Kate Bartlett

One night, during a recent reporting trip to Afghanistan, I was one of a few non-military personnel, and one of even fewer women, to attend a party in an underground bunker in Kabul. A weird sort of party...

It was a wake for an Australian soldier named Jonno who had been shot dead in Uruzgan province the week before. He was a father and a husband and his fellow special forces mates wanted to send him off - the Aussie way.

A burly, bearded special forces soldier dressed as if for Bondi beach in board shorts, a Southern Cross tattooed across his back, asked for silence. It was time to hang Jonno's photo on the wall with the rest of their fallen brethren.

Southern Cross made a speech. 

"Jonno was a good cunt. And that's all there is to fuckin' say."

Those assembled in the bomb-proof bunker in Kabul's green zone cheered. A silver goblet bearing the names of the dead was passed around. I forced down the bitter concoction of beer, rum and vodka.

The underground bar had been named "The Abbo." Never politically correct the Aussies. “Abbo” is shorthand for Aboriginal. It was a dark bar.

The soldiers had spray-painted their tags and comments on the walls. Skulls and Crossbones appeared to be a particularly popular theme. On the ceiling someone had sprayed "Women are evil, they will bring you down." On another wall: “SAS Cunts.”

I sipped a Fosters and asked a soldier built like a brick-shithouse how long he’d been in Afghanistan. He was on his 6th tour. What did he think would happen to the country when the troops pulled out in 2014? “It’s fucked when we leave. It’s lose, lose. I don’t really give a fuck what happens when we leave.”

Had it been worth it? “I don’t know ‘bout democracy, but I know we’ve killed a lot of the bad guys” Then: “Hey, you’re a hot chick, you know? Got a good ass too.”

A video slideshow on the wall of the dungeon showed muscular women clad in camoflage bikinis performing fellatio on machine guns and pictures of some of the soldiers present out on patrol grinning in fields of poppies as far as the eye could see. 

Looking at a slide of buxom blonde licking an AK-47, the large British special serviceman beside me shook his head.

“Disgraceful, innit?” 

I looked at him in surprise.

“Fuckin’ takes away from the beauty of the gun.” 

A soldier with a tattoo of the map of Australia and a quote on his arm that he kindly explained to me when he saw me looking at it was “Latin you know,” and appeared pleased when I looked suitably impressed, asked me where I had lived in Australia.

Sydney for 6 years, I told him.

“O yeh, Syders, there’s lots of fighting on Friday nights but. With the ethnics y’know. The wogs and the I-Tais.”

Where was he from? Cronulla. I mentioned the race riots.

“The one bad thing about those was some folks got done over. One Leb father just came with his family and got beat up like. But I tell youse what, one week after the riots, there was heaps of space in the car park when you wanted to go have a surf.”

Southern Cross walked us to our car at 2 am. We had to pass through about 4 checkpoints with armed Afghani guards just to get out of the building. Is this safe? I asked, wrapping my shawl tighter over my hair. Southern Cross pulled a pistol out of his boardies. “Safest you’re gonna get love,” he said.

Kate Bartlett is a Zimbabwean-born journalist, currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She has lived in Paris, Hong Kong and Sydney, and has reported from the Philippines and Afghanistan.