They were being drawn to the mountains like moths to a lamp. The intelligence told them that the Saudi terrorist mastermind had gravitated towards the Tora Bora areas and cave complexes that spanned the Afghan/Pakistan border. They were heading into the unknown and not relishing the prospect of subterranean warfare with the Taliban.
And they were worried. They worried about the enemy they would have to face in the ground of his choosing and they were worried that they were entering a dangerous phase of their mission, but most of all they worried about the young interpreter and placing her in harm’s way. Morrison confided in Jarvis, which might have been strange, but despite his relative inexperience in the Regiment, Jarvis had proved to be wise council. One night on a stag relief they discussed the problem.
“She’s got plenty of balls and is an accepted member of the team. We made a solemn promise to her RAF boss that we would look after her and keep her out of harm’s way, but we can’t afford to lose such a valuable asset. Besides, I really like her… A lot. Underneath that prickly exterior is a vulnerable young woman. You know what I mean, don’t you and you like her?”
More than you could ever know, Jarvis thought. “The way I see it, is that we have three options: One, we could take her back to base for the duration of the mission.”
“Too far and it would put us at least a day behind schedule.”
“Two, we could drop her off with the RAF Det at Khost.”
Morrison shook his head emphatically, ”We would never get her back. They would hang onto her to do the job she was sent out here for.”
“Then we take her into the mountains and hope the Yanks have a good forward operating base.”
Morrison thought about it, “There’s bound to be somewhere safe for her while we go in. I can’t see them operating without somewhere to refuel their helicopters. According to the map there’s some kind of settlement at the end of the trail, where we can park up the two WMIKs.”
“She’ll be pissed off.”
“When isn’t she,” Morrison observed and they both smiled.
They hadn’t noticed but Afarin was worried as well. Because she was so astute, she had picked up on their anxiety and fear. She noticed that they were wearing native clothes more, as if getting into a part. When they stopped they were more restless and liable to flare up at the smallest thing. Morrison seemed as though the world was on his shoulders and Jarvis had become quieter. Occasionally she would notice him looking at her, as though he wanted to tell her something and if they were worried, then so was she.
One morning while breakfast was being cooked and the water heated for tea, she tracked down Morrison who had just finished his morning’s ablutions. He had started to grow a beard, which added to her suspicions that he of all of them had gone native. His teeth were nice, even and white and his towel was round his neck.
“Hello Treacle,” he said in greeting to her, “You should have had a lie in. We’re not getting underway just yet.”
“You’re going into the mountains aren’t you?” There was no preamble or small talk. She was a tight knot of apprehension, “And down into the caves.”
He didn’t answer her immediately and steered her back towards the vehicles with a friendly arm around her shoulder, “Let’s go and get a mug of tea and then we’ll discuss it.”
“Don’t patronise me, Mr Morrison! I’m not stupid.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Are you going to stand there and self-combust or shall we get some tea.”
“Where do you intend to dump me off? You don’t need me any-more, do you?”
He sighed and leaned against the rocky wall of the gulley. She lit a cigarette irritably, knowing this would wind him up.
“I told you, those things will kill you.”
“I don’t fucking care!”
“And swearing at me isn’t going to change anything.”
She coughed because it was her first cigarette of the day and Morrison smiled, making everything worse for her.
“You have just used me and now I’m an inconvenience!”
“You can’t come down into the tunnels with us, can you?” He pointed out gently, “There’s bound to be a forward operating base for us to park the wagons… And you. We can’t afford for anything to happen to you, so you will stay at the FOB for a couple of days maximum, and hopefully we’ll bring back a couple of prisoners for you to shout at.”
“I thought we were a team.”
“We are and we’re looking after an important member of the team.”
“Then why can’t I go with you if I’m so important?”
“Because it’s not safe for you. It’s too dangerous. Listen and stop being such a petulant brat! You wouldn’t last two minutes down there. You might be able to fire those weapons, but you’re not going anywhere near a contact down in the caves. Stop being a pain in the arse!”
She looked at him, her lips in a tight line and her dark cheeks flushed with anger, “You are a bastard, Henry Morrison!”
He watched her stalk off with a strange, unfamiliar range of emotions. Morrison shook his head and went back to the vehicles to re-fill his water bottle. Jarvis was making the tea when he arrived.
“I think I’ve upset our moody interpreter,” He said, “Go and make sure she doesn’t get lifted by the bad guys, would you, Guy?”
“You told her?”
“Yes. As you can imagine, she took it rather well.”
Jarvis took his carbine and went to look for her, “Well what the hell did she expect? That she could persuade them to come out?”
As it was, Afarin hadn’t strayed too far from the vehicles and was squatting down, finishing off her cigarette. She threw the butt away moodily. She heard him and turned round quickly pointing her carbine at him.
“Well that’s a nice greeting, I must say.”
She turned back, “Leave me alone.”
“Has it occurred to you that you’re being a bit unreasonable?” He asked her and squatted next to her. She turned her face away, so that he couldn’t see she had been crying.
Jarvis sighed, “Do you not think that we’ve got enough on our plates, without having to worry about your moods and tantrums?”
“You don’t understand. None of you do.”
“Afarin, we have to keep you safe. We promised that to your boss at the RAF Det “
“You’re all I’ve got. The four of you are like a family, that Land Rover is my home and I was happy in your company. I don’t want to be treated like an inconvenience, I just want people to like me, because… Because I’ve got nothing else.”
This time she didn’t try to hide the tears and somewhat awkwardly he put his arm round her. And she was right. She had no family and these desperadoes had become her surrogate parents and brothers. Jarvis felt her sadness and a deep love for this obstinate, prickly girl. He didn’t want to be a brother to her, he wanted to share his life with her.
“It will be for a couple of days at most. Why are you being like this? You’re normally such a tough, little cookie.”
“Why do you think? I don’t have anything, just the four of you and I can tell you’re scared of the caves and I’m scared for you.”
“And we care for you, which is why you’ll be staying at the base. You can’t change that because it would be madness for you to go anywhere near the caves,” If only she knew just how much he cared for her. He wanted to tell her but this was the wrong time. It would never be the right time, “Come on. Let’s get a brew and some breakfast.”
The FOB was at the end of the long road and track from Jalalabad, close to a village, which was much larger than they had envisaged. The land sloped upwards in terraces of fruit and pomegranate trees, although much of the land was given over to the production of the ubiquitous poppy crop. A track snaked up into the hills towards a smaller settlement that dominated the right flank of the pass and a wide stream tumbled down the valley, towards a branch in the track that spanned the stream and led towards Gandamak. An area of open ground had been cleared and on the dry, brownish grass sat two CH47 helicopters and two Apache gunships. They parked the two WMIKs in the lea of a walled compound, partially sheltered by a clump of juniper trees. The spot was around seventy-five metres from some camouflaged tents and uphill from the river, which would be liable to turn into a roaring torrent if there were sudden downpours in the mountains.
They disembarked and Morrison and the Captain from the other vehicle went and found whoever was in charge of the American contingent. The troopers began to unload their equipment. Afarin Khan watched them moodily and made no effort to help them. Morrison came back and informed them of the battle rhythm.
“The vehicles are OK here, but we’ll need to cam them up. There’s no messing so we’ll have a meal tonight, before moving out in the morning. It’s a 20K tab to the jumping off point and it’ll be hard going up to the caves.” He looked at Afarin, “You’ll be fine here as the Americans have cleared the area. We’ll rig up a tarp for you. Where would you prefer to sleep, on a wagon or on the ground between the vehicles?”
She thought about the various creepy-crawlies, not least from the lousy domestic animals that were wandering around the site, “On the vehicle.”
“OK, we’ll sling a tarp from the roll bars, under the nets.”
“Do we have any intel regarding the caves?” Jarvis asked.
“The boss is getting a briefing, but from what I gather, they have no idea what’s waiting for us down there. In fact all they’ve got is a rather fanciful drawing from the Washington Post. It shows underground fuel storage, a hospital and generators.”
“It’s a load of bollocks. How the hell would they be able to lug the bits for a generator up into the mountains? What do you think, Afarin?” Jarvis asked her, trying to involve her in the conversation. She wasn’t ready to be won over just yet.
“The caves have been there for thousands of years, long before the religion of the Prophet. They were water courses at first, but then the Persians opened them up for use as storage and then started living in them. They are vast, open chambers in some places and narrow crawl tunnels in others. Generators, underground hospitals, forget it. The Taliban are tribesmen, not military engineers. But fighting in them won’t be easy.”
They were silent, watching her, absorbing what she had told them.
“How do you know these things, Afarin?” Morrison asked.
“Because I’m the Tinge with the minge,” she said contemptuously and stood up. They watched her amble off towards the stream.
“Well that’s us told.”
That evening’s meal was a quiet, contemplative affair, the troopers nursing their thoughts, like a stranger’s children. That night they slept in the WIMK, having moved out all of the kit and checking their personal equipment. Wayne slept across the front seats, Jarvis and Cooper on top of the side rear wheel wells and storage lockers, Morrison and Afarin in the foot well of the rear floor of the wagon. Sleep was difficult to find that night. In the quiet darkness, Afarin quietly nestled up behind Morrison and put an arm around his chest.
“Please look after yourself and bring them all back safely,” She whispered in Morrison’s ear. He turned to face her and they cuddled together. Jarvis turned quietly and watched a shooting star streak above in the purple darkness. He felt empty.
The next morning they had tea and swallowed down oatmeal blocks. With the four from the other vehicle the troopers filed up the path that spanned the side of the gorge, Jarvis bringing up the rear. Their pace was fast, as though this was a training exercise on the Brecon Beacons. Afarin watched the eight of them disappearing away above her and just before they turned a spur of the hillside out of view, she saw Jarvis turn round. He waved and she half waved back. Suddenly it was as though the breeze blew dust in her eyes and she turned away.
Jarvis dropped down into the darkness, his silenced Sig Sauer P230 pointing behind them. Wayne was totally immobile and silent, listening carefully. Jarvis also had a pack of demolition charges and a head torch, which wasn’t switched on. They were relying on hearing, feel and smell to scope the area and the threats. They had learned in the first caves that the C8 Carbines were too unwieldy, deafened them and the muzzle flashes destroyed their night vision. They hadn’t washed or used toothpaste for some days now. Wayne was the point man and was uncluttered with equipment, apart from his silenced .22 automatic pistol, known as the “Hush Puppy.” He had scrounged the weapon from the US SEALs.
They waited for several minutes, listening intensely until Wayne started to shuffle forward. Jarvis felt him move away down the tunnel and he followed as closely as he dared. Behind him he heard Morrison drop down into the tunnel, to guard their backs. Cooper remained in the upper cave, covering the entrance. He was armed with the Para version of the Minime light machine gun.
Jarvis judged that the tunnel was about four feet wide and the same in height, bus as they shuffled forward, it seemed to be opening out. The walls disappeared as the tunnel opened into a cave. Once again they were still and silent, listening intently. There was a slight scuff of a foot on the floor, away to their left. There was someone else in the cave. They were hyper-aware and Jarvis could feel his heart pounding within his chest
There was an imperceptible movement from where they had heard the sound and they sensed something flying through the stygian blackness. There was a heavy metallic thud on the stone floor of the cave and something rolled towards them. There was a hiss like boiling chemicals as the primer started to burn and Jarvis tried to melt into the wall, his pistol pointed forward like a useless talisman. He sensed Wayne making a sudden, violent movement. And there was a burst of fire from the other side of the cave. He fired three rounds quickly at the muzzle flashes, heard a grunt and the boom and pressure wave of the grenade exploding. Wayne had found it in the darkness by sheer good luck and hurled it back before the explosion. Jarvis emptied the magazine blindly at the other side of the cave, changed it and waited, his ears ringing with the concussion of the explosion.
It took a long while for him to get his breathing under control and then he held the head torch at arm’s length out to the side and quickly switched it on and off. The fleeting flash of light illuminated two bodies at the other side of the cave, near to a barricaded door. There were two of them, a bearded man and an adolescent too young to grow a beard. They had been incapacitated by the exploding grenade and Wayne made sure they were dead with two head shots from the “Hush Puppy.”
“Door?” he whispered.
“We’ll blow it.”
Jarvis prepared a demolition charge and placed it against the door’s wooden slats, then inserted the detonator, running the electrical wire back up the tunnel, up which they retreated. Jarvis had the activation switch from a Claymore mine in his hand.
“Fire in the hole!” he exclaimed, put his left hand over his left ear, buried the right ear in his shoulder and squeezed the switch. This time the explosion was visceral and despite the dogleg, the blast wave came up the tunnel and the three of them were illuminated in the light of the explosion.
They advanced back to the cave through the swirling and rank smoke. The two bodies had been thrown across the cave and partially dismembered by the demolition charge. Of the inner door, all that was left were a few charred splinters of wood and bright chipped stone around the entrance of the blasted door. Again they waited, listening for any signs of life from the unseen caves beyond. There was absolute silence apart from the tinnitus ringing in their ears.
After several minutes, Jarvis risked switching the torch on and off and in the brief illumination they saw three rooms leading off this inner cave. They went forward and briefly lit each room. One was a storeroom containing jars and boxes. The second was a passageway leading downwards, quickly twisting unseen around a corner. The third one was the living quarters, with three bodies lying on rugs and carpets. A middle aged woman, a girl barely out of puberty and a child cuddling a little cat that was as dead as all the rest. The blast wave had ruptured their internal organs and they were bleeding from the ears and noses. Jarvis stared at the child with the cat and screwed up his eyes.
“It was a family. Oh God. We’ve just killed a family.”
“Yeah, a fucking family armed with AK47s and a grenade. Fuck ‘em.” Wayne said dispassionately.
They left the chamber and headed down the passageway. Morrison followed them at a discreet distance, guarding their escape route. Their nerves were frayed. This was the absolutely worst kind of warfare and they would be haunted by it in years to follow.
When they left the caves it was dark, cold and the stars glinted in the firmament like iced diamonds. The Captain and the other four troops were waiting for them.
“Absolutely nothing. Not a sign of them. What about you?”
“A family was hiding down there. Unfortunately they were killed when we blew a door with a charge. Two of them, the father and adolescent son were armed and one of them threw a grenade. We had to slot them, unfortunately. They weren’t our target’s men and I’m afraid the family were collateral,” Morrison explained.
“So you had no time to issue a warning?”
“Get fucking real, Boss.”
It was dawn by the time they trudged back down from the mountains, the moon and stars bright still glimmering in the purple sky. It was cold, well below freezing and their sweat-soaked fatigues steamed in the harsh morning and then began to freeze. They began the long trek down to the village and FOB below in the valley. Jarvis had seen too much and he stumbled as he walked, but the rum in the tea the captain had given him helped, and at least the shakes had gone.
She was waiting for them as she had for the past four days and ran up towards them like an excited child, hugging each one. She could tell they had been through hell, their faces drawn with slightly vacant stares, the 1000 yard stare of all of those who had suffered strain that nobody should. She could tell Jarvis was the most effected and held his hand as they walked down to the parked vehicles. Morrison was bitter.
“Nothing. Absolutely fuck all. I reckon the bastard slipped across the border long before we got here. The intel was just plain wrong. We’ve been pounding these caves from the air and expending blood, sweat and emotional energy on a few stragglers. Underground generators, armouries and hospitals. Fucking rubbish! A journalistic fantasy, that’s all.”
Afarin wanted to say I told you so, but wisely she kept quiet. She made an effort to cook breakfast for them and true to form, it was awful. They ate it mechanically without tasting it, out of politeness and sheer exhaustion. After the meal they prepped the wagons and sorted their equipment despite their fatigue, drilled like the good soldiers they were.
“We’ve been recalled to base, so you get to sleep in a proper bed tonight. They reckon that we need some down time.”
Afarin noticed that Wayne was yawning and they all seemed dead on their feet, “You lot are done in. Let me drive.”
Morrison chuckled, “We want to get there in one piece, Treacle.”
Predictably she flared up, “I’ve done the bloody driving course and I’m annotated for trailers as well on my 600!”
He punched her shoulder playfully, “You bite every time. If you can keep Winnie the WMIK on the road and just follow the boss, then that’s fine by me. And thanks for offering.”
“Well we’re supposed to be a team.”
He smiled, “And that’s just what we are. A pretty good one I would say.”
And she could drive while three of them dozed in the back of the Land Rover, and Morrison sat up front, head nodding and drowsy and waking occasionally to see if she was OK. Afarin felt a sense of belonging she had never felt before and she was so happy to be up next to Morrison. She was with her family.
But it could never last. The Blades were due to be replaced by a fresh troop from the UK and for the first time they thought about going home. Afarin had dreaded this moment and they all knew how profound her sense of sorrow would be. The four of them discussed it, because in a way, they were dreading it as much as she had been. One evening Morrison tracked her down and together they went for a walk. She broached the subject.
“The time has come, hasn’t it? You’re going home.”
“Yes. In two days we’ll be flying out to Kandahar.”
“Yes, Treacle. We’re going home.”
“And I have to stay here.”
They stopped and he put his arm around her, “That’s up to you. We can run you back to Khost and the RAF tomorrow.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“You can stay here and operate with our replacement troop. You’re a valued and respected part of the team and everyone would be sorry to see you go. But you are from the RAF.”
“I can’t go back to analysing the images from RAPTOR pods. Not after everything that’s happened with you… With the team,” She said miserably.
“You’ll be OK here and our replacements will look after you. If there is ever any problem, phone this number. It’s my personal mobile phone,“ He handed her a card, ”The number below is the admin cell at Hereford and they will be able to track me down if you can’t get me on my mobile.”
“I wish I could come with you.”
“Me too, Treacle. Stay with me tonight.”
“No, Henry. That wouldn’t be right,” She had wanted so much to say yes and nearly did, then thought of the others, particularly Guy Jarvis.
“I guess not.”
They walked slowly back to the tents and Corimec containers of the base’s accommodation.
“I won’t come in to the bar tonight. I couldn’t bear it.”
“We will all miss you, Afarin Khan.”
She was sniffling as she went to her tent, got undressed and lay despondently in the darkness. Afarin Khan would eventually go back to her home unit at RAF Marham, but she would never analyse data from RAPTOR pods or even wear the uniform again. Her life would be very different. She had been noted as a person of interest.
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