Safe from the Riots... in Afghanistan

The Media Operations staff at Bastion took in this stray, got her looked after by the vet, and named her Shaw Cat (after the Forward Operating Base of Shawqot). 

I tried to make sure I arrived at Camp Bastion with as little baggage as possible - physical or mental. And I could hardly have predicted my reactions to the place at the best of times: but these are not the best of times. When I left Britain last week, I left behind friends and family concerned for my safety - it's my first time in a war zone, my first time catching a flight where they check to see you've got your bullet-proof jacket along with your passport and visa before they'll let you on the aircraft. But mere days later I find myself sitting in one of the safest and most secure places I've ever visited, worrying about friends and family back home, and watching places I lived in for over 20 years burn.

Visiting Bastion has been an eye-opener in every regard. It's certainly a tough place to live: it's 46C in the shade today, and the architectural combination of beige tents, shipping containers and Hesco sack walls lends the place an atmosphere somewhere between Mad Max and a bad rock festival in a drought summer (only without the bands, the branding or the beer - Bastion is dry). This is the British military's Afghan beachhead, the transit and logistics hub where journeys to and from the country start and finish, and absolutely vital as a result - but life here is a breeze compared to the conditions in the patrol bases where British troops put their lives on the line every day.

Bastion's tents are air-conditioned; there's electricity (with British three-pin sockets), several shops, some coffee bars and more mosques than churches. You can pop in to the Danish compound for a coffee, or watch in mute semi-disbelief as one of their convoys comes back from patrol - in the gun turrets atop armoured vehicles the size of squat double-decker buses, bearded Danes in sunglasses chomp celebratory cigars and effect satisfied, job-done grins. The airport is the third-busiest British-run airfield in the world - behind only Heathrow and Gatwick in numbers of aircraft movements per day. Not only is there a branch of Pizza Hut, but they'll even deliver - on a quad bike. In short, it's an inhospitable moonscape with a surprising array of mod cons - a study in unexpected contrasts, and a feature-writer's dream.

My only glimpse so far of the difficulties the front-line troops must face from the elements alone came on my first morning here. I was taken out with a group of about 30 soldiers who were undergoing the mandatory five-day training regime they take on arrival in theatre. At Bastion's southern end, a number of Afghan-style compounds have been constructed to provide a mock-up of a village. The officers were divided into groups, and I tagged along with one patrol as they made a careful approach to the marketplace, checking for mines and booby traps on their way. A trainer stopped the group, showing them the sort of signs they should be looking for. Like the soldiers, I was wearing a helmet and heavy Osprey body armour - a cloth, leather, plastic and Velcro tunic stuffed with ceramic plates that can stop a rifle bullet - but unlike them, I was able to undo the sides when I started to feel my torso becoming uncomfortably warm.

After the exercise was over, my MoD Media Operations escort, Major Dale Clarke, suggested we walk a short distance over to some nearby tents. Halfway there, I suddenly realised I couldn't take another step. The water in the bottle I'd been sipping from was hot enough to make a passable cup of tea; it had stopped cooling me down, and there was precious little of it left anyway. I told the Major I needed to stop, took the Osprey off, knelt down, and put my head into the shade of my arm, breathing deeply and slowly. Major Clarke headed over to the tents and came back with two chilled 1.5-litre bottles of water and poured them over my back, chest and neck. The recovery was on me as suddenly as the problem had been - and after a few minutes in an air-conditioned room, and plenty more water, I felt fine. It was a valuable lesson in knowing where your limits might lie, and I like to think that if I ever encroach toward heatstroke or dehydration in future I might recognise some of the warning signs in time. But it was a powerful reminder of the conditions the troops work under every day out here. They'll typically carry three-quarters of their own body weight in armour and equipment, on day-long patrols through head-high crops, up and down hills, through muddy irrigation ditches, knowing they could get shot or blown up at any moment. I'd lasted about 40 minutes doing nothing more energetic than walking along a flat, dusty road at a leisurely pace, occasionally stopping to stand still, knowing I was in no danger whatsoever. Humbling isn't quite the word.

I'm going to be writing about the people I've met and things I've seen at Bastion for a number of different titles in the near future, so forgive me if I keep most of that powder dry. But what's striking is how the most impressive and vital work is being done without any bullets being fired, and as a result, it's not the sort of thing you get to read about back in the UK. I've met a string of people who are doing difficult, dangerous, life-saving work in conditions most of us would find intolerable, and who believe absolutely and whole-heartedly that they are making progress, and that there is an important job here that needs to be completed. But the contrast between what I'm seeing here, and what's going on in London and across the UK - and which the whole camp is watching on the flat screen TVs in the offices, mess halls and coffee bars, and hearing about through updates on the Bastion branch of BFBS radio - is adding to an already considerable disconnect. I've come to a remote base in a war zone, yet I feel more secure than I would do if I was in Brixton or Enfield. I can only begin to imagine what must be going on in the heads of the folks here, who put their lives on the line to defend their country from terrorism and intimidation, only to see their capital city (and others) being looted and burned by thugs.


What a wonderful piece of writing , I am a mum of a marine who is serving in afghan , he hasn't the pleasure of air con and cold water where he is . It is great to read this , as I do think people have forgotten our troops and have no Idea what they are going through . Buy we watch on tv the type of people that call themselves British . Please wrote about this as you put it in such a good way , and people need to know , I wish the thugs would read and then they might feel ashamed

posted by: Tracy Heppenstall: 11 Aug, 2011 14:46:11

Your article made me smile and feel very proud to be Your article made me smile as a proud parent of a Royal Marine. Living in Manchester we watched in horror how the thugs had no respect for the city or anyone else. It's a sad reality that our soldiers are fighting to give freedom yet the greedy thugs were fighting each other for stolen goods . a great article

posted by: A spensley: 12 Aug, 2011 01:22:18

Another mother of a serving Marine. What a well-written piece - I have never bothered to read anyone's blog before, but look forward to the next one. I live in a rural area, unaffected by the riots, but your sentiments strike a chord.

posted by: melanie: 12 Aug, 2011 10:28:20

Wonderfully informative piece on life in the sandpit. Though my son doesn't have the luxury of air-con either!! Those cowardly idiots over here should hang their heads in the same degree our boys and girls in Afghanistan should raise theirs to the heavens for doing such a sterling job. I look forward to your further blogs Angus...stay safe, stay cool ;-)
Extremely proud father of a serving Royal :-)

posted by: John D'Arcy: 12 Aug, 2011 14:06:33

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