It’s the last week of October and it feels as though we are sliding treacherously into an early Kabul winter. Dusk falls faster now, it edges out the last rays of an afternoon sun that slinks away earlier and earlier each day, its warmth swallowed up by the descending cold.
I’m a girl from the tropics, so I like to defy the advances of winter. Off work, I sling my duffel bag of dirty clothes and head to the laundry in the advancing darkness. The pavement is icy now, I can feel the coldness seeping through the flip flops I insist on wearing. The numbness registers as pain on the soles of my feet. A small matter, I think. There is virtue in a little sacrifice.
There are no street lamps here, so I walk by the light of my iPhone, turned down towards the ground. Overhead, I hear the metal whine of our helicopters trying to rise from the ground. Rotor blades whirr, slicing through the night — whack whack whack — metal attacking the cold air. Just over the T-walls I can see the lights of Kabul blinking, the city laid out like a sequined blanket. It looks pretty, yes — but of course, I know better than to trust the sparkle.
I stuff my laundry in the wash, pop in those plump detergent pods. A week’s worth of clothes. I use up two washers for this round. Forty-five minutes to let the machine do its job, then I have to come back, yank my clothes out and transfer them into the dryers. Through the window of the laundry room, the dark outside has become an indigo kind of blue, and the edges of things have turned blurry, like an ink stain.
I know the temperature is going to drop a few more degrees in the next hour. Almost six years in this place, and there’s no getting used to it. The cold still goes straight to my bones.
Some days you sit outside and just look.
The sky can be so blue as to seem elementary. There is snow on the mountains now, but you knew that without having to see it, the sting of cold on the soles of your feet tells you as much when you jump out of bed each morning.
You watch people pass by, walking with their hands jammed into pockets, their bodies bent forward in that curved slouch the spine takes on during winter. You think, my tropical bones will never get used to that shape. You think that, but when you stand up to walk, the curvature reveals itself — how the bones arc inwards, trying to form a shell around the lungs, the ribs about to clutch your heart. The body shields itself, even when one is not aware of it.
Some days though, you see beyond the snow that blankets the rooftops, beneath the thin panes of ice on the ground.
Today, some guy turns in his resignation because he thinks everyone ignores him. He feels unseen. One guy confesses he feels betrayed by the locals, he says they pray several times a day and then send out a truck of explosives to try and blow up a gas station, a guard outpost, a camp full of people. He is tired of saving everybody. Some guys just want to move on to the next high-paying gig, go somewhere warm, where one can earn a decent living and be able to drink Jack-and-Cokes. One guy just paid off the last year of his kid’s college and it’s hasta la vista, see ya. Another left because he’d had enough of the crazy running into the bunkers, all hours of the day. And some guys leave because they want better quality toilet paper.
Five years of doing this, and some days when you sit outside you think you’ve seen it all. Some days.
Deprivation does strange things to people. Case in point: all the Pinoys here on camp who, plied with DIFAC (dining facility) food day in and day out, crave collectively for uga or dried fish. Yes, dilis and danggit, those humble little bits of dried fish that stink when fried, but are salty-crunchy good. Dried fish hits the spot for us Pinoys after months of greasy, under-seasoned American-style food.
I don’t eat dried fish that often at home, but when I do, I usually have dilis, those small anchovies. I stir-fry them briefly with a little brown sugar and chilli powder, then serve the dilis as a side dish to compliment beef nilaga (beef in a clear soup). Yum.
But here in Kabul, where the taste buds are much deprived, uga saves the day. Chow hall food tends to lean aggressively towards the bland. Most days it’s either a medley of meat drowned in unrecognizable sauces or fried everything. Fried potatoes with breaded fried fish, fried pork, fried chicken. For variety there’s extra dry turkey breasts with equally wilted broccoli and carrots. The salad bar has all the same stuff I remember seeing there from two years ago. The exact same kind of lettuce, cut exactly the same way. All the same ingredients laid out in exactly the same spot, the handiwork of an obsessive-compulsive chef, probably.
On some days the food offerings are just depressing, so what do we Pinoys do? We turn to uga. One of the guys goes out to that hidden spot behind the water treatment plant to fry up the smuggled dried stuff, fresh from the checked-in luggage of whoever recently came back from break in the PI. We pilfer those little pats of butter from the chow hall and use that to fry the dried fish in. Butter-fried uga, the humble ingredient elevated to lofty invented cuisine. Depending on the variety of our stash, we also usually have dried squid, and sometimes salted red egg to go with it all. You could say we overkill it a little with the salt. But we gobble up the salty, stinky stuff like it’s foe gras.
Deprivation, it does strange things to you.
There’s been some added excitement to our days these past weeks. Afghanistan is in the news again, and like all the recent salvos in this dusty corner of the world, the excitement was explosive. Like it or not, we are getting more use of those bunkers that line the camp grounds.
Last week there was much ado about that redhead Harry, which resulted in fireworks in camp Bastion, a base that is supposedly super-secure. The damage: two US soldiers dead and several aircraft destroyed. The prince of course, was unharmed. And then just days ago, a bus blew up right next door to us. This time, twelve dead — mostly Russian and South African pilots and some local nationals. The method to this latest madness was a car bomb driven by a young Afghan woman who maneuvered the sedan near a shuttle bus and then blew herself up. I heard the explosion as I lay in bed, half awake in the early hours of morning. My first thought: that sounded like a close one. And then the camp sirens went off and we were supposed to “Duck and cover.” I took a shower. One has to have priorities, and mine is to be clean in case we are evacuated. I know that when that happens, the chances for a shower go down exponentially as the danger goes up.
We are all constantly reminded by Security to heed the warnings and instructions for dealing with any emergencies or threats. I do not take these warnings lightly, of course, but neither am I scared of them. You have to be alert, not scared. Fear clouds one’s judgment, and in the chaos, your best chance at survival is having a clear mind. I reckon when your time is up, it will be up — and I prefer to smell nice and fresh when it’s my turn to go.
Here in Kabul, we’ve only used the bunkers one time in the years that I have been here. And they do have the look of unuse to them, all dusty and empty, unlike in Kandahar where the bunkers are adorned with chairs, boxes of water, cigarette butts. Now, when I pass those blocks of concrete day after day, I am even more aware that they are there, and their presence is both reassurance and grim reminder. Those bunkers are a sign that death is so much more present here.
I’ve been stuck in Kabul since November of last year, and I’m showing the effects of it. I have been consistently short-tempered this year, prone to anger, easily annoyed by the littlest of things. Living on camp in Kabul is like being in prison, you are under a microscope all the time, there is nowhere to escape. Compared to Kandahar, the camp here has about three times as many people. Put all those subcons inside a gray box and you have cabin fever the likes of an overcrowded prison yard. And people here oftentimes behave as though we are all inmates–the intrusion into privacy, the repeated storytelling, the general getting on one another’s nerves–all done on a daily basis.
On my days off, there is the room to hang out in, and after sleep is done and the marathon of crime shows on Fox Crime is over, the walls seem to close in on me. I am left with two choices: gym or walk outside. The walk almost always wins, since the gym with all those grunting testosterones can get a bit much. The walk outside usually takes me 6 rounds on the loop of the camp road, passing offices, warehouses, the DIFAC, security outposts, terminals, the occasional unskilled conversationalist. On clear days I see the ragged mountains slapped against blue skies, looming over the flight line where our flock of Hueys, Phrogs, and 1900s sit quietly, like nesting birds. This sight is something I see every day, but it sure beats staring at the walls.
Sometimes when I take my walks around the camp, I would look at the long line of walls bordered by sniper screens, and imagine the chaos that would ensue if I attempted to climb over them. Not that there’s somewhere to go if you successfully breached that wall. There is only the open road with no one on it for miles, the mounds of garbage piled up on the roadsides, the razor wires that crown yet more walls barricading the other camps. But I still think about doing that climb, if only to cause a little bit of excitement and break the monotony of camp life.
Kabul is really hard on the spirit, that I can say. Two months here and you begin to feel the urge to leave–go somewhere, anywhere–as long as it’s away from this prison. I see it as being inside a series of prisons: you are living in a box within a box within a box within a box. The predominant colors are gray and brown. Vegetation is sparse, trees are stunted, weeds have a strange look to them. Animal life is composed of a few straggly goats, prehistoric looking insects, vicious camel spiders. The usual sounds are the whirring of motors, vehicles going around camp, and that Sunday security alarm drill. Six days of repetitive work, one day off spent inside one’s room, doing laundry, going to the chow hall. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat–all days are the same. There is nowhere to go. Well, there are the ISAF runs next camp that require you to wear a bulletproof vest just to buy shampoo. But when alert levels shoot up, the runs are the first things to be cancelled, and you can go for months without seeing the outside portion of that camp gate. Months staring at the same horizon, eating the same food, seeing the same faces, hearing the same stories, over and over again, like a recurring nightmare.
And so in the end, the box always wins.
I almost died today. Almost, but not quite. This job is an all day occupational hazard.
Our No. 2 boss, a stately old gentleman, came into the office at around 1500 hours as was his custom, to sign documents. We discussed the paperwork, he asked a few questions, signed all the papers with a flourish. Done with the day’s approvals, he stood up and walked out the door, to go back to his office, I thought.
Apparently not. What he actually did was walk down the hallway, double back quietly and then come back to stand by my door. He made sure I was busy at my desk. I must have been staring intently at the monitor, because I didn’t see him standing there.
All of a sudden, he dashes into the doorway, eyes wide, arms flailing, shouting what sounded like, “Wha-daaah!
I felt my heart stop for a full three seconds. He was red in the face from laughing so hard.
The blonde IT girl at the scanner table chastised him, “Hey, don’t scare the poor girl to death!”
“Sir, I had three mugs of coffee today, please don’t do that to me!” I manage to say as I will my heartbeat to return to normal.
“Just keeping you on your toes, young lady.” He grins at me and walks back, chuckling, to his office. For real this time, I made sure of that.