Published: 15 September 2008
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
The soldiers are living like animals at a little rat’s nest called FOB Gibraltar. They call it “Gib.” Named after the lynchpin of British naval dominance in the Mediterranean, this cluster of mud huts in the middle of hostile territory is more like Fort Apache, Afghanistan. The British soldiers from C-Company 2 Para live in ugly conditions, fight just about every day, and morale is the best I have seen probably anywhere.
The few outside visitors arrive in helicopters that are sometimes spaced days apart, so that if a visitor stays overnight, he could be stuck for a week or more. The closest Afghan dwellings are a few hundred meters away, and each is surrounded by a mud wall. The Brits and Americans call these dwellings “compounds,” because in fact they are little forts. Most Afghans here are a primitive lot who live far outside of cities, and even villages. The Brits say that locals live as their ancestors dwelled in the fourteenth century. Iraq is by comparison extremely advanced and familiar. Local homes are made of mud, straw, and poor-quality bricks that were dried in the sun, not fired in a kiln. Farmers in this area of Afghanistan keep their animals within the compounds, and so the families live in private zoos, and the Brits are in the middle of clusters of zoos that I call Jurassic Park. Though most compounds immediately around Gib are abandoned, crops grow nearly up to the concertina, tripwires, claymore mines and fortifications that form the perimeter of the base.
Helmand Province is the largest producer of opium in the world. During the poppy season, Gib is surrounded by beautiful flowers. From the guard towers, or out on patrols, the soldiers can see the full cycle. Farmers plant the poppy; it grows and blooms producing beautiful flowers like in the Wizard of Oz; the bulbs are lanced and the opium harvested. The final part of the opium cycle lasts all year, and can be seen almost every day, when the British soldiers at Gib take small-arms fire and RPG rounds paid for by the crop they watched growing just outside the wire.
The soldiers at Gib have no internet, but can call home, and they receive mail and care packages by the sackful. (Note to folks at home in the UK: Packages to British soldiers are extremely welcome and true morale boosters. The cubbards are overflowing with dry foods that require hot water, but most other items get snapped up quickly.)