Wild life

Friendly fire

31 July 2010

10:00 AM

31 July 2010

10:00 AM

Laikipia, Kenya

My cousin Charlie Williams is a young Irish Guards captain about to deploy in Afghanistan. The other day he came to stay on our farm in Kenya’s highlands and I got a glimpse of what he’s about to go through in an exciting yet poignant way.

Charlie brought the British Army along. In fact, they ‘attacked’ us in an airborne assault. The evening before, I was astonished when a British officer pointed at Celestina and said, ‘You’re a suicide bomber.’ In reality, Celestina works on the farm with me. ‘And you, Aidan, are a truly horrible man. You’re the Taleban boss of the suicide bombers.’

At night, we were told reconnaissance teams were scouting the farmstead and eavesdropping on our radio communications. ‘Let’s blow up the British,’ Celestina happily announced on his walkie-talkie, method acting a little too enthusiastically. ‘What?’ replied a shepherd who had no idea what was going on. ‘No, I won’t do that.’ ‘Shut up, please,’ said Celestina. ‘No,’ said the herder.

At first light we heard a low throbbing and then several helicopters came zooming out of the savannah, their rotor blades strobing in the dawn. Celestina and I were out driving in the farm jeep and suddenly there were Micks all around us. They cuffed and blindfolded us, conducted an on-the-spot interrogation, then tossed us on a Puma, flew us off to their camp and gave us a cup of tea. As they choppered us home, we swooped over great herds of zebra and elephant. Mount Kenya’s snowy peak rose above the plains, as green as Ireland after the rains. Looking down on all this, a pilot said to me over the earphones, ‘You’re a lucky bugger, aren’t you?’

Kenya has become the British Army’s most important overseas infantry training spot. Each year, 10,000 British and Kenyan troops exercise together in our home area of the Laikipia plateau. The aridity, high altitude and rugged terrain resemble Helmand. Apparently, there’s nowhere in the Tropics as perfect for infantry manoeuvres. But encounters with our wildlife are unique.

‘It’s brilliant,’ one young guardsman told me during a fag break back at camp. ‘Yesterday we were catching scorpions.’ ‘Down at the waterhole there’s lion and tiger footprints,’ said another. ‘Eh, you,’ said his mate, ‘no tigers in Africa. That’s India.’ ‘Oh,’ shrugged the other. ‘And we’ve seen a hippo.’ Wildlife poses few of the dangers compared with where these kids are headed — but in the last year elephant have gored several British soldiers, injuring but not killing them.

Kenya benefits greatly from the Army, which pours £17 million a year into the country. They instruct African peacekeeping forces, and locals welcome the ‘Johnnies’, as the troops are called, because they employ a thousand Kenyans, buy their produce, doctor the poor at mobile clinics and build schools, bridges and police posts. All this is an incidental aspect of counter-insurgency training. In the jargon it’s known as the ‘current operating environment’ — Afghanistan, in other words.

I watched one exercise, in which the Micks had to negotiate entry to a prefab village where a Turkana witchdoctor in white paint and monkey skins was posing as a rebel, blowing smoke and flicking them with his flywhisk. And I was shocked at how young these soldiers were. They seemed to be just boys. It made me very sad to think that some of them might be hurt or killed. Charlie said, ‘We can take them to war when they’re 18. A month of training here and you see them grow up so much.’

One kid, still 17 but about to become an adult, told me he couldn’t wait for the chance to deploy in Afghanistan. ‘We signed up to serve Queen and Country — and that’s what we’ll do.’

I worry about Charlie, too, even though he shrugs it off and lives inspired by our ancestor who won a Victoria Cross. I mean, Charlie is a guy who during an earlier spell in Kenya took a skydiving course to conquer his fear of heights. He jumped out of a Cessna at 4,100 feet, his parachute failed, and he got so entangled that his reserve ’chute couldn’t open either. In the 40 seconds before he hit the ground he went into a state of calm, reflecting that he had ‘no regrets, I’ve had a lot of luck in life — and there’s no point in worrying.’ At terminal velocity, Charlie hit the corrugated-iron roof of an African hut, bounced off a wall — and landed face down. By some miracle, he had only dislocated a finger, which he jammed back into its socket. Since then, Charlie’s done two tours of Iraq and in the countdown to Helmand he and his sweetheart Katie have got engaged. Good luck, Charlie. There’s a cold Tusker beer waiting for you on the farm.

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