The strangest thing happened to me the other day (apart from waking up to discover I was serving with the French Foreign Legion in Afghanistan, of course). It was forty eight hours or so from the end of our six-day camp-out in one of the local villages. Evening was tumbling rather fast. The night always comes crashing down here, leaving little time to prepare for its glistening skies and bone-chilling winds. We had started a plucky but tepid fire. I had already begun planning the retreat to my sleeping bag.
Earlier in the day we had been called upon to check a stretch of road for IEDs between a freshly raised COP and our own utopian mirage of a FOB shimmering like a metropolitan oasis amongst the sand and mud of our commandeered compounds. The only explosion during our check was that of celebration as the announcement over the radio informed us of a little thirty minute break back on home turf before returning to the hijacked hovel to see out the final stretch of stasis. Time being at a premium, I immediately made for the mini market. Orange juice, biscuits, chocolate, any little sugar-coated luxury item I could get my hands on went into the plastic bag as the clock chipped away at the remaining minutes before loading into the vehicles and rolling back down to the valley. Brief but profitable, the spirits soared once more as suddenly, forty eight hours seemed little more than a trifle (hmmm, if only there had been trifle).
Daylight started to slip sinisterly behind the mountain ranges, slowly pulling a blanket of darkness up around the neck of hills and peaks everywhere when a knock came on the door. Nothing out of the ordinary, however. The owners of our humble abode tended to present themselves two or three times throughout the course of the day. Most visits concerned the recovery of essential items left behind and since required during their enforced exile. Cooking pots, stoves and kettles would all be tentatively hunted out while at the same time, remaining animals would be fed. Several pairs of eyes would be assigned to watch over the visitor(s) to ensure nothing by way of military equipment/weapons was interfered with. Heaven knows the designs they might have on our binoculars and flak jackets, what with water to be heated and a dinner to cook in an intensely overcrowded neighbour’s house. The intruder on this occasion was a seven year old little girl.
If there’s one English word that Afghan children have managed to squeeze in to their fledgling vocabulary, it’s "BISCUIT". Every patrol that leaves a compound to explore the surrounding area is greeted by streams of kids strung along the sides of the roads and pathways. All hands stretched out, all mouths uttering the same two syllables, BIS-CUIT. An unwritten rule amongst the soldiers is "If you don’t have enough for everybody, then don’t give to anybody". Supplies running short in a sea of sullied faces and clawing pea-sized fists can render even the most battle-hardened shell-shocked. Contrarily, if we’re in the comfort of our own borrowed fortress when the mini-minions congregate then the handouts flow generously from the stocks of ration leftovers stored within. Nougat bars, sugared jelly bars, the occasional chocolate bar and, of course, the inevitable BIS-CUIT get distributed among the rejoicing group of kids. Nevertheless, permission must be sought before we hand anything over to the local population, even if only a solitary BIS-CUIT. More often than not, the COs take it upon themselves to play the role of Mr. Generosity, basking in the paper-thick affection of the temporarily satisfied faces gazing up from beneath them.
On this occasion, we watched this curious little girl from around our little pile of smoke and twigs masquerading as a fire. Quietly, delicately she stepped around the randomly placed rucksacks, ignored the rifles and rocket launchers and tip-toed in to the kitchen. The translator and another soldier were never more than a metre or two behind, watching her every move, but she remained steadfast, seemingly determined to appear defiant and not in the least bit intimidated by the scores of stubbly white faces glancing at her from over zipped-up jackets and scarves. One of the COs from my group began preparing a little sack of
BIS-CUITS and other rejected items from our military rations. I couldn’t help but think how even these Afghan kids might have reached their tolerance limit concerning the "goodies" discarded by the occupying troops. I suddenly remembered a large back of chocolate chip cookies I’d taken back with me from the FOB. I rummaged through my backpack until I’d located them. Turning to the little girl, already weighed down with a battered pot and kettle, I held out the bag. Her eyes contained no hint of surprise, joy or disdain. Her tiny fingers slipped around the bag without so much as rustling the paper it was made of, and she turned towards the door. Once closed behind her, I found myself under observation from almost everyone in the compound.
"Jaysus, you’re awful charitable altogether. You could’ve kept them for us for later." cried one with alarmingly genuine indignity.
"Hey, that was a seriously good gesture there. Seriously, bravo. Lovely gesture." came another perplexed yet exageratedly humbled voice.
Other faces regarded me with varying emotions, from indifference to confusion and even jealousy. The cookies cost €1.50. I suddenly felt like absolute shit.
Since being here, I’ve watched guys pilfer their way around market stalls, lifting merchandise costing anything from €2 to €200. I’ve listened in on conversations concerning the price of digital cameras in relation to mega pixels, zoom, battery life and then some. The chief debaters, for the most part, don’t even know how to work the flash. In the Legion, it all comes down to money. We cry over our wages, we cry over taxes. We sneer in the face of fellow legionnaires who buy something we managed to pick up for a few cents less. We bum smokes off our comrades with a full packet nestled quietly in our breast pocket. But top of my list in all that is the scheming scoundrel ways of this misfit montage misplaced in a modern conflict of importance far beyond the comprehension of their back-alley poker-pot minds will forever be the looks of disbelief encountered upon the handing over of an €1.50 bag of cookies to an innocent child. Apparently, charity is fine once it doesn’t cost us anything. How does anyone expect progress to be made in this country with attitudes of that nature prevailing? Some might consider this a slight over-reaction. No need to turn suicidal over some fucking jaffa cakes, you might say. Well they may seem like simple cookies to you or I, but for every child’s extended hand demanding a coveted BIS-CUIT, there’s a less visible, less pronounced hand reaching out for all its worth in demand of something greater, something more permanent, something to offer hope. If we can’t sacrifice a tiny bit for a tiny hand, that doesn’t leave much hope for the larger one, growing more and more tired every day but remaining as empty as ever.