And You Think You Had a Tough Day…
People have always had an ability to amaze and astound me. Both for bad reasons and for good. And their ability to continue to do it is emphasised out here even more so.
Extremes of behaviour from the ‘left of arc’ of unspeakable horror and terror through to spirited indifference in the centre to the ‘right of arc’ of amazing strength and hard work for others in the face of adversity.
This was shown to me today. A couple of days ago a Patrol Commander came to me and said that one of the bridges in a local village had a big crack in the supporting wall. It looked fairly safe, but it was one of the main bridges on the main road through the village. Only about 4m long it spanned an irrigation ditch that criss-crosses the area round here. Some of the poorer areas use the ditches for their water-supply (which obviously has health implications) but mostly they are used as drainage ditches or as irrigation feeds to small plots of crops in the village compounds.
This particular bridge was not only used by the local civilians, but also by our own vehicles, when travelling between the check points, so it was in everyone’s interest to make sure it did not collapse and so it needed to be fixed quickly. I also needed someone who I could trust to do the work.
Out here local building contractors tender for the projects that we run, and so I have a list of people who are my ‘go to guys’, one particular is always at the top of my list. ‘Gul’ works for a company based in a Lashkar Gar, and whenever I have used him in the past, has done a superb job, within a very good budget, and almost always early, if not bang on time.
I had a word with the Interpreter who called him up, and by the end of the day, Gul was at the gate of the camp, and had agreed to go and look at the damage to the bridge and to come back with a quote for fixing it.
Good to his word he gave me a good quote and I arranged for the job to be done. He said it would be finished by Monday. (We were talking on the Saturday!)
Pretty sharp the next morning, his men started work the next day, and by the Monday, the local Patrol Commander informed me that Gul’s men were nearly finished. Often in the afternoons here I get a bit of downtime and Monday was no different and I sat down outside the Ops tent to write a letter home.
After about 15 minutes my attention was attracted by a commotion in the Ops Tent. SITREPS were flying over the radio, and it became clear that there had been a shooting somewhere in our Area of Operations (AO). I wandered in to try and evesdrop on what was going on. One report came in that a car had been shot up in the village by someone with an AK-47. Bad news. Then information dripped in. I heard a Grid Ref over the net and looked to find it on the Map Table.
It was the grid for the bridge where the work was being done.
Soon information came in that it was a contractors car. Immediately I told the Ops Officer that one of my contractors was working there and told him Gul’s name. It was passed over the radio, and, yes it was Gul’s car. Apparently Gul had been confronted by a gun-man who had fired 3-4 bursts of automatic fire and who had then bravely run away.
I was horrified. I had asked Gul to go down there and he’d been confronted by a Taliban Insurgent who didn’t want Gul to be working on ISAF projects, fixing the bridge.
Again, it emphasised that the Taliban don’t really care about the people here and that they are happy to destroy this country, whilst the Government and ISAF want to build.
About an hour later Gul called into the Check Point on his way home. Well, on his way being towed home. I called him into our meeting area by the gate and we shared a cup of tea. Naturally I asked him how he was. Through the interpreter he told me that he was fine and he told me the story of what had happened.
His lads had finished the job and he was taking a few pictures of the work (to show to me) with his camera and suddenly a man dressed in black with an AK rifle was standing behind him. The Insurgent told Gul that he shouldn’t be working for ISAF and he shouldn’t do any future building in the village. He cocked his rifle and as he did this Gul wisely ran for it, quickly round a corner into the village proper. The Insurgent clearly didn’t want to go into the centre of the population and so he turned his attention on Guls white Toyota. Spraying it with 7-8 rounds of 7.62 ammo. Thankfully no-one had been sitting in it, because the bullets passed straight through the passenger compartment and out the other side. Having bravely shot a car, the Insurgent then continued with his bravery and ran for it out into the fields away from the village where he knew our troops would be coming to investigate the shots.
After a few minutes Gul returned to his car, and found it shot up. It wouldn’t start and so he arranged for a friend to tow it back to the city, after coming to see me.
I was horrified. I had placed Gul in this position. I had asked him to do the work. I had never thought that he might be targeted for intimidation because of him wanting to make a living and to try and help rebuild his country. I told him this. I also asked him if the intimidation had worked. Was he put off doing any future work for me?
He looked me right in the eye and smiled. ‘Ya, ya, ya, ya.’ he said. Ya is the Pashtu word for ‘no’. He told me that this was Afghanistan. Things like this happened. Next time he would bring a bit of security with him, and the Taliban weren’t going to put him off. He said he was proud of his country, and that he wanted to help rebuild it. He was lucky to be an engineer, and to have been able to get a trade and had a job, and was lucky to be part of the rebuilding of the country.
‘They can try and intimidate me. But this is Afghanistan; we are used to it. It won’t stop me. We have to build. That way one day we can have a country as nice as yours. Maybe one day we can help other people like you are helping us.’
Such positivity and such strength of character in the face of…well right in the face of direct intimidation is amazing. But then chatting to others at the end of the day, someone said, ‘How old is he? 40? It’s probably been this way for the most of his life. Probably all he can remember is people with guns and people killing or being killed.’
But I don’t think this is the case with Gul. I think he just wants to get on. He, like many, many people out here just want to live their lives as best they can. To have a good life for themselves and their families and to do his best for his country. Not overtly patriotic, but enough, like many people in Britain, to be proud of his country and to want the best for it. To work his hardest to make it as good a place as possible for everyone.
He’s a bit of an inspiration to me now, is Gul. The problems he faces on a day-to-day basis make our normal daily grind look like small fry. His ability to accept t workhe situation, but still to carry on regardless is amazing and puts some of the problems we face in our normal jobs into perspective. So if you are thinking you are having a tough day at…it’s never going to be as tough af Gul faced that day…