Monday, 19 September 2011

Dead man's shoes

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Afghan fighter in possession of a good pair of boots, must be in want of a tale to tell about them.

October 19th 2006. About halfway through our climb to Osama's former compound in Tora Bora, we stopped for water and a quick break to check our position on the map. Our guides (and guards) were a mixture of local tribal militia and the regional governor's soldiers. A good-natured competitiveness had sprung up between the two groups. Each talking about the weaponry and equipment they carried, boasting in Pashto of their various exploits, occasionally laughing and translating for me what had just been said.

Cooling off in a mountain spring on the climb up.

Amongst infantry, the world over, comparing boots is one of the immutable laws of life. It comes from needing your feet to be in good condition. And although it would be an overstatement to call it an 'obsession' there is certainly more frequent and impassioned discussion of footwear than you might otherwise expect from a bunch of hard-bitten men with guns.

Boot story one-upmanship. 

The local militiaman explained that he had taken his sandy coloured boots from the feet of an Arab fighter he had killed in battle, while the older Mujahedin from the governors forces claimed (to a largely unconvinced audience) that his boots had been a gift from an American special forces soldier. They were plainly too poorly-made for this to be likely, but seniority has its advantages and not having your story questioned is one of them. 

He turned to me and asked how I had got my boots. They were a new pair of Altbergs, bought only weeks before, not yet broken-in and the only thing that had died during the process of procuring them was the poor cow that made the leather. 

I toyed briefly with inventing an elaborate backstory and thought better of it. 

"I bought them," was my somewhat feeble response, "in Englistan!" I added, using the colloquial Afghan term for Britain.

He translated my response to the group. 

They all smiled and shrugged but you could tell I'd lost any respect they might have had for me.

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