As the war against the Taliban continues to rage, what is life in Afghanistan really like?
Saturday 28 July 2007
The women and children have long gone. In the searing heat of the day, only bare-chested, bearded men remain, relaxing in the shade of shattered buildings with their rifles at arm's length. Warriors at rest.
Arriving at the frontline base in the town of Garmsir, in Afghanistan's most troubled province of Helmand, is strangely evocative of a scene from an old Wild West movie: one showing the exhausted aftermath of a battle. But closer inspection of this scene reveals an array of painted emblems – as colourful as the tattoos that adorn the men's bodies – the cap badges of historic British regiments.
The walls bear testament to the men who have passed through the gates of the base. The names of those who have served and survived, "lived the dream" as the soldiers would say, are inscribed for posterity. Next to them are tributes to those who never went home – informal but heartfelt memorials, painted by their friends, which "illustrate the soldiers' undying humour and character", says Major Jason Clarke, Padre of The Light Dragoons.
In the past eight months, three soldiers and two marines have been killed in the Garmsir area but many more have been wounded. FOB (Forward Operating Base) Delhi is at the sharp end of Afghanistan's frontline, a tiny camp that, along with the nearby Eastern checkpoint, has been repeatedly attacked by the Taliban since the British moved in last year.
It is a harsh and ugly environment – a collection of broken buildings, shipping containers and military hardware with fortifications and observation posts at every turn. But throughout there are personal touches in the shape of family photographs, children's drawings, pictures of half-naked women torn from magazines, and flags proclaiming allegiance to different football teams.
This is the image people back home rarely see of the on-going war in Afghanistan – the lull between the battle, the ingenuity of soldiers who have created a home from a wasteland, and made small luxuries out of scraps.
The camp was once an agricultural college, though its present-day incarnation could not be further from the verdant image that conjures. Sand like talcum powder, at times ankle-deep, covers every arid inch, throwing up a film of dust that permeates the smallest crevice, the most remote corner and, inexplicably, even the most air-tight of containers.
In furnace-like temperatures, thirst is constant. Yet bottled water, like everything else that has to be airlifted or brought in by convoy, is strictly rationed. "To keep the water cool, an old sock is the favourite top tip, dampened and placed round the water bottle. As the liquid evaporates, the water inside the bottle is cooled," says Rev Clarke. After their one bottle a day has been consumed, the men must content themselves with the foul-tasting chlorinated water, made more palatable by the addition of flavoured powder, or "screech" as they call it.
Washing facilities are even more restricted. The inhabitants of FOB Delhi can only dream of the luxuries, like a tiled bathroom, they enjoy back home. Instead, they lug Jerry cans of water for their ablutions. Carefully limited amounts are poured into washing bowls, or a couple of solar showers surrounded by basic wooden shelters. Momentarily, they savour being cool and clean. But the sensation is all too brief as they emerge to be immediately enveloped in dust and dirt once more.
The basic showers can also provide unexpected entertainment, as Rev Clarke explains: "The problem is that if the mortars fire, the wooden doors can fly off, exposing the individual to the full glare of public scrutiny – usually a cause of much hilarity."
The limited water, however, results in one particular bonus. For once, the constraints of military life are cast aside and shaving is not required. Gleefully unhampered by rules, not to mention wives and girlfriends, the men grow beards – the bushier the better.
While women do serve in frontline bases, camps like this remain male-dominated places. Life may be basic in the extreme, but for some it provides a rare opportunity to savour a semi-feral existence. The rules and regulations that govern FOB Delhi are there to safeguard life and limb. There is no appetite for petty regulations.
Inside the camp, the men only have to wear the hot, heavy body armour – their blood type clearly visible in case of injury – when taking their turns manning the observation posts, or during an attack. But as they return from patrols, like heavily laden turtles, sweating under the oppressive burden, they strip the armour and helmet with relish. Soldiers – who in other camps would be berated for failing to wear their berets – wander about in shorts and flip-flops. The dress code is strictly casual.
Within its walls, FOB Delhi is a small slice of Britain. Around it, however, is some of the most hostile territory in Afghanistan. With a little imagination, one can just about picture the bustling bazaar that used to surround the camp. A small minaret, belonging to what once must have been a mosque, is encircled by the remains of little shop fronts. They are empty now, their occupants having long deserted this lethal patch of land near the Helmand river. As often as twice daily, FOB Delhi is targeted by small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades or mortars. Each offensive is ferociously rebutted.
At one of the southernmost points of the British area of operations, the Garmsir region is heavily infiltrated by enemy fighters, a key junction where new insurgent recruits coming over the border are "blooded" in battle before moving north to the commercial centre of Gereshk and the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah. Over time, the fortified enclave of FOB Delhi has been passed from the Royal Marines to the soldiers of 12 Mechanised Brigade, who took over this spring. Until recently it was also home to a company of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; now soldiers from the 1st Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, have moved in.
Work is incessant and weekends do not exist. Days and nights merge as the men head out on patrols or take part in operations. Away from battle, life has a Groundhog Day quality, monotony laced with small treats, inventive indulgences, constant jokes and banter.
"The morale of the blokes is high, which is surprising looking at the conditions the lads are living in," says Sergeant Will Craig of the brigade's combat camera team, who took the pictures on these pages. "There are different cap badges working on the base and they've all made a little home for themselves. The place reminds me of The Alamo."
In their down-time, servicemen play cards, read one of the well-thumbed and out-of-date newspapers, devour books or listen to music and the news on the radio. First-aid drills are practised. Hours are spent cleaning weapons and equipment. In a world where everything else can be destroyed by sand, it's essential that rifles remain in pristine working order.
Miles to the north, at the sprawling main British base of Camp Bastion, air-conditioned tents and internet services are provided. But in the frontline posts, life is a lot more spartan. Basic gyms spring up with skipping ropes, weights made out of ammunition boxes on metal pickets and punch bags suspended from beams – Operation Massive they call it.
In the heat of the day, some simply retire to their cot beds, encased in mosquito nets, to rest. As Rev Clarke explains, "sleep is a most important part of life as the daily routine can be quite punishing, with night-time patrols and the frequent contacts [attacks] at the observation posts. The daytime heat can also be very oppressive and so a siesta is a wise move."
Throughout the day, there are the ubiquitous brews – tea and coffee, often of such dire quality that they are indistinguishable from each other. Sustenance comes in the shape of ration-pack meals, boil-in-the-bag corned-beef hash or Lancashire hot pot, cooked on open fires and laced with bottled sauces to add variety.
Occasionally treats from home enliven the daily menu. "The camp always comes alive when the mail turns up with letters from their loved ones," says Sgt Craig. Post reaches FOB Delhi barely fortnightly, but each delivery is greeted with unabated delight.
"A quiet descends over the camp while letters are eagerly read and re-read and parcels opened. Sweets and treats from home are shared out and talk of home fills the air," adds the Padre.
The soldiers' only other contact with spouses, parents or children waiting on tenterhooks back in the UK, or at bases in Germany, is the 30 minutes they are allowed on the satellite telephone each week. Soldiers crouch in corners of the camp, seeking a better signal or a rare moment of privacy as they attempt through the crackle to reassure relatives, or simply to catch up on the everyday matters of a world that seems light years away – birthdays that must be remembered, household bills paid, or sports results celebrated.
At night, the camp descends into a darkness lit only by small red-filtered torches. There is some respite from the temperatures, but the ramshackle buildings hold in the heat and many opt to sleep outside.
Away from artificial light, the constellations dazzle as shooting stars dart across the sky. The light show, however, is set to a sound spectacular. The almost incessant thunder of artillery or mortar fire in the distance provides a backdrop to slumber. Sometimes, though rarely, it stops.
And that silence, in the words of Sgt Craig, is golden – another luxury.
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