Rocket attacks fact of life on Kandahar base

Canadian soldiers shelter in a bunker following rocket attacks at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan on Friday.
Canadian soldiers shelter in a bunker following rocket attacks at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan on Friday.Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A voice over the public address system echoes through the cold air: "Rocket attack, rocket attack."

The announcement sends soldiers, civilian workers and journalists scurrying into the concrete bunkers, where they wile away the time chatting, or just shivering in the dark, listening for the dull thud of more detonations outside.

Rocket attacks onto Kandahar Air Field rarely cause significant damage, although NATO said eight service members, four Romanians and four Bulgarians, were wounded here last Sunday.

Nonetheless, the rockets are an annoyance, serving as a reminder that nine years into the war, NATO cannot prevent attacks on its main military base in southern Afghanistan.

Duck and dive
For those caught in the open, the procedure is standard duck and dive. Hit the floor, face down. Cover the eyes. Hope the rocket doesn't land too close for injury or worse.

To protect against such attacks, there are blast walls everywhere. Kandahar Air Field is a maze of the things, each creating its own little section. It's inconvenient. Walking from one place to another isn't just a matter of getting quickly from point A to point B. You must learn to go around obstacles.

It's easy to get lost in the sameness of it all: drab, dusty, gray.

But no one bears any grudges against the walls.

Rocket impacts send shrapnel flying everywhere. The deadly chunks of white-hot metal are more likely to slam into the walls, not rip through the head or body.

When the first rocket detonates, the drill is to get down, then scramble to the nearest bunker. Take a seat. Be ready to stay there awhile.

In the dining facilities, in the office spaces in headquarters, in tents and compounds all across the airfield, people hit the deck. Then they hustle to the bunkers.

Base is a big target
There are 22,000 troops and civilians here, from about 20 countries, and it is getting bigger all the time. Most of the attacks are meant more to harass than anything else. The base defenses are state-of-the art; the rockets aren't.

But rocket attacks in this patch of Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is especially strong, are a fact of life, just as improvised explosive devices are on the roads. The possibility of a rocket attack is never far from one's mind, and serves as a jarring reminder that the threat to NATO forces here is real.

Still, the chatter in the bunkers is about the most trivial things.

A Canadian diplomat — his face barely visible in the dark — describes in nostalgic detail an ice hockey game he played on a frozen lake in Kashmir. A British photographer mentions that she likes the American TV show "My Name is Earl," and the talk focuses on that for a bit.

After the first few minutes, when the natural response is to sit in hushed attentiveness, listening for more booms, the chatter begins. Sometimes over the whine of ambulances.

The bunker is full. It is shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee.

A cell phone goes off a few people down.

"This isn't a good time," the soldier says in a strong French-Canadian accent. "Can you call me back?"

Are we intact?
All are wondering — more viscerally, somehow, than in the mind — what has just happened. Is it safe yet? Was anyone hurt? Where did the rockets hit?

In the bunker, everyone is fully aware of the fact that they are, once again, intact. There is a feeling of gratitude that they can sit and talk about inconsequential things, and that there is the reassurance of being surrounded by soldiers and the others sharing this strange moment.

The siren wails again.

"All clear," the voice says. "All clear."

A fighter roars off the flightline.

Everyone goes back to work.