You have to move out…
‘Fetch it!’ And I threw the ball.
The dog sat up and watched the trajectory of the ball as it looped through the air and plopped into the irrigation ditch. It took stock, worked out all the angles, took three steps forward and leapt into the water, legs splayed, landing with a huge splash in the dirty, muddy water. It was nearly noon and the temperature out there in Afghanistan was building up. Being early May, it wasn’t yet the high summer, but certainly the heat was rising. I’d run out of water and I was jealous of the dog who was able to jump into the cool of the water and swim about.
Memphis was a specialist ‘high threat’ search dog. His job was to go into the compound we were taking over and search it for any traces of explosives or weaponry. And we were waiting under the shade of some trees, by the wide, but relatively shallow, irrigation ditch for the occupants of the buildings to leave.
What I had just done wasn’t the best part of my job on the deployment. In fact it was the worst part of my job out there. We needed to establish a new checkpoint as part of the Op (Operation) we were on and it was my job to sort out the negotiations for us taking over the compound. It had been specially selected based on its location and the amenities that it offered (such as they were) – notably a large field inside the compound wall that would serve as an easy to secure Helicopter Landing Site. The only problem was that it was occupied by a family.
And so for us to move in, they would have to move out. An operational necessity.
The lines we had to take with the family was that they would be compensated for the inconvenience of having to move out of their home. That we would make every effort to ensure that any damage to the compound buildings would be minimised. That if there was any damage caused by our occupation, we would again, compensate the family. That we would pay rent for our occupation.
I would do a full survey of the building to note down the condition and state of the buildings and any damage evident when we left, well, we would pay for it. Any changes we would make to the doors, windows, roof…we would be responsible for and would pay for.
And always a good one for the family in the long term; that we would be building a well inside the compound that would mean that once we left and they returned they would have access to clean fresh water INSIDE their property and they wouldn’t have to drink water from the dirty ditch at the edge of their field.
But this was a long way down the line and once we had left the property. All hard for the family to take. All out of the blue. Imagine a knock on your door. A ‘spaceman’ in helmet, goggles, gloves, body armour with a rifle stands there and through an interpreter says you have 30 minutes to leave the house.
Through the interpreter I told him that this occupation has been authorised by the President of Afghanistan and the Local Governor. That it was needed by the government and by the UK forces to bring peace and security to the area. That they had no choice but to go. Where they went was not our problem. But they would be compensated…
I felt terrible. The farmer explained he had a wife with a one month old baby. That he had women and children in the compound. Where would they go? What would they do?
I had no choice but to look straight ahead and say ‘I am sorry, but you have to leave…’ and repeated the same lines again. Say the same thing. Make no change. Keep to the same lines. Say the same words. Do not get drawn into a conversation. Apologise, but be firm. Be understanding of his position and the massive change this would be, but keep to the script.
I took my notebook out and asked for his name. For his family details. For where he might go once he left the compound. I told him the amounts of rent and compensation he would be entitled too. That we would build a well for his family.
He asked how long we would be there. What would we do to his buildings and his land. Obviously I couldn’t say. But I told him he would be paid well for the occupation. That he would be helping to bring peace and security to the area. That by his sacrifice others in the surrounding villages wouldn’t have the oppression of the Taliban insurgents.
He sighed. He asked again, ‘Where shall we go…?’ I returned to the script again. Round we went. You have 30 minutes. You must clear your belongings and leave this compound. He should move out now. And my final trump card. I opened my pocket and brought out a wad of cash. This is your compensation. It is an advance of your rent for the next two months. It will help you to find a new place to live.
He wasn’t happy, rightly so, but he was placated. He didn’t want to be seen taking our money outside, so we went inside the compound and I sorted the paperwork. He accepted the cash and in return he ‘signed’ the receipt for it with his fingerprint. I smiled a thin apologetic smile at him, shrugging at the same time. He didn’t smile back.
I felt terrible. I felt like some sort of sheriff from the Middle Ages or an evil character from a Dickens’ novel throwing people onto the street. I had just made a family homeless. I was the evil oppressor. The farmer opened the door for me and I left with ‘DJ’ my interpreter. The farmer followed through, walking round to the compound nearby, to ask permission from the local elder to borrow his mini-van so he could move his family and belongings out.
But it was a necessary evil. How could we bring security to the community, without being IN the community? We needed a base to show the enemy that we were here to stay. The Afghan culture is also one where people band around to support others.
We’d already spoken to the elder of the village and explained that we needed the compound and that the family would have to move out, and he was happy that we would be there bringing ISAF and the government to his village. He was on hand to offer help and support to the farmer. He proffered his keys straight away and went to console him. The Elder had already told me that there were empty compounds nearby that the family could move into.
It hadn’t made me feel any better.
But we left them to it. We went back to the shade of the trees by the ditch. We replenished our water using the ‘Lifesaver’ bottles. We had a bite to eat. We petted and played with the dog and took pictures of him and of each other standing in the ditch – cooling our feet. We bantered, we joked, we laughed.
Well the others did. I felt terrible. I tried to chat to Memphis’ handler, also an Airman – and RAF Policeman also a little out of his comfort zone here in the ‘oo-lu’, but my heart wasn’t in conversation.
I stuck my head into my note book, copying out the details onto the forms I had in my bag. Trying to work out just how much money the farmer would be getting for our occupation of his buildings, for our use of his land. It was a good sum. Not a huge amount, but would compensate for the disturbance of his family. Provide money for food.
But then I looked across and caught a glimpse of an older child leading what was probably his mother to the minivan. She was in a full light blue Burhka, but was moving very slowly, carrying her precious baby. She got in carefully and sat there as the farmer and the other children loaded up their belongings. Mostly carpets, a few boxes. No real furniture like we would have. Bundles of blankets and what I assumed to be clothes. Pots and pans. The detritus of a poor family in a poor nation scratching a poor living from the land. Not much ‘stuff’ in relation to us.
A dog on a length of rope was pulled out and thrown into the back of the van. It was scruffy, mange-y, light brown. I looked across at Memphis who took a passing interest in the other dog, but who then just laid down and closed its eyes.
I looked at my watch. The 30 minutes were up. And it was clear that the family needed a bit more time. We were all in cover, and we gave the farmer the time he needed. After 45 minutes he came out and glanced across at me. I couldn’t meet his gaze. I thought of home. Of how I’d feel. Of having to clear my belongings so quickly and move out of my house. Of carrying my daughter out to the car. It was one of the lowest moments for me out there in Afghanistan. A moment I am not proud of.
The with a slam of the van door, he drove off. The vehicle overloaded with people and belongings. The carpets and blankets balancing on the roof. Pots, pans and yellow palm oil containers banging against the side of the windows as it wobbled along the dust track that served as a road. He didn’t go far. Just down the road were a cluster of empty compounds. He stopped outside one and began unloading his family there. I guess he must have wondered why WE didn’t take the empty one. I did…but then I remembered pooring over the aeiral map in the Company HQ during the plannign of the Op. This one was ideally situated, just on the edge of the village, with all the ticks in the box for the things that we needed. Plenty of buildings for accommodation for the lads, security, a wall around it, a field inside for an HLS…
‘Right’ said the boss, shaking me out of my own thoughts. ‘Lets get that mutt in the compound so we can get it searched and we can get inside. Then I can take this bloody body armour off.’
Memphis’ ears pricked up and he set off with his handler towards the house. After he had done his work, he came back to us. I looked over to him and was cheered by his waggy tail. He came to us and I tousled the fur round his neck. I stroked his back and he sat right in front of me and offered me his paw.
At least someone was pleased to see me that terrible day.