Friday 21 March 2014 by Alison Wishart. No comments
Opinion, views and commentary, Personal Stories, Tarin Kot, Tarin Kowt, ANA

Day 10 - Army aesthetics

When I arrived at Al Minhad Air Base (AMAB), I felt like I’d landed on the moon.  But Multinational Base Tarin Kowt, located in southern Afghanistan, is even more desolate and stark.   There are no soft surfaces here. The base consists of shipping containers stacked beside razor wire, metal girders and steel staircases.

razor wire, shipping containers dusty roads

Accommodation is in double storey reinforced demountables.  Concrete paths carve straight lines through grey rocks which are about the size of golf balls. The buildings are numbered as it is hard to tell one from the other and easy to get disoriented.

Hesco barriers around accomm TK
Hesco barriers around "hardened" accommodation at Tarin Kowt

The only curves are in the hesco barriers – walls about two feet thick made of rocks and rubble, held together with wire and hessian that can withstand rocket attacks. Many of the buildings are designed to withstand an IDF (Indirect Fire) attack. This means they have low ceilings, no windows, sealed metal doors about 15cm thick and utilitarian fluorescent lighting.  

concrete paths Hesco barriers TK

The palette ranges from hazy grey to beige. The red fire extinguishers are the only splash of colour. Everything is covered in dust.  In the Aussie mess there are huge photographs of mossy rainforests on the walls – are the designers trying to provide some welcome relief from the aesthetics of the base or taunting us? A few gum trees are struggling to grow outside the mess.

gum trees growing outside Aussie Mess TK

I found some weeds which provide some welcome green and softness. I felt like picking the little daises and putting them in a cup in my room.

daisies TK resized

Australians share this base with the Americans and Afghan National Army. However, due to the ‘green on blue’ attacks, there is now a big wall, guarded 24/7 between the ANA and coalition forces. Soldiers are required to wear their uniform and carry a weapon at all times.  Seeing men walking around with semi-automatic rifles makes me feel less safe.

A white blimp, called “the eye in the sky”, hovers over the base relaying pictures of the surrounding landscape back to HQ.  It can see if there might be any insurgents out there. I feel like Big Brother is watching me, for my own good.

Beyond the large military base, I can see the mountains of Uruzgan province. The soldiers tell me that the green zones in the river valleys are beautiful, particularly in the spring when the pomegranate trees are blossoming.

The troops seem happy enough.  The food is good and plentiful, the beds are soft and clean and the free wifi works. ADF personnel get paid a lot of money (tax free) to deploy to Afghanistan. I don’t think any amount of money could convince me to live and work here for several months. It’s as if there was a battle at Tarin Kowt between security and beauty and security won, as it should in a war zone. I just didn’t think the two were mutually exclusive. No wonder AMAB is referred to as “camp cupcake” compared to this.

PS. Above is the toned down version of my initial response to the Tarin Kowt base. I had to write the emotional, subjective one first to help me deal with it!

Twelve months ago I went to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) with the Australian War Memorial. I was working on an oral history-photographic project. The core part of the project was interviewing and photographing 19 currently serving members of the ADF - from the army, navy and airforce - before, during and after their deployment in 2013 to the MEAO.  In another 12 months time, you should be able to see the results of this work in an exhibition which will travel around Australia.

These blog posts were written while I was in the MEAO but were not uploaded to the AWM website at that time.

I am planning to upload one blog post each day, exactly 12 months on from the actual day I was on deployment. We left Canberra on 12 March 2013.