Empotrados

Alberto Arce. 2010. Spain, Afghanistan. vo Spanish, Arabic. s Spanish. 7’

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It's not hard to figure out that the men who are detained and handcuffed on the ground are actually two young bearded policemen wearing headscarves instead of their official police caps. There was no chase, not a single shot was fired. The scene can be served up in the media the following day as an exclusive scoop. Aside from us, nobody would be able to tell whether it is true or not. For those who actually witness the scene it seems too crude and fake to be believed, but cameras and editing can work wonders. The usual interview: "the enemy often steals or buys police uniforms in order to infiltrate..." Mere formalities. This is exactly what most situations of embedding end up becoming: a journalist waging a battle against military propaganda.

The meeting point, a gasoline station. The Commander Said Mosen has come to pick us up with a punctuality that is surprising for this environment, just one hour late. Without asking, and with my camera as my only visa, I jump into the uncovered back of a pick-up truck in which six adolescent-looking policemen are sitting. I lift up my bulletproof vest and show it to them. They laugh. None of them are wearing one. Later, the vest will be used as a rug to sit on. At least it will serve a purpose this way if we drive over a mine. We drive in the direction of the Ainak copper mine, in the Logra province. This is a trajectory of just 100 kilometres that moves along a winding, broken highway, swerves between rocks and mountains, and leads to what is purportedly the second most important copper mine in the world. Almost ready for the extraction to begin. Not before it serves, however, as the setting for a brief stint embedded in the Afghan National Police. My contact with the security forces has been made possible thanks to a week of planning. It is fruit of that distinct combination of persistence and luck that has shown itself to be the only means of succeeding in this line of work. A General, who is the neighbour back in Kabul of the translator who will accompany us, has spoken with his brother, member of the unit responsible for escorting the Chinese engineers who direct the exploration of the copper mine at Ainak. After we managed to get approval- over the phone- by the Commander of the unit, we lost three weeks time to interacting with the diverse branches of the Afghan Interior Ministry of Affairs- without any luck. But, a single window of opportunity does not exist in this country. On the fourth day, tobacco changes the situation, giving us an idea of who it is that is really in control at the same time. A cigarette, randomly shared with a Lieutenant connected to the North American military- a man as good-natured as he is professional- ends up being our means of getting the signature necessary to enable our journey. Through him, we obtain the signature of the director of media of the Ministry, the same man who had refused to see us, until the right person asked. One thing is clear; we specified that we would be travelling to the mine because of a personal contact, due to its location near Kabul, and without any added interest in the Chinese's mine. What could be the reason behind an interest in the mine? Could we be a Chinese company interested in the exploration and future exploitation of the copper reserves of the country? Of course not. Every time a car comes close to us, a ‘honk..honk' follows, and a weapon is drawn and aimed directly towards the suspicious vehicle. Here, any car is suspicious. We stop to pick up some bread. The dry looks that we get in the neighbourhood say it all. We have entered into the red zone. We continue on through the centre of a valley and, faced with the size of the mountains, a miniscule example of the mountains awaiting us on the horizon, it becomes possible to get a small idea of how complex the fight against the insurgency must be. The police point directly towards one mountain. “That's where the Taliban are.”It seems near by. “And do you go up and look for them?”, I ask. “Of course not”, they answer. “No one has permission to enter this valley. Only us and the mine-workers do, when we escort them.” Captain Gul, our contact and guide, is General Sarjan's brother, who is also our translator's neighbour at the same time. He sees this trip with foreigners as entertainment and is willing to take us to the mine. It is evident that his attitude- equally respectful of foreigners as he is of his brother, to whom he is willing to grant the favour of this trip- doesn't match the orders of his superiors, who it would, nevertheless, be difficult for him to disobey. Finally, the cuartel where we are going appears. Two buildings under construction, nothing more. Around fifty men are waiting, with the motor on and their weapons ready, for the arrival of the Commander and the two foreigners who have come with him. Everything is ready for a brief embedment. The stated motive for this trip is to get a glimpse of how the Afghan security forces work in the field. The hidden objective, to get to the copper mine. Because of the strategic interest in the mine's exploitation and its location in the province of Logar, which is the southern point of entry to the city of Kabul, used by the Taliban to approach the capital from its strongholds in the South of the country, it becomes impossible to get around Logar province if not done assuming the role of a journalist who travels, drinks tea and sleeps along with the Afghan security forces. After tea, we move on into a room where we receive instructions regarding the operation. With a map on the wall, the Commander Said Mosen begins giving us instructions, wooden stick in hand. “We have received information that some enemies” (the term Taliban is never used)“may be hiding in the area. We are going to investigate.” Four sub-officials listen to him while he proceeds to outline his deployment strategy. A hundred men will move out, walking in a line which will stretch from the mountainside to the middle of the valley so that, little by little, they can get closer to and encircle the occupied area, trapping the men who are hiding within it. Around 10 vehicles start out on the journey. The atmosphere lacks any sort of tension. Their feet first touch the ground at the foot of a mountain, where they begin their deployment in the shape of a crescent.“If the enemies are where we think they are.. over there”Commander Mosen begins, while pointing to nowhere in particular “we will encircle them and will block any possibility they have of escape”. After a long walk in formation under the sweltering sun, up one side of the mountain and down the other, and with a shadow of doubt due to the general lack of tension on the faces and in the movements of the men in uniform, the radio announces the arrest of a number of insurgents. A vehicle is mobilized so that the journalists can get to the area where the arrest has taken place and film the scene. It is evident that the men who were finally detained, handcuffed and on the ground, are nothing more than two young bearded policemen- wearing scarves on their heads in the place where the official policeman cap would be. Neither a shot was fired, nor a race was run. Fast and clean. The scene could be presented as exclusive scoop in the press the next day. No one other than us knows whether it is true or not. It seems too crude and too big of a farce to those who witnessed the scene, but the cameras and a little editing can work wonders. A rigorous interview could go like this“On many occasions the enemy robs or buys police uniforms to infiltrate …”. Pure procedure. The majority of situations of embedment turn into exactly this: a battle waged by the journalist to fight military propaganda.