An Afghan Affair

 

 

 

 

My first published work was written for my good lady wife in response to her dissatisfaction with my writing style and subject. She simply could not comprehend a story not of this time and world. So I set to work to write a tale she could at the very least appreciate. In the multiple re-writes the start, end and plot have not changed but an awful lot else has. As a romantic drama it needed a heroine and a hero, and from page one both are in mind although you won’t get introduced to them at first. Like all love stories it has to be complicated with the two not hitting it off until at last they both realize they were made for each other.

 

 

 

My first cut at back cover notes said: 

Pamela Shawe was content in her world. Out of the suburban rut and as a seasoned member of an Aid team she was doing good work out in the world. American generosity, know-how and can-do was getting the job done.

Paul Schilter didn’t have to like having Pam on his team, but he did respect what she brought to the operation. After three years in Afghanistan, Pam was an integral part of the closely-knit ‘North-West Aid to the East’ team, who took pride in their role of delivering humanitarian aid to struggling communities in a strife torn corner of the world. The going was tough on the tracks that passed for a road and for the third time this year the small convoy made slow progress in the mountainous terrain on its way up to the remote villages of the Hindu Kush.

The team was on track, and then they crossed the Kalkur river.

Not quite what ended up on the actual back cover!

 

The cover itself?  Again my design.  Can you believe it? You even have to do the book cover!  So I wanted to convey the two sides of the story, the humanitarian relief and the personal. The most common vehicle in the middle east (OMG, I met a guy from Afghanistan who objected to it being referred to as the Middle East. Apparently it’s more PC to refer to its geographical position as South Central Asia) is without doubt the Mercedes bull nose truck, so that had to be included, and the heroine? Would the face of my daughter do? Absolutely, overlaid and both in sepia to echo the Afghan landscape.  I think it works.

 

So the story, I have probably already told it in too much detail.  Go read the book!

 

 

1

 

Nothing moves quickly in Badhakhstan province, and the convoy was making slow going on unmade tracks loosely referred to as roads, in spectacular and rugged terrain. Driving, even at the slow pace took great effort and concentration, dry and dusty the track may be now, but the rains of the previous winter and traffic over the summer had eroded and distorted the surface into an irregular series of holes and ditches, any one of which if badly handled could break an axle or bottom out a wheel. With attention firmly on the track ahead there was little opportunity to marvel at the surrounding grandeur.

All around, the mountains rose from the valley bottoms to incredible peaks, the sheer rock faces climbing ever upward to the azure blue sky. The river, occasionally half a mile wide, mostly less than a hundred feet and at this time of year never deeper than six feet, carved the hillsides away to expose boulder strewn slopes with little vegetation to soften the harsh lines. Occasional patches of greenery flourished where the rivers edge deposited enough soil for it to grow and these oases served also to mitigate the glare of unfiltered sunlight reflecting off bare rock. 

 

To call the three heavily burdened trucks and a land cruiser a convoy is perhaps a bit strong, but at least the dust covered vehicles were travelling together with the same purpose, to the same destination. Although the team driving this little piece of order in the surrounding chaos was nothing like as highbrow or well known as UNESCO or OXFAM, these four disparate vehicles were on an equally viable and relevant mission to provide aid to remote villages in a strife torn area of the world at the onset of winter.

 

Starting out from Kabul, the capital city of ever troubled Afghanistan, it had taken this small team two long days to get to Feyzabad and well into the third, they were now definitely in bandit country. The first day and a half had all been about fitting in with a military run convoy, which had forced them to use the northern route out of Kabul, up to Kunduz via Baglan.  After that they would head east and up into the hills then finally make the slog up the mountain passes into the Hindu Kush, the foothills of the Himalayas. 

Paul Schilter, the convoy leader for North West Aid To The East, abbreviated as NWATTE but more commonly known as either Norwatt or by its staff as Eastern Aid, hated that aspect of working in Afghanistan, the enforcement of military controls even over such a small concern, but the fact was that the only way for anyone operate in and out of Kabul was with military blessing, and that in reality was the United States of America’s military.

 

The truth was that Paul hated most of the things about the set-up, but as the bulk of the supplies came, either through India or from the States via any one of a number of staging points, and were flown into the capital, there was no real choice.  From time to time stuff was flown into Kandahar, but as in these times it was primarily a military airfield that did not amount to much.  There was of course produce which came overland from Pakistan, but as the mission mostly worked in the northern provinces it worked better from a logistics point of view to go through Kabul anyway, and with the military in control there, like it or not you had to deal with them. Paul nursed a love-hate affair with the entire country. He had been in and out for the past thirteen years, at first just running a one-man aid operation then over the last eight, with Norwatt.

 

Tall and blond with a full head of shoulder length hair despite his age, his face was dominated by the thick bush of his moustache. Lean and fit, as befitted his self appointed role,  Paul originally hailed from the mountains of Montana and it showed.  

He had an eccentric wildcat streak in him. It was an odd mix, for he abhorred rules and authority, yet had strong views on right and wrong.  

The story was well known, and at no time did Paul ever deny it, that in his past he had set a Greyhound bus on fire.  A fervent non-smoker before it became fashionable he had asked his fellow passengers to refrain from the habit. When they declined and lit up once more he took a lighter to a seat, calling out “How’d you like my smoke, assholes?” 

Everyone figured that was also probably when he took up walking, and walk he prodigiously did. Even as a foreigner in a troubled country in a time of strife he would walk the hills around Kabul. Ten miles a day was nothing to him, from time to time he had caused the Norwatt team a deal of worry, disappearing for entire days at a time. Always he turned up at the last moment, decrying their concerns.  The only exceptions to Pauls walking regime were when they went up country. That was his show and he was never more than a hundred yards from the nearest truck. 

 

Paul  had gone to Harry, the theatre co-ordinator and de-facto manager of the aid agency in the region, trying to persuade him, no the correct description is “bitching” over the lunacy of the situation.  Given his head, Paul would have taken the direct route over the mountains from Malangkhel through Segwaw to Nowabad and cut the journey by some 100 miles. The roads were known to be bad but as Paul said, “Where weren’t they in Afghanistan these days?”  

Harry had listened to him and even tentatively agreed. “Look here Paul, when you were a one man band that was your call and that’s OK.  Now I hear where you’re coming from and I see your point. But..”

“Harry! You gone frickin’ soft again.”

Despite it being the same story every time, and they had done this four times this year already, and seven times last year and six the year before and….

“OK, Paul.” Harry replied, not for the first time, “You have to think that you have other people’s lives in your hands.  The military are not going to wear it, Seattle are not going to let you take a dumb risk, and I will not lose my job over this.”

“But to quote,” Paul came back, “The situation is fluid. So says the brass, and we are gaining ground.”

 

Harry could not argue.  He had been there so many times it just wore him out.  To keep Paul on side, this time he actually even took the argument up the chain to military command, but predictably the authorities forbade it absolutely.  

“You guys crazy?” The Liaison Colonel said. “Just what are you people thinking? Don’t you guys listen or something? Every week some jingly or other gets wasted up that road. That’s far too dangerous for anyone under my jurisdiction and I don’t got the resources to ride shotgun for every goddam two-bit outfit. It’s gonna be bad enough letting you go on up to the Kush without escort”. He told Harry “It would look real bad for us if anyone took a hit on you in our zone of control. It don’t matter who it was, the Taliban would get a score out of it. 

One: We just don’t need that, and nor do you. Two: It ain’t gonna happen on my watch.” The word was final.

 

“Shit.” Paul had said when Harry told him. “I might just do it anyhow. I guess the suckers wouldn’t do shit to stop me. I don’t see how they could”

“Don’t you believe it.” Harry retorted. “This ain’t Africa and these guys are not the Russians. These are the US military, not some self styled dictator’s lackeys. They got this place taped up good, you spit and you’re on camera. They can do pretty much as they want, and no questions. Now the assholes know what we’re thinking and are looking out for us to pull a stunt.  I can’t go risking you pissing off some military jerk and losing all we got just for the heck of it.”

 

Maybe Harry had already pissed somebody off for from first submission to departure took a full week longer than normal. It was just as well that there were no rapidly perishable foodstuffs on the inventory. Norwatt had wised up to this a long time ago. What malnourished people needed was fresh vegetables and meat, what they got was flour, rice and cans. Better that than rancid or rotting fare. “Cans are great.” Paul had told Harry when they first got together “But you gotta make sure that there are plenty of can openers and then teach people to use ‘em”

 

The big organisations could plan in advance and get everything laid out so it looked like a seamless operation, but the reality was that they too suffered from the same bureaucracy. The big difference was that they always had stuff coming in. With the small guys like Norwatt nothing was so predictable. Not only could Harry never know in advance when a full shipment would be ready, but then he would then have to bargain for a flight. First off was finding a shipper. 

 

Usually it meant finding spare room on someone else’s plane and then keeping it pallet by pallet if you were lucky enough to keep the pallet, in a lock up in the backstreets of Kabul where it was most likely to get broken into. 

It worked better when it was a full plane, and when this happened Harry most often ended up with the Russian carriers for shipments through Delhi and the Koreans for most everything else. Not because they were better, but because they were cheap.

Even when he had gotten a plane he then had to get the permissions to bring it in. That in itself was no easy thing, particularly for the Russian planes.  Most often, even when that was organised, there would be a delay of some kind, like the plane was held over in Vladivostok that week or was waiting for parts in Luzon. Maybe they were just busy and re-scheduled their commitments while waiting for landing permissions in Kabul. Harry was OK with that, they were cheap in comparison after all, and Harry figured you got what you paid for. They were Russian after all. The Koreans were better, but not much. Their regular airlines were probably Ok, but the freighters were real rust buckets.

By contrast, getting an off-load was easy. All you had to do was hand over enough money and then keep a close count of what left the plane and make sure that was what went on your trucks.  

 

Norwatt was the proud owner of two big old bull-nose Mercedes ten wheelers and two Toyota 4 by 4 hi-lux crew cab pick ups. One of the trucks had an off-white cab, the other a sort of verdigris green with both the pick-ups a fading royal blue. All sported Norwatt’s ‘bent arrow over compass’ logo on their cab doors. Harry would always hire more trucks and drivers only as and when they were needed when they went up country. The agency also boasted a permanent staff of eight, and three part timers. There were three local drivers and a store keep cum guard who bunked in the lock-up warehouse, plus three part time guards who did ad-hoc shifts as Harry needed them. Despite Faiz sleeping there, it did not prevent break-ins, merely limiting the damage these almost regular incursions caused.

Aside from Harry who was Kabul based, there were the three other Americans,

 

There was of course, Paul, who took care of the ground level logistics, which was what he was good at.  Where he had failed on his own was in trying to do everything himself.  In such a volatile society as Afghanistan is today, that was as near as could be to impossible, and when the offer from Norwatt came, Paul realised this was a solution heaven sent and grabbed it with both hands.

With Harry to do the shouting down the ‘phone and someone else doing the fundraising meant that Paul could concentrate on running the picking up and storage of goods shipped in and the distribution and loading plan and then he could do the route mapping and physically lead the aid convoy out into where they were needed.

 

Guy Newman was the team mechanic. He was an unusual Norwatt hiring in that he originated from Texas, Guy was a wanderer by nature and it was pure chance that his path and that of Norwatt crossed. He never ceased to amaze Harry with his abilities, it seemed that if it were mechanical he really could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. On interview he had shown his references and Richard, the operations manager had asked him straight. “Why aren’t you in NASCAR or something like it?” Guy came back with “If I just wanted to fit spare parts I’d go work for Boeing. What I want is to have to FIX shit.” 

Mercedes trucks are built rugged but even they break down from time to time, and every time in the past six years he had been on the Kabul team, Guy had without fuss got them home. That was nothing, for at least he had basic spares packs for the Mercedes and Toyotas, how he worked his magic with the rag tag rent a trucks Harry picked up was beyond both Harry and Paul, but appreciate his wizardry they certainly did, for they too, often with patch-me–up conversions always came back. It was a not infrequent occurrence that these rent-a-trucks were returned in better condition than they were picked up in.

 

The third American was Pam, a relative newcomer to the team. It was her third season with them and she now held the dubious title of distribution prioritizer.  Her job was to figure who needed what most and where. She gave lists to Harry and he in turn did his best to get the stuff.  

When at first she had been transferred into the team, Paul had objected vocally. This was the wrong place for a girl, he told Harry. As always Harry had placated him, “I know, but there’s a good reason for it and this is the only free position. Give her a chance, eh?” 

“Harry,” Paul came back, “Girl or not we don’t need anyone else. I was doing this on my own when the Taliban were in power, and long before you guys came around. I don’t need anyone telling me my job, and this operation doesn’t need another mouth to feed.”

“Well I hear you Paul,” Harry told him, “now you hear me. I didn’t want to say this but now you’ve pushed me into it. Aside from me saying this the hundredth time, this is not your operation any more. You couldn’t cope on your own and now you’re part of a bigger scheme. That’s the way it is, it’s called reality.  The bigger picture means there are more issues than your goddam ego. Whether you like it or not this op has an extra mouth coming, one way or the other. Either we take Miss Pamela Shawe or you go to Khartoum and Matt Baker comes here with a prioritizer.”

“You can’t send me to Khartoum! In fact, you can’t send me anywhere.” 

“Paul. Face some facts. Like I said, you don’t work for yourself anymore. You work for Richard Smith and Norwatt. He will move you, not me.”

“Over my dead body.”

“Don’t push it Paul. You’re not indispensable.”

“Meaning?”

“You rock the boat and you’ll go over the side. With you out of the picture, Matt Baker and a prioritizer off of one of the Africa teams will come here. Then we get a re-shuffle in Africa and because we are short there, our miss Shawe gets promotion. It’s either that or a stink goes back to the US which will shut us down. Get the picture?”

“Damn!” Paul said. “This girl’s trouble then.”

“No, from what I heard, just young and pretty and hits out when her ass is fondled.”

“Ahh, shit. What’s the big deal? That’s all we need, a goddam prissy bitch.”

“From what I hear, it didn’t stop there and it’s not her that’s stirring the water. You got a problem with this, you got Sandy McLaughlin to answer to.”

Paul nodded. He understood. He’d never met Sandy, but there were enough stories doing the rounds. Everyone understood where Sandy stood. Merely a prioritizer on the Darfur team she may be, but she didn’t believe that having a Senator as a brother in law was an advantage to be ignored. 

Now Senators are not noted for keeping an issue quiet when it can bring them public attention, particularly when elections are looming.  At the same time charities rely on good PR to keep the donations coming in, so keeping Sandy in check and a potential scandal under wraps at that time was pretty important in the eyes of head office. Paul got the message. One way or the other there was a woman coming to Kabul and no one, least of all Harry, would want Sandy McLaughlin looking over their shoulder.

 

True to the reports from Khartoum, (even Matt Baker had given her a good write-up, though in reality he did not have a lot of option) Pamela Shawe had flown in with her mouth shut and her eyes open. She was honest to Paul about her lack of experience and knuckled straight down to work. She was diligent and learned fast, kept her profile low and her smile to the locals wide.

“Just keep out of her face.”  Harry had told Paul and Guy, the look he gave them said he was serious. They gave her room and she flourished. More than that, over the next year she earned Paul’s respect and he in turn earned her admiration. Not an easy relationship to build, it nevertheless became almost a friendship, a sort of arms length brother and sister arrangement with Harry as the head of the family.  

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© Alexander Travell