Dec 02, 2023
Dec 02, 2023
The Sentimental Terrorist - 19
James, Aram guesthouse, 4 a.m.
Sixty minutes before the attack on the Iftar guesthouse
K-Jim didn’t stay long in Kabul after returning from Kandahar. A few days later, his employers sent him to Helmand in the south-west, as a temporary replacement for another pilot who had gone on leave.
From Amala I learned that on his very first day back in Kabul he had turned up at her guesthouse in the evening. And the following day he’d persuaded her to dine with him at a nearby restaurant, insisting that it wasn’t clear whether he would survive the war zone where he was headed. It was clear to me, though, that he was a determined rival for her affections.
And now the bloody man’s back in Kabul, and it looks like he’s not going anywhere else any time soon. Why couldn’t he have stayed away for just a few weeks longer? That would have made it easier for Amala to decide on the proposition I’ve made her, without any distractions. Or, should I say, without any competition?
* * *
Last Friday evening I met him at the weekly party given for people who work with international organisations. It’s held inside a hall with a bar in the Maple Tree guesthouse. The place is one of the most upmarket residences in town, with wall-to-wall carpeting, jacuzzis in most of the bedrooms and even a sauna. There were well-kept rose gardens and two tennis courts. Everyone comes to enjoy the superb cuisine along with an assortment of wines, whiskies and liqueurs that aren’t easily available in Kabul. Round-the-clock security is provided by a dozen Gurkhas and Haitians. The Haitians guarding the compound are generally huge men no one would want to mess with; and they tower over the shorter, stocky but agile Gurkhas.
I had driven to Amala’s guesthouse and picked her up a little after eight, although the party started at seven. When we entered the bar, I spotted K-Jim in the corner next to the pool table, a drink in one hand and the cue in the other. Judging by the few balls left on the table and the way he held himself, I imagined he’d been there for a while and had already had a few.
K-Jim now sported a goatee. With just a dozen hairs hanging below his chin, it looked less professional than the chinstrap beard that I myself wore. It suited him, though. Finally, I thought, he was beginning to see the wisdom of making small adjustments to his new environment. Any man who’s been here for a while recognises how useful a beard can be. In the south of Afghanistan most men wear beards and you draw attention to yourself if you don’t have one.
But when my gaze travelled below the goatee to the image of scantily clad women frolicking across his T-shirt, I realised I’d been too hasty. K-Jim was still a long way from adapting to his surroundings.
We took a table in the corner. I started to organise finger food and drinks; Amala was teetotal but enjoyed mocktails. She started to read the New Kabul Times.
‘When elephants fight, it’s the poor grass that gets trampled,’ Amala said.
I placed the drinks and crisps to go with them on the table and settled myself on the sofa beside her.
She handed me a copy of the paper. Her remark referred to the lead story, which was about the fighting that had once more erupted in Helmand province. The report described in graphic detail how civilians were being caught in the crossfire.
‘Yeah.’ I pushed the paper away in disgust. In all my security assessments I continually highlighted the fact that our own security – that of the international community – was being progressively compromised because ordinary Afghans were being alienated as a direct result of civilian casualties.
KK-Jim had spotted us by now. He put away the cue. I saw him heading towards us.
Christ! Was he going to ruin a pleasant evening?
‘Hiya, bro.’ He shook my hand too heartily, his attention clearly on Amala.
My response was lukewarm. ‘Join us.’
‘Yes, please do,’ said Amala with sincerity.
‘Thanks, bro.’ He ignored the cold manner in which my suggestion was made and took a chair by the sofa, close to Amala.
I could now read the slogan on the T-shirt. ‘SORRY FOR BEING SO SEXY.’ A poor joke. Underneath it was the picture of the half-naked women dancing around a plump man.
‘That’s you?’ I poked the fat man.
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Wish it was, though, bro.’
I looked across at him. ‘You do realise, K-Jim, that you’re drawing attention to yourself – even if the picture is harmless?’
‘Yeah, I know,’ K-Jim responded pugnaciously. ‘You’re talking about the T-shirt and shorts, I guess. Like I said before, I’m not going to allow anyone to tell me how to dress.’
‘James is right,’ Amala said. ‘You ought to be more careful.’
‘You’ve got to be alert in other ways,’ K-Jim insisted. ‘This stuff doesn’t matter really.’
‘Didn’t see you at the guesthouse.’
‘Just got in last night.’
He had just returned from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand.
It didn’t get tougher or rougher than Helmand. Some of the worst fighting between the Taliban and NATO forces was in this south-western province. According to some estimates the area produced 20 per cent of the world’s supply of opium. A seesaw battle raged: sometimes the Taliban took over some of the villages and a few days later NATO would reoccupy them.
And soon K-Jim began to regale us with anecdotes from Lashkar Gah.
‘You know why the babies there are the best behaved in the world?’ he said. ‘No screaming. No shouting.’
‘No,’ said Amala. ‘Why is that?’
‘You mean . . .’ Not understanding, Amala’s face puckered up in concern.
‘I mean they’re fed something extra in their baby food.’
‘Oh, K-Jim!’ She burst out into relieved laughter.
‘Yeah, that’s what they do when babies start bawling. Feed them a teeny bit of opium.’
And next he launched into the description of a funny incident involving an American general and poppy farmers in Helmand.
I listened absently to the story being recounted; it was K-Jim’s expressions that I found more interesting. He probably didn’t mean to ignore me or be rude, but his attention was clearly fully focused on Amala. Whenever she laughed at one of his corny observations, his face would turn pink with pleasure. The way he looked at her made me think of the way a well-fed puppy looked at his mistress. This man was clearly in love. So was I, for that matter, although I tried not to wear my feelings on my sleeve.
Amala said, ‘So tell us, did you see the Taliban retreating in Lashkar Gah?’
‘It’s all looking pretty grim right now, I have to say.’ K-Jim paused, and blinked. ‘No signs of us taking over any time soon. It’s not easy carrying a bird in the air. Many people on the ground who’ll take a pot-shot at you.’
Amala tore open the bag of crisps and transferred them to a plate. I loved these occasional small, feminine, eastern touches that she herself was unaware of.
‘What’s the atmosphere at work?’ I asked Kjim.
‘‘It felt weird.’ K-Jim blinked again. ‘There were ten of us, all international staff members, living together. Two pilots, six engineers, an administrative officer and one security man. Our company’s building roads in the region. Now the interesting thing is that nine of us live together in a guesthouse guarded twenty-four/seven by a hundred Afghan guards. Can you imagine?’
During the course of his stay in Helmand at the American military base, K-Jim, who had never handled anything more than a toy pistol, received training on how to use small firearms and even take apart and reassemble an AK-47.
‘I went for target practice at a shooting range twice a week,’ he said, with a laugh. ‘All the security training was in addition to my real work, which was to fly out the engineers who are getting the roads built.’
Amala pushed the plate of crisps in his direction, as if he needed to be fed after having emerged from a war zone.
‘Extraordinary the way the engineers go about their work.’ K-Jim nibbled at a potato crisp, aware that he had Amala’s undivided attention – and even mine now. ‘I’m the pilot but I managed to go on a couple of road missions with the engineers just to get an idea of the place. All of us wore protective armour all the time and carried a loaded rifle strapped to our bodies. We travelled in armoured vehicles in a convoy. One vehicle ahead and two behind us.’
‘And the actual road work?’ I said. ‘That’s being supervised by Afghan sub-contractors?’
‘What about the local employees? Do they also get weapons?’ Amala said.
‘No way!’ K-Jim said. ‘They’re not allowed them, unless they happen to be security staff.’
I said, ‘Looks like your company spends more on security than on road construction.’
‘I guess that’s true.’
‘So did your ’copter ever get targeted?’ Amala asked.
‘Honestly, no. We were lucky.’
‘And were you ever attacked during one of your road missions?’ Amala asked again.
‘Luckily for us, again no, but the drill is that once our convoy is on the move we don’t want any vehicle approaching us nearer than fifty metres. If a vehicle does move towards us, we aim first at the tyres and then straight ahead at the windshield.’
‘That’s terrible,’ Amala burst out. ‘You might kill an innocent person who simply hadn’t understood what you’d indicated he should do.’
‘Sure,’ admitted K-Jim, ‘but we have to protect ourselves.’
‘I hear you just gesture with your hands, asking the vehicle to stop and not come any closer.’ Her face reddened and she pushed back her hair in an angry gesture. ‘It’s easy enough to misunderstand that sign.’ Her voice grew more agitated. ‘And I hear that many soldiers don’t even bother to do that.’
‘Amala,’ I intervened, pressing her hands. ‘It could be the Taliban, you know. What’s the alternative?’
‘It isn’t acceptable, James!’ Amala moved her hands away. ‘Just start firing? Such cowards.’
‘It’s rough,’ K-Jim said.
Amala repeated, ‘It’s not acceptable.’ She picked up the newspaper in a swift motion and tapped her fingers against the photograph of the dead civilians. ‘Look at this. Villagers caught in the crossfire once again. During the day they work hard in the fields and at night they provide shelter for the Taliban. What’s their alternative? If they refuse, they’re killed. And when NATO or the Americans attack the Taliban, again the villagers get killed.’
Her delicate nostrils flared in anger, and she looked challengingly at us.
There wasn’t anything either of us would have said to Amala. Her emotions were running high and neither of us wished to alienate her. I didn’t know about K-Jim, but I for one shared her concern.
* * *
A waiter arrived with my order: two large plates of chicken kebab and spicy fried fish sticks.
‘Help yourself, K-Jim?’ I said, playing the role of host, even if internally I wished he would go away. ‘Can’t have had much to eat in Helmand.’
‘I’ve had the best possible food in Helmand,’ K-Jim said. ‘Foodwise, I’m really missing the province. What I miss most of all are the lobsters.’
‘Lobsters? At Lashkar Gah? You’re joking!’ I knew the American contractors took care of their staff, but lobsters?
‘Serious. We have vegetables, meat and fish shipped directly to us in huge containers. I’m fond of cooking. We have huge, tasty lobsters. Me, I’m crazy about lobsters. I had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the Thai soup I cook in the evenings lobster is just perfect.’
‘‘So where are you heading off now?’ I said, hoping it would be sometime soon and somewhere far away. They were building roads all over Afghanistan, weren’t they, and, besides, what would a trained helicopter pilot do here?
‘Going to be here for a while now,’ he said, reaching out for a kebab, ‘but not with you any longer, bro.’
‘Moving in here at the Maple Tree, I guess. You can afford it.’
‘Nah. I’ll be moving into Amala’s guesthouse.’
‘You can’t,’ Amala said.
‘You can’t,’ I said. Otherwise, I could have added, I would already have moved in, you idiot.
‘Can’t I?’ K-Jim countered.
Amala said: ‘It’s against the rules.’
‘Rules can change. I’ve been speaking to your programme director. He seems okay with the idea.’
‘Really?’ Amala said. ‘That would be great. I’m amazed he agreed, though. We don’t normally take anyone from outside.’
‘I first ran the idea past Jonathan, your security adviser. I pointed out that I would be a security asset. He was enthusiastic.’
I was surprised Jonathan had accepted K-Jim’s suggestion.
‘It’s my Beretta 92FS,’ K-Jim patted the bulge in his side pocket. ‘Sleek, black beauty. It’s lightweight, but could be useful in an emergency. And now I’ve had the training to use it. On an exceptional basis, I’m allowed to stay at your guesthouse to protect you all.’ He laughed.
My heart sank. Despite all my efforts at wooing Amala these past weeks, I hadn’t been able to draw out an inch of commitment from my Bangladeshi beauty. And now a younger, better-looking suitor was moving into her guesthouse.
‘Not proper,’ I said. ‘You’re not even licensed.’
‘What’s not proper?’ K-Jim sneered. ‘You think any of the guards outside this guesthouse have licences for the guns they carry? Come off it, bro. All these armed militias who’ve been hired to protect us – none of them have proper licences and they carry automatic weapons.’
He was right. There was much talk about it, but as yet the Kabul authorities hadn’t started a licensing regime. I had revealed my unhappiness at his contemplated move unnecessarily. As I stabbed the tartare sauce dip with a fish stick, I cursed myself.
‘Decided to offer my services just so I can be close to Amala.’ He winked, and put his arm around her, only barely touching her, so as not to cause any offence – I knew these tricks. ‘And we’ll be able to spend time together without this guy hanging around to bother us.’
‘Oh, you make too many jokes, K-Jim.’ Smiling, Amala gently pushed his arm away. The serious expression that had appeared on her face, after the argument about civilian casualties, now flitted out of her long-lashed eyes, which now sparkled with amusement.
AAt this juncture, K-Jim excused himself to go to the toilet. As he stood up, I saw the same lovelorn look creep into his eyes. I hadn’t been mistaken. My presence had put a temporary dampener on the expression of his emotions. I’m sure he would have been even more forward with her in my absence. I was certain that Amala knew K-Jim was interested in her, but did she realise how hard he’d fallen? More importantly, I desperately wanted to know how she felt about him. I came close to sharing with her my knowledge of the carnage caused by K-Jim – that would have ended any chances he had – but held myself back. An old school ethic stopped me from telling on him; possibly misplaced, for the gravity of the matter lay beyond such trifling reservations.
* * *
Barry knows how I feel about Amala, and he also knows I regard K-Jim as my rival for her affection.
‘‘K-Jim’s keen on her as well, ain’t he?’ he said to me the other day, while we were having after-dinner drinks in his room. ‘And now he’s moving in, he’s got a lead on you.’ He took a large sip. ‘So to speak.’
Exactly right, I thought grimly. K-Jim was enterprising. He must have been planning this move back in Helmand. But, even though in my previous incarnation as a British army officer I had used all kinds of weapons, I was now only a security consultant. As a helicopter pilot, even a civilian one, K-Jim had rather more cause to be carrying a weapon and therefore to be useful in an emergency. Not that it would help much against a Taliban fighter equipped with one of the Chinese-made machine guns that could spew bullets faster than K-Jim spews everyone with his spittle once he gets talking.
‘But I’m still betting on you,’ said Barry encouragingly.
‘Thanks for that.’
Although I’ve been pressing Amala to agree to a relationship with me, a marriage if she’d prefer that, there is a part of me that’s afraid of hearing her decision. Let’s say I’d love her to say ‘Yes’ but I’d prefer ‘I’m still thinking about it’ to a definitive rejection. But I know she’s too responsible and kind to keep me hanging on. Yet I worry that the next time I meet her she’s going to tell me to forget her.
My compatriot is a veteran drinker who through a multitude of diplomatic sources has managed to create an impressive mini-bar in his room. Over the course of the next hour, I drank three large shots of Glenfiddich. In that time Barry must have knocked back six Irish whiskeys and a couple of beers. He didn’t sit back and savour the drink the way I did. He gulped it down and quickly refuelled. But I was the one in need of sustenance to bolster my flagging spirits.
More by : Rajesh Talwar