopefully by then I will have found something back home, or perhaps in another Gulf country that is a little safer than here, or in Britain, where I would be closer to my family. I am willing to do whatever it takes now.
This experience has been about more than just work for me; it has given me a different perspective on life and what is important to me. Coming over here, the anger and frustration I used to feel about the state of the country has waned somewhat, because you realise we have the ability to change things in Ireland. The problems are big, but they are absolutely nothing compared with the problems people face in Afghanistan in their day-to-day lives.
We have an educated population, we are able to go abroad and we are able to make things happen for ourselves. Maybe things aren’t as bad as we sometimes make them out to be.
In conversation with CIARA KENNY - Irish Times- Genertion Emigration
'This experience has been about more than just work for me; it has given me a different perspective on life and what is important to me': Noel in Afghanistan
Over the past two months of my time here, I have been trying to grasp a greater sense of Afghanistan and its turbulent past, I was also particularly interested in the town of Tarin Kowt, which is just adjacent to the Base here, I have discovered that it played a very important role during the War on Terror in 2001.
Afghanistan is a country of tribes, from the Tajiks and Uzbeks to the north, the Hazzara and down here in the South, the Pashtuns, who are the key tribe that have made up the Taliban, who themselves of course are not Afghan at all !. There are three key Provinces in the South that are predominantly Pashtun, Kandahar, Helmand and also here in Uruzgan.
The Leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar was born in the village of De Rawood, which is in the mountains west of the town of Tarin Kowt which itself is the Capital or Provincial Town of Uruzgan. The town has about ten thousand inhabitants and the rest of the province is made up of smaller villages scattered throughout the Province and very tribal in nature.
Soon after 9/11 after the US declared its war on terror, it was making progress in the north of the country as it allied with the Northern Alliance and the Taliban were being routed right across the north, however they were very aware of the dangers of allowing the Nothern Alliance to advance into the Southern Pashtun Provinces, as it would likely lead to a civil war along tribal divides and would allienate the Pashtuns.
I have just completed a great book called "The Only Thing Worth Dying For" written by Eric Blehm, which tells the story of how a group of 11 "Green Berets" or Special Forces were dropped into a village just west of here along with Hamid Karzai, who is now the President of Afghanistan. The Mission was to raise an insurgency against the Taliban amoung the Pashtun Tribes of Uruzgan, and Karzai who is a Pashtun was seen a natural focal point and rallying figure to persude the local tribes. The plan was for the Special Forces Unit to train the local fighters and organise them (something a little alien to the locals in my experience), on their second day in Uruzgan, they got notice from the town of Tarin Kowt that the locals has staged an uprising and overthrown the Taliban Governor.
The Story then goes on to explain how the 11 Special Forces Troops defended the town against a Taliban attack from Kandahar to the south and how this victory became the key success that allowed Karzai to rally the local tribes and allow them to push South and within weeks result in the surrender of Kandahar.
A lot of this success was based on the terrain in this part of the world and the lack of roads and supply routes (there is just a single road connecting Tarin Kowt to Kandahar) and also Karzai's ability to rally his Pashtun Tribal Elders against the Taliban. I would highly recommend reading the book as I have just given a brief summary here, it goes in to lot sof detail on how these forces are trained in Unconventional Warfare (UW), which resulted in the success they had in Uruzgan, there were of course casualties as there always is in war.
From this success in 2001, the airfield here at Tarin Kowt was secured and the Military Base built around it which is where I am working at the moment, it was first built by the Dutch, thus named Camp Holland and was then handed over to the Australians who remain here. They have many differnent missions here in Uruzgan, other security and counterinsurgency, one of them being reconstruction, both reconstruction in the physical sense of schools and medical centres destroyed during the war but also training for the locals such as trades etc. to allow local men to provide for their families, they also facilitate "Shura's" which are meetings of local Elders to agree on the best way to work togeteher and to prevent local disagreements which has been the centuries old way of existence in this country.
It is almost exactly 10 years since the battle of Tarin Kowt, and in ways, so much remains the same, the Taliban still exists, conflict still remains, and some 120,000 NATO soldiers are based throughout this country, committments have been given by most of these countries to start withdrawing these troops from next year, I can only hope that this country can provide security to its people or this cycle will never end.....
the photo's above are from the book and website...www.onlythingworthdyingfor.com
On November 6th last, the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard paid a visit to MNB-Tarin Kowt, this following a tough few weeks for the Australian Army here following the loss of 3 of their Soldiers here and 7 other casualties. This was part of a visit to Aafghanistan that also involved a visit to Kaul to meet President Karzai.
As this is a warzone, such visits are done in such a way that there is no reporting of the event until afterwards so it was interesting to see that nothing appeared in media for a few days after the visit.
We went along to the Bar-B-Q hosting the Prime Minister, and it felt very odd to be in the presence of a head of state in such an informal setting but also a very secure setting-
She mingled with the soldiers and talked to them about their work here, and also re-iterated Australia's commitment to the mission here until at least 2014, it is now becoming clear however that they will be reducing their contingent here by some two thirds by the middle of 2012.
This of course will have an effect on our work here for the next number of months as much of our work here is in support of the Australian Military so I expect that we will also be scaling down coming into the second quarter of 2012, so there looks like my time here in Tarin Kowt at least if not Afghanistan is limited...
Last Saturday afternoon, during the regular site visits, inspections and meetings around Camp Holland, there was a strange feeling about, I had heard a lot of Helicopter activity overnight and could see that there were a lot of tired and weary soliders around the base.
A colleague of mine I met for lunch informed me that he had heard that there was a lot of action last night and that there were casualties in the Base Hospital, later on that evening, we heard the very sad news that three Australian Soldiers had lost their lives in an incident out on a Patrol Base from here, you could see the distress on the faces of every Australian I met that evening.
At a regular meeting that I have with our own clients, who are Officers in the Australian Army, I conveyed the sympathies of our contingent here in Tarin Kowt and they went on to express how shocked they were at the events and how the news was being taken back at home....
It transpired that the three Soldiers were training the Afghan Army, as a major part of ISAF's objectives here is to develop and train an Afghan Army and Police Force that can establish and maintain order in this "wild west" nation. On a routine morning Parade Drill, an ANA soldier had pulled an automatic weapon and fatally injured three Australian soldiers, an Interpreter and up to seven other soldiers.
On Monday last, I was invited to attend the Repatriation Ceremony for the three fallen soldiers at the Gym here and later on the airstrip as the soldiers were farewelled by their colleagues here at Tarin Kowt.
In a very touching and emotional few hours, what seemed to be the entire population of the base , both Military and Civilian lined the roads leading from the Gym to the waiting C-130 Hercules Aircraft in complete silence while a lone piper lead the three armoured vehicles carrying the coffins of each fallen soldier, flanked by a guard of honour from their closest comrades.
For me this again demonstrates, firstly, how these brave men and women come from thousands of miles away to this country and work so hard to do their duty, trying to stabilise and establish a nation here that has been so ravaged by decades of war, and secondly how futile it must feel to those same soldiers, their politicians and their families back home that they should die in such a way, where they have been giving of their time and expertise to help and are attacked for it....thus seems to be the way in this country. Where are we now, 10 years into a conflict that just does not seem to be any closer to a conclusion ?....
It was a sombre day on Tuesday last all around the Base here, I again send my deepest sysmpathies to the families of all those who have lost lives in this country and can only hope that someday this beautiful, conflicted, harsh, severe and sad country can find a way to be peaceful and prosper again....
On the 5th October last, I began my long journey back home to East Clare, firstly hitching a ride on an Amercian Chinook to Kandahar, and belive me, that was an experience, then a 737 from Kandahar to Dubai, with the massive reward of 33cl cold Heineken Beer just after take-off (Its all dry over here !), then an overnight flight from Dubai to Heathrow, a nice english breakfast there, and the best part of all was the final leg with Aer Lingus into Shannon, with the excitement of spotting three of mates houses as we approached landing (I live fairly close to Shannon Airport), it was cold and wet in Shannon but I couldn't care less, there I was meeting my wife and 2 boys, in a T-Shirt in cold and wet Shannon- It was great to see them as I had missed them, Its the hardest part of being away and not be able to do teh simple stuff like meals and tickling fights !!
It was great to meet my neighbours and friends back at home over the following two weeks. In the first few days, you realise and cherish the freedom's we have in Ireland, even through the economic challeneges that we are going through right now, we don't live in fear, we have access to education, we are allowed free speech, stuff we take for granted, stuff I took for granted, It really gives one perspective coming back from a country like Afghanistan. The first few days home were a little surreal as my sleep pattern wasn't right, and I was in a way "between worlds" which I guess is understandable. Thanks to everyone who I met over the break, it was great meeting you all and I look forward to seeing you at Christmas...
Like all good things as they say.....I packed up again and returned to Afghanistan last week via the same route to much cooler weather and to a very busy workload......but also to a very welcoming team back up here in Tarin Kowt.
On my way out, I bought a book in O'Mahony's book store in Limerick, which I pretty much read cover to cover on my journy back, so riveted that I was by it.....
"Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse" are the Memoirs of Suraya Sadeed, she tells the very personal, tragic, cruel and hopeful story of how she set up her childrens charity in Afghanistan, yes "she", a woman who took on every obstacle right through the period just after the defeat of teh Soviet Union, through the Civil War, the Taliban, 9/11 and post 9/11, it is a fantastic window into the real lives of Afghan people and how they have suffered through the many years of conflict here, and told with such compassion and bravery, I would highly recommend the book, as it gives accurate accounts of history along with very personal emotional expereinces with people she met along the way and also gives hope for the future here, to borrow a quote from the book.......
"drop by drop, a River Forms", this woman was not for giving up easily ! - enjoy the book if you choose to read it..........
Kandahar Airfield was my first glimpse of Afghanistan back in July, It is the NATO Military Base centred around the International Airport about 12km from Kandahar City and home to almosy 40,000 people made up of Military Personnel and Contractors Supporting them, everything from Cleaners to Chefs to Builders.
It is a very strange environement to arrive into, you are brought through what they term the "arrivals" area which is in fact the last standing building from the fall of the Taliban back in 2001, plenty of eveidence of the bullet holes in the walls, what also hits you is the extreme heat and dust, dust everywhere....
I spent my first few days here in July before moving up the mountains to the altitude of Tarin Kowt north of here in Uruzgan Province, and last week, I had occasion to go back to Kandahar Airfeild or KAF for short, for a number of meetings, so off I went on an American Helicopter from Tarin Kowt, (its like a bus here !) and got a phenomenal aerial view of this beautiful country through the mountains, you can see the dried up river beds and the green zones in the valleys below the barren desert mountains that seperate the mountainous region of Uruzgan from the Plain to the south in Kandahar Province, you can also see Kandahar City with its vast layout of Mud Houses along with more modern homes all spread out across the flat plain, a truly remarkable sight. This is a City that has been fought over for centuries and is still at the eye of the storm here, there is a saying here "he who controls Kandahar, controls Afghanistan"
I spent five days in KAF last week and got a chance to see more of the place as well as get some work done with my colleagues based here including may I add seven of my compatriates from Limerick, Tipperary , Waterford and my own native Clare.
KAF is truly an odd place, it is a Military Base of enormous proportions, with streets and heavy traffic everywhere, and not normal traffic, large Army Vehicles and Container Trucks all moving at a maximum of 20 km / hr. Pedestrians are given priority everywhere and the Military Police are there to impose order throughout the base, the buildings are essentially temporary in nature though there are many that are much more permanent, accommodation blocks for troops, Contractors Compounds, DFAC's (Dining Facilities), Gyms, and even a Church.
The noise is everywhere in KAF, everything from the PA system throughout the camp to the roar of Passenger Planes, Fighter Jets & Helicopters all day and night. Everyone here is working and working hard, from the soldiers of many nations to the waiters working in DFAC's and PX (Shops), It is truly a culture shock.
Also in KAF, is the Boardwalk, which is the social centre of the Camp, this is a remarkable place, a large recreation area surrounded by a wooden covered walkway, with Retail Outlets all around, everything here from Tim Horton's, TGI Fridays to Pizza Parlours and even a French Cafe.
In the centre there is an open space which can cater from everything from joggers, to cricket to outdoor concerts and even an Ice Hockey Rink, yes, right here in the desert !
It is a great place to socialise and wind down from the very work orientated focus of the camp, buy a coffee or just sit and watch the (rather surreal) world go by !
After leaving KAF to return to Tarin Kowt, it occured to me how one could actually get accustomed to "living" in KAF, as essentially everything is there and this got me thinking how you could almost accept it as normal which of course it is anything but, and I have even met people who live on Camps such as this and have done so for many years, it is certainly an alternative way of life, and not one I'm sure would be entirely well balanced, as if you think of it this way, a soldier does a tour of anything from six months to one year, and though they may return to do another tour, most Military Organisation insist that they have adequate time between tours, what then of the many civilians who make their lives in places like KAF........
I was acutely reminded recently of our task here in Afghanistan which is not merely about building works but more about supporting the Military Effort here in Tarin Kowt, their main focus here is on supporting the local communities to rebuild, mentoring them, making their communities safe.
Brave men and women from Australia, United States, Slovakia, Singapore and of course Afghanistan are out here each day carrying out their duties and helping to rebuild this "failed" state so to speak and it may take many years to accomplish this. They are involved in all sorts of projects from re-building schools to mentoring the emerging Afghan Police and Army and risk their lives each day outside the security of the Forward Operating Base here at Camp Holland.
A reminder of this risk was brought home recently when I attended a Military Ramp Ceremony for a Fallen Soldier. This is a formal Military Ceremony where the fallen soldier is given a "send-off" by not only his own comrades but also by the memebrs of the other Coalition Forces here at Tarin Kowt.
A Formal event was held at the Gym here, at which speeches were made the soldier's colleagues and from here, a lone piper marched in front of an armoured vehicle bearing his remains which was flanked on either side by practically every soldier on the base all the way to the waiting C-130 Military aircraft which would bring him on his last journey from his Military Family home to his Grieving Family.
It was of course a sad event to attend and a reminder of what these young men and women risk each day over here but it was also a great privilige to be there and witness these men and women honouring their comrade in such a respectful way, and I felt honoured to stand there amoung them, pay my respect and to also watch as that plane rolled down the runway and carry him home, to the upright salutes of several hundred soldiers.
This assignment has given me an up close appreciation of how committed and hard working soldiers are when on tours of duty in foreign lands such as this, and I have a renewed and deep respect for them, well done to you all , I salute you...........
I was sitting in the office today working away, it was lunchtime and a lot of the guys were heading to the Kitchen for lunch, a very normal day, but just then, a bang and the office shook........at first I ignored it as you become accustomed to all sorts of noises and thought that it was just another controlled explosion which are common on base, however there was something different about this..
I headed towards the kitchen and heard another bang and then noticed a column of smoke in the air, I then knew this was something more significant, today, I had really arrived in Afghanistan and would feel and smell the conflict in this country.
As the afternoon wore on, the tension mounted, the camp was locked down and I was trying to find out where the rest of our team were as they were working on different projects around the camp, helicopters were becoming more numerous and noisey, there were chinooks flying over us and sending out so much dust that you could hardly see around you....was it frightening, yes, but not in a way that I felt that I or the others were in any immediate threat, this was all about a Country fighting against itself, a civil war if you like...
I went to look at BBC on the internet as I felt a hunch that something significant was happening and sure enough, there it was, all the word you associate with this conflict right here beside me, fierce fighting, gun battle and suicide bombers, right here within hearing distance of me, I could feel the vibrations, see the helicopters flying over and most of all, could sense the tension...
I have spent one month here this week, working as a Project Manager for a Facilities / Construction Co. here at FOB Tarin Kowt, living on a Military Camp with 6000 soldiers and 500 Contractors like me, but today, I have really arrived here....
It transpired that this was Taliban attack on the Governor's Compound in the town of Tarin Kowt which is just a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Military Base where we live and work....
22 people were killed that day including innocent women and children and a well known BBC reporter in this region, It was one of the oddest days I have ever experienced being in a war zone but being essentially safe from it yet so close to it that you sense it in every way, you hear it, smell it, feel it.....
The noise of the choppers continued well into teh evening and night time, some as Medical Evacuation, some as Military Missions....