WO2 Marc Lovatt, part of the Military Stabilisation Support Group, blogs for the last time from central Helmand province.
The operation to improve the standard of the road along the Patrol Base Line, known as Operation LMARIZ TUFAAN, has changed the topography of the landscape. Gone is the little copse of woodland 300m from our south wall. The abandoned mill has been turned into an abandoned brick pile, the little bubbling stream was… hell, where has that stream gone?
Now, may I explain… if a bunch of guys with heavy plant equipment are told that an area is in need of being cleared and they have a limited time to undertake this task, but if necessary may use explosives – well, what is the likely outcome?
Anyway, the Commander seemed happy with our new observational fields of vision and, after all, it would make sneaking up on us a lot harder for the insurgents; something they had been particularly astute at up until then!
The road progressed rapidly and was being used effectively on a daily basis. However, with all this ‘construction’ local farmers had eagerly been piling into our PB seeking compensation. This kept me very busy most of the time which, when you are on a six month tour living in a dusty sun-bleached compound, helps to pass the time quicker. The negotiations about land, crops, felled trees, irrigation ditches and so on were often pretty mundane. Farmers! I mean even, thinking about it, though we were discussing points through an interpreter, I could quite as easily have been me talking to any group of farmers anywhere in the world. They were just concerned about the land, crops and the welfare of their families. Some of the locals did make me smile though. One old chap, claiming for trees cut down by ISAF along a river bank some 30 metres long, claimed that we had destroyed 1000 trees! I asked him which section of the Amazon rainforest he owned? It turned out that his trees were willows and he was counting the branches. I paid him for six trees.
As the road took shape it was found that the engineers (good old lads) had blocked, albeit inadvertently, several irrigation ditches. Farmers arrived from further downstream with tales of drought-like conditions affecting their lands. I put the word out to the local villagers that I needed some able-bodied guys for some good old-fashioned manual labour.
At first, a group of six men arrived, discussion ensued and we had a deal. They would work for five days to clear a length of ditch. I met them every morning at 6am to call the roll. Well, my interpreter called the roll. I was there in a managerial capacity you understand. Then I paid them each evening and away they went home.
Word must have got out, as a few days into this routine a chargehand with some 15 men arrived at the gate. Off we went. I found work for these chaps. Then another gang arrived, so naturally I was able to occupy them. At the height of my industrial empire I had around 45 men working for me on one endeavour or another. Ditches were being cleared, fallen trees dispatched and culverts dug. Then, disaster! One sunny morning a volley of shots rang out over the area, AK47 type shots! My workers dived for cover but one was hit twice in the leg… The nearest Sangar (watch tower) returned fire but the culprits managed to flee.
Fortunately my guy was all right and after some medical assistance from the ISAF guys on the ground the injured man was taken to hospital. I am happy to report that he made a full recovery.
Alas this had a detrimental effect upon my workforce. The group who had been in the direct line of fire never returned as a group, though individuals did later. Other workers stayed home for a day or so but miraculously, and bravely, most of the men from the other groups returned and began working again. We discussed the incident at morning roll call and I must admit they all had a pretty sanguine view of the affair. The ability of the people here to simply get on with life and brush calamity aside is amazing. The more I work with the grassroots, community inhabitants the more respect and admiration I have for them. These are simply rural villagers caught up in a wider conflict, grubbing the land for a living and getting on with life despite it all…
As I close, we have a dust storm blowing around us. Luckily for us the burn pit where the camp rubbish, including our excrement, is smouldering away is upwind so I am getting healthy lungfulls of desert dust and burn pit smoke… nice!
This will probably be my last entry for now as I will leave the PB in a week or so and indeed the country at the end of the month. I must admit to have enjoyed the tour. It may sound strange to some readers but this has been an enjoyable and exciting place to be. It makes you feel alive, and hey it is 100% better than the 9-5 I have to go back to. That said, plans are afoot for me to visit the country next year (another tour) all being well. Keeps me young! Well OK, not exactly young, but hey, you know what I mean.
I would like to end with some unadulterated heartfelt goodbyes and thank yous.
For all the people on HERRICK 12, importantly the ones I’ve shared the Patrol Base with, stood in sangars with or at the wall shoulder-to-shoulder with, thank you for your determination, your humour, for sharing your tea and most of all, for your comradeship…
This poem caught my eye.
It is not the critic who counts
Nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…
Or where the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
Whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood,
Who knows great enthusiasm, great devotion and the triumph of achievement.
And who at worst, if he fails, at least fails greatly…
so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know
neither victory or defeat
You’ve never lived until you’ve nearly died.
For those who have had to fight for it,
life has truly a flavour the protected shall