A Remembrance During Time of War
Kandahar City, Afghanistan
Slowly, surely, the city is being strangled. Signaling the depth of our commitment, security forces are thinner in Kandahar than the Himalayan air. During the days and evenings, there were the sounds of occasional bombs—some caused by suicide attackers, and others by firefights. The windows in my room had been blown out recently and now were replaced. We came here to kill our enemies, but today we want to make a country from scratch.
A world away from Afghanistan, over in Holland, was approaching the 65th anniversary of the allied liberation from Nazi occupation, and I had been invited to attend by James “Maggie” Megellas. Maggie, who had fought his way through Holland and is today remembered there as a hero, is said to be the most decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division. Now 92, Maggie has recently spent about two months tooling around the battlefields of Afghanistan, and though it would be an honor to finally meet him, there was the matter of extracting myself from Kandahar City and getting through about forty minutes of dangerous territory to the military base at Kandahar Airfield.
And so a friend and I donned local garb and loaded into the car.
Criminals and Taliban were on the lookout for westerners to kidnap, and unknown to us an intelligence report had just been issued that men in a stolen Toyota Corolla were on the prowl in Kandahar City.
The camera was mostly kept down but occasionally I lifted for quick shots. Kandahar City, like other main Afghan cities, belies the fact that most Afghans will never have one minute of electricity, nor will they ever see a westerner.
Afghan police love to jet around at high speeds in their trucks, often with powerful machine guns mounted on back.
Shortly after this photo was taken, my friend, who had been a South African cop for 16 years, spotted two men in a white Toyota Corolla who had locked onto us. They drove swiftly by for a look-see, then hit a Y intersection ahead on the right. They tried to get back in, but traffic slowed them by about ten seconds. I was watching over my shoulder when they dangerously bolted back into the traffic a couple hundred meters behind us. The camera was on the floorboard. I had picked up a pistol and rested it on my right thigh. My friend rolled down his window and I rolled down mine. They were moving in. In less than a minute, someone probably would die. The car was speeding closer when per chance a green Afghan police pickup rocketed by the pursuers. The green police truck was mounted with a machine gun, and a long belt of ammo was dangling, while a policeman kept his hands on the gun. I hid the pistol. The pursuers slowed. We continued at about 40mph as the police swooshed by. The police pulled off the road a few hundred meters ahead of us and the white car fell back more, until it passed the police and began to speed up, but that was it. The pursuers were caught behind too many trucks and fell away. I put down the pistol and picked up the camera.
None of the paved roads in Afghanistan were built by Afghan vision with Afghan resources. If not for the many foreign invaders, this land would be road-and runway-free.
An American convoy of MRAPs approached from the front and a soldier in the lead vehicle shot a pen-flare, causing everyone to pull off the road. The convoys are more menacing from the outside and in fact I kept the camera down and this is exactly why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is concerned about adding too many troops. Can’t argue with his reasoning; convoys and troops truly are menacing despite that U.S. and British soldiers are very disciplined. It must look far worse to Afghans. Most Afghans never talk with foreign soldiers and those who do normally only see us in passing. In fact, most soldiers never leave base. Our forces at KAF (Kandahar Airfield) have a base so large that this commercial jet is about to land there after flying dangerously over this unsecured road.
After arriving at Kandahar Airfield, the Dutch Air Force took me, and long after midnight we boarded a Canadian C-130 and flew to Dubai.
From Dubai, the Dutch soldiers got onto a chartered flight to Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Over the Arabian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, skirting Iraq.
Finally into Holland, we landed at the Dutch Air Force Base at Eindhoven, where families and others were waiting for Dutch soldiers. Someone shoved a rose and a gift into my hand and I smiled, protesting that I am only a writer, and tried unsuccessfully to return the rose and the gift.
There was a short taxi ride to the hotel.
And right there in the lobby was a throng of World War II veterans whose first trips to Europe had been either under parachute into combat, or by gliders into combat. (As would be revealed over the next five days.) So I sat down with Guadelupe Flores because he was sitting alone while people crowded around other vets. His grandson Matt came over. I hadn’t even fully checked in yet. Guadelupe said he was from Texas originally but now lived in Ohio, and he’d just arrived. “Did you parachute in this time?” I asked. Guadelupe only chuckled, “Not this time,” and chuckled some more. Please have a look at Guadelupe’s left eye. This is the last picture before he got the black eye, which is a funny story. (Guadelupe was on the Army boxing team, he would later say.)
Maggie Megellas was there along with a large group of American university students who had broken off with small groups of veterans. A man said that General Petraeus’ staff was here and General Petraeus was coming to stay at the same hotel.
Finally I got to the room and there was an email from Afghanistan:
I’ve heard we had to be on the lookout for a group of kidnappers, targeting expats in Kandahar. Apparently they are using a stolen white Toyota Corolla station wagon and a red Toyota Surf. Wonder if we “met” them yesterday?
Actually there had been two suspected vehicles that seemed like they might be working together, but I didn’t mention the second vehicle. Every day in the war is a close call.
The Market Garden remembrance was to begin in the morning.