Padre Robin Richardson, in Afghanistan with 3 PARA, writes about meeting a Para called Baz, visiting the construction of a new community meeting area and seeing the reaction of local children to some small gifts sent by a little girl in the UK.
Less than 2km away the ongoing firefight was furious, but as I sat in the Operations room in this little Check Point (CP), it could have been another country altogether. Peace is getting its chance to break out here because of the security that being fought for just a short distance away. In Helmand these two front lines move together. The security bubble provides the opportunity for the more enduring work of peace building within the community to really take root, and a stronger community in turn supports local security.
I had travelled out from Shahzad that morning with a FET – a Female Engagement Team, two female soldiers, one a fluent Pashtun speaker, who meet with the ladies of the village in a local compound. ‘They were a scream; laughing and joking,’ Steph said when they were back, ‘and quite happy to talk.’ Slowly, gently, carefully as relationships grow between the FET and local ladies, the ups and downs of the village’s life can be seen from this very different angle and a broader understanding of the community we are serving grows. Nothing is imposed, but important voices are heard, and that has to be a good thing.
I had taken a couple of parcels to the CP with me that day, one that had been put together by the daughter of member of 3 PARA and another that had been sent by the members of a Church home group in Gloucestershire. Both were destined for a little school that the lads in the CP had sunk their hearts and souls into getting off the ground with the help of a local elder.
The driving force behind this has been Baz, a tough man, but passionate, and organised, bright, articulate and focussed. Everything in his bed-space in the mud-walled building he calls home is labeled and placed in neat rows; its clinical, ordered, meticulous, but not impersonal. In an alcove, just an eye’s glance from his pillow are photos of his family, especially his son, not quite three, and the apple of his Dad’s eye. As we sat, Baz told me of his nerves at the start of his R and R. ‘I went to pick him up from nursery on the day I got home. What if he’d forgotten me? Anyway, I got there. I saw him. He saw me, and he ran; he ran, he ran right into my arms and he put his head on my shoulder and he hugged me. Then he pulled his head away to tell me something about his day, and then he put his head against me and again and he hugged me.’
As Baz told me, the story every element of him warmed, and yet in almost the next sentence he was saying how well the lads in the CP were doing. He is a man for whom the term vocation is well suited. The most natural of family men and a born leader with it.
As we donned our body armour to make our way to the school, Baz grabbed a plan he had drawn up. ‘They’ve started work on this today, Padre.’ We went and looked at the rough bit of ground across the road that was to become a community meeting area. ‘We paid for the materials, but the labour is all voluntary,’ Baz explained as he started discussing the plan with a local elder. The negotiations were far from easy, but with mutual respect and the help of an interpreter, things were moving on.
Then up to the school. Forty children all sitting, listening intently to the teacher and all learning to read and write. Baz asked a lad in the front row if he would open the box sent by the little girl from home. The youngster looked firstly to the teacher and after a nod he opened the box. As he pulled things from within they were handed out and though the children are poor there was no grabbing and they made sure that the youngest of them got the toys first. A small pencil case in the shape of a cow grasped to the chest of frail little boy; and excited waves greeted the bubbles Baz blew them across their heads.
I handed the box of pens and paper, glue, white board markers, crayons, pencils and all sorts of other things from the Church group in Cranham to the teacher who beamed and shook my hand and then it was time to leave. We bid the children and their teacher good bye and walked down the steps to the road. It was there that we met the elder again and as we chatted in the background we could hear the squeals of delight as two little girls played in the water pump. ‘It’s the school Padre. People here are proud; it’s their’s. And they’re going to be proud of their meeting area too. There’s no end to what they can do.’
Peace is breaking out; and yet just a couple of kilometers away it’s security that is the most pressing need. The local authorities with our Battlegroup’s help are working at both, and as I watched Baz and the elder laugh, and plan and smile as kids played in the water I thought to myself, there is hope, there really is.