Monday, June 1, 2009
Afghanistan's Helmand province is not just a war zone. Yes, there is fighting here, but people are still managing to live their lives. I've visited five of the British Armed Forces bases in this part of the country now, and when I've ventured out of the gates, it's been surprising how vibrant the local towns actually are, even though some of the fiercest fighting in the world carries on just a few miles away.
Arriving in Musa Qa'leh I stood on the roof of the base and watched the massive livestock market take place on the dried-up river-bed opposite. In the southern town of Garmsir, with the Commander of British Forces, I walked through the bazaar which had been all but empty a year earlier because of combat. And in Lashkar Gah, where I'm writing this, I've seen newborn babies at a maternity unit staffed by female midwives, something the Taleban would have found disgusting.
Elsewhere, children love going to school, and the number of pupils has tripled in size since 2001. To learn to work with them, women are risking threats from the Taleban to go to teacher training college.
Now, I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture. There is fighting here, and plenty of it. British soldiers have died while I've been in Afghanistan. Down in Garmsir though, I met one Captain who had been in the town two years earlier, when it was like something out of the Wild West. He'd lost two close colleagues, and won a bravery award for how he acted under fire.
I asked him what he thought of the place now he's returned there, and he said it couldn't be more different. Seeing tangible improvements in the lives of local people, he said, meant that his friends hadn't died for nothing.