Friday, May 22, 2009

Reporter Laura Jones reflects on her time in Helmand Province

By Laura Jones
I HAD seen the TV news and read about it in newspapers, but nothing could have prepared me for the unnerving reality that is frontline Afghanistan.
Understanding the mission to bring peace to this troubled land was one thing, but trying to work out why people put their lives on the line for it is another. I was going to find out at first hand.

As I stepped outside the terminal building at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to take a phone call I saw soldiers lined up, pacing backwards and forwards talking to loved ones.

Parents, partners, children, relatives, friends all on the other end of the phones sending their love and well wishes through the airwaves, worried sick that their nearest and dearest were about to enter one of the most volatile countries on earth.

Their eyes spoke volumes. Sad looks and emotional smiles washed over the faces of the men and women, and even my eyes filled with tears, knowing my friends and family were at home worrying about my safety, but for very different reasons.

I settled into my seat on the plane, all strapped down with no way out and suddenly the realisation that I was heading into one of the world's most unpredictable war zones hit me.

There was an eerie silence on the plane, and it dawned on me that these brave young men and women were about to dedicate six months of their lives to fight and work in one of the most dangerous and unpredictable places on earth.

They may have been flying out as young and naive but they would return as adults.

It was a one way ticket to uncertainty where nothing was sure, not even the next sunset.

Touch down at Kandahar Afghanistan and we hit a wall of heat and were immediately under threat.

While still in the plane a rocket had hit 50 feet away from us and the surreal experience soon hit me with a thud.

Literally. The air raid siren blasted out, someone shouted "down" and as I thrust my head between my knees I closed my eyes and wondered what on earth I had let myself in for.

As the troops were spilt up and deployed to their various posts, the mood shifted and faces that just hours ago had me heart-wrenched, had turned stern, serious and focused. The job had begun.

As Hercules planes flew troops into the hell of Helmand Province, it was clear that many had resigned themselves to living without their loved ones and without the comfort of home; to cope with brutal fighting and harsh living conditions, surviving on rations for more than 160 days.

We had arrived two weeks behind the Welsh Guards who were already at the forward operating bases in south central Helmand.

Soldiers are living in oppressive 30-man bases that are bang in the centre of Taliban country – set up in abandoned enclaves in the Afghan countryside far away from western civilisation and surrounded by enemy fighters with an insatiable hunger to kill.

It was hard to gauge what life was really like, but as a Welsh Guard had been injured and later died the day that I arrived I started to understand the unpredictability of a live theatre of war and the necessity for back up as the fighting began to heat up.

Enduring the crippling heat when every pore is clogged with dust and dirt from the appallingly dry conditions just adds to the harsh realities of war, the only respite coming in the tepid droplets of army issue solar showers.

Those just returned from the frontline couldn't be more positive, that even in the harsh environment, people's morale was stronger than ever.

They have no choice but to bond with each other and it was evident that frontline fighting had turned them into a band of blood brothers.

"You stick together, you have to know that the men behind you, you can trust and that they could and would do anything for you," said Signaller Rachel Jones, who the only woman at a patrol base in Nad-e-ali.

"You can come under fire, you can see your friends being hurt and it's hard to switch off, of course it is, but we make an effort to sit around after every patrol, even if nothing has happened to talk about it and get everything out in the open."

At the end of a patrol a soldier told me that after he has talked to his comrades about the day, he likes to sit and reflect by watching the flames that heat his rations.

He told me that when he looks at the flames, "the world just fades away".

This escapism is a single but crucial piece of armoury if a soldier is to survive in Afghanistan.

There have to be light-hearted moments to balance the horror and it was good to see them laugh and have fun in their own version of "Afghan Idol" performing for their mates on the edge of danger.

Reminders of home also help the troops to escape their surroundings.

Needless to say, post is a lifeline for everyone in the enemy's eyeline.

Messages of love from their partners, admiration from their children and respect from their friends, soldiers told me that it makes what they're doing seem worthwhile.

The vulnerability of these men and women could not be more apparent than when a life is lost in battle.

So far 158 lives have been lost as a result of the fighting in Afghanistan.

The camaraderie, the support and the friendships that are built on a base is only shattered when someone is killed and I saw this first hand when I attended a vigil at Camp Bastion.

As the flags flew at half mast, hundreds of soldiers bowed their heads in unison and the four men who died fighting for their country were honoured and remembered for their dedication and for their sacrifice.

It was then that the realities of war hit me and I realised that these men had died to protect all of us, particularly the Afghan people.

During my stay I was given the unique opportunity to meet some of these beleaguered people.

The gratitude in the eyes of the children said it all.

Only five days into my journey I was longing to be home again.

To be able to walk outside my front door and not have to wear a bullet proof vest.

Not to have to lie in my bed and hear the sound of mortar bombs destroying villages, homes and families.

To not wake up with the smell of cordite in the air – to breathe fresh clean air, to drink clean water, to be educated, to be accepted and to be free.

As I left the intense fighting and the soaring temperatures of Afghanistan it was with a war wound in my soul that will not heal until our servicemen and woman are also safely back home.

Afghanistan left me humbled and probably changed for the rest of my life.

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