It wasn’t so much of an opportunity that cropped up rather than one that I had to persistently pursue and create for myself for more than a year. I had been writing multiple e-mails and making phone calls to the Ministry of Defence ever since I learnt that Malaysia had started deploying troops to Afghanistan.
But my attempts were never fruitful and I finally decided I would just head to Afghanistan on my own without being embedded in the military, just like the times I’ve been to Beirut in Lebanon, and Patani in Southern Thailand to produce my wartime documentaries and news reports.
I had been in Kabul for almost a week shooting and filing news stories for the TV station that was commissioning me as a correspondent when I thought I would just send a text message to Lt. Col. Salawati Yahaya, the army’s Media Operations Director, in Kuala Lumpur to say that I was in Afghanistan.
Her reply caught me by surprise. Probably impressed (or shocked!) at my ballsy move to just head to Afghanistan on my own, she managed to get clearance from her bosses to actually allow me to be embedded with MALCON ISAF 2, the Malaysian contingent that was currently serving in Bamiyan.
Just getting to Bamiyan from the capital Kabul posed a major problem. It isn’t as easy as buying a bus ticket at the counter. All road journeys out of Kabul are considered extremely dangerous for several reasons. The first reason is there really are no roads. Cars and lorries literally just roll along dusty and rocky trails that connect the country’s towns together.
Then the other significant dangers start lining up making travel by road just too risky. There is the most dreaded fear of being ambushed and kidnapped by the Taliban that usually takes the cake for being the most important reason people don’t travel by road in Afghanistan.
So the only real option to get to Bamiyan is to fly there. This poses another problem because there are no commercial flights that fly there. The only flights that are available are those by the military or NGOs and getting your name on the flight list isn’t as simple as going online with a credit card.
But thank god I had already made contact with MALCON ISAF 2 and they told me that they would try their best to get me a flight up north to Bamiyan. The person who was charged to handle it (and who would be my roommate for the rest of my embedded days) was Major Dr Mohamad Arshil Moideen, who promptly got me on a USAID helicopter.
Arriving at Bamiyan was something I was looking forward to very much. I had spent a week in Kabul and the tense situation in the bustling city was getting to me a little bit. If you’ve been following my earlier features here on TMI, you would know that I was there during the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and there were constant threats of Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks.
It also didn’t help that two days before I left Malaysia for Afghanistan, a Malaysian journalist, Noramfaizul Mohd Nor, was shot dead during a skirmish while reporting in Somalia for BERNAMA. My wife was worried and so was I, but of course I didn’t let on when I was back in Malaysia. Had to act macho, you see!
So yes, I was definitely looking forward to being in the safety of the Malaysian Armed Forces. But then, to think about it, foreign forces are the exact groups of people that are targeted by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in their attacks. Then being a lone and discreet individual in the streets of Kabul would be a better decision!
Major Arshil had come to pick me up at the airstrip and brought me in. As soon as I got to Kiwi Base (the name of the base in Bamiyan city where MALCON ISAF 2 is situated together with the New Zealand Army), I noticed that it isn’t that far off in similarity from a small Malay kampung. Of course, the weather was slightly different since it was around 8 degrees Celsius. A nice hot plate of nasi goring kampung was waiting for me and also the familiar sound of Bahasa Malaysia started to make me feel at home. Everyone on the base greeted me like a long lost cousin. By everyone, I mean all 46 Malaysian Armed Forces personnel that were there. One thing unique about the Malaysian mission to Afghanistan is that the deployment was never meant to face combat. It is solely a humanitarian mission. Hence, a majority of the personnel were medical staff, like doctors, dentists and nurses.
“Malaysia decided to send over a mission to Afghanistan in 2010 to help in the development of the country,” said Lt. Col. Rusman Sanip, the MALCON ISAF 2 Commander. “Even though the Malaysian contingent is part of NATO’s ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), their entry into Afghanistan was really through the invitation and request of the Afghan government.”
And it seemed to me, although I had only just arrived at the base, Malaysia was making a lot of friends here in Bamiyan. The commander brought me all around meeting people who were serving in Afghanistan.
“We’ve worked very well together with MALCON 2 in the training we provide for the Afghan National Police,” said Supt. Kevin Taylor, EUPOL (European Union Police) Commander.
“The advantage the Malaysians have is their ability to work with their fellow Muslims here in Afghanistan and it allows them to enter the community much more easily than the Kiwis could,” explains Heath Fischer, Acting Director of the New Zealand PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team).
Definitely, the welcome that I had been receiving has been positive. I hadn’t really seen much, since I had only just arrived. But I could see that the Malaysians have been making an impact in the base. Their mess hall in particular has been a very popular place since army personnel from the UK, USA and even Afghans come to enjoy the tasty Malaysian cuisine on a regular basis!
But I had to remember that I was here as a journalist. And being a journalist, I had to be a little bit of a sceptic. I had questions to ask here in Afghanistan on behalf of the Malaysian people. What are our troops doing in this country? Are we fighting against fellow Muslims? Are our troops being killed or injured? Are our troops wasting taxpayers’ money?
And so my journalistic mission began.
Shortly after I arrived at Kiwi Base, I was informed that I would be going along on a patrol into the village areas of Bamiyan. The contingent was going in to visit a few villages and schools to install water filter systems and also conduct some health awareness campaigns. We would be going in a convoy of five vehicles.
For safety reasons, I would be going with the commander in his armoured vehicle. I would be required to wear a bulletproof vest and a helmet. I had never worn a vest before and it is heavy and cumbersome. It took me several tries just to get in the door of the vehicle without knocking either my helmet or any of my camera equipment down. The commander’s loud guffaw didn’t make things any less embarrassing!
As we were driving out of Bamiyan city, we passed by the gigantic cavities that once held the 2,000-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan. I had been dreaming of seeing this sight with my own eyes since I was 15 years old and the tears that I had to wipe away definitely killed any macho image I was portraying with my bulletproof vest and helmet on.
As soon as we were out of the city borders, the road became non-existent. The commander’s interpreter, Farid, mentioned that development in Afghanistan has been extremely slow even though the US government and other foreign forces have been in the country for a decade. And it has been particularly slow in Bamiyan since the dominant Sunni central government didn’t seem to care too much for the minority Shias that live in the province. In fact, Bamiyan is the poorest province in the country.
This negative sentiment towards the role of the foreigners in developing Afghanistan can actually be felt all around the country. Even during my week spent in Kabul, I spoke to countless number of Kabul-ites who expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the US government (and the ruling Afghan government) was managing the development of the country. Infrastructure is still lacking, and even worse, employment opportunity is scarce. One man in his early twenties even mentioned to me that he was considering joining the Taliban to feed his family.
We continued to drive forward in our convoy and the dusty terrain started to get even worse. Bamiyan is located over 11,000 feet above sea level and the mountainous area was dry and dusty. It was pretty rough on the vehicles and there were times where we were plowing ahead over mounds of rock at 10km per hour. I didn’t even bother looking over the window at the side of the "road" since I could just feel that we were inches from just toppling over the cliff thousands of feet down into the abyss.
But there was one consolation that made things quite comfortable for me. The heavy and cumbersome bulletproof vest that I was wearing over my scrawny 169cm and 65kg body provided me with a nice exoskeleton that held me upright and prevented me from toppling over in the vehicle. I could just doze off comfortably and still wake up 45 minutes later in the same upright position I was in.
Since the terrain was tough and we were moving at a very slow pace, the convoy took constant breaks during the journey so the men could stretch their legs and get some fresh air (what nicotine addicts call cigarette smoke). I decided to take a toilet break during one of these breaks. I looked around the rocky environment and saw a large boulder. I walked behind it and sighed with relief.
“Are you done, Zan?” a voice startled me from behind.
I turned around and saw Corp. Mohd Saiful Karim standing behind me with his rifle scanning the surroundings. At that point, I felt like I was the coolest person on earth. I had achieved the pinnacle of my being. I now had my own security detail!
Stay tuned next week for Part 8 of Zan Azlee’s ‘Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite’. View videos of his adventures here.