Posts Tagged ‘Thoughts’

People seem to think that my job must be all excitement, adventure and glamour. I have no problem with them thinking this but in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth. There are jobs in my industry that have all of the above or a combination of them but at the moment that is not my role. I’m a bodyguard in a war zone and my sole task is to keep my client out of harms way which isn’t as hard as it seems. He works with local government officials which means that most of his work is meeting based, in an office, in a compound, away from all the nitty-gritty things that make a war. In turn that means that I spend a lot of my time sat outside of this office that he is having a meeting in stood waiting around for however long it takes his little powwow to finish. Often I am joined by my counterpart from the local police force who is the designated bodyguard for the government official. For thirteen months now we have both stood outside the same office, in the same compound, looking after the same clients carrying out this mundane task. And it was as I was heading back to my compound at the end of one of these jobs that I got to thinking about languages and how not being able to speak one foreign to yourself isn’t always going to mean that you can’t communicate and have a conversation with that person stood beside you who seems to be talking in ‘tongue’ every time he opens his mouth.

Like I have already said, I have known my counterpart for over a year now and if there is one thing that I have come to realise about both of us, it is that we are both absolutely unless at learning a foreign language. We know the basics of each others lingo – we can say ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘thankyou’, ‘goodbye’ and most importantly ‘it’s your turn to get the smokes out’. But that’s about it. And yet we know as much about each other as two colleagues who have become friends that have worked the same shift for months can know about each other if they are speaking the same language. For example – I know that he is single but would like to get married, to a wife that he picks himself, and have lots of children who grow up with an education and have the opportunities in life that he has missed out on. He knows that I am married with two daughters who are both in college. I know that he doesn’t like animals and that dogs scare the life out of him. He knows that we have pet dogs, cats and fish. I know that he is in this job because he is proud of his country and wants to be part of helping it to change for the better. He knows that I am in this job for the money. He would like to see foreign forces leave the country so that they could start to stand on their own two feet but understands that at the moment his country needs our support and he fears that if we leave to early the old government will take control again and then his country would go back to how it was under strict Islamic control and fall into a civil war. I agree. He hates alcohol. I love it. I like American cigarettes. He likes any cigarettes as long as he doesn’t have to pay for them. He would like to me to give him my work boots and buy myself another pair. I think that he should part with some of his wages and buy his own boots. His jokes are bad and mine are good. We both think that our clients meetings go on too long. And it goes on and on like that. The point is that without being able to speak each others language we have still managed to learn enough about each other to become good friends. We have found away to communicate. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

It wasn’t always like this though. When we first met each other at the start of these meetings we both gave each other a wide berth. He was a local with a gun, I was a white man with a gun. We would both stand at opposite sides of the compound and eye each other warily, hands hovering over our side arms ready to re-enact a shoot out straight from the days of the wild west if either of us so much as coughed in an aggressive manner. As time went on we progressed to nodding in a manly manner at each other as we both took up our posts. And from there we progressed onto sharing cigarettes – we would meet in the centre of the compound, exchange the smokes, nod and then retreat to our respective sides. After that we moved onto trying to talk to each other. It wasn’t easy. We mastered the basic ‘hello’ and that was it for a while. Anything else was above and beyond us. We would both talk in our respective languages, both getting louder as we tried to talk over each other, more often or not we would end up storming of back to our old sides mumbling under our breaths, me saying something like ‘fucking un-educated idiots, how hard can it be to speak English’ and him probably saying ‘stupid infidels, how hard can it be to learn my language’. At some point though we both got fed up with storming off and sulking in our corners and some kind of agreement was reached where we would try to teach each other one word of our own language at every meeting. This worked for about two meetings until we both gave in and after some genuine laughter acknowledged that we are both up there with the worlds worst linguists. From there we developed our own way of communicating which mainly involves lots of hand gesturing, pointing at various objects in the compound, finger counting and for him, drawing pictures in the dust. And that is how we communicate and know all that we know about each other and how we became good friends.

We still don’t understand everything each of us is trying to say but are a lot politer about it than we used to be. He will sit there and nod politely while smoking my cigarettes as I tell him everything that is going on in my life and I will sit there and mumble under my breath as I notice the empty packet while he chats away in his own language. And when our clients come out of their meeting we both give each other that nod which is our way of saying stay safe, it’s been good chatting and see you next time.

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What constitutes a good friendship?  I started thinking about this late last night while I was waiting for sleep to come and find me after a colleague had told me that he had in excess of 2000 friends. This statement kind of threw me, I didn’t actually realise that it was possible to know that many people all at once and then it made me feel inadequate and maybe even a little un-liked. As he was explaining to me how popular he was and how hard it was keeping in touch with everyone I was contemplating what I had done wrong in my life. I mean, I know maybe 200 people – a fraction of his number of friends – and out of that couple of hundred people that I know only a fraction of them I would class as friends. The rest would be acquaintances which to me is a totally different thing. And now I’m thinking that maybe it isn’t.

I think that we are all different and that the word ‘friendship’ has different meaning for us. My colleague for instance, those 2000 odd friends of his are mainly social networking site contacts – Facebook ,Myspace etc. So he doesn’t know these people personally and I would hazard a guess that he will never meet 95% of these people and probably most of them he will never have any kind of communication with other than to accept their friend request and maybe send them a ‘happy birthday’ message once a year. But for him that is the important thing. He feels that he knows them. He looks through photos, sends them birthday and Christmas messages, ‘like’ their comments and competes with them in managing the best on-line ‘farm’. It makes him happy and shows the world how popular he is.

To me though, looking from the outside in, this is a shallow kind of friendship and makes me think that somewhere along the line the meaning of the word has been lost with the invention of the social networking sites. Emphasis seems to be, especially for the younger generation, not on quality but on quantity. Your status in life is almost judged on how many people that you know – ‘He/she must be a great person because they have 1000 followers on Twitter’. I’ve seen people get physically upset if they don’t get enough ‘likes’ on a status or if they notice that one of their few thousand contacts has deleted them they start to doubt themselves and wonder what it is that they have done wrong. It honestly pains me and makes me wonder what their lives were like before the onslaught of Bebo and other networking sites.

Don’t get me wrong though. I am not anti Facebook or anything like that. It is a great thing. Being able to stay in touch with loved ones on the other side of the world has never been easier, getting in touch with old school and work colleagues and having a nosey at how each other lives have panned out is no bad thing. It makes us more culturally aware and keeps us up to date on what is happening in the world. And it every now and then it can help re-ignite a friendship that you thought you had lost a long time ago. So it is a good thing all in all. I just think that it is a shame that for some people, the influence of social networking has made them forget the true meaning of friendship and what it is to really ‘connect’ with people. They have replaced real friends with a number on a screen.

A real friend isn’t a number, or a face that you only know through a photo. A real friend for me is someone that I have actually shared real life experiences with. Someone that I have laughed with, cried with and even got into trouble with at times. They don’t judge you and you don’t need them to ‘like’ every thing that you do. They accept you for who you are. They are the people that during the worst of times will lift you up with just a smile or a couple of words. You can go without seeing each other or speaking to each other for months or even years and when you finally do get in touch again, once you have filled in a couple of gaps,  it is like it has only been a day or two since you last saw each other. A friend is someone that you know, no matter what, will always be there for you. They wont delete you just because you didn’t like their status.

I think I’ll take my 200 over his 2000 any day of the week.

Nine years. Nine long years. That’s how long I have been coming to this country. That’s how long I have been involved in this war.

This place has changed me beyond recognition from the man who I used to be before 2003. It’s opened up my eyes to a world that many of us will never know outside of a tv show or a book. It’s damaged me more than I care to admit and in other ways it has made me stronger than I could have ever have been in my old life. I look at things differently now and realise how fragile our lives are. For men and women like myself Death is our constant companion and we can only hope that at the end of it all, when our time is done, that it was all worth it.

The patrol base that we had to visit today was only five kilometers north of our location. On a really clear day, if you stand on top of the compound roof you can just make out the radio mast located in the centre of the small base. The ground leading up to it is a mixture of fertile farming land broken up by mud compounds that have stood for generations and copses of blossoming trees. The mountain range in the far distance adds to the picture and you can not help but think what a beautiful country that this is. Another time and another place and this would be somewhere that I would come to get lost in, to just wander around and soak up the history, the people and the culture. But this isn’t another time or another place. It’s right here and right now and if I did let go to that feeling and decide to lose myself and go for a wander it would be a death sentence and no matter how beautiful that I think this place is I am not ready to join my Brothers at the finale RV just yet. That is going to have to wait. The task, on paper, looks simple enough. We are to escort our client to this patrol base five kilometers away so that he may observe a shura being run by the local Government figure-head. The shura is a chance for the representative to showcase the benefits of supporting his government to the local population by talking to them about the importance of education, a working infrastructure, health care and most important of all how they should not support the enemy and what (this is implied) will happen to them if they do.

So the task is no problem. We have the vehicles, we have the kit and we have the manpower. We also have ample supplies of Gator Aid, Pop Tarts and cigarets.

This isn’t the real world though and there is a reason that as we all meet at the vehicle park waiting to mount up in our designated vehicle of the four vehicle move we are chain-smoking, re-checking our weapon systems over and over, making sure that our kit is tight and that we have all of the correct protective gear on (one thing that you do not want to happen out here is to get blown up, lose both your legs and maybe an arm for good measure only for the insurance company to find out that you didn’t have your issue boots or the issue eyewear on. Payout, what payout?). One of my personal things is to make sure that the guys that I am with know where all of my personal med-kit is located. They all have to look in as I systematically point out where my first field dressings and tourniquets are located about my body. It doesn’t occur to me as they patiently stand there and watch me that I have done this so many times with them by now that they probably know where all of my kit is located better than I do. They don’t say a thing and let me get on with it. We all have our OCD side. Time for another couple of smokes and a couple of dirty jokes and then we get the shout to mount up and move out.

The journey takes us approximately 45 minutes from start to finish. The heat is unbearable and the air-con unit is non-functional. There are four of us crammed into the back of this wagon with all of our kit, wedged in between communications kit and ammunition crates like sardines packed into a tin. The driver and commander have the best deal, there was only two sardines in their tin. The route takes us along a dirt track that winds through the compound and cuts across the fields kicking up plume of dust as we move. It only takes us a couple of minutes until we pass the location of the first Improvised Explosive Device that I found in this area on a patrol – a school that has long since closed after the enemy opened fire on a class of children to let them know of their displeasure at the education system coming to their part of the world. We found the IED placed within the school itself – left as a little surprise for anyone who decided to come back and try to carry on with their education. Just about a 100 meters later and the vehicle commander calls back to us to let us know that we are about to pass the location where a vehicle of theirs was taken out of action by a IED the week before and just after that is the spot that the enemy keep on planting anti-tank mines in the hope of hitting a vehicle one of these days and sending a Marine or two back home to their families before their tour is up. If they succeed the Marine gets a fancy medal so it’s not all bad. We sit there and lose ourselves in our own thoughts while waiting for the sudden hot blast of pure violence to hit us. I sip on some water from my now hot bottle. The blast doesn’t come and we carry on with our road trip. We hit the next set of compounds and  immediately we hear the strikes of small arms fire pinging off the side of our vehicle. Everybody tenses inside the vehicle, for us this is the worst situation, stuck inside this mobile tin can unable to see outside and unable to react. There is nothing we can do, we are just passengers on this ride and have to trust in and let the crew do their job. My adrenaline starts to pump through my body, my lips go dry and my stomach goes into knots. I prepare myself mentally for what needs to be done in a dozen scenarios. If the vehicle is immobilized I need to get my client out quick and into cover or another vehicle. He is my priority and he is counting on me to look after him. That’s all I am worried about in that situation. The Marines know that if I become a casualty that they are to leave me get my client to safety and then come back and help me.  If the vehicle gunner gets taken out I have already cleared it with the vehicle commander that I will jump up and take his place on the .50 cal machine gun. If I become a casualty the Marines in the vehicle will get my client through. As long as we get him to his task location in one piece that is all that matters. I wonder if he realises how much we are all putting ourselves all on the line for him, what we are willing to risk on his behalf. These feeling and thoughts are over in milliseconds. And then it clicks in – the gunner is not returning fire and the vic commander is shouting back at us. It’s not gun fire. It is kids, lots of them, throwing rocks and stones at us as we go by. This should be amusing and is I guess except for the fact that the stone throwing, in this magnitude, means that we are not welcome around here. The convoy carries on rolling through this storm of rocks and stones to its finale destination.

After 45 long minutes we arrive at the patrol base. We disembark, saturated in sweat and covered in dust and leave our ‘road warriors’ to look for our shura area while they moan about broken mirrors, smoke and discuss the pro’s and con’s of lighting up the stone throwers – the theory being that if you shoot a couple of them then the rest will get the point. I don’t think that they will get the point myself and if anything the stone throwing will turn to gunfire.

We find the shura area after a short walk. There are about 200 males all sitting down in the middle of a sun-scorched compound. They have no water, no shade and can not leave. The only thing that they have to look forward to is a two-hour lecture from someone who they have never met before and probably will never see again. And just to make them feel more comfortable they are being watched from all sides by a score of armed men in uniform. At the front of the compound, sitting under a sunshade with a crate of bottled water at his feet is the government rep for this area. He reminds me of dictator or emperor of old, fat and over fed, sitting upon his throne looking down at his subjects. He starts his speech while I stand at the back with my client, he watches the man give his speech while I watch the crowd for any kind of sign that may tell me that someone is about to jump up and push a button so that he can finally go and meet his 40 virgins in heaven while sending some of us the opposite direction. I’ll be lucky if I spot him before he goes bang….but it’s always worth looking. The speech goes on and on and on. No-one but the man in the chair talks. This isn’t because he doesn’t give the now slightly dehydrated crowd a chance. It’s because none of them seem to want to talk. They all sit there in silence, every now and then casting nervous glances at the armed men stood around them and at un-seen foes sat amongst them. The problem is that we are stood at a spot on the very edge of the baddest of the badlands. We are at the frontier. This is the modern-day wild west. The O.K. Corral. This base is surrounded on three sides by land controlled by the bad guys. When we leave it will still be controlled by the bad guys. This is not a place where anyone wants to be seen to be talking to a government rep. None of these people would have come to this shura if it was not for the armed government men who walked into their villages and rounded them up like cattle and told them that they had to attend. The future of their country depends on them attending. Their children’s futures depend on them attending. So with a gun at your back you are going to attend. Inshallah. The un-seen foe amongst them is our enemy. They are there, dressed the same as everyone else and un-armed so that the Marines can not do anything about them, in force watching the proceedings and ready to take note of anyone who appears to show any interest in what is being said – if anyone does they can expect a visit from a different group of armed men during the night. The meeting ends and everyone is allowed to leave, on the way out smiling Marines hand out free prayer mats and copies of the Holy Koran as a way of making up for the lack of water. The enemy never give out free prayer mats. Maybe this government isn’t so bad after all.

I stand beside my vehicle grabbing a last smoke before I mount up. As I do so I contemplate the 45 minute journey back and hope that this has all been worth it.