Sunday, December 21, 2008

Afghanistan in November 2008...

*** THE TALIBAN had been talked into a ten-day ceasefire across one stretch of desert, allowing farmers to collect their crops without being bombed or shot at.
This pact was a breakthrough for British and Afghan forces at the nearest, lonely 'patrol base' just south of the volatile Afghan town Musa Qala.
But their 1 RIFLES comrades just a few miles to the north were not so fortunate – suffering two British casualties in just a matter of days.

The two injured men were both rushed by helicopter to the main hospital at Camp Bastion, then flown home to England.
The northern patrol base's Captain Richard Ham, 28 and from Chippenham in Wiltshire, said: 'It's been a bit of a tough week – but that's the job.
'It doesn't matter how good you are, sometimes unfortunately you end up taking casualties.
'Morale is still fine. We all sat down and had a chat – to learn if there were any lessons about what to change in the future, but also so I can have a look at everyone and how they're coping.
'Check there's no one left sitting alone in a corner.
'It is difficult. This has put a bit of stress on us, but they realise there's nothing they can do about it.
'They have a job to do and we're going to crack on in the typical British Army way.'
Military leaders here insist they have progressed during the past year, both liberating Musa Qala from enemy control then driving bands of Taliban into increasingly remote hideaways.
Many of the enemy fighters remain elusive – scuttling incessantly between refuges, in between opportunistic and devil-may-care attacks with mines or ancient rifles.
'They're losing 99 out of 100 battles,' claimed 33-year-old Captain Richard Keane, from Londonderry in Northern Ireland, second-in-command in Musa Qala.
The remnants of the Taliban platoons, look to be struggling for support and for cash – hence the growing reliance on illegal poppy trading and taxing.
But they can still pose a danger, whether in 'firefights' between troops or the so-called 'night letters' posted on locals' front doors, threatening murder – sometimes carrying out these vows, often killing respected community figures, to 'send out a message'.
Rifleman Josh Carpenter, 18 and from Yeovil, said: 'The battles there are don't last very long – the Taliban tend to just shoot, then disappear.
'I was nervous at first, but then I came out here and got used to the routine.'
The southern patrol base occasionally finds itself spattered by a sniper, about 500 metres away – though without any men being caught in the crossfire.
The harvest truce with the Taliban came after complaints that local farmers would be unable to collect wheat and maize harvests in a 600m stretch between Coalition and Taliban positions.
The patrol base's Captain James McCarthy, 27 and from Newton Abbot in Devon, said: 'The ceasefire did make it slightly easier going, at such an important time.
'The corn has been 7ft high here, making it a regular Green Zone, and luckily the locals have been able to benefit from it – the ceasefire has held for a few days longer than just the ten.'
The Afghan landscapes make this a dramatic setting for the British troops, pleased to have left behind the featureless desert expanses of arrival point, Camp Bastion.
'You don't really get this sort of sight in Birmingham or Manchester, that's for sure,' pointed out 33-year-old Sergeant Will Webb, from Exmouth in Devon.
'It's the most beautiful thing I think I've seen,' he added, against a gleaming blue skyline where spiky Mount Musa Qala spears up through the dust, a little hazily as if a desert mirage.
1 RIFLES' main man in Musa Qala, Major Charlie Grist, 33 and from Chepstow, added: 'Afghanistan is beautiful – and 99.9 per cent of the people here are so friendly and delightful.
'And hugely hospitable – despite their own lack of possessions.
'Then there's the less-than-one per cent out there want to make everything miserable.'
Just a few hours after Captain McCarthy's talk of the harvest ceasefire, gunfire and mortar explosions were echoing across the desert again, the Taliban having abruptly decided to get going again.
No Brits were hurt in the exchange of fire, and after 14 thudding blasts, the air turned quiet again – waiting, slowly yet persistently, for a larger, lasting truce.


*** THEY barely had time to begin adjusting to Afghanistan's boot-melting heat and suffocating dust when sent to urgently relieve a stranded town taken by the Taliban.
Their British colleagues, Afghan National Army fighters and many impoverished families had to be airlifted supplies before 1 Rifles snipers arriving on the scene could help break the Taliban stranglehold of Nad-e-Ali.
All the while, the S Company men who had only just arrived for their six-month posting were at risk of what they called 'fearsome' rocket or sniper fire from the closest of quarters.
But finally they did make it through, reopening access to the beleaguered Helmand town of Nad-e-Ali and surrounding villages from which farmers and families had fled the Taliban in fear.
Nad-e-Ali had previously been won by the ANA and International Security Assistance Force troops, only for the Taliban to regain control in recent weeks.
The Taliban occupation cut off all major approaches to the town and surrounding villages, isolating an ANA-held base where some British soldiers were also staying.
Several hundred villagers had either been forced to abandon their homes and find desperate shelter in the countryside – or remain stranded within the Taliban's domain.
This raised alarm that vital food and other supplies would be blocked from reaching those in need, while putting regulation ANA patrols at increasing risk of attack.
Enter S-Company, made up of skilled snipers and machine-gun operators – but with ages ranging from late-teens to early-40s.
Their task was to break through Taliban defences, restore access to the area – especially from the strategic base of Lashkar Gah – and restore some sense of 'normality' to Nad-e-Ali.
The sight of farmers returning to their crops, just in time for harvest, and the sound of children on their way back to the region's one school was satisfaction enough at the end of the fortnight-long mission.
But first the men were put through some immensely testing experiences, they recalled while recovering back at Camp Bastion.
Among the most heart-pumping moments were the occasions when British soldier and Taliban insurgent came virtually face-to-face.
The British forces may be eager whenever possible to pursue a 'hearts and minds' approach aimed at engaging with locals, rather than fomenting gratuitous conflict.
But in such circumstances, they insist their only option is to be ruthless – knowing the Taliban are hardly likely to think twice given the chance.
One rifleman, describing his colleague's close-range encounter, said: 'The enemy appeared round the corner, raised his rifle and he had to be shot.
'It's self-defence. They don't usually get that near, obviously, because they're cowards – but in this case, there was nothing else to do.
'Often they will hide in civilian-populated areas, take over farmhouses or homes, because they want us to fire back and kill civilians – but we don't do that.
'But when you're on patrol, they come round a corner and you're looking at each other, a professionally-trained soldier knows what the situation demands.'
More often, the 45-minute enemy bombardments would come from between 200 and 1,000 metres away, often from three separate sides.
The attacks would invariably be met by British under-slung grenade launchers, sniper shots or hand-carried machine guns.
Captain Ellis said: 'The enemy are quite skilled fighters – but they're not very accurate. We're trained professional soldiers, and we responded robustly and neutralised their positions.'
The weight of the weapons needed, along with radio equipment and all other kit, could be a heavy burden aside from the fighting – especially when forced to move forward on foot, in midday temperatures of up to 40 degrees.
But the S-Company men were pleased to be sent into action so early in their recently-begun six-month posting to Afghanistan.
Lance Corporal John Cain, 23 and from Alton in Hampshire, said: 'We just wanted to get involved – that's what I'm here for, to close in on the enemy and do my job.'
Their victorious arrival at the isolated Nad-e-Ali base – after about a week - was certainly welcomed by those forces stationed there.
Captain Andy Ellis, 28 and from Sandhurst and a leading S-Company member, said: 'They weren't in imminent danger of attack, but it was certainly getting more dangerous for them to patrol. We needed to restore control.'
The operation involved about 35 Brits on the ground, 80 ANA troops and 40 members of the Afghan National Police.
While both Afghan units suffered 'a couple' of casualties with 'minor wounds', Captain Ellis said there were no injuries among the Isaf forces – and was unable to estimate the Taliban dead.
Throughout their time in Nad-e-Ali, the troops were unable to contact family and friends back home because no phone lines or email systems were available.
Sgt Ashton, 33 and from Tewkesbury, acknowledged his wife and two children would be worrying about his safety, but while missing them he insisted he was not finding life away from home too distressing – yet.
'We've been here just seven weeks and not got to that stage so far,' he said.
'For them, though, I know it's just six months of waiting.
'They can try to get on with their lives but in the back of their minds, they're always going to be worrying “Is he okay?” and “Where is he now?”
'In Nad-e-Ali we couldn't get on the phones at all, to reassure them. You just have to hold on until you're back to some static base and make a call to say “Sorry about that.”'
Captain Ellis added: 'Perhaps it's harder for our families – we've still always got a team of friends around us at all times.'
But the men here were keen to send one more message home – urging the British public to keep the faith, albeit patiently.
An Army-commissioned poll last March suggested only 41 per cent of Brits agreed with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though 87 per cent backed the troops.
Captain Ellis said: 'The public support is great. We get sent so many parcels – too many, apparently.
'And there's no greater feeling back home than to have someone pat you on the back in the pub and say, “Well done”.
'I think people back home need to realise we're going to be in Afghanistan for a long haul.
'It's not an in-and-out job -we're here to ensure that the Afghan people get their country back to some sort of normality, and we're also here to ensure they can do it by themselves.'
Sgt Ashton added: 'For us now, we're just waiting for the next job to call – wherever our Afghan battalion goes, we will too. We're always packed and ready to go.'

*** THE BOY aged ten was still alive – just about – after taking a Taliban bullet to the head when the Chinook swooped down and paramedics scrambled out.
But despite the best, swiftest efforts of the British crews sent to attend the bloody scene on the fringes of Afghanistan's Helmand Province, they could not quite save him.
En route to hospital back at Camp Bastion, the Afghan boy died from the wounds inflicted by insurgents in Sangin – his bemused father by his makeshift bedside.
'The dad was overwhelmed by it all – partly just from being in a helicopter for the first time,' recalled helper Lance Corporal Mathew Davies.
They are certainly imperious in both appearance and equipment, the British Chinooks based at Bastion but on call to aid any casualties, at any moment and of any nationality, across Helmand province.
But equally vital are the British medical experts employed upon these military air ambulances, having just faced perhaps their busiest summer since arrival in Afghanistan.
These incident response teams (IRT) comprise not only a paramedic, a doctor and a nurse for every call-out, but also one of two support units constantly on call.
Often these back-up protection officers will be queueing in the cookhouse when rushed out on duty, aiming to meet an unofficial target of rescuing a casualty and transferring them to hospital within an hour.
Among the toughest experiences are incidents like last weekend's in Sangin, where they were faced by the agonising loss of the ten-year-old's life.
Lance Corp Davies, 30 and from Taunton, said: 'We never really know the details of exactly what's happened, but it can be upsetting enough to see the results.
'You just have to stay calm and do what's needed. But the toughest ones to deal with are injured children, or your own men.
'The ten-year-old had a bullet wound in his head. Sadly there was no way he was going to survive.
'Picking up the children can be among the toughest things about the job.'
Lance Corporal Lee Wilson, 24 and from Shrewsbury, added: 'Now and then we come across one of our own blokes – touch wood, not too often. You don't want to be seeing too many of them.'
Flight Sergeant Gavin Carr, a 31-year-old paramedic from Bedlington in Northumberland, insisted most casualties taken on-board survived the journey to hospital.
'We don't tend to lose too many in the air,' he said.
The 100ftx60ft aircraft, offering 30ft of cabin space, generally has room for four stretchers and several more walking wounded.
However, Flt Sgt Carr promised: 'We'll try to take as many as we possibly can, as many as we can fit in.'
'It's similar in here to an NHS air ambulance, but obviously the kit has to be that bit more robust – to cope with extreme heat or extreme cold.'
He estimated they had been called to treat and pick up 180 casualties in August, and more than 100 in September – with at least two or three flights each day.
'This has been one of our busiest periods – perhaps the busiest summer seen so far,' he added.
Each Chinook on call-out is invariably covered by an Apache, among the Army's most advanced and expensive pieces of kit – and the helicopter recent reports suggest Prince Harry now wants to train to fly.


*** THE TALIBAN'S so-called 'holy war' is becoming more and more reliant upon – and complicated by – drugs.
Helmand province, now the focal point of British operations in Afghanistan, used to be among the most prosperous and stable regions of the country.
But nowadays the most thriving – while toxic – business is not the old silk trade that used to wind along the lush and fertile banks of the Helmand river.
Instead, the area is in thrall to the farming of poppy seed – and its conversion into heroin and opium, ruthlessly exploited by local drugs barons and, increasingly, the Taliban.
Despite any anti-drug strictures contained in the Koran, Taliban chiefs are well aware narcotics offer invaluable fund-raising potential – and power over impoverished local farmers, in a land where the average wage is $26 per month.
1 Rifles' Captain Dave Owen said: 'There was some talk of the Taliban stamping down on poppy-farming in their areas.
'But that's not happening – they realise they need it. They're becoming more a criminal force than religious.
'They tax poppy-farming – they need the money.
'They'll tax anything – they now tax electricity, claiming they're the ones providing it to places like Musa Qal'eh.'
Helmand province's governor Gulab Mangul appears determined to end the dependence on poppy-farming, winning widespread acclaim as 'a good man' from British military and government officials.
He has kickstarted a programme of donating free wheat seed, fertiliser and technical advice to farmers – backed by £4million in British aid, from a total pot for Afghanistan of £150million each year.
Now he is issuing an ultimatum – anyone caught still growing poppy instead of wheat face having their crops eradicated.
Capt Owen acknowledged: 'There's always been a debate about whether to eradicate or not.'
A possible pitfall is that 'a price may be paid in blood,' he said.
That is, many farmers are not paid by drug overlords for the poppy they have produced – but future harvests.
The promise of ready money in advance can be too tempting for some to resist, especially since droughts and rising global food prices have made day-to-day survival even tougher out here.
Afghanistan is thought to be the fifth poorest country in the world.
According to Whitehall officials, 12 per cent economic growth every year for the next two decades would still only bring Afghanistan level with the current wealth of Bangladesh.
The destruction of an entire crop, then, would leave some Afghan farmers not only without a livelihood – but also facing vengeance from local crime lords who seldom drop a grudge.
But British officials are optimistic about Afghan farmers realising the benefits of dropping the poppy and turning to less risky crops such as wheat or pomegranate.
The Department for International Development says guaranteed buyers are being found for farmers producing legitimate harvests.
And they say the number of poppy-free provinces has grown from six, to 13, to a current tally of 18 out of 32 – while poppy production in Helmand has apparently 'stabilised' now, after 'spiking' a year ago.
Any destruction of crops – or of the laboraties converting poppy into heroin or opium - would be carried out by the Afghan National Army rather than any British officers, DfID was also eager to insist.

*** THEY can rush headlong into landmines instead of running away or phone the Taliban with challenges of duels the next day.
They may be fighting on the same side, but the fearless – even reckless – fighting approach of the Afghan National Army can set English eyes popping here in hellish Helmand Province.
But while some Allied forces – British, American and others – are suspicious of the native 'warriors', those troops tasked to 'mentor' the ANA tell a very different tale.
Not for nothing are the 3/205 Brigade of the ANA, based at Camp Bastion, known locally as 'the hero brigade'.
Members of the 1 Rifles brigade, sent out to Afghanistan for a six-month posting starting in September, are the latest to take on responsibility for mentoring the ANA.
Giving the local forces the capability and the credibility to maintain stability in Afghanistan is seen as perhaps the most significant contribution Britain can now make.
This may take several more years to come to fruition, but the Rifles here insist it can be done – despite recent claims that Army top brass were now playing down or writing off the prospect of an Allied 'win'.
British commander Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith suggested in October the Allies were possibly 'not going to win this war' and may need to 'talk about a political settlement'.
But the hard-grafting Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams – known here as 'Omlets' – aim to 'reinforce the conditions for the defeat of the insurgency'.
To get there, they intend to have the ANA performing 'tolerably well' – not perfect, that is, nor a major military superpower.
But 'tolerably well' would represent a huge improvement on the old Afghan forces.
The Afghan military may have resisted the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s but have been plagued by corruption and cruelty.
Some of those now serving in the ANA either battled as part of the 'mujahadeen' resisting Soviet invasion, or supporting it.
Both the robust - and canny - instincts built up over years, even decades, of conflict still look strong, impressing their British mentors – some of whom as young as 18 themselves, winning plaudits for their own maturity and courage.
Captain Roy Jones, 40 and from Thetford, Norfolk, has just returned from an operation in Nad-e-Ali, where the ANA and Rifles had to airlift supplies and salvage a stranded base.
He believes many Allied troops under-estimate the Afghans, when they should be full of admiration – even if some of the methods still surprise.
He said: 'They come from a completely different cultural lifestyle to us – and that can be disorienting at first.
'We're talking about people who often can't read or write, and come from such poor, almost Biblical backgrounds.
'Any instructions over 20 minutes, and you've lost them. But they've got this terrific spirit – very righteous, in a way.
'They may not like driving a truck or cooking a scoff at night, but put the Taliban in front of them and they turn into Tasmanian devils.
'It's our job to rein them in a bit – at some point they've got to just stop killing enemy forces. We call it “herding cats”.
Where British troops patrol for landmines by cautiously identifying risks, seeing through drills and sometimes awaiting helicopter support, the Afghans will invariably sprint in, hacking the mine away.
This tactic may speed up proceedings – but the rate of survival unscathed is a mere four times out of five, according to Omlet chief Major Ben Tomkins.
Arduous though these British six-month postings undoubtedly are, many of the Afghan recruits have been unable to return home at all since joining the newly-formed ANA three years ago.
They certainly see at least their fair share of casualties, too.
Across Helmand province, Omlets have suffered two deaths and 27 injuries since April, while 42 ANA soldiers have died and 112 been wounded.
Then again, the Omlet forces have comprised 350 troops, compared to the ANA's 4,000.
The Afghans lack the body armour, arms and polished routines of their British counterparts – though more equipment is on its way, including compasses, mine detectors and MI6 grenade launchers to replace their treasured, but outdated, AK-47s.
But the local forces do possess the intelligence skills, experience and cultural awareness no one else can emulate, according to Maj Tomkins.
He recalled: 'Recently they shot a suicide bomber at 100 metres.
'A British soldier would never have the confidence to shoot at someone from such a distance, in a marketplace like that.
'But the Afghans were convinced – they'd seen this suicide bomber, dressed as a woman, and could tell his feet looked wrong, and he wasn't wearing his burqa quite right.'
Of course, their style can try the patience or set nerves jangling, too.
Sergeant Major Chris McLennan, 33 and from Margate, said: 'It can worry you a bit, when the Afghans are calling out the Taliban on the phone, telling them: “We'll meet you tomorrow at twelve for a battle.”
'They'll be taunting the Taliban as “infidels”, or insulting their mothers – basically trying to pick a fight with them.
'One of the most senior insurgents in Garmsir was arrested and he was found that night in the officers' mess, drinking chai and dancing to music because he was a senior man.
'But they don't hold much regard for the lower soldiers of the Taliban.'
No one need have any fears about the ANA's loyalties these days, though, Maj Jones insisted.
Their interpreters, too, are risking their lives or the disapproval of their families and communities to serve the Allies.
Major Steve White, 36, from Dunfermline, said: 'One of our “terps” told me his parents didn't know what he was doing – because if they did, they'd try to stop him straight away.
'I asked whether that wouldn't make it even tougher for them, if something did happen to him and they hadn't felt prepared at all.
'But he had the old “Inshallah” attitude they all seem to have to life and death - “whatever's God's will”.'
But Lance Corporal Dave Abbott, 29, from Bury St Edmunds, pointed out: 'They're all for us not getting hurt.'The chief beside me on drills wouldn't let me in front of him. It was like, it's their war, they want to crack on, and we're there to aid them if we can.'
Maj Jones added: 'These guys despise the Taliban – they hate them more than we do. Their families have been oppressed, or killed, by the Taliban – and they want them out.
'Our role is to show them we're here for the long haul to support them.
'When you've got such close contact with the Afghans you realise this isn't a mission that can be achieved overnight – but there is real progress we can make together.'


*** THEY crowd around chick flicks, grab the glossy fashion magazines and monopolise the moisturers.
But that’s enough about the men.
Being a woman at war here in Afghanistan means occasionally feeling a little out of place.
‘It’s a man’s life in the British Army’ may be long gone as a slogan.
Crucial roles are being played by female medics, education and communications staff.
Simple numbers, though, show how easy it can be for a woman to potentially feel isolated when surrounded by men in the infantry.
Not only do they form a tiny minority – sometimes someone may be the only woman at a base, surrounded by hordes of men, and hence seen as something of a novelty.
Some of these 1 RIFLES soldiers’ behaviour might come as slightly surprising, though, for those expecting relentlessly macho ‘Action Man’ stereotypes.
‘They’re always watching chick flicks or soap operas,’ revealed Captain Emily Peers, one of six women based at Musa Qal’eh in northern Helmand province.‘
And some of the boys use more toiletries, more moisturisers than the girls.
Royal Navy medical officer Lieutenant Julie Martyn added: ‘They also sneak a few looks at our girls’ magazines.
‘In fact, you could probably go to some of them for some pretty good fashion advice.’
Not that the modern military here has become a bastion of ‘political correctness gone mad’, mind.
Witness, for example, the pin-up posters and calendars on the walls, or the admiring murmurs whenever a woman appears on the communal TV – from haircare advert model to ageing actress.
But the quick camaraderie that invariably flourishes here ensures the only battle is with the Taliban, not between the sexes.
Of course, a few rules of engagement have to be laid down first.
Lt Martyn, 35 and from Rushden in Northamptonshire, said: ‘I’ve made myself a sign: “Female having a shower – go away!”’
Corporal Zoe Edwards has spent the past two-and-a-half months shuttling between Helmand bases, often as the only woman present and with no segregated facilities.
‘The boys just had to learn to stand well away when it was my turn in the shower,’ said the 25-year-old intelligence officer from Oswestry.
‘Often, though, it’s the boys who are bothered by it more than the girls.
‘I turned my back on them washing when I was cleaning my teeth – and they all just scarpered. You couldn’t see them for dust.’
But early awkwardness aside, the relationship becomes mutually beneficial – beyond the medics’ aid for battlefield injuries or ‘the normal coughs, D and Vs [diarrhoea and vomiting’ or “man-flu”.’
In a cramped camp, soldiers appreciate different company – and voices – to ease the stresses of recent violence, injured friends or simple boredom.
Corp Edwards said: ‘Some of them haven’t seen a girl for several months.‘They’re not trying to be sleazy – it’s just nice for them to speak to a girl.
‘Often they’ll want to keep talking all through the night, because they haven’t had female contact, female conversation, for so long.
‘Even just hearing a girl’s voice over the radio makes for a refreshing change.
‘And once you get to know them, you really become part of the family.
‘It was particularly tough for me in Kajaki, as the only woman there, faced by all these Paras, who hadn’t seen a female for ages.
‘I went into the cookhouse for my first mealtime and could feel them all, just staring at me.
‘I got my dinner down as fast as I could, and ran away.
‘But within a week I was going in there and having them all call over, “Come and sit with us, Zoe.”’
The female staff can not only be cheered by the welcome, and ‘banter’ –‘If you can’t cope with banter, you couldn’t be in this job,’ according to Lt Martyn.
They also feel reassured when part of drills, patrols or tours of surrounding areas, especially around Musa Qal’eh where the atmosphere remains fraught due to lurking Taliban threats.
‘Going on patrol, everyone’s very protective – “Be careful, be careful”,’ said 26-year-old Capt Peers, from Hereford and currently attached to Musa Qal’eh’s Gurkha regiment.
‘Some women might get a bit funny about that, thinking “I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself."
‘But this is my first operational tour and some of these guys are on their second or third or more, with so much experience and expertise and equipment. I appreciate any guidance.
‘I’m not too worried, generally, though – family back home tend to feel frightened more, thinking the worst.’
The dusty, grime-ridden grey-brown concrete camp does provide basic comforts – though Lt Martin described them as ‘the most basic I’ve known’.
‘You certainly miss hot water a lot of the time,’ said leading medical assistant Sally Rutley, 26, from Gosport in Hampshire.
She at least appreciates the regular contact provided with her fireman husband, just six months into their marriage after she spent four years at sea with the Navy.
Occasional treats are prized all the more.
Capt Peers said: ‘The currency for boys is cigarettes – for girls, it’s chocolate. There was a lot of excitement the other day when someone got hold of some Maltesers.’
And Corp Edwards, proud to keep in contact with her make-up and ear-rings, insisted: ‘You have to still be a bit girlie when you can.
‘I filed my nails the other day, for the first time in a while – and it felt so nice.’
Friendly and fulfilling companionship, in these lonely and testing times, can be crucial for military men and women alike.
‘It’s not until you get to sit down and have a conversation with a couple of girls that you realise how much you’ve missed it,’ Lt Martyn admitted.
‘All that’s missing is a good bottle of wine.’

*** LUCOZADE gel-guzzling mice, a blase lump of a cat watching over them, and a hot dog with a difference.
Little things like these can take on a little significance as British troops battle one of their most niggling enemies out here: boredom.
When not on patrol, either on foot or armoured vehicles, long stretches of the day can spread out slowly before soldiers, some of whom are on their first foreign tour with the Army.
Some have brought MP3 players, either to be used with headphones or broadcast to all – prompting good-natured taunts about musical tastes, any hint of ‘country and western’ a dangerous area.
Piles of glossy magazines provide both distraction and raunchy wallpaper for campbed-rooms shared by two or three men at a time.
Oh, and a few mice.
One particularly troublesome rodent has had 23-year-old Marine Adam Stokes bemoaning his bad luck, after burrowing its way into some of his supplies, at the main Musa Qala camp.
‘He’s munched his way through my Toblerone,’ revealed Mne Stokes, from Exmouth in Devon.
‘And he’s eaten all my white chocolate, which I like – but left all the orange creams, which I don’t. How did he know?’
It sounds like a case for ‘Jonesy’, a bulky ginger cat who struts the main base along with what may well be his more slender offspring.
In the living quarters, constant requests for ‘brews’ – rounds of tea and coffee – are made and met, sometimes accompanied by sweets sent by family and friends.
There are occasional complaints about the food provided in the cookhouses – though more often for lack of variety than quality.
Those working in smaller teams in the more remote patrol bases believe they eat better, cooking for themselves.
Lieutenant Chris Lawton, 27 and from Sheringham in Norfolk, told with pride of how his team had just made an oven from two ammunition tins, and were happily baking their own bread.
Sometimes they will be offered naan bread and chai tea by their new friends and colleagues in the Afghan National Army.
And back at larger bases like 1 RIFLES’ ‘Shorabak’ enclave at Camp Bastion, or at Lashkar Gah, the teams in charge of cooking take pride in providing the best and most varied they can.
Sometimes, however, the experimentation can leave a rather strange taste in the mouth – for example, a combination of blueberry muffin and sausage.
Other diversion may come from declaring a moustache-growing competition, producing a range from what can look like top-lip slivers of milk to dashing Flashman-esque swooshes.
Most of the youngest Rifleman, some just 18, opt not to join in, however – either unable to quite come up with the goods, or cowed by officials’ demands that everyone shave daily.
Premier League football – or rugby, if the Welsh and Fijiians of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards have their way – is on almost-constant rotation in the TV tent.
And Tottenham fan Sergeant Lee Jones, from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, even offered Army shirts in return for the battalion’s Afghan interpreters ceremonially burning their Arsenal tops.
But most significant in keeping up morale are perhaps the regular calls home to parents, wives or partners, and children – to many, cherished nightly or weekly rituals.
Lance Corporal Mark Campbell, 34 and from Chepstow, only rejoined the Army recently, after the age limit was lifted from 26 to 33 – having spent a year signed up as a teenager.
He finishing training for 1 RIFLES last December, and now finds himself on his first operational tour – having spent the past 12 years working in transport around Heathrow.
He said: ‘I knew what I was signing up for, when I rejoined the Army – I know the risks, but this is a better life for us as a family.
‘My son Matthew’s 13 now and I wanted to be able to put him into a decent secondary school at his age, which the Army pay now allows me to do.
‘He knows what I’m up to. He’s not really at the stage where’s he worried – he’s a typical 13-year-old boy, more concerned at times about going out with his mates and playing football.
‘But we talk regularly. My wife Michelle – of course, she’s worried. But she knows what it’s about.’

Sierra Leone in September 2008...






Smiling and serene Hannah Alpha deftly works her sewing machine, fresh out of school and looking without a care in the world.
Hard to believe that just a few years ago she was a drug-crazed, laughing killer – before even becoming a teenager.
Hannah was one of the child soldiers not only affected by, but thrust into battle during the West African country’s 11-year civil war.
Britain’s eventual intervention in the gruesome conflict remains, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, a Tony Blair military adventure generally approved by consensus.
And the likes of Hannah – survivors, though still scarred both physically and emotionally – are grateful for the progress brought by peace.
Prosperity, by contrast, may still be a distant dream – aid volunteers here express mild pride about the year Sierra Leone rose a place in the United Nations’ Human Development Index.
That is, off rock bottom.
But no amount of UN peacekeeping troops or pledges of Western – or, increasingly, Chinese – investment can quite cleanse Hannah’s mind of those horrific memories.
Above all, she is haunted by the day she found himself gunning down a wailing elderly woman in a neighbouring village.
Like many child soldiers – some as young as six – Hannah had been doped up on cocaine by her kidnappers, rebel militia backed by neighbouring Liberia and plotting to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government.
Some, like Hannah, were force-fed the drug – others had the powder smeared into freshly-cut wounds stretched across their faces.
Hannah, now 18 but only 11 at the time, said: ‘When I was on the drug, I just didn’t see people as human beings any more – they were more like just chickens running around.
‘I shot an old woman in her hut – as she was struggling, fighting to stay alive or to die, I was just laughing. I thought it was just a joke.’
Often the rebel fighters – led by wedding photographer-turned-guerilla Foday Sankoh – would force the captives to kill their own relatives.
The rampaging troops, backed in return for diamonds by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, burnt down villages, decapitated tribal chiefs, raped women and looted homes.
Hannah’s parents were slaughtered by rebels who stormed the key district of Kailahun, the area where the war had first erupted in 1991.
The eastern region is perhaps Sierra Leone’s most remote and forbidding, with ditches and rough terrain substituting for roads through dense, swampy jungle.
But its position just miles from borders with Guinea and Liberia offered Revolutionary United Front fighters handy bases from which to stir up support and launch ambushes.
Hannah recalled: ‘Both my parents were captured and killed.
‘I was left to drift between different relatives until the rebels came to take me away.
‘I was only about ten but they used to gang-rape me, and threatened to do away with me if I didn’t join them.
‘For about three years I was bearing a gun, a rifle.’
She was part of frequent raids on villages in the east of the country, looting for food and ammunition – and occasionally compelled to kill.
An awkward peace was finally reached in January 2002, partly thanks to the arrival of up to 16,000 UN peacekeepers – including 400 Britons, patrolling the capital Freetown.
But a nation-wide programme called DDR – disarmament, demobilization and reintegration – concentrated mainly on adult ex-fighters, ignoring many of the estimated 23,000 child soldiers and sex slaves.
The Red Cross, both in Britain and Sierra Leone, has been keen to set up Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation (CAR) centres across the country for 14 to 18-year-olds.
These offer literacy lessons, training and apprenticeships, and counselling – as well as continuing support for older adults.
Hannah has been one of the beneficiaries – but only having suffered several more traumatic years, even after peace was declared.
With no home or family to which she could return, she drifted into prostitution with friends desperate for any way to scrape a living.
Only a chance meeting with a long-time family friend introduced her to the CAR centre in the town of Kailahun – one of four the Red Cross runs, with plans for a fifth.
Tailoring lessons have given Hannah a new skills – and new hope for a future career.
Her wartime trauma still lingers – and one of the rapes left her with a baby daughter later seized from her and still missing.
Many of the teenage women enjoying cookery, carpentry, dancing or dress-making sessions with the Red Cross are accompanied by their own young ‘bush-babies’, the products of rape.
Youngsters who were attacked or saw their own relatives murdered in the war now find themselves mingling with those, like Hannah, who actually carried out killings.
But she insisted: ‘I try not to think about the things that happened, or the things I’ve done.
‘I was afraid for a while that a few people who were victims might see me now and be angry.
‘The woman I killed was from just a few villages away.
‘I think about her still sometimes – especially when I’m alone.
‘But at least I now have good work, which is helping me survive. I’m very, very happy about that.
‘The change in attitude and the skills I’ve learned – these are the two things in life that now please me most.’

Sierra Leoneans refer to their country’s bloody 11-year civil war using a creole word, ‘palava’.
If that sounds slightly comical and under-stated to English ears, then survivors’ reminiscences of coming under attack are anything but.
For all the confidently-expressed hopes for future peace, few were left untouched by the conflict and remain wounded physically, emotionally or both.
Victor Lahai still has seared across the back of his right calf the scar left by former friends who turned violently on their own village.
His crime was to refuse their demand he join their band of rebels and help carry looted food, guns and ammunition.
Among the group confronting him were former play-mates with whom he had grown up in the village of Nianoiahun, close to the border with volatile Liberia.
Victor, 24 now but 16 at the time, said: ‘I think the fact they knew me meant they decided not to kill me when I was captured.
‘But when I kept refusing to carry their luggage – or to join up with them, fighting the battle – they said they couldn’t let me go the way they’d found me. ‘That’s when they lay me on the ground and shot off the back of my leg.’
His brothers had earlier urged him to flee to dense surrounding bushland, when the militia first threatened their homes.
Now it was those brothers who came to his aid, the first to find him and carry him to a makeshift hospital.
He spent the rest of the war recuperating in a refuge camp at Gondama, one of several set up across the country to deal with some of the 2million people forced out of their homes.
About 75,000 Sierra Leoneans are thought to have died in the conflict.
Some of those who survived now tell their tales of brave defiance, relying on both luck and judgment to somehow escape with their lives.
John A Koroma, a chief in the southern village of Ngeyawamie, knew the RUF attackers had his name on a hitlist of those to be killed.
But when confronted when fleeing to the bush, he claimed his first name was not John, but Joseph.
Koroma is one of the most popular surnames in Sierra Leone – shared, for example, but current president Ernestr Bai and the RUF-sympathising ex-presuident Major General Johnny Paul.
John Koroma’s ruse worked – the 55-year-old remembered: ‘It was different to the name they had written down – so they let me go.’
Others were not so fortunate – shot or stabbed to death, amputated at the wrists or gang-raped.
Katimu Martin saw her father shot dead, five neighbouring homes burnt down and four people have their hands chopped off when the RUF occupied the southern village of Jombohun.
But she says she dodged a similar fate by daringly shoving aside a gun pointed at her.
The 40-year-old said: ‘My younger brother had urged me not to go outside because there were rebel forces all around.
‘But I didn’t listen. I came out, trying to rush around the house and towards the bush – but they followed me.
‘One of them cocked his gun, ready to fire.
‘I was sure I was about to die – but God gave a different answer. I managed to push the gun away and take the chance to run away.’
Like many escapees, she had to survive in Sierra Leone’s dense, swampy bushland – building vulnerable mudhuts, feeding on yams.
Others in the eastern region made it across the border to sanctuary in Guinea.

The bush provided a precarious safe haven for many of those who escaped RUF punishment.
Now it offers their best chance of survival in peacetime – the subsistence farming that accounts for much of Sierra Leoneans’ meager profits and nutrition.
Despite promises of technology and investment from abroad – increasingly, inevitably, China – agriculture still contributes an estimated 52.5 per cent of national income.
The country’s rich diamond resources may generate immense wealth – but largely for illegal smugglers or the foreign firms buying up mining land but paying native employees pitiful wages.
A cup of rice can sell at market for about 800 Leones, a measly 15p.
Yet this is more than double the price charged at the end of the war – and remains a considerable sum for villagers in a land where the average earning is less than a pound per day.
Red Cross activists estimate that in the southern district of Pujehun, about 50 per cent of children are malnourished.
Katimu Martin, 40, in the Pujehun village of Jombohun, said: ‘We’re no longer angry – just hungry.’
Red Cross projects are helping towns and villages – many left in ruins after rebel attacks – to slowly improve their sanitation, housing and farming prospects.
Gifts of seeds, help running micro-credit schemes and collective funds for emergencies and future harvests are offered by the charity’s Community Animation and Peace Support (CAPS) volunteers.
But rice harvests, integral to the local economy, remains vulnerable, especially during the summer rainy seasons and in the absence of adequate storage.
Sturdy homes, working wells and functioning toilets are also in short supply.
Nyanda Albert, a community leader in southern Ngeyawamie, said: ‘The priority here is a proper seed store.
‘We’ve been using a farmhouse but last year thieves came and easily made away with all the rice.
‘Another season the rains were particularly bad and destroyed all the rice we’d gathered.’
Other key produce includes palm oil, cassava, peanuts and laundry soap.
John A Koroma, chairman of Ngeyawamie’s village council, hopes all 12 of his children will complete their schooling but always remember, ‘whether they go off somewhere else or come back here: ‘agriculture is the backbone of this country’.
He added: ‘No agriculture, no food – so get used to it, I always tell them.
‘Even if you’re sitting in an office, one day you’ll come back home and realise – it’s all agriculture.’
As he said that, the villagers were already trooping out for another long day.
On foot, with tillers, planters and hoes in hand, cooking and storage pots balanced expertly on heads, babies wrapped tight in scarves around backs – back to the bush.

Kailahun is said to be where Sierra Leone’s civil war started – and where, 11 years later, it ended.
But despite six years of peace, the damaging legacy of war still looms over this desolate and poverty-ridden region.
With borders to both Liberia and Guinea, towns and villages in this eastern district were used as key entry points by rebel bands.
Revolutionary United Front forces were not only stirred up, but trained in return for diamonds by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor – now facing war crimes charges at The Hague.
Sierra Leone’s ruling All People’s Congress party was widely accused of corruption, but rival parties were repulsed by many of the RUF’s violent tactics – which included gang-rape, amputation and murder.
The rebels’ first ambushes were carried out in Kailahun district on March 23, 1991, ushering in 11 years of violence, instability and coups.
Ismail Foday, a senior tribal chief in Kailahun, said: ‘We still call it a senseless war – these rebels kept fighting, even when the original government was overthrown.
‘Our young boys are still suffering now – and I still don’t know why they got embroiled.
‘The rebels used to force cocaine into wounds on their face, pasting it into plasters, and turning these boys into bad men.
‘If told to go and tamper with their own mothers, they would do it.
‘But even after the war finally ended, there were very little help for them – many didn’t take the six-month demobilization period very seriously.
‘And those children returning from were left neglected and desperate.
‘We had gangs of thieves running rampant, and teenage prostitutes everywhere – girls on sale at 1,000 Leones (19p) for five minutes.
‘It was extremely difficult for us to control such behaviour.’
The arrival of the Red Cross and its Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation (CAR) centre in Kailahun has at least offered 150 children each year much-needed assistance.
They attend daily for literacy and numeracy classes, training in trades such as cookery, carpentry and tailoring, plus intensive trauma counselling.
Some of these pupils are former child soldiers – attending alongside others whose relatives were murdered by rebel invaders, or young girls who were raped.
Current pupil Lamin Brima, 18, still finds it difficult to forget or to forgive.
He vividly remembers the day his father, a town chief, was publicly executed after having his name called by RUF soldiers in Kailahun.
He himself managed to flee safely to Liberia, but now attends CAR clases alongside youngsters he knows may well have carried out rebel atrocities.
‘I know some of them now – when I see them it’s difficult not to feel angry again, because of the attacks they committed.’
Two-thirds of youths in Sierra Leone are thought to be unemployed, while persistent government corruption and the growing involvement of Latin American drug cartels also cause concern.
Mr Foday acknowledged: ‘This area is one deeply-populated by people drastically affected by the war.
‘But every time I now go to the CAR centre, I feel so much happier for Kailahun and its future.’



Tony Blair and Britain are seen as a significantly mixed blessing in the eyes of Sierra Leoneans.

Gratitude for the UK-dominated UN incursion that finally defeated and disarmed rebel militia is tempered by dismay at the perceived lateness of their arrival.

And a fellow-feeling based on historic national ties with Sierra Leone’s former colonial rulers is soured by misgivings about the abruptness of Britain’s withdrawal in 1961.

Sierra Leone’s renowned educational bases – including a university where Mr Blair’s father used to teach – won the country a reputation as ‘the Athens of Africa’.

But the disruption and devastation caused by the 11-year civil war ruined the country’s already-declining economy and infrastructure.

A UN-led force of 6,000 peacekeepers finally arrived in late 1999, eight years after fighting began – soon rising to 11,000 and 13,000.

An earlier collection of Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops had enjoyed only limited success against rebel forces trained and supported by Liberian president Charles Taylor.

The UN peacekeepers successfully claimed back occupied regions and disarmed Revolutionary United Force fighters in 2001, with peace declared in January 2002.

But Sierra Leone Red Cross co-ordinator Victor Fornah said: ‘Britain’s intervention was seen by many as too little, too late.

‘And there was certainly disappointment that efforts were only led in the first place by a small country like Nigeria.

‘But of course, overall, the move was welcomed – Britain had to mend some bridges, and did.’

He suggested Britain should have given more prominence to local leaders before handing Sierra Leone its independence in 1961 – then left more support in place, rather than remaining aloof.

President Siaka Stevens, who served from 1967 to 1985, was widely accused of human rights abuses such as rigging elections, corruption, suppressing independent media and executing political rivals.

But Mr Fornah added: ‘Sierra Leoneans feel especially pleased and reassured by the Queen’s promise that if any future coups are threatened, a British back-up force will be ready for action within 72 hours.’

And wartime survivor Katimu Martin revealed: ‘I only started getting over my fear of the war starting over again when I would see foreigners coming into our country.

‘They’re helping us and interacting – they’re interested in us.

‘It shows where we’re getting to, with the help of charities like the Red Cross – with that, we’re pretty sure there will no longer be war, just peace.’

Mr Blair visited Sierra Leone several times – and the second city, Bo, now boasts a school named the Tony Blair International Academy, which opened last month.

The former prime minister already had a family connection to the country – his father Leo used to lecture at the capital Freetown’s Fourah Bay College.

The university, founded in 1827, is the oldest in West Africa and a major influence in building Sierra Leone’s historic reputation for academic excellence.

English remains the country’s official language, used in schools and on radio – Sierra Leone’s most popular form of media.

But most of the population speak variations of Krio, a creole language containing shreds of recognisable English – the most commonly-used greeting is not ‘How are you?’, but ‘Ow di bohdi?’