Sunday, November 15, 2009

A shocking glimpse of the lives of women in war-torn Afghanistan

Charlotte Cross combines a career in TV journalism with volunteering for the Territorial Army in the Information Operations Team. Both these passions have taken her to Afghanistan, where she has gained an insight into the lives of local women struggling for simple freedoms.

It was the smell that did it. The moment I stepped off the plane at Kandahar Airfield, I knew I was back. It was the middle of the night, I couldn’t see much, but that musty, sandy smell just hit me. It was unmistakably Afghanistan.

With the smell came the memories: my close-knit team of soldiers, with whom I’d shared my every waking moment, the ordinary Afghan people I’d worked with, the interpreters and the women. I wondered how life had changed for them in two years, whether they were even still alive.

I remembered the fatigue I’d felt after six months of working long days, the frustration of trying to get things done in such a difficult environment, the drudgery of day-to-day living, and the constant fear of what was lurking just outside the wire.

In 2006, I’d spent six months in Helmand Province with the Provisional Reconstruction Team. I worked in Psychological Operations, more commonly known as ‘winning hearts and minds’. Part of my job was chatting to local people, asking what help they needed to rebuild their war-ravaged lives.

That meant going outside the relative safety of the camp, travelling in a vehicle or patrolling on foot through Helmand’s streets. And, of course, being inside a camp isn’t always safe. Bullets and rockets would come whizzing over the walls, on one occasion hitting a colleague of mine in the leg.

As an officer in the TA I had volunteered to go, leaving my day job as a journalist in London. I was based in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, sharing a room which more closely resembled a concrete bunker with two other female officers. At the end of a hard day in a male-dominated military environment, it was a place I could come back to and gossip with the girls.

Wearing a uniform every day, with hair scraped into a bun and without the morning ritual of putting on make-up, inevitably makes you feel less feminine. Nevertheless, some of my male colleagues would be overprotective towards us, worrying about letting us out on the more dangerous patrols. We used to joke that we had to overcome a degree of old-fashioned sexism among our own men, never mind among the Afghans.

It gave me a degree of empathy with Afghan women and the hurdles they face in their struggle for equality. But my day-to-day discomforts were nothing compared with the trials they face in winning simple freedoms such as education or the opportunity to work. Even if the Taliban aren’t around, many people continue to live as they did when they were in power, scared of the repercussions should they ever come back.

For the full article click here for the Daily Mail website

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