Tight-knit base will be shattered by death

By Maggie Tait

Hamid Karzai visiting the NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyam. File photo /NZDF
Hamid Karzai visiting the NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyam. File photo /NZDF

Maggie Tait, who visited Bamiyan with Prime Minister John Key in May, reflects on life on the New Zealand base there in the wake of its first combat death.

There will be three empty bunks at the Kiwi base in Bamiyan tonight. Two of the soldiers that slept in them will be in hospital beds, while the body of a third will be prepared for a coffin.

The death overnight of a young New Zealand soldier and severe injuries to two others when their patrol was attacked will have shaken the tight-knit group to the core.

There are about 140 men and women in the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province, one of the more peaceful areas in Afghanistan. The team has been there since 2003, and personnel have returned more than once.

They live in a village-like base with life centring around the mess and common room. Neat gravel tracks wind between the tidy wooden buildings nestled on a plateau uphill of the main Bamiyan town that is home to about 60,000.

The New Zealanders have a spectacular view of surrounding mountains that causes you to catch your breath -- that and the rarified air at an altitude of 2800m, which also leaves newbies gasping.

But everywhere are reminders of danger. The walls, high and lined with barbed wire, are constantly monitored.

There are little "gardens" where different types of improvised explosive devices sit encircled by painted white stone.

As they smoke outside the mess waiting for dinner, Men casually talk about donkey bombs -- when a poor animal's bags are packed with explosives before being sent on its way to kill and maim.

Dinners in Bamiyan are legendary and the soldiers proud of what they turn out -- perfectly roasted chicken and delicious roasted vegetables were on the menu for the first night of the Prime Minister John Key's visit, in contrast to the servings of mushy pasta and deep fried everything else at the base in Kabul, 240km away.

Bathrooms are kept neat and clean and rules about short showers are followed. Consideration is the norm for the group as they work together with limited resources.

Bunk rooms are functional and plain and no one bats an eyelid when the lights are turned on briefly for a returning patrol.

The only sharp comments are to tease about the rank smell of those who have been out in steaming heat wearing kilos of military gear and protective clothing. They don't complain, proudly stating what kind of missiles their vests can resist.

But when next foray heads outside the heavily protected gates, it will be hard for those in it not to think of the patrol that never returned, the beds that lie empty at the base, and the brother-in-arms whose words and laughter will no longer be heard.

- NZPA

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