Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lies in sweetest bud.
All men make faults.
Operation Moshtarak March 2010
They had come from Kandahar in a 4×4, bringing medical supplies, high protein food and fired up with evangelical religious zeal and the sense that this was where their destiny lay. The husband was a nurse practitioner, and his wife had worked in this area before, delivering aid with the Canadian International Development Agency.
They had received God’s calling to seek out the sick and the needy in Afghanistan and found the Kabul area to be somewhat overrun with overseas aid agencies. It was obvious to the wife that they had to go where they were needed most, the border areas south of Helmand Province. They could bring help and comfort to the tribal areas, forgotten in this war that seemed without end.
Their greeting in Marjah was one of indifference but undeterred, they headed west into the hills away from the Helmand River. Nobody had said that God’s work would be easy and the 4×4 was soon bouncing along rutted tracks. They sang to keep their spirits up and huddled together in the back of the 4×4 at night, as it was still bitterly cold in the hills.
They came across the boy in an area where the road was a switchback as it climbed into the hills, poorly surfaced where rain had washed away the surface metalling. The boy waved at the vehicle and they stopped to ask if he needed any help. Unfortunately the woman could only speak Hasargi, her husband Arabic and the boy spoke only Pashtu, but with the common words and sign language they had rudimentary communications.
He took them to his village where they were greeted by the village elders and given a meal. Because they were so well-versed in cultural sensitivities, they knew they could not refuse and suffered the tough goat served in flatbreads. One of the elders spoke to the boy who had brought them in and told him to tell the Taliban about the two Westerners and their medical supplies.
The armed men had come into the village while the Canadian couple were taking tea. They looked at their vehicle with its medical supplies, and knew they could make money. They also knew that they could potentially make more money by ransoming the couple. They were dragged from the house by the Taliban and forced to walk up, into the hills, while some of the fighters took the kitbags of medical supplies. The 4×4 would be useless where they were going, so they allowed the villagers to keep it for their act of betrayal.
After a week, the Canadian evangelists would be fully versed in the Taliban version of Melmastyā́, which requires hospitality and profound respect to be shown all visitors, regardless of distinctions of race, religion, national affiliation as well as economic status and doing so without any hope of remuneration or favour. The woman was treated to their version of Melmastyā́, sometimes up to eight times per day with different men, while her husband, beaten and imprisoned in a separate part of the walled complex could only listen helplessly to his wife’s anguish.
By the time they had been held for a month, the woman was sick and weak from malnutrition, she was infested with scabies, lice, crabs and abdominal worms and passing urine caused so much pain she would nearly pass out. She knew that her God had abandoned her and sought out the only form of release, a blunt, rusty knife that came with her food. But she lacked the strength and resolve to cur her own throat and only succeeded in lacerating the skin, which bled a great deal but failed to do any meaningful damage to her. This in itself was a bitter irony as it turned out. When the Taliban found her covered in blood, she was beaten and raped again for good measure, this time in front of her husband. They had learned that the road to hell was paved with good intentions.
Their church reported them missing after they missed their second scheduled phone call and this was reported to the Canadian authorities. It was a difficult task to track down a single vehicle in a country the size of Afghanistan, but their last reported sighting was of them leaving Kandahar in a 4×4. There was no trace in Lashkar Gah but a vehicle matching the description of the Canadians 4×4 was seen headed west a number of weeks previously. An RQ4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone sent imagery of a 4×4 that it spotted in a village west of Marjah and intelligence staff identified two possible locations in the hills where the couple might be being held. There was a large, joint SEAL/SAS operation in the area to track down members of the Taliban leadership and it was relatively easy to re-task these Special Forces assets in a potential hostage rescue that was assuming the Canadians were still alive. The Americans conducted close, covert reconnaissance of the small village but drew a blank. The SAS team concentrated on the large, walled complex, some twenty kilometres away. The reserve of the force remained at the FOB at instant notice to move by helicopter, to provide augmentation.
Guy Jarvis lay immobile under the camouflaged tarpaulin sheet, within forty feet of the complex. He had spent time and effort camouflaging the tarpaulin, dirtying it with oil and grime from the MT compound, cutting away the straight edges so it would look more natural and tying a few clumps of jute and hessian strips to it to simulate dry vegetation. He had been in this hide for three nights and two days, defecating and urinating in sealable food bags. Sometimes the Taliban sentries passed within a few feet of his position and his nerves were stretched to breaking point and terror was his constant companion.
The previous night he had infiltrated the complex moving when the quarter moon was hidden behind clouds. He moved very slowly, stopping every few feet to listen and sense what was behind doors. He could hear the Taliban talking in other rooms, snoring and had to hide in a room when two fighters came down the corridor. Behind a door he heard a woman sobbing and two rooms away a man praying in English. The doors were bolted from the outside and he hoped they weren’t locked as well.
The withdrawal was just as terrifying and back in his OP, he made a report very quietly on the net. There were eight of them conducting close surveillance from hides around the complex. Somewhere to his right was Cooper, his sidekick, probably quite close to his position but as well-hidden as he was. Morrison was on a month of well-earned leave, probably schmoozing with Micky Keeble’s sister. Edge was with the main force and the Americans, probably knocking them dead with his light-hearted banter and repartee, Jarvis thought cynically.
After his report was passed up the chain, a plan was formulated. The main force of a joint US/British force would be inserted by helicopters and approach the complex on foot, to conduct a coup de main attack tying up the defenders. The surveillance team would covertly enter the complex and secure the hostages, who would be extracted with the main force, while the surveillance team formed a rear-guard to cover the withdrawal. It was an extremely quick and dirty plan, very risky and would take place the following night.
Jarvis spent the daylight hours of the following day, either catnapping or living with his terror. At one point in the afternoon, a motorbike stopped by the walls of compound, close to his position and he could hear the Taliban talking and laughing. One of them walked towards his hide and relieved himself, so close that Jarvis could hear his urine splashing on the ground. He began to breathe again when the motorbike started up and moved away. There was a technique to sleeping in a higher, alert stage of consciousness. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were well-versed in it. Sleep was a state of dangerous vulnerability, but we’ve lost the knack. People like Jarvis were forced to re-learn it quickly. The key was being able to shut down the higher functions such as full consciousness, while retaining the survival mechanisms. As far as sleep went, it was just enough to prevent total exhaustion.
He worried a great deal. Not only for himself, but also for the hostages, particularly the woman. He had seen enough of the notorious Afghan cruelty to know what she was going through. He fervently hoped that they wouldn’t decide to move the hostages again, because they could never follow them and there would be no second chance. He thought about Edge and the assault team back at their FOB. Please don’t cock it up, Edge. And he thought a lot about death, his and the people he had been close to. He had lost comrades, bad luck but part and parcel. But he thought about a little Russian cleaner and her battered and dumped body. Killed in a random act of barbaric cruelty in this shithole of a country, so many before her and so many still to come. Jarvis hated them, but he had also come to hate himself.
The darkness fell out of a purple sky and they waited. They would never hear the helicopters, but hoped they were on their way. Finally the Boss’s voice crackled in Jarvis’ earpiece.
“They’ve landed. Stand by all call signs.”
Jarvis peered out from under the tarpaulin and the walls of the compound were dark against the night sky. It was cold, but he realised that he was sweating. There was another intolerable period of waiting that shredded their nerves.
“Prepare to move. South-west corner of complex. Oscar two will lead.”
“Roger,” Jarvis affirmed.
He gently moved the tarpaulin out of the way and slowly crawled from cover. All his kit was ready for immediate action, C8 carbine, one-hundred and eighty rounds of 5.56mm ammunition, four grenades, two fragmentation and two smoke, fighting knife and role radio, netted in to the other seven members of the observation team. Unfortunately, only the boss could speak to the incoming assault team. It was a tactical disadvantage that would come back and bite their arses.
Jarvis crouched in the shadows of the compound’s wall that he had scaled the previous night. He was joined by Cooper and the two other troopers who would enter the complex to free the hostages, while the other four would remain outside of the buildings to guard their flanks and rear. They would all extract once the assault was in position to kill everyone in the complex and sweep the buildings for data.
He led them over the wall and effected entry to the buildings. One of them carried a shotgun with Hatton rounds to blow the locks off the doors in case they were locked as well as bolted. They paused outside the two doors where the hostages were held and Jarvis slid the lock of the first door back, while another trooper with the shotgun tried the second.
“Shit!” the trooper hissed. They were locked.
He pointed the shotgun at the crude hinges and blew the door off its frame, before moving to the second. Jarvis went in and saw the woman huddled in the corner on a filthy mattress. He crouched down next to her and spoke gently. She screamed as the shotgun went off down the corridor.
“We’ve come to get you out. Stay calm and do everything we tell you to.”
She started to shake and moan as bursts of fire came from outside the cell and Jarvis helped her to her feet. She was terrified and felt fragile and emaciated, like an abused cat.
“Clear!” someone yelled outside and Jarvis walked her to the door and looked out. There corridor was full of swirling smoke and scattered bodies, caught as they came out of a room. It was bad luck the doors had been locked, however, now they had the two hostages, but the Taliban were fully alerted. With a trooper leading and Cooper guarding the rear, they moved towards a right-angle turn and the way out of the building.
Events began to unravel with astonishing quickness. As the lead trooper reached the end of the corridor, a sudden torrent of gunfire came from around the corner. He was hit in the head and killed instantly and the firing was followed up with a grenade. The other trooper with the male hostage pushed his charge into a room off to the right. Jarvis who heard the grenade clatter along the floor had nowhere to go. He grabbed the woman close and turned his back to the threat to offer her some protection. The blast blew him onto his knees and he dragged the woman down with him. The Taliban fighter appeared from the corner and fired a long burst down the corridor to follow up.
He fired again. Two 7.62mm rounds from his AK47 hit Jarvis on the rear trauma plate of his body armour, while the third hit the woman in the throat. They were both engulfed in a torrent hot, arterial blood from her thoracic aorta. Cooper fired and killed the Taliban, but the damage had been done. Her terrified eyed stared up at Jarvis as he pressed his first field dressing on the wound in her neck, while raising the Boss on the net.
“We need help in here. Two down, including the female hostage.”
The woman grabbed him, “Please help me, God.”
The blood bubbled and frothed at her throat and she coughed into Jarvis’ face. He tasted her blood, hot and salty. She was drowning in her own blood and he could only apply direct pressure and look into her terrified eyes, like he was looking into her soul. The team outside were dealing with their own problems and it was some time before two troopers came in, one a medic who checked the casualties. By that time she had become weak and barely conscious and Jarvis was covered and kneeling in her blood. Her husband was inconsolable. The medic looked at Jarvis and gave an imperceptive shake of his head. As she stared up frantically at him, with her blood spurting through his gloves, Jarvis saw the lights in her eyes dim, fade and then there was nothing. He held the woman while she died, talking softly to her. She reached for her husband and went limp. Then they knew they had to get out. Jarvis could barely walk himself, his back was agony and he could taste his own blood in his mouth. God there was so much blood, he was sticky with it and retched at the metallic reek of the woman’s vital life that now covered them.
They left nobody behind including the dead. Jarvis blocked the memory of the nightmare trek to the helicopters as he had to be carried himself because he could barely breathe. In the back of a Blackhawk, the husband’s grief was awful to behold, clutching his dead wife’s body. He passed out gratefully.
Edge came to see him in the Role 2 Enhanced at Kandahar. Jarvis was lying on his side trying to read a book, it was impossible to lie on his back.
“What’s the damage?” Edge asked.
“Sprung ribs, one broken. Fragments from a grenade in my thighs.”
“So the body armour does work, doesn’t it?”
“Where the hell were you lot?”
Edge pulled up a chair and sat down. He looked long and hard at Jarvis, “We were there. It was just uncoordinated.”
“Whoever came up with such a dammed fool plan should be shot!”
“There wasn’t time. We had to act, to take the risk.”
“We took the risk and paid for it,” Jarvis said bitterly.
“We lost a man fighting our way up to the complex.”
Edge lit a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here.”
“Really?” Edge said, “What happens to you now?”
“Medical flight back to the UK and when I get back to the Lines, I’m putting in a formal complaint regarding the conduct of this operation.”
A nurse came into the ward, scowled at Edge and took the cigarette off him. She left to dispose of it and he chuckled.
“Guy, what will be the point of putting in a formal complaint? Will it change anything? Will it bring Jock Porter, the SEAL or that Canadian woman back to life? Will it make her husband’s grief go away?”
“No, but I’m sick of being used. Where was that woman’s God? What was God doing while she was being raped and abused?”
“You can’t blame God for every death in the world.”
Jarvis looked at him angrily, “I don’t blame God, because God doesn’t exist. That poor woman knows that now. She wasted her precious life on a fictional concept of a supreme being and an afterlife. Just stupid!”
“Perhaps her God gave her some solace in the end.”
“It was their stupid belief in God that got them into trouble in the first place!”
Edge sighed and looked at the floor, “Guy, sometimes operations go wrong. They just do. It’s the nature of the beast. We operate in a chaotic and messy environment, with plenty of scope for cock-ups and they happen. Shit happens.”
“And people die. I watched the life go out of her, I was covered with it and even tasted it and there was nothing I could do.”
Edge stood up and smiled sadly at his comrade, “Go home. Do the physio they tell you to do and get looked after by that nice Welsh girl who I’m willing to bet, thinks the world of you. We’ll chat when I get home if you like. It may be time to think long and hard if this is the job you still want to do. I know I’ve had cause to evaluate my own life.”
“Are you the bloody padre now, Edge?”
Edge recoiled slightly as though he had been struck and Jarvis felt sorry and immediately regretted what he had said. It wasn’t Edge’s fault, “Sorry, Edge.”
Edge looked at Jarvis’ book. It was The Little Drummer Girl, “Not a good choice of reading material, Guy, given the distressing ending. Martine Krowchuk, bye the way.”
“The woman we tried to save. Her name was Martine Krowchuk.”
He went out with a gloomy feeling and went to find the nurse to apologise. Guy Jarvis would have to come to terms with his own demons, as Edge had to do with his.
It was still dark in the flat and the heating hadn’t come on yet, when Jarvis woke up. He felt in the bed for Hafwen, but although her side was still warm she wasn’t there. Jarvis switched on the bedside lamp and saw her sitting in a chair across the room, her dressing gown wrapped around her. She was staring at him, a peculiar expression on her pretty face.
She didn’t say anything and continued to look at him.
“Why don’t you come back to bed?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Come on, Hafwen. It must be cold.”
“What do you call what happened last night?” She asked.
Jarvis went up on his elbow, confused, “I don’t understand.”
“It wasn’t an act of love, Guy. It was almost an act of violence, an anger. Was it anger against me or your life in general?”
“I haven’t seen you for three months. Sorry but my back still hurts. You saw the bruises.”
“I saw a part of you that frightened me, Guy.”
He scoffed, “Oh come on, Hafwen.”
“I was frightened by you, Guy.”
“You know I would never hurt you.”
“Perhaps not physically. What has happened to you, Guy?”
“I told you. I got shot.”
She shook her head, “Not physically. What’s going on in your head?”
“It was a bad Op. That’s all.”
“What? Bad like the time when you came home with those burns? What happened to you, to the kind, gentle person you used to be?”
“For God’s sake! You know what I do.”
She sighed, “You can’t see it, can you? The job that you do is destroying you. But it makes you fell so alive doesn’t it, and yet you’re dead inside? Perhaps society should give thanks that men like you exist, but you’ve changed every time you come back and it’s getting worse and worse. I want a stable relationship, with a husband who doesn’t terrify me. I want us to get married and have a family. I want you to leave the Army, to put me and our future happiness before some operation in a god-forsaken place. Where I don’t have to worry that you’ll come home in a coffin draped with a flag. Do you love me enough to have a family and put it before the Army?”
“Of course I love you,” But it didn’t sound convincing.
“I’m sorry, Guy, but that’s not enough. One day it will all be gone. All your certainties, comrades, lifestyle will be gone. Most people would embrace a new life, but you won’t be able to, Guy. You won’t be able to cope with it and it’s going to destroy you.”
“It’s all I have, my life in the army and of course, you.” He made her sound like an afterthought.
She laughed bitterly, but her tears were starting, “Do you know that you talk in your sleep? You talk about terrible things, a burned woman and dead children in a cave.”
“So you’re leaving?”
“Yes I am,” she brushed away a few tears, “I have to and I am so very sorry.”
“Because you’re leaving?”
“No. Because I can’t stop you destroying yourself.”
“Where will you stay?”
“My old place. I’ll come back for my stuff this afternoon and leave you my keys.”
“Hafwen, please don’t go.”
“Try to understand and please don’t hate me, Guy.”
“I don’t,” he said sadly. In truth it was himself that he hated the most.
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