Mark and John lived just round the corner from each other in London, with their parents. Both families had struggled a bit to afford it, but they had been able to give their sons a good education. In fact, Mark and John had been best friends since they were at Prep school together. As pals they had shared a lot of time together chatting and laughing but the boys were both very different in many ways and now, as they each approached their 18th Birthday, their ambitions and interests were beginning to take them in various directions. Having just finished their AS level exams, both young men had decided to leave Wesley Public school, but for quite different reasons.
Although John was a few months older than Mark, it was Mark who always seemed to be the one who would come up with the ideas of what to do, or where to go. Mark was a really good rugby player, in fact he was pretty good at most sports. He wasn’t any taller than John but he was certainly fitter. John liked most sports too, but he preferred to watch sport, rather than play it and he never missed the chance to be there, on the touchline, supporting his best pal in whichever of the many sports and activities he would be involved in.
Abu was around the same age as Mark and John; his birthday was exactly three months after John’s and the day before Mark’s. But Abu didn’t know John or Mark as he lived 3,000 miles away in the small town of Ghorak. Abu had also just finished his schooling and he had excelled in all his class-work. Abu had friends at school but the one person he adored above all others was his father. Abu’s father worked from dawn till dusk. Every day, except Fridays, Abu’s father would kiss him goodbye in the morning, an hour before Abu set off to walk the half mile to his
school, and he would return long after Abu had got back home. By then, his father would be covered in the dry, reddish dust of the Afghanistan hills and although weary and hungry, Abu would watch as he unslung the AK47 semi-automatic rifle from his shoulder, wipe off the sand and grit, carefully dismantle it into its five parts and clean meticulously every part of the deadly weapon. For as long as Abu could remember, he had been dreaming of the day he would be 18, a man at last, and then, as was the tradition in his family, he would ride his own horse alongside his father on the hour long journey to the hidden Taliban camp in the Lashka valley.
In their second year at Wesley, John had happily gone along with Mark to the school Cadet Force, every Tuesday evening. Mark said it would be great fun, especially the two week summer camp at the Royal Marine base in Faslane, where they would be given lots of experiences such as riding the waves in fast zodiacs, abseiling and driving tracked vehicles across muddy hills. The bit that had caught John’s ear though, was the promise of how much all girls were instantly attracted to guys looking cool in combats. Mark loved every minute he spent as a Cadet, and from the moment the Army sergeant told him he was a “born soldier”, Mark’s mind was set to where his career was going. John had no such ambitions and after two very wet nights sleeping out on the Welsh mountains under nothing more than their Bashas, John was glad to use the excuse of needing more time to devote to the fast-approaching standard grade exams, he finally stopped going to CCF night soon after his Welsh soaking. But John did not use this free time to do any more studying, instead he much preferred going online with his most treasured possession, his laptop.
On the day of John’s 18th Birthday, Mark was already more than half way through his basic army training at Catterick Barracks. The course was tough, much tougher than the Cadets had been, but the tougher it was, the more Mark relished it. Each new challenge was exhausting, pushing his limits out further and further, but with each challenge completed, Mark knew he was, more than ever, doing exactly what he was born to do. On his one day of rest, the weekend before, Mark had sent a birthday card to his pal and had felt quietly proud of himself that he was able to slip a £20 note in with the card. He was after all, now earning a real salary every month.
John knew by the postmark who his card was from, but he was over the moon when he saw the purple edges of the banknote peeping out of the card; not only because he had never expected such a surprise, but also because he was, to be blunt, stony-broke. John’s plan on leaving Wesley was full of unrealistic ideas about getting a well paid job selling mobile phones, buying the coolest clothes, passing his driving test, getting a nice set of wheels and hanging out in the coolest night clubs. None of it had happened. Instead, his parents, not a little disappointed at his decision to quit Wesley, gave him every encouragement to find a job, but with the minimum of pocket money meantime.
In the early hours of that same morning a dark haired man was walking casually in through immigration and customs at London Heathrow Airport. Under the new European Union rules, there was nothing to stop him, as a passport-holding Hungarian, from flying in to Britain, along with the 200 other passengers on board flight BA0865 from Budapest. He was met at Arrivals by another East European who drove him, and three other passengers off the same flight, the one hour journey into the centre of London. There, in a sleazy basement flat somewhere in South London,
each ‘mule’, as narcotic couriers are degradingly referred to, had handed over their packages to a seriously nasty looking guy with a couple of heavies standing close behind him. He then handed them each a role of notes and told them to never come near this place again.
The packages they had handed over had come a long way; in fact they had travelled 3,000 miles and been passed from one courier to the next no less than eleven times, each time the size of the goods, which were actually tightly packed blocks of cannabis, was being split down into ever smaller units. The goods had started out in Afghanistan as 100 Kilo bundles, tied to the side of a camel. But the cannabis had been grown in vast fields that covered the sides of the endless mountains and hills in the southern area of Afghanistan, known as Helmand Province. Despite the American and British Forces efforts over the past 9 years to destroy the crops while still in the fields, the fact was it was simply far more profitable for the local farmers to grow cannabis than to grow cereal crops. After crossing the border into Pakistan, loading the bundles onto a 7 ton lorry and collecting his 200 dollars, the farmer had turned around and headed back the 150 miles to his farm just outside the small, remote Afghan town of Ghorak. The bundles had continued on their way south west on the single track roads through the Chagan Hills till they were handed over for double the amount at Mirjareh on the Iranian border. Travelling in various forms of transport the bundles, now split into 25 Kilo boxes, traversed the 1,000 miles of endless roads that diagonally cross the huge landmass of Iran until they were slipped across the border at Tabriz, close to where Armenia meets Turkey. Through the passes of Mount Ararat, then another 700 miles to the contact in Istanbul, over into southern Bulgaria, across the Balkan mountains, up through the Transylvanian Alps and over another border into Hungary. Each time the
goods were paid for in cash, and each time the cash was double the previous payment. There in Budapest, a well organised gang divided the Hashish into 5 Kilo bags, each just the right size for slipping into an innocent looking case that would then be carried as personal luggage on a legitimate flight from Budapest to London.
Later that morning, Mark was called in to see the Commanding Officer. It was great news; the Colonel was pleased to inform him that he had been accepted by his first choice regiment, the Coldstream Guards. He was to join them at their Regimental HQ in Chelsea as soon as he had completed his training at Catterick, in only 6 weeks time. And that was not all; he was then to go straight out with his regiment, on a tour of duty to Afghanistan. Mark was elated; all his greatest wishes had come true.
That afternoon John decided that he would not tell anyone about the 20 quid from Mark and instead he would liven up his boring life by using the cash to buy some drugs. He only knew what he had seen and heard in films, on television, in rap songs and other places but he reckoned it couldn’t do any harm, just this once anyway. He walked down through the city as it was starting to get dark and crossed over the Vauxhall Bridge into the gloomy streets of that part of south London. It didn’t take John long to find what he wanted and he happily handed over the £20 note he had got from Mark to an anonymous stranger, who handed him back a small pack of the cannabis that had arrived in the UK from Budapest that morning.
£20 sterling is about 30 US dollars, and this was the exact amount Abu’s father was peeling off the roll of the 200 dollars he had received for the bundles he had delivered a couple of weeks previously. He too was buying a birthday gift, and this was for his son Abu’s birthday tomorrow.
The Lee Enfield rifle may well be of World War 1 vintage but it was none the less the favourite sniper weapon of the Taliban due to its beautifully smooth bolt action and incredible accuracy. Although most of the Taliban fighters used the Russian made Kalashnikovs because they were tough, reliable and just sprayed bullets around, Abu had displayed a natural and uncanny aptitude for the far more sophisticated accuracy of the old British made masterpiece of armoury. The wily Pashtun merchant, who had known the old farmer all his life, had thrown in a box of .303 bullets to the deal, saying it would give young Abu plenty time to practice before his first action against the British troops stationed the other side of the hills, near Kandahar.
Mark had passed out of Catterick as top soldier in his year, caught the first train to London and had reported to his new Company Sergeant Major without even having the time to pop in to see his very proud parents up in North London. He knew they understood that he just didn’t have a minute to spare as his Regiment was already packed up and ready to head out to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, where the RAF Hercules planes were waiting to take him, his regiment and all their gear the long haul out to Kandahar airbase in south Afghanistan.
The first thing that Mark noticed as he stepped off the Hercules in Afghanistan, after his 28 hour flight via Cyprus, was the dryness of the baking hot air. It was midsummer and the temperature would reach at least 40C most days in the low lying area around Kandahar. Not that it bothered Mark very much as all he had in his mind was to get settled into his new base and get his head down as soon as possible to try to make up for the hours of lost sleep. Plus the fact he had already been told that tomorrow morning he was going out with the first foot patrol at 0800 hours. What a fabulous 18th birthday that was going to be.
John normally slept on in the morning till his mother got angry and shouted at him to get up, get out and get a job, but he had been dreaming of some of the fun, carefree times at prep school when he sat up suddenly in his bed; “damn it”, he said out loud, “today is Mark’s birthday and I totally forgot to send him a card!” He looked at his bedside clock; it was 6.30am
Mark hadn’t check his mailbox anyway that morning; he had too much else on his mind today. He checked his watch, 0930 hrs, 3 hours ahead of the UK. He had been walking with his squad for over an hour and the sun was beginning to make every man sweat under his DPMs, bullet proof vest and Kevlar helmet. But Mark wasn’t going to let the heat spoil this day of days. The Corporal had said they would take a rehydration break in half an hour, under the safe cover of the tumbledown goat sheds at the far end of the deserted village. For Mark, today was a Birthday he would never forget.
Abu couldn’t believe his eyes when his father had handed him the rifle on his birthday, nearly three months ago. Since then Abu had cleaned and cleaned the weapon and at every opportunity had practiced his long range target shooting by lying quiet and still on one side of the valley, picking off targets as small as a mongoose or partridge at a range of nearly a quarter of a mile. All the men of the valley were mightily impressed with the young eyes and steady hands of Abu. Now, after nearly three months of practice, Abu had been honoured by an invitation from the local Taliban leader to join him and a troop of his soldiers on an armed raid. Abu was pleased but he already knew his skill was exceptional so he showed no boyish excitement; instead he remained calm, composed and focused on his first mission. From his belt he took out the last clip of 5 bullets left from his birthday present and slipped the
first 78mm long shell into the chamber and slid forward the smooth bolt to lock it in place. Lying up on the hillside, in the shadow of an overhanging rock, with the sun at his back, Abu had a perfect view of the 12 man squad as it approached the old goat sheds. He had been told to always pick off the most senior officer as that would cause most confusion but the British soldiers were well spread out and it just was not possible for Abu to see the very small double stripes of the section leader from that distance. He settled the cross hairs of his telescopic sight on the man nearest to him. As the British soldier was one step from the cover of the old ruins, he reached out his arm to take the bottle of cool water being handed to him by his corporal. For just a couple of seconds the action opened up the tiny gap between the soldiers helmet and the top of his armoured waistcoat and Abu, with the lightest of touches, squeezed the trigger and the bullet entered the exposed neck of the British soldier. Mark dropped like a stone.
Footnote: Mark had received his birthday gift from John. The same £20 Mark had sent to John for his birthday had travelled back from the London drug dealer to the Afghan farmer who had used it to buy the rifle for his son Abu’s birthday present.
Postscript: Daily Telegraph. Thursday 19th February 2011 (THE DAY AFTER THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN): Two British soldiers were killed yesterday in southern Afghanistan, the ministry of Defence has said. The servicemen, from the 3rd and 4th Battalion The Parachute Regiment were shot while patrolling an area in Helmand Province.
Copyright Reg 331049