Wednesday 11th February
While Margin had a great deal of respect for the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, he realised that there was one major flaw in the well-oiled machinery of repatriation. It was designed to get a Service person or civilian on operations back to a loved one and nominated next of kin in extremis. It was not in the business of getting them back out on operations, and nor should it have been. There were no onward flights to Kabul from Kandahar that night the C17 landed, but there would be a round robin C130 flight taking off the following morning, stopping at Camp Bastion, Herat, Mazari Sharif, Konduz, Bagram and naturally last, Kabul.
The following morning the Rubb hangar that served as Kandahar’s passenger terminal, was packed with British troops heading back to Bastion. He noticed the four guys he had discreetly watched at Brize, waiting for the flight as well, still hefting their bergens and weapons. They had managed to find alternative accommodation as he hadn’t seen them in the vast hangar with hundreds of cot beds, which constituted Kandahar’s transit accommodation. He wasn’t surprised and couldn’t blame them. The merchant banker was looking particularly dapper and well-presented, and Margin could have sworn his fitted French combat trousers and British windproof smock looked newly-pressed, almost starched.
The C130 was a Canadian Air Force kite and about seventy of them filed on board for the short flight to Bastion. As they taxied out, Margin saw a Predator drone with the low-visibility RAF roundels following a pick-up truck. He thought of the flight crew in their air-conditioned Portakabin back in Lincolnshire and concluded that was the way to fight a war, unless you were on the receiving end of the Predator. From the limited view out of the window, the transport aircraft whined above what seemed like an endless, dusty plain, through which a green ribbon meandered like a verdant snake.
Down there were the Cuds. It was a short hop, and they were soon on the ground at Camp Bastion, the main UK base in Helmand Province, conveniently close to the Pakistan border and Sir Mortimer Durand’s mythical border line. Spring was coming and the Taliban would be on their way across hills via Spin Buldak. The Durand line meant nothing to them.
The majority of the Pax disembarked at Bastion, where there was a short wait of the pan while some cargo was loaded, and two Italian Air Force officers came on board. Margin was surprised to see that the merchant banker, the regressive gene and the two Imiliano Zapata’s sidekicks stayed on board. They took off for another short hop to Herat, where the Italians disembarked. The C130 tracked up the east of the country to Qala-e-Naw where some of the cargo was unloaded. Nobody got off or on.
There was a longer leg of a couple of hours as the aircraft headed north-east to Mazari Sharif and landed at the Soviet-built airfield. It was laid out in the typical, utilitarian, Soviet style of a single runway with a parallel taxiway. More cargo was loaded via the Herc’s rear ramp, and the crew got off to meet a Danish General who was getting on board with two of his flunkies, probably bound for ISAF HQ in Kabul. One of the Mexican bandits, the one with the rearranged face got off as the engines had shut down, probably for a cigarette and a piss.
The Danish entourage were shown to the seats nearest to the forward bulkhead and some of the cargo was unloaded. Thirty minutes later the engines started, and they were climbing out. It seemed that the Kunduz leg had been cancelled because the aircraft went in a steady climb to the south-east and presently the beautiful mountains of the Hindu Kush were sliding below. The sun was beginning to set, and it cast the snowy peaks with a dusting of rose pink. Margin was lifted from his melancholy by the subliminal magnificence of the mountains.
They landed at Bagram at 15:55 and given an opportunity to stretch their legs while the C130 war refuelled. It was much colder here than it had been in Kabul, probably because of the proximity to the mountains. Bagram was another Soviet airfield, surrounded by mountains to the north and west, an endless phalanx of air-conditioned tents and CORIMECs stretching into the distance. They were given a hot drink and a snack in a temporary hangar, obviously a table was provided for the general’s entourage. The hangar sides flapped in the chill breeze. The four hooligans had disembarked with all of their kit and weapons. Margin had grabbed his daysack, so the military axiom held true: never become separated from your kit. You never know where you might end up.
The American ground crews turned round the aircraft quickly and efficiently and the C130 was heading south for the capital in less than thirty minutes. Just eight Pax. Margin suspected he had been lucky that four Special Forces personnel and a General had been on the manifest, otherwise it would have meant another night sleeping in Kandahar’s draughty transit hangar. And he was running out of clean shreddies.
This was the shortest of the hops, Bagram to Kabul and perhaps the most dangerous of the airfields, because it was in a city and all the approach routes were over bandit territory. As he had flown in once before, Margin knew what to expect. He tightened his lap belt and jammed his day sack behind his knees. The SF guys were hanging onto their weapons and kit and the loadie at the rear of the aircraft was holding out two fingers. Margin glanced at the general and his sidekicks, who were being spoken to by the forward loadie. Reluctantly and with a sense of annoyed bemusement, they folded up their reports and strapped in. The loadie briefly checked Margin and gave him a questioning thumbs-up. He smiled wanly back at him.
The final approach to Kabul International Airport was over the Pul-e Charchi Industrial area and the Jalalabad highway. It was a road classified on the NATO maps as Route Violet. Because of the vast numbers of burned-out ISAF trucks and tankers, it was colloquially known as “Route Violent.” Margin hated flying into Kabul and this wasn’t helped by his not being a great lover of flying as a passenger anyway. The trick was to stay out of range of ground fire at altitude for as long as possible, and then descend for landing very quickly, the classic Kha Sanh approach.
The loadies strapped in and the flaps and undercarriage were deployed with a slight rumble. The four turboprop engines throttled back to a whisper, the nose went down, and the aircraft fell away from underneath them. In the negative G, dust, and debris, including discarded foam ear defenders came up from the deck of the aircraft. Margin watched as one of the General’s flunky’s pens and notebook take a life of their own and float weightlessly just out of his reach. The mountainous horizon visible through a window was at 45 degrees and the propeller blades were whining as they wind milled in the slipstream. Margin tightened his stomach muscles and waited for the crushing positive G he hoped would come soon. Otherwise, the aircraft and its passengers would be in a crater on the threshold of runway 11/29.
The engines throttled up as the nose came up and the dust, notebook and pens fell back on the deck. The C130 thudded down onto the runway and the reverse thrust went straight on, pitching Margin sideways in his seat and then the aircraft swung off the runway and headed for the terminal buildings. His late father would have described the landing as a “real greaser.” It was blissfully quiet when it shut down and the cold air poured into the fuselage as the tail ramps opened. They filed off and a 4×4 was waiting for the general. The four other passengers humped their kit across to gate in the security fence where he was pretty sure transport would be waiting for them, wherever they were going. It was late afternoon and getting dark. The MT section at the headquarters closed for normal business at 16:30 and he needed a lift from the airport to ISAF HQ. He didn’t fancy a night in the airport terminal, waiting for the MT section to open the following morning. Inside the buildings he sought out the senior mover and retrieved his L85, Glock, ammunition and Leatherman’s that had been taken off him just over two weeks ago. On spec he asked the senior mover about transport.
“You could see if the mail run has left yet. They might give you a lift.”
Outside in the no parking area next to the terminal buildings, he saw a British soldier loading sacks and packages into the back of a white Toyota Land Cruiser. It had the two stubby aerials of vehicle ECM and Margin approached the corporal.
“Good evening. Are you going anywhere near ISAF Headquarters? I’m stuck and could do with a lift.”
The corporal looked at his rank slide on the front of the body armour, “Were not supposed to take Pax, sir.”
“I gathered that, but I’ve just come back from a repatriation, and I’ve had no chance to tee-up any transport.”
The corporal thought about it, “All right, if you don’t mind sitting with the mail sacks. There’s no seats in the back.”
“I am really grateful to you. Thank you.”
The driver was a female lance-corporal who stared with surprise at the RAF officer, while her oppo explained why they were giving him a lift.
“I’m not sure about this,” she said reluctantly.
“It’ll be OK. If anybody says anything, we’ll just say he pulled rank and insisted.”
“Don’t forget to say that you were threatened at gunpoint.” Margin said helpfully.
She laughed and while Margin loaded his rifle and put on ballistic goggles, they made a space for him in the back. The corporal looked at his watch and said formally, “It’s time to go.”
Margin clambered in the back.
“If you would watch our rear arcs, sir.”
He shut him in and got in next to the driver. For the next twenty minutes, Margin smiled to himself as the corporal subjected the female driver to mansplaining the best way of driving through the city. Something she had done on many occasions in the past, without needing to have every manoeuvre critiqued or patronisingly approved of. They drove past the Czech Field Hospital and then out through the final security gate. As far as Margin was concerned, they were now in enemy territory.
It had snowed in the mountains and now the dismal, grey city was dusted with a mixture of snow and the fine, talcum powder-like dust that seemed to permeate everywhere. It formed a slush that clogged the edges of the roads and obscured the meagre vegetable plots between the roads and pavements. All of the shrubbery had been cleared on the main routes so that roadside bombs were more difficult to hide, but the Taliban still managed to destroy ISAF vehicles. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Most of the trip was along the airport road, a dual carriageway with a solid concrete central reservation. It was the most direct route, but it seemed slightly obvious to Margin, whose experiences in Iraq had taught him just how dangerous the predictable routes could be.
The traffic was thinning, and some lights were burning in the embassy quarter and the ministries. There was no Green Zone as such in Kabul, unlike Baghdad, although the US Embassy was particularly well protected, which they drove past before turning into the man gate of ISAF HQ. Some of the headquarters personnel from various ISAF contributing countries, had a very laissez faire attitude to security, and often slipped out to sample the local restaurants and night life, such as it was. One enterprising individual had left his personal weapon in a “nightclub” (brothel) and was on the first available flight home. There was an inevitable clamp-down and the Taliban attack on the Sarina Hotel helped to ram the message home, but some still drove alone through the city.
Once through the HQ’s two checkpoints the Land Cruiser stopped at the loading/unloading bay and they unloaded and mutually cleared their weapons.
“I can make my own way from here. My thanks to you both and stay safe,” Margin said and shook both of their hands. The two soldiers watched him plod off towards the headquarters main entrance.
“I didn’t know there were any RAF here,” said the driver.
“Course there are,” her oppo scoffed, “It’s a headquarters. Nice and safe.”
“We’re attached to the Headquarters,” she pointed out.
“Yeah, but we go outside the wire. I bet he never has to.”
Margin knew that he’d better tell someone he was back. He thought of the injudicious Rockape wing commander who had told him his mother was very seriously ill in hospital and his helpful “Well shit happens,” comment. No way on God’s earth, he thought. It was dark and after 18:00, but he was fairly sure that Colonel Nguyen would still be in the office. He made his way to the upper floor of the CORIMEC office block to the CJ Med department and sure enough the colonel’s office light was on. He took off his helmet and put on his beret, knocking on the open door.
Margin saluted, “Hello, Colonel. Sorry I took so long.”
Colonel Nguyen looked up and smiled sadly, the skin around his sad, Vietnamese eyes crinkled.
“Christophe. So, you came back, thank you. Sit down. They told me your father was in hospital after your mother died.”
They conversed in French as Margin could speak the language passably badly. The colonel’s English was good, but slow as he had to think carefully about every word. A hang-up of working in a NATO HQ where English was the language of business.
“He died as well, colonel, two nights ago, although it feels…”
The stress, fatigue and grief buried Margin like a Newquay comber and he put his head in his hands, “Please excuse me, Colonel Nguyen.”
Eventually he composed himself and looked up, expecting to see the Frenchman’s embarrassed face, but the colonel was looking at him compassionately with those sad, Vietnamese eyes.
“Christophe, I know with certainty how you feel. My own dear wife died eight months ago, which is why I am here. When I was learning English, I was given a book to read by P. C. Wren. It was called Beau Geste and it was about the Légion étrangère. You English like Beau Geste join the Légion étrangère to forget. I volunteered to come came out here to forget my pain, but I never did, and neither will you. But you must believe me when I say that every day that pain gets a little less. You will never forget, nor should you. But there will come a time when you can tolerate it.”
Margin didn’t know what to say so he stood up.
“And thank you for coming back.”
“I had to, colonel. My father said he’d have disowned me if I hadn’t.”
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file
© Chris Downes/Blown Periphery 2023