The Afghanistan You Never See

Posted on Thursday 24th May 2012


We have been involved in Afghanistan for almost 11 years now, and it has become commonplace to see images of the war back here. But generally those images tend to be more about the negative side of the conflict there. Pictures of flag-draped coffins driving through Wootton Bassett or out of Brize Norton... a picture of a soldier smiling, but the caption underneath giving the date he died.
The media is filled with news stories about the war. About the number of casualties, about 'green-on-blue', about heroes fighting to recover from terrifying injuries. Afghanistan is often seen as a negative news story, without any positives. Only questions and doubts. But for the people who go there, the vast majority come home without injuries. And the story of what they actually 'do' out there is lost amid the shouting of the rest of the agenda-driven coverage. And something else is missed. How people live out there. How the British troops on the ground go about their day-to-day work. How they live, eat, sleep. Where they go, who they speak to, what they talk about. And the good that they do out there.
Not just the kinetic effect of an operation clearing an area of the Taliban insurgents. But the hearts and minds of fighting a counter-insurgency. In Afghanistan, the people are the prize, and everything that is done by British and other international troops there, is about winning the people. Because the only way to beat an insurgency is to kill the support for it. This is done day on day, hour on hour, by the troops out there. And there are countless stories and events that bring joy and happiness to Afghanistan. But they are never seen by the people back here. Whilst troops are supported in all they do, the clamour of 'What are we doing out there?' and 'Bring our boys back home' drowns out these stories. Sadly, the majority of the British population that supports the lads and lasses on the ground have no real insight into the story of the war out there; the story that is Afghanistan.
It is much more than bodies being repatriated and Help 4 Heroes. It's about people making a difference. It's about people having fun. It's about people doing something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. I am not downplaying the bad things that do happen out there, but I am saying that the news media in the UK simply doesn't have the time, the space, the inclination or the agenda to tell the good stories too. Good news doesn't really sell a newspaper.
And that is why Antony Loveless, a journalist and author who has done several 'imbeds' with British forces in Afghanistan, decided to post a few pictures telling those good news stories, to the social media site Twitter. To allow him to keep track of them in them – pictures can easily get lost on Twitter – he invented the hash-tag '#TheAfghanistanYouNeverSee'. And then one bank holiday weekend he asked me (@RAFAirman) to re-tweet a couple of them. I looked at them, and his reasons behind them and fully supported the idea. Through my blogs of my time out in Afghan, I tried to tell the same story. But words require a lot of effort for people to invest their time in whereas pictures get thousands of words across in just a few seconds.
I had over 750 pictures that I took whilst out on deployment. Many of them the same sort of images that Antony had posted, and so I thought I would join in and post a few of mine on there. Several weeks later, and with over 875 pictures posted onto Twitter by many, many different people, the general consensus is that word is being spread about the good that is being done. There is a huge appetite for these pictures; for views of the life of a deployed serviceman in a Patrol Base or a Check Point in Helmand, for images of what they see day-to-day, from their viewpoint. Not biased by an agenda. Not filtered through a professional's lens. But instead, images of a war, from the views of those involved in it. Here are just a few of my images that I shared on the hash tag. I can tell you that getting down from 750 to just 12 was a difficult job...

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This was taken outside a small check point in Narh-e-Seraj (NES) district of Helmand Province, in late March, early April 2011. We were holding a Shura (meeting) with the elders of the local village, discussing potential building projects, generally shooting the breeze. Some of the elders brought their children along, knowing that we always provided a bit of food for the Shura... just the spare bits from our ration packs – nuts, boiled sweets, biscuits and occasionally chocolate. Here, a three year old girl, just slightly older than my own daughter has bagged a chocolate bar. I was captivated by her face and taken by her dyed red hair, which was almost translucent in the early summer sunlight. I was taken also by the similarities between her and my own daughter, and then the differences. 5,000 miles away. A million miles away. It may as well have been another planet.
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Operation Barma is the IED clearance drills. This picture was taken as the sun went down, not far from CP Jeker in NES (South), in early september 2012. Here a rifleman has a heavy load of a machine gun, ECM and then has to carry out the Barma drills by sweeping his Valon metal detector in front of his path. The Taliban had taken the offensive and were targeting our ground supply routes and so it was decided that all roads and tracks to be driven down by a convoy were to be proved first. We sent a patrol out to clear the road for the Huskey convoy that was bringing a small supply replenishment to the CP. Being out there as the sun set, clearing the route, and then seeing the convoy pass by is a memory that will stick with me forever. I hated being outside in the dark. Hated it. And as we trailed back in, the lights of the CP in the distance were more than comforting.
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I was deployed to NES (S) as part of the Military Stabilisation Support Team. Our job was to facilitate reconstruction and development. One of my best jobs was to help and monitor the building of a school just outside CP Jeker. It was a difficult job, as Afghan construction can be 'challenging' and their building and working methods can be equally as 'challenging'. Here, taken toward the end of August – as Ramadan slowed work – a young man sits on the wall of the school as the roof support beams were put in place. The walls – essentially brick, covered with a mud and straw mixture over the top – were built in traditional Afghan style, meaning the classrooms would be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. This would be the first school built in Jekers Area of Operations. Previously the only education had been in the Mosques, which were simple reading lessons so that the children could learn to read the Koran. Very few children actually learnt anything. The provision of a school meant several things, not the least showing the locals that the government of Afghanistan actually existed and cared about them.

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As high summer hits the Green Zone, the poppy harvest that Afghanistan is so famous for is brought in and the farmers move on to the next crop. The biggest cash generator for the farmers around NES (S) after poppy is corn or maize. This is the bog standard, corn on the cob stuff you can get as a side dish in KFC. Before I went to Afghan, I had no idea how it was grown. Now, I know it only too well. It grows to about 7-10 feet tall, in massive fields, sown by hand so it becomes basically a jungle. To irrigate the crop, the fields are regularly flooded, making them deep quagmires of thick, sticky, foul-smelling mud. Because of the threat of IEDs and ambush, patrols rarely stick to the roads. Setting a pattern of a route means that the insurgents will try their luck. So to vary routes and patrols, a multiple out on the ground will cut directly across a field – and directly through the growing corn. Inside the corn at its full height – in the Afghan summer – it is like hell on earth. The fields are massive and you literally have to plough your way through the corn to get anywhere. You are beaten by the branches and stalks. Tripped by the roots. Whipped by the leaves. And the heat. The humidity. Like a sauna developed by the most evil sadist you can imagine. You slog through the mud, sweating under the weight of your patrol kit. Quite simply the worst thing I have ever done. The corn is the worst place in the world.
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Sergeant Alex Ford (@RAFAirman).

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Travel by road is dangerous, and slow, so to move people about, and particularly to get them in and out of Camp Bastion, the majority of the moves are done by Helicopter. Here a Merlin crewman realises I have my camera out and assumes the position of coolness on the ramp door. I took this as I returned to Bastion to start my R&R in the beginning of June 2011.
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This broke with the theme of the hashtag, but I thought it was an important image to share. Here, on 24 May 2011, a Cpl in B Coy, 1 Rifles, initiated an IED. But he was lucky in that it was 'just' a partial detonation and the main charge of the bomb didn't explode. Instead of losing legs and arms, the blast shattered the bones in his foot and ankle. I am not totally sure that 'Lucky' is the right word to describe the incident – but if you do step on and activate an IED then the best you can possibly hope for is to have a partial detonation and to 'just' have broken bones and not to lose a leg. He is still receiving surgery for the damage to his foot almost a year to the day after the explosion.
The fact that it was only a partial detonation of the IED led to confusion at first with the first shout after the explosion being Contact UGL (Underslung Grenade Launcher) rather than IED. It was only when someone shouted 'IED Man Down' that it became clear what had happened. The lad involved would not and could not believe that he hadn't lost his foot until we propped him up to show him his foot was still there. This picture was taken about 10 minutes after the explosion, after the medics had started treating him and we were waiting for the MERT heliocopter to come in and pick him up. He'd asked for morphine for the pain, and it was just about starting to kick in. Because of the morphine and the fact that he'd NOT lost his leg, he was starting to be a lot more relaxed. As were we.After the MERT had taken him away I walked slowly back to the patrol multiple and stood next to where the IED had been planted. All that was availbale to be seen were two thick white wires sticking out of the ground and a small crater. The really lucky thing was that our multiple had missed the site of the IED. We'd crossed a ditch and turned left to go down a hedgeline, HIS patrol multiple had crossed the ditch and gone right over the hedge. It was going right that had meant his patrol passed the site of the IED and caused him to set on the trigger. If anyone was lucky that day, it was me and our patrol.
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This is a shot from early in the tour in April, in a small remote Check Point, manned by E Coy III Para. We'd patrolled down to the Check Point and the Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) was updating our position and our intentions over the net to the air cover we had that day - an Apache attack helicopter. As he passes on the information to the pilot, he is 'attacked' by the compound dog. The puppy does the same as puppies the world over... mauls and bites the JTAC's boots. The puppy was a lovely bit of morale for the lads in the CP.
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This picture was taken in May 2011. One of the jobs I had to do was verify claims of damage by Local Nationals who said that ISAF and British Forces had damaged their property. A very influential landowner had claimed that his compound had been used by the British as a Check Point, although there was no record of this on the database. I was tasked with recce-ing the compound and carrying out a survey. The compound was severely run down and in a very bad state of repair, but it was impossible to see if the damage had been caused by British occupation or by the squatters who had moved into the empty compound. The buildings had once been very luxurious for the area, but it was in a very sad state of repair. I had an insight into how poor Afghans lived. It was, to be honest, horrific. The worst slum-like conditions I had ever seen. In amongst this children lived and played. It was their home. Somewhere I didn't even want to spend an afternoon in was where they lived.
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Taken in the Check Point Jeker Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) in May 2011, this Merlin comes in to bring in visitors to the CP. Most of our resupply was done by road, with only a small element done by helicopter. However, pretty much all personnel moves to and from Bastion were done by helicopter.
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One of the constant stories that come out of Afghanistan is all about the poppy growing. It is difficult to image the scale of the poppy growing though. There are massive fields of poppy and, although it is obviously illegal, in the backwaters of Helmand, where government influence is sporadic to say the least, it is a massive part of the local ecomomy. That said, each year it is discouraged and the Government-led eradication of the crops gains strength. The farmers take more and more of a chance and risk when planting poppy, and each year the amount of poppy growing that is wiped out by the Government tractors increases. But still the poppies are grown.It is a very labour intensive farming process and this picture taken in April/early May 2011 shows a young lad of about 12/13 telling my interpreter how the poppy is milked. Each individual flower is scored with a specially shaped cupped knife and the sap that runs from it is collected as the raw opium. The poppy fields are beautiful. Beautiful and yet so sad. This is a crop that causes nothing but bad. The farmers are often pressured into growing it by their landlords who take a hefty tax on the income. The Taliban also tax the farmers on it, and then of course the crop can be just wiped out by the Afghan Government without any compensation, leaving the farmer without an income. And then of course there is the social effect that the poppy and the opium have, both in Afghan and in the intended destinations. The farmers are cajoled, persuaded and influenced to grow ANYTHING other than poppy – and there is a wheat seed distribution programme each year which tries to get people to plant wheat instead of poppy. Again, this grows year after year, but the scale of the poppy harvest is massive. It will take a while for the influence of the government to make a real difference on the crop planting.
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There is only one real hope for the future of Afghanistan. That is by educating our children. This was told to me by a local elder on the day I left the Check Point. We had spent a lot of time and effort in helping the locals build a school nearby. It was only small, but would be the first state school, run by the Ministry of Education, in the area. This is a major step forward. And one that the locals welcome. They see that the future IS all about education. And they are all very keen to send their children along to the school as soon as it is open. Here the walls and floor of the building are not even dry and the children are in the classroom.

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