UPDATE: Afghanistan blog - January 4, 2013

Afghan winter
Afghan winter

Reporter Victoria Prest is in Afghanistan. Here is her blog on daily life at Camp Bastion.

January 4

Reporter Victoria Prest being shown how to look for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) by Cpl Sean Storey.

Reporter Victoria Prest being shown how to look for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) by Cpl Sean Storey.

After leaving the Middle East in the early hours of this morning the flight stopped off at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, before finally arriving in Brize Norton mid afternoon. My sister was waiting to meet me at the passenger terminal and as the flight was an hour or two late, had watched as the terminal filled up with friends and families come to meet loved ones.

She told me she had seen one little boy of around five waiting impatiently and asking his mum “When’s Daddy coming? Is he coming now? Where is he?” As the first passengers foung their bags, cleared passport control and trickled through the little boy’s mum replied “Daddy’s coming soon, but he has to get his bags, and some people walk a bit slower than other people, don’t they?”

When his dad finally appeared, the little boy shouted “Daddy” and ran towards him for a hug. Seconds later a loud voice demanded “Daddy, have you been walking really slow?”

January 3

Reporter Victoria Prest, centre, having Christmas lunch at Lashkar Gah.

Reporter Victoria Prest, centre, having Christmas lunch at Lashkar Gah.

Today was my last day in Afghanistan. I managed to fit a quick interview in with Regimental Sergeant Major Paul Gallimore during the morning. We talked about the welfare packages the regiment receives while they are deployed - boxes packed with a few essentials and a few small luxuries that make life in the forward operating bases a little more bearable. Mr Gallimore has a stack of the packages - mostly packed and sent by strangers who might have a passing connection to the regiment - in the corner of his office, and will take two of three mail bags full of them whenever he visits the sappers living and working on the edges of the “area of operations” where live can be tough. We also talked about Mr Gallimore’s family - like many of the Engineers in Afghanistan at the moment he has young children at home in Ripon. I asked if his son Zach, 5, and Jake, 3, understood what was going on when their dad left for six months. He replied: “They know I’ve got on an aeroplane, and they can say “Afghanistan”, but beyond that it could be Blackpool for all they know.”

At 1pm, it was time to report to the air terminal for my flight home and a few hours later I was boarding an RAF Hercules for the first leg of the journey. It took three hours to fly to the Middle East, where we waited for nearly 12 more hours for a civilian charter plane to fly us on the Cyprus, and then Brize Norton. I was, as I have been for most of the last two weeks, one of only a handful of civilians in a sea of uniforms. It might have felt odd for a few minutes when I first arrived but I very soon got used to the sight of khaki, camouflage and weapons all around, and the sound of helicopter flights overhead.

January 2

Woke this morning at 5.30am - as I have every morning in Bastion - when the call to prayer starts. My tent is close to the Afghan village which is home to interpreters and locally employed civilians who live on the base, and I soon got used to hearing the call to prayer every morning.

Reporter Victoria Prest outside the small British Army patrol base Wahid.

Reporter Victoria Prest outside the small British Army patrol base Wahid.

This morning it woke me in time to join in the HQ squadron’s physical training - a spinning class run by Sergeant Major Steve Robinson - at 7am. You’d expect physical training and fitness to be important in the Army, but it’s also a big part of many people’s downtime and relaxation. I’ve heard lots of men and women around Helmand talk about the regular path trodden between bed, work, cookhouse and gym. The working hours are long but when the guys do get a bit of downtime the gym is one of the few options they have to wind down.

With today being my last full day in Bastion I’ve had a lot of writing and last minute interviews to get on with, but I took a trip to the American welfare areas in Camp Leatherneck. There’s a mini supermarket, a coffee shop and, most surprisingly, a nail salon, beauty shop and barbers for their troops, who serve much longer tours than the British forces.

New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day and my time in Afghanistan is rapidly coming to an end. I realised today that I only have until the day after tomorrow before I fly back to the UK. After the night at Price it was time to go back out with the escort multiple’s convoy for my last visit to a small base. Patrol Base Clifton is currently home to Delta Company of 40 Commando Royal Marine. The 21 Engineers are currently in the base at the moment preparing for it to be handed over to the Afghan army in the next few months. The Marines officer commanding at Clifton, Major Mike Scanlon, had nothing but praise for the Engineers’ work making the base more comfortable for his men.

Victoria in body armour in Afghanistan

Victoria in body armour in Afghanistan

Arriving back in Camp Bastion late in the afternoon there was still time for Lt Brooks and Staff Sergeant Hill from the 21 Engineers, and me to visit the American base Leathereck for zumba class. Zumba in a giant tent in an American military base in the middle of the desert. It’s not a New Year’s Day I will forget in a hurry!

New Year’s Eve

Time to leave Bastion again today: first we travel to a small base called Artillery Hill, then on to Main Operating Base Price for the afternoon. Price - known as HMS Nice because it’s the base of 40 Commando Royal Marines, and because it has reportedly the best food of any British base in Helmand province. It’s also home to a lot of Danish troops, which means the Danish welfare area complete with coffee and fresh cakes, is very popular with British troops as well.

I travelled in a Husky on this trip, and could see a lot more as we drove out of Bastion through Gereshk and into Artillery Hill. There’s a busy market in Gereshk and it was a novelty to see normal life going on as we drove through. And from Artillery Hill - based on top of a hill just outside Gereshk - we could see for miles up and down the Gereshk valley. Life in Artillery Hill, however, is very different without the comforts of bigger bases like Price and Bastion.

The Danish troops celebrated New Year in style in Price, and the Engineers based there set up a “race night”.

December 30

In the last two days Camp Bastion’s tannoy has sounded twice to say: “Op minimise, op minimise. I say again, op minimise, op minimise.”

It’s the order that goes out when there is an incident in-theatre involving an ISAF soldier (International Security Assistance Force - including British forces), and it cuts all communications out of theatre until the families have been found and informed in person.

As a journalist I was briefed about Operation Minimise before I arrived in Afghanistan, but after my first week out here passed without incident it was sickening to hear those words.

Even though we know it could mean someone has been injured and will make a full recovery, there’s still the chance it could mean something much more serious.

Even as impartial observers here for only a few weeks we develop a relationship with the troops we are following, and it’s a stark reminder of how much danger some of them face.

As another journalist sharing the media tent said: “You can’t help worrying time’s been called for one of the guys you’ve just met and interviewed.”

Work carries on, but each time there has been a sense of relief when the same voice announced: “Op minimise is lifted. I say again, op minimise is lifted,” and word trickled through the soldiers involved were hurt but should recover.

December 29

A day of interviews today - with British Forces Broadcasting Service radio DJ Hal Stewart, who happens to be from Tadcaster; former deputy mayor of Ripon Lt Col Martin Morris who now advises Afghan forces on media engagement; and with 73 Squadron in the 21 Engineers, which faces being disbanded six months after this tour ends.

I’ve also heard a lot about the “Insanity Challenge”, which starts tonight. “Insanity” is an intense workout programme and very very popular with the soldiers in Helmand. At 1.55am tomorrow 10 people from 21 Engineers are due to start a marathon session in honour of medic Corporal Channing Day, who was killed in Nahr-e Saraj in October this year. Cpl Day served with the 21 Engineers in Ripon before she deployed to Afghanistan, and friends from her old regiment have organised the charity challenge in her memory. From 1.55am tomorrow, the 10 volunteers will work in pairs taking it in turns to complete the gruelling physical sessions for 50 hours straight, finishing just into the New Year and collecting donations for charities including Combat Stress.

December 28

The temperature dropped again today – so much so the showers and sinks froze overnight. A couple of days in the cold have given me nothing but admiration for the Army chefs who work at these basic locations – a hot meal makes any weather more bearable.

We left patrol base Wahid mid morning and headed back to Camp Bastion. On the journey back I spoke to Lt Col Nicholson and the Regimental Sergeant Major about the tour so far, although the interview was interrupted by bumps and potholes, and the sound of stones being thrown against the side of the truck as we passed through villages. As the journey went on I felt steadily more queasy and an hour in I had to admit defeat and ask if anyone had a sick bag, which the driver Lance Corporal Cairns, and vehicle commander Lance Corporal Bloomfield, found very entertaining. I was very glad to pull back through the gates of Camp Bastion without bringing shame on journalists by being sick on the Regimental Sergeant Major’s lap.

Coming back to the big base was a relief in some ways – warm shower, a comfortable bed, clean clothes – but it feels detached from the real Afghanistan. Once you get used to the constant sound of helicopters and planes overhead it would be easy to spend a few days, a week or even longer in the camp and see nothing beyond the miles of tents, the cookhouse and the mountains in the distance. Life is very different in the remote patrol bases and forward operating bases.

December 27

Woke today at patrol base at Wahib, which wasn’t quite the plan. We should have pushed on to further bases yesterday, but problems with the vehicles slowed us down earlier on so we spent the night here rather than driving on in the dark. In the last two days the weather has changed dramatically - it’s gone from bright sunshine and temperatures of 15-20C to cloud, wind, rain and cold. It’s meant that we cannot move from Wahib for at least another day as the poor visibility and bad weather makes it difficult to go on. It’s disappointing to miss visiting the other bases, but it would obviously be too big a risk to take when our trip is not vital. We’ve all spent the day trying to keep warm - I’m writing while sitting in my sleeping bag and must have drunk 20 cups of tea – and looking round the base. Since they arrived in September the Engineers who are from both 21 Regiment and 42 Field Squadron 28 Engineers Squadron, usually based in Germany, have improved it a lot by rebuilding the field kitchen, and fixing up hot showers, and rebuilding the gym to stop it flooding. Being able to make life a bit more comfortable on austere bases like Wahib makes the Engineers popular with the other troops.

Boxing Day

Left Bastion again today, this time by road, on the Commanding Officer Lt Colonel Nicholson’s “Battlefield Circulation” to visit Engineers in some of the smaller bases. I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of normal Afghan life, albeit through the back window of an armoured vehicle. The first few miles of the journey were on the asphalt-covered Highway One - the main road around Afghanistan - but we soon turned off it and the road surface got rougher and the ride got bumpier in the back of the truck. Being strapped into the seats is a bit like being strapped into a child’s car seat, and it was very easy to nod off. But I stayed awake for long enough to see some of the country - dry brown fields; motorbikes, trucks and buses on the roads (including a bus carrying two cars on the roof); camels, goats and sheep; and children - some waving, some throwing stones.

Part of our route came alongside a canal - built by the Americans as part of the Helmand River Valley project in the 1960s. The road was rocky and bumpy, and seeing how close we were to the edge of the canal was the first time I have felt scared since I arrived.

Late afternoon the vehicles arrived at Patrol Base Wahib for the night. In Army terms Wahib is more “austere” than either of the bases I’ve been to so far, and instead of a tent Lt Brooks and I are sleeping in a traditional mud hut left over by whoever lived there before it became an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base. As a smaller base it has more contact with insurgents as well - I’ve already heard two of three rounds of gunfire outside the walls, and seen the soldiers run to “stand to” when a threat was spotted. But everything has, so far, passed without incident and the stand to was stood down after only a few minutes.

The base is shared between the Engineers and the Gurkhas, and I was amazed to learn the Gurkhas share a language with some Afghan people and can communicate with them directly.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day started with the “Lash Dash” - a 5km fancy dress fun run round the base. Sport and exercise is a huge part of life for most of the soldiers out here and the “Op Massive” - bodybuilding, and “Op Insanity” programme - an extreme workout plan - are the hugely popular. The Lash Dash was a more laidback affair, and although the Danish soldiers based at Lashkar Gah came off best in speed stakes at least the fancy dress honours definitely went to the British.

At lunchtime the Lashkar Gah cookhouse put on a traditional Christmas dinner and the bases choir even performed some Christmas tunes to add some spirit. Lunchtime was also the time for the UK4U Thanks parcels - gifts sent out for every serving troop - to be given out.

In the afternoon I was reminded that for a lot a people out here today is just another working day. I met some of the staff from the development teams - both military and civilian - to get an idea of their working day.

Before I flew back to Bastion I climbed one of the camp’s guardtowers for a view out of the base into the town just as the call to prayer started. Inside the camps most of the time, it’s easy to forget a country full of ordinary people going about their lives exists outside the walls.

The flight back was on a smaller helicopter - a Merlin - and I watched the lights of the towns we flew over through the open tailgate. But there was another reminder that Christmas doesn’t stop work going on here - some of the passengers were military policemen who had been tracking down insurgents.

Christmas Eve

At home, Christmas Eve would usually involve a last minute family shopping trip. This year, I got into a helicopter for the first time. After the morning in Bastion spent visiting Close Support Squadron 2 - the 21 Engineers’ 4th Armoured Engineer Squadron - and listening to a briefing for a road move I will join later in the trip, I got on the Chinook helicopter to Lashkar Gah.

I spent the short flight craning my neck to see out of the open side and rear doors for my first sight of Afghanistan outside Camp Bastion. I caught glances of houses and mud compounds, roads and fields, and was very excited to see three camels waiting outside one building.

Unlike Bastion the camp at Lashkar Gah is in an Afghan town, the capital of Helmand province, so a lot of the camp’s infrastructure isin old Russian buildings. “Lash” as it is known, is a much smaller base than Bastion - only a mile in circumference. With Helmand’s civilian Provincial Reconstruction Team based here it feels much less military, and almost cosmopolitan.

At Lashkar Gah I met some of the 21 Engineers, who work here in Task Force Helmand’s planning, before the Christmas celebrations started with Midnight Mass at the camp chapel. The tent was packed and when the carol singing started I realised I had stood amongst the choir. Hearing the familiar carols and lessons was the most “Christmassy” I have felt since I arrived.

Sunday, December 23

Today for the first time I wore the full personal protective equipment - body armour - I collected at the beginning of my trip. I wasn’t going outside Camp Bastion, but needed the PPE to visit first the camp’s Driver Training Ground and then the 21 Engineers’ Talisman Squadron. At the driver training ground, I got behind the wheel of a Husky, one of the smaller armoured vehicle a lot like a giant landrover, and took it round some of the dry stream beds - wadis - and tracks used for training. I thought I was doing quite well until the professional, Corporal Major, took over and I saw just how much faster we could have got around the course. Later on, I was introduced to the Talisman Squadron whose job it is to find routes clear safe routes and search for IEDs around the province. Under bright sunshine, trying the heavy protective gear on for a few minutes, I got just the tiniest taste of what an intense, high pressure, and stressful job it must be.

As I went to sleep last night I could hear a carol service in the distance. There was a single trumpet playing carols, but even with this and Christmas celebrations and decorations around the camp, it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas without family and friends around.

Pictures - Corporal Stephen Major at the wheel of an armoured Husky in the driver training ground.

- Corporal Sean Storey instructs me in some of their IED search techniques.

Saturday, December 22

The sun came out today, for the second day in a row, and instead of the winter weather I expected I’ve been baking in the heat, but once the sun goes down on the clear evenings the temperature drops dramatically and my backpack full of fleeces and woolly hats comes in useful. My home for the few days I am in Camp Bastion is the AMOC, or Media Operations centre, which for the last few days I have been sharing with four other journalists. It is a cosy little home, and with its bunkbeds it reminds me of a backpacker hostel’s dorm.

A very busy day today visiting most of the Engineers’ facilities in the camp, seeing the multitude of different jobs they do here and chatting to a lot of the Sappers. I even tried out the remote control “Minewolf” vehicle - designed to clear minefields with its operators at a safe distance. And I paid a visit to Bastion’s hospital, which serves the whole of Task Force Helmand including US forces and Afghan nationals caught up in the fighting. It’s a fascinating place - very much a normal British hospital in miniature, but heralded as the best place in the world to be treated for trauma.

Plenty of highlights today - one was trying the Minewolf, another was seeing snow on the mountains in the distance.

Picture - As the sun goes down and the stars come out the temperature drops sharply, and it begins to feel more like the Afghan winter I was expecting.

Friday, December 21

Breakfast this morning at 8am at Bastion’s Super Kitchen - the base’s main Dining Facility. It’s a vast room where contract caterers feed up to 5000 people at each meal with an impressive choice. A basic media briefing came next, and covered all the aspects journalists have to take into account to preserve “Operational Security” and make sure our stories don’t put lives at risk by revealing too much or too sensitive information. The afternoon training was more hands-on with a session on the ‘ground signs’ that can help spot explosives and roadside bombs, and half an hour of fun in the RODET - a vehicle simulator for teaching us how to get out of an upturned vehicle. It was like a slowed down rollercoaster - turning first to 25 degrees one way, 90 degrees another, then 180 degrees and finally a full 360. It was a lot more fun than I expected, but I soon learnt why one of the instructions was “take a deep breath when it starts to roll”. It wasn’t fun to swallow the pieces of dust flying around the cabin.

In the afternoon, I headed off to meet more of the 21 Engineers - usually based in Ripon - for the first time, and join their Christmas party, and have a briefing from the unit’s WO2 Steve Robinson and Major Stuart McGhee

Thursday, December 20

I left a cold and rainy Britain at 7am and landed in a cold, but thankfully dry, Camp Bastion around 12 hours later. After passing the last few weeks in a flurry of administration as I rushed to get all the forms signed and boxes ticked, it was a relief to finally arrive.

Preparations for my trip to Afghanistan built to a hectic crescendo yesterday, Wednesday, as final approval came through from the newspaper’s insurers less than 24 hours before my flight left Brize Norton. But everything fell into place just in time, and I owe a big thank you to, among others, the staff of Leeds Road Surgery in Harrogate, who dealt with my requests for last minute medicals and vaccinations with unending patience and helpfulness.

Landing in Camp Bastion in the dark it was hard to get much of an impression of the place - but it felt big, cold, and flat. At the air terminal I met Lt Rosie Brooks - the 21 Engineers’ Unit Press Officer who I have spent months calling and emailing to plan this visit. From the air terminal we were taken straight to the media tents, full at the time of journalists covering the end of the Prime Minister’s pre-Christmas visit. I was exhausted after the long flight, so it was straight to bed ready for a day of induction and training tomorrow.