The desert was pitch-black.
The Muslim call to prayer rang out across the Baluchi Valley, punctuating the silence with staccato bursts.
The dogs began to bark.
I struggled blindly through cool sand, thick around my ankles, dragging at my regulation boots.
As I followed the soldier in front of me, I fought against the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm me. The lead soldiers were obviously a lot fitter than I, a newly-arrived recruit. My knees were screaming, my thighs were burning, my lungs were on fire and my head was thumping with the headache from hell.
And that is what I called this place – hell.
I was in another world, a world where nothing was as it appeared.
Who was friend?
Who was foe?
I was on covert foot patrol with Australian and Afghan soldiers. We were outside the wire. We scaled rocky hills under the pressing weight of body armour and supplies. I hadn’t yet acclimatised to the blistering temperatures and the altitude was an unwelcome foe. Everyone except me had been here long enough to master the elements.
I tripped and fell onto my knees in the darkness.
No one stopped and waited. We were on patrol. To stop was to jeopardise the mission. I dragged myself to my feet. No princesses here! In uniform everyone is treated the same.
I prayed for sunrise to come.
The line paused.
We moved again, silently into the night.
We crept around huge borewater holes, but we couldn’t see anyone guarding the precious substance.
A police checkpoint was just ahead. We had nothing to hide but these checkpoints could be tricky I’d been told. Best to avoid them if possible.
No one breathed as we crouched and duck-walked close to the ground, swinging our weapons from side to side, holding tight.
Then it happened, the situation we’d been dreading.
We heard a screech, then a huge spotlight shone down on us, bathing us in blinding white light.
Someone screamed ‘drescht!’ and we froze like a herd of startled deer, clutching weapons to our chests.
Two police yelled at us. I didn’t understand the language but there was no doubt what they wanted. They motioned for us to stand where we were. We stood statue still and identified ourselves. We knew we could be shot right where we stood.
Someone, I’m not sure who, yelled ‘Australians!’ The police muttered to each other, nodded their heads, then allowed us to move on.
We were heading further into the desert.
‘They were skittish because just yesterday they confronted insurgents in Kakarak across the river. Shots were exchanged,’ whispered the soldier behind me. ‘Thanks,’ I whispered back, but strangely I didn’t feel any better. Now my eyes were seeing insurgents behind the rocks, across the river, into the hills.
I was weak with the terror with what had happened. It had been my first taste of danger. I lurched forward. My legs would no longer hold me up. I couldn’t kneel because my knees were screaming from the earlier assault, so I fell out of line and sat down in a dry gully and sucked air.
I was back on my feet in moments, terrified of being left behind in this unfriendly terrain.
Sunrise at last.
The sun broke through the mountains into the valley and lit up the shock of green land we were heading towards, the green belt.
It seemed we’d been marching for hours.
I saw a small boy, no more than four years old, shepherding his family’s goats through the green fields, while other children hid shyly in the doorway of their simple rammed-earth homes. They looked suspicious of us as we filed past.
The elders were very guarded, constantly looking to see who was watching them talking to Australian soldiers. We knew they risked death just for having a conversation with us so we kept it short.
We moved on.
Over walls and through aqueducts we waded towards the village of Sorkh Morghab where coalition forces have built a school, market and medical centre. Yet I’d been told it was a hostile village. To be careful.
One little boy was approaching me with an outstretched hand. He was about six years old but when I looked into his eyes I saw a man, an angry man. I shivered and felt a soldier pulling me back.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out two lollies to give to the child.
He smiled a toothy smile but it didn’t reach his old man eyes.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a large apple. We smiled at each other in what was a very easy but powerful gesture. No words needed.
I saw the apple had gone black with age and looked rough and mouldy. It looked like a…it couldn’t be…
‘Nooooooooooo…’ someone yelled, a voice full of pain and regret.
I felt the fire on my lips, the fire in my belly.
I tasted the fire as it burned in my throat.
I heard the voices and the staccato bursts of gunfire.
I heard the cry of a child.
Then I heard no more.