Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wife of Army chief plans school in Helmand - Telegraph

By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent

Lady Caroline Richards, the wife of the next commander of the British Army General Sir David Richards, is planning to build a school in war-torn Helmand in Afghanistan.
She is well aware of the risks, but speaks with a steely determination when she explains her mission to educate the impoverished children in the war-ravaged region.

In the last two years more than 300 teachers and pupils have been murdered by insurgents in Afghanistan and hundreds of schools have been closed or destroyed.

Those who defy the Taliban's dictat that teaching demonstrates support for the infidel invader run the risk of being publicly beheaded.

But Lady Caroline remains undeterred and her plans to build a school in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan are beginning to gather pace.

"The Taliban are prepared to behead a child for carrying something given to them by a Western soldier," said Lady Caroline.

"The threat to teachers is also pretty horrendous. They murder teachers in the most obscene ways – it is almost medieval brutality.

"It is easy to be negative but if no one embarks on something like this then it isn't going to happen – so we take a risk but we hope it will be a manageable risk."

She is the president of the Afghan Appeal Fund, a charity created by a group of Army wives who wanted to support the work being undertaken by their husbands fighting in Afghanistan.

The idea behind the charity began to take shape in early 2006 when the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), which was then commanded by Gen Richards, took command of Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Prior to the troops' deployment, the soldiers' wives were invited to attend a series of unclassified briefings on the troops' role in Afghanistan. The central theme was the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans.

Lady Caroline, who has been an Army wife for 30-years, explained: "It was clear that winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is crucial to the success of the operations. So we, the wives, thought how can we help.

"Everyone rallies round when a soldier is injured but this was a real opportunity to help our men while they were actually in a war zone."

Lady Caroline admits that she often asks her husband for advice but his huge workload, he is commander-in-chief of the Army's land forces, prevents any direct involvement.

She continued: "David does not get involved because he is so very busy. His diary is full but I do ask for advice. I asked him whether it was madness to try and build a school in Helmand and his attitude is "well if you don't who else is going to try?".

As well as advice from her husband, Lady Caroline often seeks help from her daughter Joanna, who is a researcher for Tobias Ellwood, the Tory shadow minister for Culture, Media and Sport and who has a long-standing interest in Afghan affairs.

Lady Caroline, who also sits on the committees of several Army charities, became interested in education in Afghanistan after seeing pictures of a tented school in Kabul.

"Fairly early into the deployment of the ARRC, I saw pictures of a school in Kabul and I was shocked by the contrast of the International Security and Assistance Force headquarters and a school which was just a stone's throw away.

"The school consisted of a series of ragged tents, there was no furniture, it had been burnt for fuel so that became our first project. We got the ISAF engineers to level the ground and dig a cess pit.

"We got new tents donated and we bought new furniture. It was that project that really galvanised us as a group and we really wanted to get behind our men and support what they were doing."

In the last two years the charity has funded a string of education projects throughout Afghanistan – the most impressive of which was the building of a new annex to a school in Wardak Province in central Afghanistan.

There have been a series of fund raising initiatives from fun runs and Top Trumps cards to the publishing of a book called "My Daddy Is A Soldier", which was written by Gerry Waters.

Production of the book was paid for by the charity in return for the profits from sales. The book has sold 1500 copies and has made a profit of £1,000. It tells the story of a little girl whose father is sent away on operations. Since the charity was founded three years ago, around £78,000 has been raised.

But the latest project in Helmand, where thousands of British troops are embroiled in a bitter counter-insurgency war, is infinitely more difficult.

Security in Helmand is at best poor. Since 2006, the number of troops fighting in Helmand has risen from 3,200 to 8,300. The conflict has cost the lives of 142 servicemen and women, while hundreds more have been injured.

The charity is in talks with Non- governmental organisations (NGOs) as to where the best place to build the school would be.

She admits: "We may not be successful, it may be too dangerous and we may have to look elsewhere but we are determined to try and help and every little bit really does help."
Details of the charity and "My Daddy is a Soldier" can be found at
Read the article on the Telegraph website