The Detainee Special

(A totally different helicopter flight, where I was allowed to take pictures)

Having tried and failed twice to catch my scheduled flight from Marjeh to Leatherneck—once on account of the flight leaving an hour and half early, a sneaky kind of deception I have never before encountered in air travel, and the second time owing to the flight not existing, or rather existing but twenty-four hours further on in the time-space continuum—I found myself whittling away a couple hours yesterday beside the LZ, hoping that the third time would, for fuck’s sake, be the charm. It was hot and blaringly sunny which is less a description of the weather than the geography of Afghanistan, and I had with me two older gentlemen contractors for company and my two-pound slab of Hunter S. Thompson.

Stories in warzones have a way of dropping onto you out of nowhere. The sensation is a bit like going deer-hunting only to have an eight-point buck leap onto your back and start waving a ten-gallon round its antlers. So it was with a mixture of surprise and vindicated suspicions that I watched the detainees arrive with their escort and join our waiting party.

There were three of them and the temptation to take pictures was sore indeed. I refrained only from the near-certain knowledge that doing so would get my entire memory card confiscated, and possibly the camera as well which would make two for two. The sergeant in charge (who was not a sergeant but one of the other, hard-to-keep-track-of ‘special’ sergeants with extra ribs under their chevrons) looked like the sort of serious individual who drinks his coffee black and shaves with a rusty lawnmower blade, so I thought better of pushing my luck.

The detainees wore ill-fitted flak jackets over their skinny frames and aviator helmets on their heads. Zip-tie handcuffs and field goggles with the dust cover on to make blindfolds completed the ensemble. Each had a Marine holding the back of his vest to keep him from stumbling and presumably point him in the right direction. As the contractor beside me mentioned, it was hard not to feel a twinge of pity for the detainees, with their stick-insect figures and scraggly beards, surrounded as they were by the Teutonic slabs of Grade A beef that make up the average Marine.

“I wouldn’t want to go up against those guys,” my companion muttered. “They’re terrifying.”

I nodded agreement and toyed with my camera string. Perhaps one shot? From this distance—they’d settled about thirty meters away—and shooting from the hip at max zoom, they probably wouldn’t notice. The detainees were hunched down against a barrier and the Marines stood around more or less facing away from me. But then I’d have to run that photo, and almost undoubtedly someone would notify an interested party and so much for ever getting embedded again. Plus, everyone had been so nice. It seemed offensively rude.

Or maybe I could play the dumb card. Nobody had told me I couldn’t take photos of detainees. Which was true. It just seemed obvious. I couldn’t take a picture of the Osprey swooping in to collect us either, surely a touchy subject like zip-cuffed locals being dragged to an uncertain fate would merit the same level of protection.

My friend the contractor frowned. “I hope they don’t kick us off,” he said. “This is the third time I’ve had detainees show up for my flight, and the first time they bumped everyone off.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do me a favor,” I said. “Don’t mention that I’m a reporter.”

“Sure,” he grinned. “You might want to take that off, though.” I grabbed my media credentials off my neck and stuffed them in a back pocket.

As the Osprey settled on the pad—and a more predatory-looking avian beast you have never seen, twin propellers to either side of a slim-line hull, puts you in mind of a grasshopper with a serious steroid habit—the detainees were lifted to their feet. Cargo and humans began to unload from the bird.

One of the detainees, skinniest of the three, his upper lip graced by a limpid mustache, began to sway. Stumbled a few steps. His guide caught him by the back of the collar and seeing him steady let go. With a minimum of fuss the detainee dropped to his knees. What fortune! Something interesting was happening. We civilians gawped.

Hard to say if Limpid Mustache was faking it. The wobble was pretty convincing, but then again ‘pretending to be sick’ is pages one, two, three, and four through seventy-eight of How to be an Inconvenient Prisoner. The Marines didn’t seem convinced; maybe this happened all the time. They pulled him back to his feet, and he collapsed again. The third time he went flat out on his back. Limpid looked dehydrated, but the Marines pressed a camelback hose to his mouth and he wanted none of it. A water strike, perhaps. Bold, but probably wouldn’t last long enough to grab the headlines.

A small sachet of something pink was produced and waved under Limpid’s nose. No reaction, not even a head-jerk. He fell flat again (good thing he had a helmet on). The marines conferred and the translator talked at the prone figure for some time. The other two detainees seemed oblivious, although that may have just been the handcuffs and the blindfolds and Marines holding them by the scruffs of their necks.

We were waved onto the Osprey—civilians first—so it wasn’t until I was on the bird and buckled in that I discovered the Marines’ solution: to sling Limpid over their beefiest man’s shoulder, caveman wedding-style, and schlep him aboard with the rest of the cargo. Another Marine carried his shoes, for reasons that remain a little opaque.

This hardly provides fuel for the kind of detainee-treatment ranting I’d vaguely hoped the encounter might yield, and honestly there’s not a lot to rant about anyways unless you want to stray into the depths of Bagram, or trot out Gitmo’s worn and bucktoothed old nag, or look into the considerably more terrifying pits of just what the hell the White House Gestapo are doing to Bradley Manning. The bleeding hearts of my legal alma would tear their scruffy hipster beards out to hear it (yes I know I also have one of those), but there’s a legitimate reason not only to detain people in the middle of a warzone, but also to occasionally treat them like a sack of root vegetables when they may or may not be playing silly duffers. If the alternative is that we spend more money and effort making detainees’ transport comfortable than we do on our own troops’, I would invite you to propose that to the voting public and see if you can escape the mob with your life.

It’s a strange sensation to zip through the air on one of the fastest rotary-wing vehicles in existence, with the back hatch open and the earth tilting somewhere around seventy degrees, and two seats down from you a semi-conscious man trussed like a hog who, given the opportunity, might be perfectly happy to stick a bullet in your brain. I felt bad for him about the fainting—my money was on it being genuine—but detainees don’t get held in Marjeh unless there’s some pretty solid reasons to do so (having grilled a couple officers on that, I felt comfortably certain these guys were apprehended at least in flagrante delicto, or the military equivalent thereof).

We dropped them at the Leatherneck VIP pad, the very same ground on which they unload visiting heads of state and Playboy bunnies. The detainees were piled onto a white minibus with blacked-out windows and they vanished into the maze of shipping containers that is the Torchlight wing of Leatherneck. I caught a second glimpse of what I thought must be them, deep in the maze, as we lifted off. I couldn’t help wondering where they were headed—what the holding cell would look like, who will ask them what questions, where will they go from here—but then we landed at the rotary wing terminal and my contractor friend gave me a velcro badge for my body armor with a big smiley face and the legend, “Have a Nice Day.”

Which I thought was pretty great.

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