Sunday, August 8, 2010

Afghanistan's bloody hell: Where any field can be a killing field

The IED is the signature weapon in Afghanistan and Iraq.....I have heard them go off in close proximity but luckily, I have never been in the "kill zone" of one detonating. This reporter for the Toronto Star gives a ringside seat to what the troops deal with, especially the combat medics who fly into the kill-zone whenever & wherever needed.....If this doesn't fill you with awe, then I regret to inform you that you are without a heart or a human soul....

Afghanistan's bloody hell: Where any field can be a killing field

Louie Palu Special to the Star

I sit strapped in on another express ride to hell. I am flying on a medevac bird. The crews who fly these helicopter air ambulances of the US 101st combat aviation brigade medevac company are the most insane heroes I have ever seen. They fly into the worst places not to fight, but to selflessly pick up the wounded; soldiers, civilians and, yes, insurgents. This Blackhawk carries no weapon system. We are racing over Kandahar’s grape fields in Panjwaii to one of Canada’s last battlefields in Kandahar.

The bird dips, drops and drowns in a swirling cloud of dirt, and then hits the landing zone. The medic leaps out and a desperate group of people rush forward carrying the wounded. Then it arrives, the blood and body parts that look like they’ve been through a grinder.

I fly nine days with them, and slowly it begins to wear on me, mission after mission, body after body. What seemed to get to me the most on some days was the smell of hot blood as the bird heated up. Apparently, over time blood leaks down into the belly of the helicopter and is baked into the fuselage.

When it heats up the smell can come to life in the cabin.

These missions provide a window into what weapons deal to the human body. Most of the casualties are from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) and mines. Many victims become amputees, legs blown off by the blast. The stumps have tourniquets holding what’s left of their life in. Some casualties have so many holes they bleed out. One day two boys are carried into the bird, both blinded by a mine, staring into space in shock. An Afghan police officer comforted them to the NATO hospital. The parade of blood and tears that moves in and out of the helicopter seemed endless, yet the medevac crews never stop.

The I.E.D. has begun to symbolize, in this war, what the stinger missile was for the mujahedeen when fighting the Russians. This indiscrimiate weapon is the primary tool used by the insurgents to sow terror throughout the countryside. Many of the victims this year are ordinary citizens, including many children, their little feet ripped from their lives forever. Caught between growing numbers of NATO troops and insurgents bent on matching any possible offensive, civilians have suffered the most, as they always do here.

In May I joined the 82nd Airborne and some Canadians in Arghandab District as they made the initial push to secure the first layer of security around Kandahar City. ....There are so many IED’s that patrols become acrobatic feats climbing on, around, over and through every land feature including rivers and trees. On one patrol I jump over a wall, walk five metres and “boom!,” a blast. I hit the ground. We think we are under attack, then comes the shriek from a cloud of dust behind me. I have just walked over a mine. The soldier behind sets it off, his foot shattered. A few days later “bang!,” another IED goes off after I pass it.

During the weeks and months explosions echo in the distance all day. Engineers destroy IED’s, people are also maimed and killed. The deadliest thing you can do here is take a walk. We start to do a “low five” after patrols — a dance where we tap each others’ feet like an Irish jig, celebrating that we still have our feet.

I tour the hell holes of Kandahar and end up in Nakhonay in Panjwaii District, where within sight of the combat outpost an IED explodes behind me again. I am so close to the blast I think my legs are gone in the blinding dust. I run my hands quickly down my legs and they are still there.
One of the most disturbing days unfolds in nearby Fathullah. I join Canadian soldiers for a patrol that ends without incident. Children are running and joking, asking for a “qalam” which in Pashto means pen — they always want pens.

We are about to leave the area when “kapow!” a mushroom cloud bursts into the sky 150 meters away. There is confusion: are we under attack, or did an insurgent blow himself up setting an IED? In the chaos, people come running. An 8-year-old boy is being carried on a man’s back, soaked in blood. He was hit by an IED. His situation is grave.

The soldiers begin first aid, a medevac is called in — the 101s t who answer the call. The boy lives.

In the armoured vehicle on the way back to base, I reflect: How will Afghans deal with these tragedies, when we leave? Will we leave them with the capacity to deal with this threat, or will IED explosions become a way of life and death, for years into the future?

Louie Palu is a Canadian photojournalist who has been covering the war in Kandahar since 2006

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