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.
I didn’t die at age 40, much to my dismay. You know how it is — at age 22, 27, even 30 — you think you know so much, you think the world has become so tiresome. You think that you’ve seen it all, experienced everything life has to offer, and that 40 is a good age at which to end it.
I used to think that at 40, I would have accomplished a lot. I’d be at the top of the career pile, have a couple of grown kids, done some charity work for the conscience, cultivated lifelong friends. As a know-it-all in my 20s I thought, my god 40 is so old, I don’t want to live through that.
How little did I know. I’ve known all along that grown ups do not have all the answers, that was obvious to me even at a young age. You see the adult mouth agape and lacking the words, the eyes tinged with fear of the unknown. So I didn’t really put that much expectation or anticipation to growing older or wiser.
And age proved me right, today at age 40-something I’ve learned that the more you know, the more you realize there is a whole other lot you don’t. I’ve passed the big 40 a few years ago, and I’m seeing there is life beyond it. We’ll see how the rest of it goes.
I’ve sat at a table and eaten with ‘rough men who stand ready to do violence on my behalf’ — and I am all the better for it.
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.
Guns are every day objects here, this being a war zone and all. I see them all day, slung across the chests our Gurkha guards, dangling from belts, holstered at the waist, clasped in hand by men walking along the hallways. It’s inevitable of course, that I will have one put into my hands, eventually.
This is the only job I’ve had where it is a requirement to be familiar with guns. They give us classes on guns. We have Safety Day activities that demonstrate weapons handling, unloading, and dry-firing. The first class I had on weapons familiarization was taught by our lead gunner, a huge guy with a shiny bald head. He taught us how to dismantle, load/unload, and aim guns. I have broken down and put back together again an M4 and an M9, whatever good that skill will do me. My dad was thrilled to hear about the experience though, so it makes for an interesting story. I remember that class, I was the only female there and we were fumbling around with a pistol and a rifle. Those things are heavy, what can I say. There was a point in the class where we were told to get your rifles and lie down on the floor.
Of course I was the only one that asked, “Why?” The instructor explained that we should learn how to fire from a prone position. I couldn’t resist teasing him, I said, “But the floor is dirty, I don’t want to get myself all dusty.” He went red in the face, trying not to laugh and not to show any reaction. He said that we were all required to do it, the standard answer to everything. One of the guys in the class, my friend since high school who knew what trouble I could be, pleaded with me, “Just get down on the floor, please.” I did, after all, I’ve had my bit of fun.
They all do take their guns seriously here, I must point that out. As they should, these things take away life at the pull of a trigger.
There was a break-in once at the camp, a raggedly band of Taliban launched a rocket that hit right next door to us, rattling my office windows with such force the blinds shook off most of their dust. A few insurgents were able to breach the wall and the ground attack alarm was sounded. We all went into the bunkers to wait it out in relative safety. In a ground attack of such close proximity, everyone on camp that was authorized to carry a gun had to go into the armory to get one. Gunners and medics were patrolling the camp grounds constantly, most everyone had a weapon. Some of the guys that I am friends with dropped by my bunker to see how I was, telling me to stay inside. All of them had weapons, the glint of the metal reflecting the same glint in their eyes. I thought it was excitement, and it disturbed me somewhat.
My radio, in crackling bursts of static, sent out the announcement from the FOB manager that if anyone breached our camp gates and if that person was not recognized as one of us, they were to shoot on sight. Shoot on sight.
I listened to it, I listened as the message was repeated and I sat still, just sat there looking at the radio. That was the moment when it really became real to me that this is a place where people actually get killed, that a gun here was not just for show, it means death to those at the opposite end of the barrel. Most of all, I realized that here, those who hold a gun are ready to kill.