The Helmand project

Despite regular updates on military activity, it's rare to hear from soldiers directly – but a new exhibition gives them the chance to express hopes and fears with honesty. Terri Judd reports on groundbreaking work in Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

They are a raw insight into life on the frontline, a series of uncensored cards written by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Offered the opportunity to be anonymous, the troops' blunt impressions veer from the shockingly brutal to the mundane, from references to bloody battle to the monotony of daily tasks.

In one card, a medical officer talks heart-rendingly of a young man blown apart by a roadside bomb: "His eyes told the whole story – as wide as possible and conveying such a sense of bewilderment, uncertainty and terror that I shall never forget them."

In another, a soldier jokes that Afghanistan would be better referred to as Dustistan and chats about rugby games and "crystal-clear night skies". But he says his abiding memory will be of a tiny act of kindness by a local: "A farmer who one day took me by surprise by asking after my family, 'You are far from home. You must miss your family very much. We are very grateful'."

The cards were collected by artist and former Parachute Regiment officer Derek Eland, an expert in socially engaged art, during a month visiting members of 16 Air Assault Brigade in small patrol bases and checkpoints in Helmand earlier this year. "I had to take the same risks as them but it put me on a level playing field rather than just being some poncy artist that had turned up," he says.

Determined to avoid over-considered words and give the work some immediacy, he allowed the soldiers just 20 minutes to write before taking the cards back to create "diary rooms" in the forward operating bases.

"When I got back and I started to read them I realised there was something extraordinary going on here," he says. "They weren't just writing about how crap the food was or how much they hated the Taliban. Some wrote about friends who had been killed but they also wrote about home life. One compared his battle in Afghanistan to another battle at home, his mother's battle with cancer. They wrote the most profound things and with an intensity that bowled me over. It created a raw, honest self portrait of this conflict."

Covered with sand and weather stains, some written on sections of rations boxes, more than 400 cards have been brought home and will be displayed at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, from 1 October to mark the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. They have been written by soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment and 1st Battalion, The Irish Guards battle groups as well as attached units such as the bomb-disposal experts 23 Pioneer Regiment as well as local interpreters and Afghan National army troops.

Writing about battle, one reads: "Your mind clicks into a gear that you never knew you had and you bark orders like your life depends on it... and GUESS WHAT: IT DOES!"

Another soldier simply vents his frustration at health and safety officers who turn up at the frontline bases with their rules and regulations, asking: "Why have you not got a sign saying fire extinguisher above the fire extinguisher that's painted bright red with fire extinguisher written in bold white writing on it?"

The soldier continues: "I would really like someone to visit the Taliban and tell them to put signs on their pressure plate IEDs (bombs) as I am finding them to be a real hazard!"

Perhaps the most telling was written on a piece of yellow paper. It says: "It's the honesty of these stories that makes them important."



'In Our Own Words: Soldiers' thoughts from Afghanistan' runs from 1 October to 24 June 2012 at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

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