Out of my comfort zone
After three days in the Spartan field conditions at the outpost in Sangin, we said goodbye to the soldiers of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Forester Regiment and were flown in a Chinook helicopter to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of
Suddenly we found ourselves inside the heavily fortified diplomatic and military compound in the centre of the city, in the luxury of an air-conditioned dormitory room. The
soldiers shop was having a 20-percent-off sale, so I found a bargain on a set of ipod speakers and switched on some jazz.
Decent showers and a cooked meal. Ah. This compound has come quite a long way in the year since I first visited, when it was still mainly tents. Theres a gym, a volleyball court and high-speed internet in the rooms. Many of the military and
civilian people who work here do get out into the field often, but I wonder if the comfortable compound will inexorably produce the sort of “Emerald City” isolation of the Green Zone in Baghdad.
After our night in comfort we went out on patrol yesterday with another company of Worcester and Sherwood Foresters, this group tasked with patrolling the provincial capital. I was bundled into the back of an armoured Land Rover, drenched in sweat, nauseous and constantly smashing my helmet into the roof as we bounced off road. The two soldiers slinging machine guns out of the roof hatch were polite to this soft city-slicker civilian when I asked if we could pull over so I could vomit.But it wasnt safe to stop so I had to hang on.
We visited Mukhtar, a camp of mud huts containing thousands of people displaced from Taliban-controlled areas in the north of the province over the past five years or so. The neighbourhood was desperately poor even by Afghan standards, little more than mud-and-straw huts, including the only functioning school, and the people we met told of their struggles with local landlords for the right to stay on the land where they have settled. Many of the recent arrivals were Hazaras — linguistically, culturally and ethnically far removed from the Pashtuns of the area. The locals want them off the land so they can reclaim it. We visited a school made of mud brick, a scene which I later worked into a story on dangers still faced by women and girls who want to teach and learn.
The locals, or at least the children, did seem at ease with the British troops, who dismounted from their armoured vehicles, took off their helmets and mixed it up. One non-commissioned officer especially surrounded himself with kids and kept them
giggling and repeating his gestures and noises. A year since they arrived, the British troops do seem to be doing a good job of engaging with the locals in the friendlier parts of town. One wonders if the goodwill is more than skin deep.