Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).
Steve and the team are based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province but will spend most of their time out on the ground, capturing life on the front line.
Operation to clear insurgents
Over the last couple of weeks the CCT have been over-run with job requests. So much so, that the team had to split down in order to cover two concurrent operations.
Sgt Mark Nesbit deployed with Maj Mark Scadden on Operation Kapcha Zhrandagaray (KZ), leaving me to cover Operation Horhari Afghan. Surprisingly, Op KZ didn’t require any video footage, so Mark Nesbit was let loose with his stills camera. Something he got a little excited about to say the least!
With me originally packed for Op KZ, the last minute call for Op Horhari Afghan coverage didn’t cause a problem. With the weather here still hitting the minus degrees at night, this Op, in the middle of nowhere was no doubt going to be a cold one.
This particular Op was arranged by Brigadier General Sheren Shah, Commander of 3/215 Brigade, Afghan National Army, with the Brigade Advisory Group (BAG), made up of 2nd Battalion The Rifles, on hand. The main aim was to clear insurgents from an area close to a bustling town in Helmand province.
Around 1,000 soldiers and police from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were to clear an area known as the Bowri Dashte, situated to the west of the bustling town of Gereshk in Nahr-e Saraj district. On top of this, were about 250 British soldiers from the BAG, along with small elements of other units who acted, purely, in an advisory role as the operation progressed.
The first day of the Op was an early one. After waking up at 0400hrs, I did some final admin, before hitting the road, in a Jackal! The temperature must have still been below zero, and there I was, in an open-top vehicle!
So, we left Patrol Base (PB) Hayatullah, heading to the nearby Afghan Check Point (CP) Spin Majed. The journey was fairly short, however, I was pretty numb by the time I arrived, and still had a full day ahead of me.
Universal sign language
Once we arrived, the small CP was almost full. Soldiers from various Tolays (Companies) were getting their kit ready to deploy out on the ground. For the Afghans, this was a crucial operation. Nahr-e Saraj is the last district within Helmand that is still secured predominantly by ISAF troops, unlike Nad-e Ali and Lashkar Gah, which have recently handed over security to the Afghan forces.
Across the desert
With the hustle and bustle of radios being checked, weapons loaded and vehicles mounted, I was quick to work. Despite not having an interpreter, and knowing only ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ in Pashtu, my universal sign language came into play. Simple points at the camera, and a clicking gesture gets the point across. Occasionally having to pose the weapons where I wanted them, and turning the subject to the right angle is all part of the fun too. Once you take the first shot and show them the picture, they get the idea, and shout all their mates to line-up for a picture too! You are never short of Afghan portraits out here, they love it, some even pull some amazing poses.
After an hour or two, the sun started to rise, and what an a amazing sky we had. I just had to get some silhouettes. Within what seemed like minutes, the stunning orange glow of the sky went, turning a nice pale blue. By this point, half of the Tolays had lined the route ready to proceed across the desert.
Following on behind, as mentoring was the role of the BAG during this Op, we only managed to race ahead once or twice on the road to get a few shots. The whole Operation was planned and executed by Brigadier General Sheren Shah and his operations officer. Something that has only happened a few times recently with the greater push towards transition.
The operation was split into sections, covering various bits each day. The part in which I was tasked to cover was the initial start, and the clearance of the first 5 kilometres or so. Following men on foot, by vehicle, was a long process. We managed to stop several times, often in good locations for photos.
Towards the end of day one, we headed to a nearby CP, Seraj Ulhaq, to watch the ANA cover the ground to our front. The overwatch was provided by soldiers from 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment. With the sun starting to set, I had to grab one last silhouette before heading back to Hayatullah for the night.
We covered a little more of the Op on day two before heading back to the office to edit, and push the story out to press. With only one day before my next trip to Gereshk, I had a very quick turnaround of kit, washing and the usual admin tasks to do.
All in all this was quite a good operation to view. The Afghans are becoming more and more competent by the day, with the incentive of taking over security for this last district of Helmand in sight.
My next blog post will cover our trip to Loy Mandeh Kalay, and hopefully a few other good jobs which I can’t tell you about just yet. I will have to leave you in suspense for now.