An enormous cheer rises into the Bagram sky. In a pink bikini top, miniskirt and red Father Christmas hat, the voluptuous Lilian Garcia has appeared to give thousands of GIs an early Christmas present: the superstars of American wrestling here, in the Afghan desert.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, close to 5Â 000 soldiers are packed around a wrestling ring rigged up on the tarmac of the biggest United States base in this insurgency-hit country.
On one side is a hangar covered in a huge American flag; on the other A-10 fighter jets and helicopters on which latecomers are perched.
The fresh breeze that heralds the Afghan winter cannot cool the excitement of the crowd that has come to see, in the flesh, the star American wrestlers who are watched on television by tens of thousands each week in more than 100 countries, according to the promoters.
The start of the spectacle laid on by the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is a “warm up” of some loud rock, a handout of T-shirts and Christmas caps, and then an introduction by the WWE’s star presenter, Vince McMahon.
“We’re here to entertain you, to give you a little piece of Christmas,” he begins.
“This is to the media who refuse to tell your story, a story about pride, honour and sacrifice,” he says, staring into the cameras.
“We’re here to tell that the men and women of our armed forces, ‘Damn get the job well done!’ The media, I suggest they stop telling their stories and start telling yours. I suggest you send the media a nice big bag of poop!”
GIs in red caps raise their fists and chant: “USA, USA…”
Not a moment is lost by cameras recording the Tribute to the Troops for broadcast on television in the US and elsewhere on December 19, along the lines of two similar WWE broadcasts from Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
The crowd hushes when Garcia — Pamela Anderson in a camouflage mini — sings the American national anthem.
Despite the show of patriotism, the hulky WWE stars say they are here merely to entertain and not to push any particular message.
“We’re not here to be pro- or anti-war,” world champion John Cena, a 28-year-old from Boston, tells reporters before entering the ring. “We’re here to support the men and women who give their lives for the country, so I can have my freedom.”
The top female wrestler, Trish Stratus, refers to the long history of oppression of women in conservative Afghanistan.
“But there is lots of progress, with new schools for girls, females working,” says the 29-year-old Canadian, who also looks like Pamela Anderson.
And then the wrestling begins with thousands of GIs crowding the ring for two-and-a-half hours of carefully choreographed manoeuvres.
The athlete-comedians punch, slap and toss each other about under the vast Bagram sky; the soldiers cheer.
Trish Stratus and the other wrestling “divas” receive particular encouragement from the male-dominated crowd, although sometimes in questionable language.
“It’s awesome!” enthuses soldier Joseph Broadway from Alabama. “I’ve watched wrestling since I was a kid. This kind of show is very important, it’s a morale booster for us.”
“This is the place for medical evacuations, where we sometimes see bodies in pieces,” says 20-year-old David Aranzamedi from Maryland. “I’m not a wrestling fan, but life is tough here, and we miss our families a lot. Today we feel a little bit like home.” — AFP