They met her at the wagon the following morning and the transformation was remarkable. She was toting a C8 Carbine and a Glock was in a thigh holster and her hair was loose. She had a shemarg around her neck on top of the body armour and Henry looked at her approvingly.
“OK Ms Khan, step number one, wearing a shemarg. We don’t necessarily want the locals to know that we’re carting a lumpy around with us, until such time as we require your language skills, so the first thing we need to do is teach you how to wear the shemarg so that you’re incognito.
“I see the RAF has given you a nice, issue one with little tassles. So the first thing is to fold it corner to corner, so that it’s in the shape of a triangle. Next put it over your head, with the right angle of the triangle pointing down your back, one end slightly longer than the other. Good, now wrap the shorter end under your chin and up the side of your head, holding it in place with your hand.
“Thirdly, pull the longer end over your nose and mouth and wrap it round the back of your head, so only your eyes are visible. That’s it. Pull both points of the shemagh together behind the head. They should meet right behind the ear. Tie the two points together with an overhand knot. To do this, cross the points, wrap one over and around the other, and pull tight. The shemagh should now be secured tightly around your head, which it is. What do you think fellers?”
“Xena, Warrior Princess,” Wayne said approvingly.
“Brings out your eyes,” Observed Jarvis, “And you can tuck it into the body armour so it doesn’t chafe you.”
Morrison handed her a pair of camouflaged combat gloves, made of soft, supple leather and with Kevlar knuckle protection, “They were the smallest I could find in the stores and they should protect your delicate, little pinkies.”
Afarin was secretly pleased and went to climb up into the rear of the WMIK. She remarked: “I have been trying to ditch the veil for nearly twenty years and you insist I have to wear it now.”
“It’s for your own good. There’s just a few ground rules,” Morrison explained, “Before you speak to anyone, we must be happy that you’re safe before you go in. Until then, we would like you to observe and note the things the locals do. Find out if they’re kosher, if any are acting suspiciously, the usual things.”
She nodded, “Fair enough, but I get to frame the questions. None of this ‘have the Taliban been here,’ or ‘where are your young men of fighting age?’ Just tell me what it is you want to know and let me ask it my way or rather, their way. I believe you’re the patrol medic, Wayne?”
“That I am. It’s usually Edge, but he’s not here.”
“Can you hold clinics in the villages for the women and children?”
“Well I guess so, although I don’t know much about obstetrics and gynaecology.”
Afarin laughed, “I can assure you, Wayne, you’re a man, and an infidel. The local women won’t be queuing up to show you their bits. Grazes, minor infections and simple fractures should cover it.”
And so the girl from Derby turned a new page in her strange life. These four men became her brothers and they grew to trust her as they shared hardships. She found out that Cooper wanted to study for an MBA, but he lacked the ability to translate his current career into the requirements to apply his current work to the structure of distance learning. He was bright and intelligent and a first-rate cook, able to conjure up a meal from the uninspiring ration packs.
Wayne was married but his family life was somewhat troubled. His wife hated him going away and his daughter was somewhat of a handful. He dreaded the brief communiques from home, be they electronic bluies or the hand-written airmail variety, because they invariably contained bad news. He wanted to be an emergency medical technician when he left the army and was pondering whether to apply for premature voluntary release, which would cost him a great deal of money and screw up his pension prospects.
And there was Guy Jarvis, the quiet, self-assured man who seemed to carry a great deal of wisdom. He was new to the Regiment but fitted in naturally, more of a listener than a talker and was as though you could see the cogs whirling in his head. He may not have talked much, but when he did people listened and he was greatly respected. He never had a bad word to say about anybody and was kind and thoughtful, particularly to Afarin and this made her feel guilty. And he was so good looking and had an understanding attitude to women; he was so popular with the females on the FOB, she rather suspected he had slept with a couple of them and who could blame him or them. He had been in the Army for about ten years and had seen a lot of combat, particularly in Africa. There was a certain sadness about him and she knew that he missed his father who had not long died, but there was something else he kept well hidden. Afarin loved Jarvis like a brother and he was her ideal man, kind, patient and safe.
But she didn’t want to feel safe just yet. She craved excitement and perhaps a little danger and of course there was… Henry Morrison was the troop leader and he took the responsibilities of leadership very seriously. He understood teams and the roles within them and knew how to get the best out of them He was the 2IC of a squadron of four vehicles under the command of a captain and as the hunt for the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks in America, the four vehicles would go out as a fully formed unit, operating independently of the base and carrying all the equipment, weapons and rations they would need. Underneath the jocular veneer was a hidden ruthlessness, which was the appealing aspect of Morrison to Afarin.
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 longer 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 bunker and tunnel systems to root them out. The Taliban hated these dogs in their Kevlar armour, but the K9s 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 in the foothills of the mountains near Pia Kalai they were laagered under hard routine, sleeping on the ground under two joined and slung ponchos. Afarin was restless in her sleep, mumbling in a language that woke up Jarvis who was next to her. She was probably having a bad dream and Jarvis watched her closed eyes in REM as she murmured and groaned softly. As if seeking comfort she moved in close to Jarvis and he felt her breath on his neck. Finally she woke up and realised that she was nuzzled in close to him. She opened her eyes in the bleak pre-dawn light and saw that 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. When she was asleep he did, savouring her closeness, ignoring slumber until it was his turn to go on stag.
They had moved operations to the Grandamak area near Spin Ghar, as the American intelligence had a lead that Bin Laden was hiding in the cave systems of Tora Bora. 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. 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. 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. Cooper was hunkered down by their WMIK with a radio, relaying information from the SEALs to the support weapon crews and directing fire.
She was lying in a small depression behind the cover of a bush and clump of rocks. 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.
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… She admired the hard musculature of their torsos, he toes curling in her boots.
He saw her looking at them, “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, five 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 and disgusted 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 body armour.
“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 chap 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 Morrison’s WMIK. Afarin 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.
“Let me talk to him one-to-one. Unless he’s completely stupid or arrogant, he’ll know that sooner or later he will have to open up, particularly to avoid going to Guantanamo Bay. 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. But hopefully He will see that his position is hopeless and talk to me.”
The captain 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 and chafed in the field. The scarf had gone, so had the dark glasses. She un-holstered her Glock.
“You don’t have to do this, Afarin. In fact you shouldn’t” Jarvis said, trying not to look at her breasts.
“Let’s go, sir,” she said to the Intelligence Officer. Her heart was pounding.
“Boss, this isn’t right,” Jarvis said to Morrison.
“What’s right or wrong in this place? She’s over twenty-one and capable of looking after herself. What do you care, Guy?”
Jarvis turned away, shaking his head. He suspected she was younger than Morrison assumed. What did he care? Where to start? If she did this, then she would have crossed the line from her world into theirs and Guy Jarvis didn’t want to lose the young, gentle girl he had first seen in the back of the WMIK. He had noticed a change in her after they came across the slaughtered family at the side of the road, a hardening, like callouses of her soul. He wanted to beg her not to do this but it was too late. She was of them, but separate, a deep and personal hatred was beginning to drive her. If he could have time over again, Jarvis would have made a pretence of training her, told the colonel she was hopeless and driven her back to the RAF Det himself.
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.
“I would rather that you talked to me, because I don’t want to kill a fellow follower of the one, true God. But you see 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, “Speak to me or your brains will be all over the floor.”
“No. I want to talk to the man, not you, not you…”
“Why not me?”
“Because you are worthless.”
Something seemed to snap inside her head and she really did want to kill this man. All of the frustration of being a woman, trapped in a belief system, belittled and held in contempt by half of her society boiled up like magma and her finger tightened on the trigger. Her senses returned and she realised what she had been prepared to do. The realisation was sickening.
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 very nearly committed a war crime. I could so very easily have killed him.”
“Sorry love, but you already have. Mock executions are on the verboten list, but if you don’t tell anyone, neither will we.”
She looked at Jarvis and smiled, as if seeking his approval. He looked away with a peculiar expression as though he was disappointed with her. Afarin was hurt and outraged at the double standards. She made a point of avoiding him for the rest of the day. Fuck you, Guy Jarvis.
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