IT was late Tuesday, and I was walking over to the Aussie cafe called Poppy’s to try to use the Dutch wi-fi system to which I’d bought US$37 worth of access.
There was a communications blackout on the base. This normally means a soldier has been wounded or killed; NATO wants time to inform the respective family before they hear about it from the press or word-of-mouth.
There was a huge crowd in the cafe, and I thought: “Damn, there must be an important Aussie rugby match on – no room to sit down.”
I peeked in the window, and my jaw dropped three feet. There was Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd talking to the lads. I took a few notes, then raced back to the American base to get my camera, thinking “What a scoop!”
Mingling with the soldiers, I took a few shots of the PM, chatted with an Australian photographer with the Sydney Morning Herald who told me he was shooting for a pool, then hung back.
An Australian grey-haired officer – or so he looked – he had no insignia – sidled up next to me and asked: “So, you’re here ... you’re ... what are you doing?”
I replied that I was with The Phnom Penh Post and had been on the base for a week.
“Are you escorted?” he then asked.
“No,” I replied, “The Americans must trust me. I have an ‘unescorted pass’ for open areas,” pulling out my ID from under my vest.
He was friendly and said I should meet the Aussie press officer. “Here comes the hammer,” I grumbled to myself.
Australian Lieutenant Madeline Denholm was cordial. She said I could take photos and asked (not ordered) that I respect the press embargo until Wednesday at 3pm. As I had a pending request in with the Australians to interview the commander of their military mentoring team, I readily agreed.
Plus, I also knew that with a communications blackout on, I couldn’t send out any email anyway. It was an easy decision to play ball with the Aussies and not try to scoop the planet by a day on the PM’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
On Wednesday morning, November 11, there was a memorial ceremony commemorating the armistice from World War I – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
With several hundred Australians in formation, the PM showed up, escorted by the local governor, and followed by International Security Assistance Force commander US General Stanley McCrystal – another major unannounced visitor to this small corner of Afghanistan.
Speeches were delivered, wreaths laid, a poem read and then the Australian national anthem rang in the air. It was all appropriately solemn and dignified.
After the event, it was back to Poppy’s for coffee and cakes. The prime minister mingled easily with the troops, many more happy snaps were taken for posterity. Outside, 62 Australian soldiers, getting ready to rotate home, lined up for medal presentations. The prime minister delivered them one by one to the front row, and the defence minister and Australian ambassador handled the rest.
I stood at the end of the line, waiting patiently for the money shot. The PM gave the lad a thumbs up, which I caught squarely in frame.
Then he walked in my direction, chatting with a few officers. He turned to me and said, “Hi, what’s your name?”
“Michael Hayes, Mr Prime Minister. It is a great pleasure to meet you,” I said.
We started to chat. I told him I was very impressed by the Aussie soldiers I’d met (knowing full well that it is always good when talking to prime ministers to start with something upbeat). Rudd replied, “They’re a good bunch of lads. I haven’t heard a bitch or a moan from one.”
The prime minister said this was his third trip to Afghanistan. On his last visit, he brought a bunch of cricket equipment to give to the soldiers, but somehow the bats were nicked along the way. We shared a chuckle over that one. Australian Air Vice Marshal Angus Houston joined us. Rudd asked about the coffee maker he brought as a gift on this trip and whether it had been delivered. Houston, with the calm, firm air of a man used to giving orders, turned to an aide and said to make sure he was informed if there were any problems on that score.
I could tell we were all getting along swimmingly, developing a close rapport and that any second the PM would say: “Well Mike, you seem like a seasoned observer. Why don’t you join me for lunch. We’ll discuss Afghanistan and other interests of mutual concern.”
Just then, a German reporter with the Financial Times showed up. He launched in quickly: “Mr Prime Minister, do you think the Dutch will pull out next year?”
The Prime Minister replied with a polished smile: “This sounds like an interview. I’m not giving any today.”
Then, ever so gracefully, he moved backwards, turned and walked on to some other soldiers.
That was the unfortunate end of my get-acquainted chat with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.