Christmas and New Year are very special holidays for Georgians, and one of the most special and unusual places for celebration is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, where 1560 Georgian soldiers are taking part in ISAF mission.
Agenda.ge asks Senior Georgian NCO in ISAF Koba Oshkhereli to describe how he met the new 2014 year in Afghanistan. He has been involved in the Afghan mission for seven months and has a very special mission on New Year Eve.
Special morning of December 30
Some familiar but forgotten sound woke me up in the morning. Then someone fell down heavily and exclaimed in English "God damn it!"
I get up quickly, open the door of my small room and see a tall, big-boned American Major, who is smiling widely. He says: "The snow has come, sir!"
The sound that woke me up was the sound that snow makes when someone steps on it. The American Major brushed his clothes off, looked at me and said: "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Major," I reply, as I take a deep breathe of winter Kabul air.
It seems like it snowed heavily last night. The city and our base located in the outskirts are now all white. Its December 30 today. The New Year is coming and it feels like nature has covered northern Afghanistan with snow especially for this day.
Road from Kabul to Helmand
Today, I'm flying from Kabul to Helmand, where the major part of the Georgian military contingent is deployed. My mission is to deliver congratulatory messages from Georgian Senior Military representatives to the troops in Afghanistan, including Colonel Mamuka Shiukashvili, Sergeant-Major of the Armed Forces Aluda Kopaliani, and ISAF Sergeant-Major James Booker.
As we leave the base the Georgian soldiers, who guard the main gate of the Camp "Phoenix", smile and wave at us. The road to the Kabul military airport is not too long but it is full of danger. Any passing vehicle can be driven by a suicide bomber hunting for a car of the coalition forces.
Two days ago, a terrible tragedy occurred on this road. A car full of explosives crashed into a Slovakian convoy and caused the death of three people; two Slovakian soldiers and one American civilian.
As they say, the American man came to Afghanistan in order to wish his wife a Merry Christmas. However that day, the Slovakian soldiers were due to accompany him to the base where his wife served but the group never made it. They say this couple was insanely in love with each other.
I looked at the explosion place through the car window. Then I looked at the Georgians sitting beside me. I was filled with warm fuzzy feelings. There are several Georgian hearts beating in this car but we are only a small part of the bigger picture. We are the sons of Georgia. My flesh and blood. They are a back to me and I am a back to them. "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my brothers", I'm thinking to myself and adding "God bless you".
I arrived in the Helmand province at night. It is cold but there is no snow here. At the American camp "Leatherneck", where our 31st Battalion is deployed, there is no outward sign showing that they are ready to celebrate the New Year here. Generally, Americans tend to celebrate more at Christmas on December 25 rather than at New Year.
In the morning, the staff of the 31st Battalion keeps working in a regular way. It's impossible otherwise, because even today, despite the holiday, a hundred soldiers are executing a combat task outside. Though, the Georgians are still preparing for the New Year.
In a huge tent, there is a New Year Tree decorated and the soldiers are having a Georgian dance rehearsal. Moreover, just before midnight, a video conference is planned, through which the Defense Minister will send us his New Year message.
Letters from homeland
Georgian soldiers are now reading the letters sent by children from Georgia. I also grabbed one of the letters, which turned out to be written by a little girl. She was congratulating us and saying that she was very proud of us.
In her letter, she mentioned Zaza Damenia, a Georgian National Hero, whom I met in person while serving at the Commando Battalion.
I got emotional. These letters mean that Georgia remembers us, Georgia loves us. It means that Georgian children are taught who Zaza Damenia was. They are taught who Giorgi Antsukhelidze was. That is, when these kids grow up they will continue our work, in case we get tired or fall.
I praise you, Lord.
While reading this letter, I realize how much I miss my daughters. Their smiling faces shine before my eyes. Then I remember an Afghan girl, who several days ago, approached our car and asked for help in Kabul.
"What a beautiful child this is!" I thought. An infinite sadness was spreading from her eyes. This angel-looking kid will probably soon get ugly from the heaviness of a life in this place. Her skin will go darker. Her face will get a rough appearance. Her only fault is that she was born in Afghanistan. I asked God to give me the strength to be standing beside my daughters and make their lives easier for a long time.
American Christmas gifts
In the afternoon, Major Parchukashvili entered our room and brought us gifts. These gifts were collected and sent to the American soldiers who are serving in hot spots by American families.
This tradition comes from the Liberation War between the American colonies and British Empire. At that time, women left at home used to put gifts into self-knitted socks and send them to the battle-front.
This external form of the tradition is still maintained. In small sock-shaped bags, there are letters and gifts for unknown soldiers.
Koba Oshkhereli (first from the right) with his friends. Photo from K. Oshkhereli's private archive.
I open one of the gifts and first of all, I read the letter. "My American hero," it reads. This makes me smile. An American woman wrote and sent this letter to an American soldier. I wonder what she would feel if she knew that her surprise was delivered to a Georgian. I don't think she would have felt offended.
Such gifts were distributed to the whole 31st Battalion. This is a wonderful tradition as it makes a soldier, who is far from his country, realize how much his country cares about him and how much he is loved by his people. Reading the letters written by Georgian children was the same happiness for our soldiers.
New Year Eve at the "Leatherneck"
Half an hour earlier than the New Year, I attended the video conference from Georgia. The 31st Battalion received congratulatory message from the head of the brigade Lieutenant-Colonel Malkhaz Merlani. Then, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania appeared and addressed all of the soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldiers were listening to him with smiling faces. The army loves this man because they feel that he sees not small bolts of a huge mechanism, but individual humans in each.
Then the New Year came in. At that time I was out in the fresh air with Irakli Gurgenidze and Nika Chanishvili. They are the representatives of our Defense Ministry here. We just hugged each other and congratulated the new 2014 year.
In almost no time, I was already laying in my bed, thinking about the boys who were out executing their task that night. Also, I was thinking about the "Batumi Separate Battalion" who was still at the small base in the northern part of Helmand. I was hoping nothing bad would happen during the New Year celebrations.
In the morning, the 31st and Batumi Separate Battalions gathered where a New Year concert was planned to be held. The concert was reported by the Georgian media. It was very beautiful. The head of the Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Meshveliani gave a speech. Then I also got an opportunity to address the soldiers. I was excited, as I was giving a speech in front of the people who represent the best of Georgia here in Afghanistan. Mainly, these are very young boys but Afghanistan has made them all become such serious men.
The author of this blog Koba Oshkhereli gave a speech at the New Year celebration concert. Photo from Oshkhereli's private archive.
I congratulated them all on behalf of Colonel Shiukashvili and delivered them the words of Sergeant-Major of the Georgian Army Aluda Kopaliani, who said they had two missions here: to accomplish their service and to return home healthy. ISAF Sergeant-Major said that ISAF General Joseph Danford and Sergeant-Major Booker were impressed by the bravery of the Georgian soldiers, and they felt honored to be serving together with the Georgians. Indeed, nowadays Georgian soldiers are considered the best, they are desirable partners and they can play a huge role in any level of international missions.
Then the dances started, which impressed everyone. When everything was over, the soldiers went back to their regular duties.
This is a war
I wanted so badly everything to be alright and nothing bad to happen that day but it did. After the concert I went to the internet-cafe to talk to my family on Skype but the connection was down. One American Marine had died on January 1. In such cases, all sources of communication go down before the families are informed about the sad news. This is a war. The Taliban do not care that it was New Year.
That's how I met the 2014 year in Afghanistan. I wish a Merry Christmas to you, Georgia, from this far away land. Thank you for loving, remembering and praying for us.