The Challenge

A so called MRAP standing just outside Sar Howza on the day we visited the former girls school. I like this one, because it has a somewhat deceptive feel of tranquility to it (Photo: Heimken)

Afghanistan must be one of the most challenged countries in the world, at least the parts we got to see. This is by no means the fault of the general populace, but there are powers hard at work keeping this country down – they’re not just foreigners.

As Staff Sergeant Meredith of Apache Company 2-28 said, there are many men in powerful positions, who are not interested in educating their subjects out of fear they might start to want a piece of the pie.

War as a way of life
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The Way Back

Finally, the full V.I.P. treatment on our way back through Sharana (Photo: Loesche)

Meanwhile, Axel and I are back in Kabul. We arrived here yesterday at the military part of the airport. We are scheduled to fly on tomorrow in the morning to Dubai. The further we get from our embed, the more we wind down. Now, that we have some time to gather our thoughts, we slowly realise how exhausting this journey really was.

Three weeks were plenty.

We left the COP Sar Howza late on Saturday after we had the encounter with the mullah and mujahedeen Tuti. We were driven to the 172nd’s headquarters by MRAP convoy to Sharana and got there at around 22.00. The brigade’s PAO Major Buccino was waiting for us. He showed us our rooms. I was lucky to get room V.I.P. 2 this time. (About time. Buccino had been promising us the whole V.I.P. treatment since we first got here!).

In the news
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Western Perceptions

How to sell agricultural lessons. Teachers at Mata Khan boys highschool (Photo: Heimken)

Today, we first drove to Sharana and then on to Mata Khan, a much smaller combat outpost than Sar Howsa. I had fun listening to Frank Sinatra, Black Sabbath and some country tunes on our way over via an iPod connected to the intercom.

Mata Khan is home to the 1st Platoon of Captain Perkins Apache Company 2-28. The country side surrounding it is completely flat, unlike the Sar Howza region. Although it’s only about 15 to 20 kilometers away, the climate feels different too. It’s much warmer, at least 15 degrees Celsius more.

There’s much more arable land here. We drove past some really impressive castle like Qalats, big square compounds with high mud walls and small turrets on each corner. I guess they reflect the mentality of the people living in this region. Everybody who is wealthy enough protects their fortunes out of sight. Their home really is their castle here.

It might be a testament to the fact that there is no centralised authority, called the nation state that has vowed to protect private property and enforce sanctions against people who don’t respect that right. By now there are such institutions in place in Afghanistan, but they are young and not welcome by everyone. The province of Paktika is known for being stubbornly anti-government.

Hate the state
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Anniversary Blackout

We spent two days under so called blackout conditions. The armed forces have a strict policy of shutting down all means of communication, from collecting mobile phones to capping the internet connection. They want family members to be informed about any killed relative by an official source, instead of rumors being spread.

We only got sketchy information about one service member being killed in Paktika late on Saturday. I haven’t been able to confirm any such news on the internet after it came back on this morning.


Saturday night fireworks, bring ya ear plugs! (Photo: Heimken)

On Saturday night we were standing right next to the mortar pit when they were firing illumination rounds out of their 120 Millimeter tube, lighting up the three Kilometre corridor between the base and the town of Sar Howsa. They shot at least ten rounds into the night sky – for show of force more than anything.

The assistant gunner steps to the mortar. The NCO tells him to “hang it” and the gunner will place the round into the tubes opening. After he’s commanded to fire, he simply lets the round drop into the tube. Where the rounds initial charge explodes and the grenade is violently propelled into sky. The loud explosion makes the area the pit tremble.

The illumination rounds break into half over the destined area. The part with the phosphorus substance glides to the ground on a parachute. They changed the direction of fire slightly once. Axel took some awesome pictures of the live firin exercise.

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Jokes on the Radio

The Afghan DJ in his studio in the combat outpost Sar Howza (Photo: Heimken)

Today, we did an interesting story on an Afghan DJ who runs a radio station on camp, for the population outside the wire. The station was set up by ISAF. Interestingly Iranian music seems to be all the hype. It’s what the 20-year-old plays a lot.

Apart from playing music he also reads out news he gets from the 3-66 Battalion headquarters in Sharana and he reads out jokes every now and then. It must be hard for him living on base with all the Americans, the only company he has are the interpreters working for the unit.

Lobster and Steak

Captain Perkins and his two platoons came back inside the wire, the outpost, from their five day mission yesterday evening. The company’s cook made them a special welcome meal – lobster and steak – to greet the men that were living without showers and good food for almost a week.
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Welcome to Sar Howza

Our location an a map (Photo: Loesche)

The sun’s out. It’s a little after 9.00 a.m. Axel and I spent our first night in our new home. We slept in a wooden hut without windows, the interior divided into smaller rooms with every compartment having their own door outside. Shortly before midnight we were told off by the one of the mechanics, we weren’t supposed to have our light on because of black out rules.

The combat outpost is about as a big as three football fields. It’s guarded by four Towers. They’ve got cameras on all of them. One of the towers is unmanned and has a remote controlled machinegun on its roof. The perimeter of the compound is made of so called Hescos, huge square blocks made from wire lined with fabric filled with rocks and sand.

Heavy Metal

Soldiers chillin out in COP Sar Howza (Photo: Loesche)

They’ve got everything they need on the base. A kitchen container, a dining facility, a gym where the soldiers were working out last night to heavy metal when I was sitting just outside the exercise room, on one of the computer workstations connected to the internet. They even have a laundry facility where Axel washed his T-Shirts this morning.

Three platoons of Apache Company live here, more than 100 men in total. I haven’t seen any women, like on the bigger based in Bagram or Sharana. The company commander, Captain James Perkins left the compound with most of his men late last week. So we haven’t seen him yet. They are busy setting up check points and observation posts at a vital crossing a few kilometers from here.

When the district governor is not in the provincial capital Sharana he resides on the outpost, the district centre is located on base. So when there are shuras the town elders come to the base to hold the meetings here. We’ve been told that after more than 100 insurgents were killed by US special forces in July just North of here in the mountains they transported the bodies here for biometric screening.


A mechanic (Photo: Loesche)

The soldiers who were left behind at the COP seem pretty chilled out. None of them are wearing their flak vests or helmets. The outpost didn’t get attacked for a while. That might change after Ramadan is over since last Friday. Everybody seems surprised there haven’t been any attacks or TICs, troops in contact – fire fights with insurgents.

Where Perkins and his platoons are setting up the posts the insurgents had established check points of their own they just gave up because most fighters went home for the holy month of Ramadan. It would make sense for the insurgent fighters to now come back and fight the infidels and the Afghan National Army (ANA) to regain control of the area.

At one point it looked like we might be able to join Perkins and his men and spend the night out in the field. A convoy with fuel was going to be sent out with resupplies. They didn’t drive out after all so we stayed on base.

Axel later pointed out that this was a good thing. Before we left Kabul we were talking to a first sergeant of the US marines. He had been deployed four times and his motto was: “Don’t get killed on the first day – and don’t get killed on the last”. This wasn’t the first day of our journey, but the first of our stay in Sar Howza. We need to settle in first.