There were two separate worlds, one for ordinary people – those who were more or less honest and minded their own business, and another one for the likes of Gunnar, aptly called the underworld. They might overlap on the fringes but Freyja had always thought one didn’t have much influence over the other.
“Believe it, Free. Narco-dollars are everywhere and influence everything, from the very top positions in our government to the junkie hustling a fix on the street. It’s pervasive and insidious. There’s no way to monitor or control it. It corrupts officials, compromises the economies, even destabilizes governments.”
“How do you know this, Marty?” A conspiracy theory, everyone had one. It justified your failures. Like her favorite - the elitist art establishment conspiring against, fresh, new photographers like herself? Marty’s was about as credible as hers.
“In the army in Afghanistan, I lead a covert five-man reconnaissance unit into fringes of the Battle Groups area of operation in Kandahar.” Marty walked his fingers across the table and hid them behind the unmatched salt and pepper shakers. “Most times we’d bring back information, stuff that would help our guys in future operations.” He walked his fingers back toward the edge of the table. “Sometimes we’d neutralize some of their reconnaissance elements.” He smacked his hand on the arborite. “Just to put the fear in them.”
Freyja didn’t ask him what reconnaissance elements were or what neutralizing them meant.
“We were good, we could move anywhere and go undetected.” He smiled. “It was like playing “kick the can” when we were kids. We’d go out and hide. If they didn’t find us we’d sneak back and be ‘home free’.”
“First you had to ‘kick the can’”.
“Exactly. Only difference if they found us before we were ‘home free’ they’d ‘kick our can.’”
Marty stirred his coffee. “One night we came upon a van stuck in the sand. As we approached, the three Afghans threw down their assault rifles and surrendered. The van was filled with pure opium, bags and bags of it – maybe a ton.”
“Pure shit. We contacted The Battle Group HQ and they arrived at dawn. We were relieved – of the prisoners and the opium.”
“What happened to it?”
Marty paused, then tilted his head. “Do I look like an Arab?”
“A what? No.”
He grabbed her scarf and wound it into a turban around his head. He tucked in the ends and made a few adjustments.
Freyja blinked. Marty had transformed. The turban combined with his dark complexion, dark eyes and hair made him middle-eastern. For the second time in just a few hours she felt conspicuous.
“When I had leave I use to go native.” He untied the scarf and handed it back to Freyja. “I’d wander around the bazaar dressed like a local. I loved their food. I learned enough of the language to get by. It was better than getting shit-faced and watching porn in the canteen.”
“You watched porn?”
Marty winked. “The next evening I’m on leave and skulking around the bazaar and who do I see but two of the guys we took prisoner when we found the van full of dope. They’re with my commanding officer’s adjunct. I follow them to the local chieftain’s home and there’s the same van that was filled with opium. I take pictures of him going in with a suitcase, and coming empty-handed.”
Freyja rolled her eyes.
“Hey, I’m an expert in covert operations.”
“I watch as the Afghan’s load the opium into a Canadian Forces transport vehicle. I note the plate number and follow it onto the base. I watch as the cargo’s loaded onto a Hercules headed back home.”
“Get real, Marty. The Canadian Armed Forces aren’t in the drug business.”
Marty gave her a hard look. “Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has shot up since NATO forces toppled the Taliban government.”
“Try the United Nations. Production reached an all time high in 2007, an increase of about thirty-four percent. Afghanistan is now virtually the sole supplier opium to the world. You can check my figures on the internet.”
“But this doesn’t make sense when it causes so much misery.” Freyja thought of BB on a ventilator in emergency. “Why don’t our troops destroy the poppy fields?”
“The official position is because harvesting opium from the poppy is the main source of income for the farmers. How can you win their hearts and minds when you eliminate their crop, their source of income?”
“Marty, this is just too–”
“The worst part is the Taliban raise up to $300-million a year from the drug trade and purchase weapons to kill our troops.”
“So what did you do? About the drugs?”
“Like a good soldier, I reported it to my commanding officer.”
“And?” Freyja felt compelled to ask even though she wasn’t enjoying the conversation. If what Marty said was true, did she need to know? Would it make a difference in her world? Was this any more than a shit load of negativity, like someone going on about people starving in Dafur, or genocide in Rawanda. Everybody paid lip service to these ‘issues’ then did fuck all, forgot about them and went about their business, and understandably. Getting by and making sense of her own world was hard enough, why go international.
“Myself and the unit I commanded were assigned to convoy escort. Three days later my guys were all killed when IED blew up their vehicle.”
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