During the crush at the evacuation of Kabul airport in 2021, a little girl became separated from her mother and was inconsolable and could not be moved. Fred left her for a moment, during which CS gas caused a stampede of marines. When he looked for the girl, she had disappeared.
Fred Smith has already made his mark as a diplomat and as a songwriter. These fields seem so different that it is only natural that he has drawn on his experience in overseas postings to enrich his songwriting and has used his talents as a performer in such far flung places as Niugini and the USA.
Now, with a second book published about Afghanistan, it is clear that Fred loves and respects the people of that war torn country. His earlier Dust of Uruzgan focussed on the interactions between the local people and Australian military personnel sent to combat the influence of Taliban extremists. Fred also compiled an album of the same name featuring songs about that experience.
These writings and songs bring Afghanistan to life for Australians. Despite early contact with Afghan cameleers, most of us thought little about the country apart from alarms raised by the government two decades ago. Personally, I was watching a skin specialist stitch up an incision in my leg where he had removed a carcinoma and commented that he would be good at embroidery. He said that he enjoyed sewing and as a boy in Kabul often watched his uncle, a tailor, plying his craft. Akber has been here four decades and does not have close family there now. How poignant Smith’s memories must be when he worked with so many people who could not be evacuated. Indeed, he offers ‘apologies to those we left behind’.
As you might expect of someone who is a skilful storyteller in song, Fred Smith has a clear prose style and knows the kinds of tales readers appreciate. Essentially, The Sparrows of Kabul should work as catharsis for Smith in that the memoir recalls the attempt of trying to ensure the smooth evacuation of friendly locals after the withdrawal of US and Australian forces and the entry of the Taliban to Kabul in August 2021.
While the Department of Foreign Affairs worked at debriefing and rehabilitating personnel involved in this frustrating humanitarian task, inevitably there is some residual feeling of inadequacy or even guilt. Could we have done more? What after all, can one person achieve as a cog in a large machine?
Smith’s compassion and dedication are clear. These qualities are obvious in the stories he tells, the ways he writes and the messages between the lines. He shares the experience neatly with the unedited texts of several emails, some from correspondents whose first language is not English. He is quick to admit his shortcomings – his tiredness, his inability to shift the bureaucracy, his temptation to surrender and his final acceptance that he had to leave and go first to Dubai where he was needed at an evacuation centre, and then home.
One simple story expresses Fred’s frustration well. During the crush at the airport, a little girl became separated from her mother and was inconsolable and could not be moved. Fred left her for a moment during which CS gas caused a stampede of marines. When he looked for the girl, she had disappeared. No doubt there were many such events in the crucial four days around the withdrawal.
The book shares a number of Fred’s photographs. One shows him near a ‘scrum’ of marines and clearly this was a position of extreme personal danger. We can be cynical about bureaucrats and they have suffered very bad press at times, of which ‘Robodebt’ is but one example. It seems clear however, that Smith exercised the power he held for the good of the Department’s ‘clients’. He writes ‘In memory of Allan Gyngell. He was a public servant’. That is, in the true spirit of the role.
There are also two postscripts and a lengthy poem Fred penned about the ‘sparrows’. Throughout the memoir, Smith is the consummate diplomat, tactful and measured in his statements. Smith took his responsibilities in Afghanistan seriously and wanted to contribute to debriefings while memories were fresh. Hopefully, The Sparrows of Kabul will be read and taken seriously by anyone who makes future decisions about Australia’s role beyond our shores.
Fred Smith, The Sparrows of Kabul, Puncher and Wattmann, 2023 (Media embargo until 12 August). Review copy courtesy of Trad and Now Magazine. Also streaming free at s5.radio.co