Iceland does not maintain an army; but since 2001, we have maintained the paramilitary Icelandic Crisis Response Unit (ICRU), an expeditionary peacekeeping force that is deployed on peacekeeping and humanitarian aid missions around the world, mostly in an effort to bolster Iceland’s participation in NATO. While the ICRU is supposedly a civilian force, due to the nature of most of their assignments all members receive basic military training, equipment and rank from NATO, mostly through the Norwegian armed forces.
In 2003, the ICRU was deployed to Afghanistan to participate in missions on behalf of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). On July 1, 2004, the ICRU took over control of the Kabul International Airport from Germany under the stern leadership of Col. Hallgrímur Sigurðsson, who had 1800 soldiers and peacekeepers under his command. This was our first notable military venture since the Viking age.
After several uneventful months at the Kabul Airport, disaster struck on October 23, 2004, when a suicide bomber attacked Icelandic peacekeeping personnel on Chicken Street in Kabul’s main shopping district. The attack left three dead: the attacker, an American woman, and an 11-year old Afghan girl. Three Icelandic servicemen sustained severe injuries to their body and face from flying shrapnel. All of them recovered, but they now share five testicles.
Under different circumstances, the events surrounding the attack would best be described as comical. Despite ISAF instructions to avoid leaving the airport unless there was an urgency to do so, Col. Haraldur Sigur›sson decided to take his men shopping.
A trip was planned in advance to visit Chicken Street, where Col. Sigur›sson had learned of an excellent carpet store from Turkish co-workers. After scouting the surrounding area, Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, in charge of security at the airport, reported that Chicken Street was both narrow and busy, and could propose serious security threats. He recommended that the stop be kept brief, and the merchandise should be ready for delivery upon arrival.
Shop n’ Pop
At 13:55, Six Icelandic peacekeepers rolled out in two vehicles, joined by an American co-worker and a secretary from the Turkish embassy who was invited to join them for his expertise in carpets and his previous relationship with the store owner. The group took standard security measures in front of the store. According to the report, the store owner had failed to comprehend his part in making sure the stop was brief, possibly due to a bad phone connection. While the group waited as the carpets where readied, Col. Sigur›sson and his guest enjoyed Afghan hospitality.
Meanwhile, the men standing guard outside expressed their concerns over the delay. An hour later when the group was preparing to leave, the attack came. Col. Sigurðsson, whose immediate response to the attack was to tell his men “Shit happens!”, described the events to the Icelandic daily newspaper Morgunbla›i›: “It all happened in less than 20 seconds. He threw two grenades at them and as soon as they exploded a giant cloud of smoke and dust appeared. He probably ran into the smoke-cloud and up to them and then exploded himself. This all happened in a matter of seconds.” They never saw the assailant until after the attack.
With one operational vehicle left, the group charged to the nearest hospital, twenty minutes away, with a short stop at headquarters to drop off the secretary from the Turkish embassy. The Icelandic security force returned home soon, sporting brand new T-shirts with the group’s new and rather informal slogan emblazoned across their chest: “Shit happens”
According to the report from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, everything indicates that the Icelandic security force guarding Col. Hallgrímur Sigurðsson maintained their composure under duress and acted in accordance with their training and standard operating procedures.
However, the committee finds that the actions of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Icelandic government in the days after the attack were anything but exemplary, and shaped by their ineptitude to deal with such matters. The report details several mistakes in the official handling of the incident as described by the members of the ICRU themselves.
No independent investigation into the attack and the events leading up to it was launched. The Ministry handled press relations poorly and made no attempts to correct obvious misstatements circulating in the media. The attitude towards the men upon return is described as indifferent and more attention was directed to influence what they said in the media, rather than provide them with the appropriate help. Attitude towards family members is described as “random and clumsy.” No plan was in place in the event of such an attack. The men criticised their commander, Col. Sigurðsson for his actions on site, and his “shit happens!” comment following the attack. The committee finds that this event has had considerable negative effects, both mentally and physically, and that the men are especially hurt by the fact that their claims for damages have been met with indifference. To this day, only one of the injured men has received any financial compensation. In short, the committee finds that all complaints by the members of the ICRU are warranted and suggests that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs take every measure to rectify the situation.
Of course, the larger question, what a paramilitary group from Iceland was doing their in the first place, remains unanswered. But the fact that today, four years later, members of the ICRU are still fighting bureaucracy over financial compensation that they are lawfully entitled to shows only one thing. Here in Iceland, shit happens!