Operation Enduring Incarceration: Part One
If you’re looking for trouble you’ve come to the right place.
I have done many foolish things in my life. High up on the list was moving to Afghanistan over two years ago. Putting oneself directly in harm’s way for a bit of excitement, no particularly great financial reward and a reduced life expectancy seems pretty dumb to most of my family and friends back home. However they like the stories and you can occasionally dine out on the ‘international man of mystery’ kudos that living ‘in the thick of it’ sometimes brings. This is all slightly hypocritical as I constantly berate people for calling this place a ‘war zone’. It simply isn’t.
What it actually is, I am not too sure because as soon as I wax all lyrical about my wonderfully safe environment the pesky Taliban usually go and blow some shit up. So as another UN guesthouse or embassy compound goes up in a puff of smoke, so does my argument. The status quo remains intact. You live in Kabul – you must be nuts and after last Thursday night’s incident outside a US military base in the heart of the city I now know they are right.
You don’t have to be crazy to live here but it does help. So does drinking a bottle of whisky and then deciding that the 30 foot concrete blast walls outside Camp Eggers would look better with some stencil-art graffiti splattered all over it.
Camp Eggers is one of the most heavily guarded places in Kabul, bristling with gun emplacements and watchtowers lined with sandbags and razor wire. Every few hundred yards there are checkpoints manned by itchy-fingered security guards with AK47s. However to a slightly inebriated lover of street art it resembled a virgin canvas of opportunity. Silly, silly boy.
The assault on Camp Eggers was planned with military precision. When I say that I mean rubbish military precision that has been a trademark of this current Afghan campaign. Maybe, like the recent Operation Moshtarak we should have told them we were coming or maybe, as many analysts have remarked, it should never have been launched.
Armed with two motorcycles, a dozen posters and a bucket of paste we pulled up outside the quietest stretch of wall and began to decorate. We had no grand designs. It was a hit and run job. Slap, slap, slap and then bosh up a few symbolic images and leave at a pace to join the rest of our less idiotic friends at a BBC leaving party.
Only the slap, slap, slap was interrupted by angry shouts and the bosh came in the form of a boot delivered to my ribcage. Within seconds I was handcuffed face down in the dirt surrounded by a phalanx of extremely agitated armed men. Only one member of our crack (pot) unit escaped. We had been rumbled in seconds and the full weight of our idiotic actions began to dawn upon us.
We were dragged inside the camp compound and barked at from all sides. We were immediately accused of being drunk. My first thought was to question what type of moron would do something as dumb-assed as this sober?
It’s a very blurred line that defines the moment you go from being tipsy to smashed. Losing one’s rationality and sense of danger is a clue, but like I said earlier I think I lost all that the day I moved here. So if I was drunk it was amazing to see how fast one can sober up in a situation like this.
My role in the operation was to photograph our ‘art attack’. I still had possession of my camera but decided that deleting the pictures would be tantamount to admitting that I was hiding something. I was going tell them exactly what went on and why we did it. I was sure that the truth would set me free. How wrong I was.
Talibanksy flyposting in Kabul earlier in the year.
I made mistakes but committed no crime
With my mind racing and immediate visions of me sporting a hood, manacles and an orange jump suit I tried to delay the process of interrogation and potential water-boarding as long as possible. I was sure they had cracked my ribs and whatever measure of whisky I had consumed earlier, it was not helping to dull the increasing level of pain. A full body search ensued, performed by a man wearing blue rubber gloves who seemed more disorientated than me. He poked around for a bit and promptly told his superiors I was fine. At this point my Afghan cohort and me were separated.
I was taken to an office staffed by American civilians. No names, no badges, no identities, no fun. They meant business but I was sure that I could clear all this up and so began the slow process of explaining who I was and how this was all an innocent prank gone wrong. There is a level of paranoia in the US military and pretty much any one working with or for the security service. They don’t get out much. They’re a major target and shit happens out here. So it’s not at all surprising that they would be uber suspicious of the motives of three men of ‘fighting age’ hanging around an army base just about midnight.
Having furnished them with my ISAF accreditation I assumed that my identity would be clarified within minutes. To get this type of ID you have to go through a rigorous process that includes giving them your biometric data along with your shoe size, inside leg and tribal affiliations. But the US Army doesn’t seem to share information with ISAF (there’s a surprise).
To me my story sounded convincing. They tried Googling me to back up my account and confirm my identity. It didn’t strike me as the most sophisticated method and they were disappointed when my name didn’t come up in the first three search results. There are lot of photographers with my name on this planet but putting keywords such as ‘Afghanistan’ into the search was a recommendation they eventually took on board. Maybe I need to work on raising my profile, if not for my ego but for the emergency use of an alibi in cases like this.
The next stage of the process was to convince them I was not a terrorist. As a progressive, bleeding heart liberal, racial profiling is something that I am usually against but my own hasty stereotyping of my interrogators led me to believe that these were the type of people who voted for Bush, thought Obama was a communist and were still convinced that Saddam had possessed WMD. This is not a good starting point when trying to explain about political satire and the concept of street art as a medium for dissent against war and as a means to bring about dialogue and ultimately peace. We were definitely still in, ‘you’re either with us or against us’ territory.
For the sake of storytelling I will give my inquisitors made up names. Chuck and Barbara. Chuck was straight out of the Special Forces Cliché School; 400 lbs, red hair, beard, check shirt, crap sunglasses. He probably had a big gun, shot things, drank Coors and watched the Denver Broncos when he wasn’t protecting America overseas. Barbara, well, she weighed a little less, resembled an older but slightly more intelligent Sarah Palin only with a smaller clothes allowance. Not quite sure what she did on her time off but thanks to the Army college programme her kids were now going to get a college education and avoid a life in a trailer park in Nebraska smoking crystal meth and plonking out kids to different fathers. Well that’s just a guess but I am sure they had me pegged down as some commie pinko leftie.
To be fair they were referring to my friends as ‘activists’ as opposed to ‘terrorist suspects’. Within hours they knew all my friends, not due to some fancy CIA sophisticated database but because they had my phone (I had disappeared in the middle of the Kabul night, and many concerned ‘activists’ were ringing to see if I had been rendered to Guantanamo). I knew all this because earlier they had asked for the password to my iphone. I was a little disappointed that it had not gone into some Jack Bauer World where my mobile was now being hacked into and cross-referenced and triangulated by some geo-stationery satellite and analysed by some techno-geeks at the Pentagon. The truth is, when it comes to military intelligence the reality is always a little more pedestrian. Googling a suspected terrorist’s missed calls on an episode of 24 would not make for gripping drama.
Neither would the level of questioning. In the few short days since my release I have forgotten most of them. I vaguely remember laughing at the simplistic profiling questions and wondering whether to play along. Exhibit 1: Did you like Avatar or Hurt Locker the best? I have friends who write for highly respected newspapers who I am told are Taliban sympathisers because they have been brave enough to go out and actually meet these people
So four hours in and I still have the opinion that I’ll be released soon. Barbara is giving me so much fresh coffee I am starting to twitch and babble. Maybe there’s something in it. The paranoid delusions have not set in yet. I inform them that I have a wedding to shoot at 11am. They give me the ‘you’ll be lucky’ face and it begins to dawn on me that I am in here for the long haul.
Is this the Talibanksy at work?
Music Credit to MIA: Paper Planes: XL recordings
The men who stare at twits
Wired off my margin on Folgers finest coffee beans they send me off to a cell. Only it’s not a cell it’s a converted shoe cupboard previously home to a ‘troops, send your kids a video message’ centre. I sort of wish the equipment was still there. I have a message I’d like to relay to the world at this moment. “Get me the fuck out!”
There is a small cot. It’s so uncomfortable and noisy that any rest or sleep is out the question. I am watched over by some American grunt MP from about four feet away reading Hot Rod Magazine and spitting chewing tobacco into an empty bottle. He refuses to communicate in any way. I can’t work out whether he is retarded or if its all part of a low level psyops programme that may be underway. Request for painkillers go unanswered. Trips to the toilet are the stage-managed equivalent of moving Hannibal Lecter. There’s no loud music or flashing lights or even Barney the Dinosaur. It might sound like Grade 1 – Junior Level torture but it feels spiteful and purposeful.
Occasionally Chuck and Babs come down to ask ludicrous questions and throw accusations around like confetti. I also ask my own. Have I broken the law? Am I being charged or processed? What is my legal status? Can I make a phone call? Can you call someone and tell ‘em I am alive? “Sir… You know as much as I do”, was the standard response.
Coco Pops and some hi-carb-shit-in-a-tray arrives for breakfast. Little America is alive and well in Camp Eggers. Only I am not. I am still refused painkillers. Babs comes back at 11am. This time she’s serious and looks deep into my eyes, “what do you know about a planned suicide attack on the ISAF bazaar at 11.30am?” She seems to think the ‘wedding’ in my diary is a code word for ‘bombing’. My Afghan mate is apparently asking “what time is it?” way too much. Suspicious behaviour to them… a natural instinct to someone who’s been locked up without charge for twelve hours. If Jack Bauer was here and he thought I had prior notice about a suicide bombing I think I’d be receiving slightly more attention.
You know it’s a wind up, it’s laughable, but the subject isn’t so they leave you to stew in your juices. More junior psyops? Or just plain stupidity from our mid-western CIA dopes. Whatever the motive it has the desired effect. Your mind races… Oh my god they are going to be raiding houses and fitting me up with some bogus terrorism charge. Forget Gitmo I will be deported back to the UK!!! Can you think of anything worse? But this doesn’t last because I know its all a big wind up. They are pissed off. Rightly so, but surely they have got bigger fish to fry?
Graffiti art by Static, in Kabul.
Exit through the swamp gate
So this shit goes on for another seven hours. Stonewalled by my jailers and generally left in a legal limbo land with absolutely no contact with the outside world. During my time in Afghanistan I have interviewed many ex-Guantanamo detainees some of whom spent four or five years in detention without ever knowing when they would be released. Even when they were given letters of declared innocence they spent over a year waiting to be repatriated. So my measly 24 hours pales into utter insignificance in the great scheme of the American ‘war on terror’ justice system. Whatever that means. Does fly posting warrant unlawful-combatant status? As Wikipedia describes it, “an unlawful combatant/belligerent is a civilian who directly engages in armed conflict in violation of international humanitarian law and may be detained or prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state.” I think I am pretty confident this doesn’t apply to me but I’ve seen, ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’. So anything could happen. Whilst all this is going through my mind I am told that I am to be taken to the Detainee Clearance Office. This could be either to confirm my flight to Cuba or it’s possibly home time.
Blinking into the sunlight I’m frogmarched through Camp Eggers to a Portakabin and greeted by more grumpy contractors. I am photographed from five different perspectives, fingerprints are taken and my retinas scanned. The equipment is useless and the process takes forever. Upon completion I’m told that I am to be released and also that I am now officially barred from all coalition force bases in Kabul. All my camera equipment, my motorcycle, my phone are kept from me. They will be returned later I am told. For the first time they give me shit and curse me out. I thank them for their kind words and promise not to return unless invited. It’s a beautiful summer evening. Free at last!
That freedom lasts about 45 seconds…
Graffiti art by Static, in Kabul.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire
There is a posse of Afghan police waiting. The Americans have set me up for a fall. They dangled the freedom carrot and took it away. Bastards.
To be continued…