War Crimes Chapter 17
Afarin became another cog in the machine and made a conscious effort to fit in and not piss them off. Her real skills came to the fore while they were interrogating Afghans, both villagers and suspected Taliban. While the blades sometimes went in in their size ten boots, she would hang back slightly and observe, listening quietly. Sometimes with a suspected Taliban fighter she would take over the interrogation, talking softly and gently with the often frightened and disorientated men, some who were much younger than her. The Blades were struck by just how angrily she would verbally attack village elders or Taliban who treated her with contempt, because she was a woman. The troopers were astonished at the rage this diminutive woman could conjure up when she was riled.
On the long patrols under hard routine, the five of them would sleep under ponchos slung from the WMIK, Afarin in the middle because she wasn’t expected to go on stag. They would huddle together for warmth in the bitterly cold Afghanistan nights and sometimes it would snow. When they met up with other units, they would share the ground with the war dogs, incredibly brave animals that would go down into the Taliban cave and tunnel systems to root them out. The Taliban hated these dogs in their Kevlar armour, but the dogs seemed drawn to Afarin and would curl up at her feet. Despite the danger from the Taliban, she would never feel as safe as she did sharing hardships with these four men. One night she woke up and realised that she was nestled in close to Jarvis. She opened her eyes in the bleak pre-dawn light and realised he was awake, looking at her with an odd expression on his face.
“Sorry, Mr Jarvis,” she murmured and rolled over with her back to him.
“Now you’ve left a cold bit,” he whispered and spooned up against her back, wondering whether he dared put his arm around her.
She was lying in a small depression behind the cover of a bush and clump of rocks. About fifty metres behind her the four Land Rover WMIKs were drawn up nose to tail in a battle line, well-spaced, half the crews operating the vehicles’ support weapons, the other half providing a protective skirmishing screen ahead and behind the vehicles. They were occupying a frontage of about five hundred metres, Wayne their driver occupied a position about fifty metres to her right. She could only see him when he moved, but she suspected that he was keeping an eye on her.
In the clear, blue sky, the circular vapour trails of the B52s wound like the Olympic symbols as the bombers circled, waiting to be called in to drop their JDAMs. She could feel the visceral thuds of the 8,000lb munitions as they pulverised the cave complexes of Tora Bora in the Spin Ghar mountain range. She also felt the heavy, slow thuds through her torso of the WMIKs’ .50 Cals firing over her head and watched with awed fascination the bobbing, jinking fiery trail of the TOW missiles, heading towards the Taliban trench and sangar system.
They were providing fire support to a unit of US Navy SEALs who were clearing the outer trenches before moving into the main cave complex. Afarin shook her head with bemused wonder. This little girl from Derby is in the middle of a battle in her ancestral homeland. Bloody hell! She turned round and looked at her Land Rover. Henry and Jarvis were stripped to the waist, operating the support weapons.
Henry was singing tunelessly as he sent the rounds down from the 50 cal, Ooooohhhhhh that’s the way a-huh, a-huh, I like it, a-huh, a-huh…
Henry saw her looking at him.
“Face your bloody front and scan your arc!” he yelled at her. Afarin turned back and smiled to herself. She had decided that she liked Henry very much. From about three hundred metres ahead of them she heard the fast rattle of automatic rifle fire and the thuds of grenades as the SEALs started to roll up the trench system, clearing it metre by metre. Their weapons of choice seemed to be war dogs, grenades and fighting through with automatic fire. The WMIKs ceased fire and the remaining crew members dismounted to provide all-round cover. The JDAMS continued to pound the caves, two kilometres away. The skirmishes in the trenches took about two hours until billows of purple smoke denoted that the first line of enemy defence had been cleared.
A group of figures appeared out of the smoke, moving steadily towards the WMIKs. As they came closer they were revealed as multiple of SEALs leading a hooded prisoner, who had his hands tie-wrapped behind his back. The British officer went out to meet them.
“Can you guys process this joker for onward move to Bagram? He decided he didn’t want to go to paradise and meet his seventy-two virgins today,” the SEAL swung round and punched the prisoner in the side of the head. He fell over in the dirt, “We think this piece of shit is a Saudi mercenary.”
Watching from a few metres away, Afarin was shocked at the way the American Special Forces treated the prisoner. In her headscarf and dark goggles she was indistinguishable and looked like the others. She turned away in disgust and found Henry standing just behind her. He had put on his smock and Osprey.
“You have to remember, these guys have just gone eyeball to eyeball with some of the fiercest fighters the world has produced,” he said to her in a low voice, “This fighter is lucky that he’s still alive, particularly if he isn’t an Afghan. Walk a mile in their boots”
The British agreed to take the prisoner back to the FOB and decided to use Afarin’s WMIK. She was grateful because it meant she would be sleeping in her comfy bed tonight, rather than in a depression in a sleeping bag. She was briefed to make note of anything the prisoner said on the way back, but he just lay on the floor, hooded and tied and never made a sound. Back at the FOB, the intelligence officer was waiting in the tent inside the POW holding pen. The British weren’t exactly gentle with him either. They sat on the vehicle. Listening to the intelligence officer (colloquially known as green slime), yelling at the prisoner in appalling Arabic.
“He sounds like the Arabic version of Officer Crabtree from ‘Ello ‘Ello,” Afarin remarked to the Captain who had been leading her patrol, “Why don’t you let me have a go?”
The Captain looked at her doubtfully.
“Go on, Boss. Just yelling at him won’t cut it.” Henry said in support.
“OK, I’ll ask.”
“But it’s just me alone with him in there. I understand how their mind works, so we’ll do it my way. It’s my way or nothing. That’s the deal.”
“So what’s the plan, Stan?” asked the Captain.
They walked away from the POW holding pen and she explained to him.
“If this guy is a Saudi, he will almost certainly be a Wahabbist. They are so ultra-conservative that women disgust them and are regarded as unclean. If a fighter is killed by a woman, they believe that he will be disbarred from paradise. The seventy-two virgins thing is a load of crap and is a mistranslation. But he has to believe that I will kill him. That’s why I need to fire one round.
He waited until the Intelligence Officer came out of the tent, seething with frustration and had a word with him. They both looked at Afarin doubtfully, but he reluctantly agreed.
“All right, but the guard stays in there.”
“No,” She was adamant, “Just him and me.”
“Because I don’t want to be involved in his long and drawn-out torture, which is what will happen to him once he leaves our protection.”
In the end they reluctantly agreed. She gave her rifle to Jarvis and took off everything apart from her boots, trousers and t-shirt. She wasn’t wearing underwear because it was pointless in the field. The scarf had gone, so had the dark glasses. She un-holstered her Glock.
“Bloody hell, where did they come from?” Jarvis said, unable to take his eyes off her breasts.
“Let’s go, sir,” she said to the Intelligence Officer. Her heart was pounding.
Inside the tent there was a table and two chairs. The prisoner was sitting on one chair, still hooded, head bowed. The guard stood behind him, rifle at the ready.
“Will you please take off his hood and then both of you leave. Do not come back in until I have done what you requested.”
They did and she sat down at the opposite side of the table. She was holding the Glock. The prisoner refused to look at her while she scrutinised him. He was definitely a member of the Saud, she could tell by his ratty features.
“They have told me to kill you,” she said to him in Arabic.
He sneered without even looking at her. She cocked the pistol.
“They know what is written in the Holy Koran, that if a man is slain by a woman, he shall never enter, the Gardens and vineyards and meet his young, full-breasted maidens of equal age, with a cup of wine.”
She leaned forward to accentuate the fact she was a woman.
“So I want you to look at me before I kill you.”
“You are nothing but a vassal of the Kufar, whore!”
She pointed the Glock at his head and pulled the trigger. The round ruffled his long hair and deafened his left ear. The 9mm bullet went out of the tent and harmlessly across the airfield. The guard came back in with a tearing hurry.
“Get out!” she screamed at him, “Until I have killed him.” She was guessing the prisoner could speak English. She was right.
The prisoner wailed and fell on the floor, moaning and shaking. Afarin stood up and pressed the pistol hard into his head.
“No. I want to talk to the man, not you, not you…”
She left the tent and looked at the Intelligence Officer, “I think our Saudi Arabian friend wants a chat now, sir.”
Henry was looking at her with a strange expression, “Jesus, Treacle. You forgot to tell us you’re a fucking psychopath.”
She was shaking with emotion and Henry took the Glock out of her trembling hand and unloaded it, fired off the action, put the ejected round back in the magazine and then back in the weapon. He tucked it in the holster on her thigh, then put his arm round her shoulders.
“You will never cease to amaze me Ms Khan.”
“Do you know what the worst thing is? I could so very easily have killed him.”
Four months after she arrived at the FOB, the Blades were rotated with a fresh mobility troop unit. By now she was part of the fixtures and fittings and nobody questioned her right to be there, but she badly missed Henry, Jarvis and Wayne, her Oppos. Before he left, Henry gave her a couple of phone numbers.
“When you get back to Blighty, give me a call. We can catch up.”
Despite not really having anything to go home for, Afarin wondered when her tour would be up, but if anything she was getting busier and was loaned on a several occasions to American and Australian SF units. The Americans were very polite, but reticent towards her. The Australians were outrageously friendly and desperate to “initiate” her into their unit. She had a pretty good idea what form the “initiation” would take. As well as starting to miss the cool, wet UK, Afarin noticed that the Taliban were getting better as their tactics evolved. They were using more IEDs and instead of shooting and scooting, they were setting up sophisticated ambushes.
She was in the back of a Land Rover FFR with two Diggers and a couple of war dogs that were as friendly, but only just slightly more slobbery than their handlers. They were on the main Jalalabad to Kabul road, designated as Route VIOLET but known as “Route Violent,” because of the numbers of burned-out military vehicles and oil tankers that littered the side of the road. Two Land Rovers FFRs and two versions of the Australian WMIKs were well spaced, the gunners on top cover with the .50 Cals. She couldn’t see much out of the back of the FFR, but she certainly heard and felt the deep boom of the IED that rocked the vehicle. She followed the Digger who was tumbling out of the back of the FFR while the top cover waited for the inevitable ambush. She went prone on the road and cocked her Colt SFIW, waiting to follow the lead of the rest. She made a very fast tactical appraisal of situation. She had been in the third vehicle. The second Land Rover WMIK,or at least half of it was burning in a crater in the road. The first vehicle, a FFR was three hundred metres away. The radioman of the command FFR was sending a contact and METHANE report.
“Afi, mate, check the casualties. Come on luv, move your arse!”
It seemed futile to point out that she wasn’t a medic, so she got up and dashed, zig-zagging towards the wrecked WMIK. The rounds started spattering off the road and cracking overhead. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the world could have prepared her for the scene of carnage that was waiting for the little girl from Derby. The front axle and engine block was ten metres from the crater. There were two men near the back of the wreck. One was unconscious, the other compos mentis and returning fire. The driver had taken the brunt of the explosion from the conduit under the road. There was nothing describable left of him and she blanked the image from her subconscious. The vehicle commander had lost his right arm and leg and was staring up at the sky, muttering, “fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Afarin tried to remember her Common Core Skills Aid Memoire and the casualty triage algorithm. She shook the man who was returning fire.
“OK?” she yelled,
“Deaf,” he shouted, sending the rounds down.
She moved to the unconscious man. HRABC. Hazzard – pretty bloody obvious, as a round clanged off the roll bar next to her head. Response – no to shouting. She pinched his earlobe and heard a low moan. Airway – She checked for at least ten seconds, he was breathing. Circulation – fast but regular but he was bleeding from his ears. No point in checking pupils because she couldn’t have done anything anyway, so she rolled him into the recovery position.
The driver’s remains made her retch, so she dragged the commander by his webbing slowly into cover. Now what the fuck do I do? She found his morphine autojet round his neck and jammed it into his good thigh. His leg stump was spurting and she tried to tie her shemagh around his thigh. So Afarin did the only thing she could do, while the gun battle raged around her. She cuddled the Digger and talked to him softly. He stared up into her eyes, shivering with the pain and morphine. They were the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. Like his wife’s only darker and flecked with violet. He smiled at her and died four minutes later. They were the longest four minutes of Afarin Khan’s life.
Time telescoped until a Pedro Black Hawk with two Apaches riding shotgun blasted the Taliban back under their stones. The Pedro retrieved the casualties along with Afarin. She was checked over in the US MTF in Kabul and was ascertained as suffering from mild combat stress. The Americans flew her back to the British FOB that night. She was tortured with the thought that had she gone to assist the vehicle commander first, he might have survived.
The following day she begged to borrow the Ops Officer’s sat phone and called one of the numbers Henry had given her. She told him everything that had happened and couldn’t stop herself from sobbing.
“Henry, I’ve had enough. I can’t take it any more. I go out on nearly every patrol and I’m terrified that I’ll fuck something up and get someone killed. Everyone says I’m indispensable, but surely someone else must be able to speak Pashto?”
“Leave it with me.”
Twenty-four hours later she was on a USAF C17 out of Kandahar to Ramstein. She was met at the US Air Base by a charming lady USAF Captain and an MT vehicle to take her to Frankfurt Airport. Her flight had been booked to Heathrow, where a Q Car from Hereford was waiting for her. She was back at RAF Marham less than forty-eight hours after she had made the phone call. The British Special Forces do tend to look after their own when there is no Civil Service involvement. Afarin had been in almost constant front-line action for seven-and-a-half months.
Two days after Afarin had returned to RAF Marham, an Army Staff Sergeant pitched up at the main gate and booked himself onto the camp.
“Purpose for visit, Staff, or do you have a sponsor?”
“I’ve come to collect SAC Afarin Khan, who’s won a two-week holiday. Do you happen to know where she’s accommodated?”
“Sorry no, but the two female accommodation blocks are located behind the Med Centre. I can’t give you the combination, but ring the door and someone will answer and get her for you.”
He didn’t need to ring the doorbell of any block. As he drove down the main drag he saw a young woman jogging on the grass at the side of the road. The arse was instantly recognisable. He followed her, parked up and chased after her.
“Hello, Treacle. Going my way?”
She turned round in shock, “Oh Henry,” she cried, ran up and hugged him.
“You are on post operational tour leave, correct?”
“Can you do brickwork pointing or plastering?”
“Err, I dunno.”
“Do you want to find out?”
She smiled shyly, “Oh yes.”
“Ten minutes. Pack light.”
That night they had dinner in the Lions of Bledlow pub on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. Henry explained his project to her.
“It’s an old barn that I managed get for just over eighty grand. The hardest bit was getting the plans through the planning department, but they gave the go-ahead after I made a few changes to the design. I’ve got a mate who’s a builder and the roof has just gone on, so it’s weather tight. The external brickwork needs pointing and there’s a dry stone wall that needs rebuilding. That’s where you come in.
“I’ve got a good sized caravan in the grounds where I’m living, with hot and cold water and power, so you won’t have to crap in a bucket.”
She drove his car back from the pub because he had a few drinks with his dinner. In the fading light he showed her round the barn. Immediately she could see its potential.
“It will be lovely when it’s finished, Henry and the view is beautiful.” He was like a dog with two tails as he showed her into the caravan.
“Here we go, all mod cons.”
“Henry, where do I sleep?”
“Well this sofa can double as a bed. Or you can sleep with me.”
She looked at him and felt her cheeks burning.
“Henry, I’m not very good at this because… Well I’m just not.”
He cuddled her as they sipped coffee, “No worries, Treacle. We’ve got two weeks.”
Later, the owls screeching and hooting frightened her, so she padded to the other end of the caravan and slipped in next to him. He was still awake and hugged her close.
“Ahh, listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!”
And they did.
She slipped out of the bed at dawn and looked through the window at the rising sun on the Chiltern Hills. The beech trees were beginning to turn and the slopes were dusted with yellow and orange. She was crying with happiness…
But the drumbeat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime he’s bound to leave you
But for now you’re going to stay
In the year of the cat
Apologies to Al Stewart
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file