C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.


It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

footie in helmand

He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.

An Afghan country garden: life on a Helmand base

First published on Sky News on 30th May 2010.

Bright pink magnolias, deep red roses, lush green grass, pergolas that Charlie Dimmock would be proud of and even the odd water feature.

No, this is not a lovingly manicured English country garden, this is thousands of miles away in one of the most dangerous places in the world – Sangin, Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In 50C heat, British troops are doing their laundry in basins by the river during a few precious moments of “personal admin” time on the Forward Operating Base.

Others are catching up on reading, preparing for their next patrol or having a blissfully refreshing dip in the Sangin river.

But for their Afghan National Army counterparts, it seems nothing beats a spot of gardening.

Just a few metres away from rows of armoured vehicles and pockmarked buildings stuffed with sandbags, the Afghan soldiers have created an incongruous oasis that stands out from its hard, dry, dusty, beige surroundings.

They are meticulous about watering their flower beds and lawns and coaxing creepers over gateways and walls.

And it seems civilian Afghans are no less green-fingered.

Roads and tracks through Sangin are bordered by large allotments of intricately irrigated land.

One soldier told me as we patrolled past an embryonic orchard that they are also streets ahead of us at genetically combining different fruit trees.

So it seems the English may have competition in the gardening stakes… and an unexpected hobby in common with the Afghan people.

It’s a dog’s life in Afghanistan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 31st May 2010.


By Lorna Ward, Sky News Producer

His large red and white blanket has pride of place under the main operations-cum-dining table in the Patrol Base. He’s had his jabs, and he dines on leftover rations.

Frankie may not be a pedigree, but he’s won the hearts of the soldiers on a small and dusty Patrol Base in Sangin.

The scruffy white and brown dog is only about nine months old but has already been through the mill.

As a puppy, he was destined to be trained up as a fighting dog.

This meant grooming him according to Afghan rules, including cutting off his ears and tail.

As it turned out, he just wasn’t aggressive enough, so his career ended and he was left homeless.

Cue the arrival of the boys from 1 Scots.

Sgt Jamie Campbell arrived ahead of the rest of the soldiers who would call this small patch of land on the edge of the Green Zone home for the next six months.

He found cockroaches and rats, and one mangy, lonely dog with no ears and no tail.

Ridding the place of pests and turning it into a liveable hygienic base was a priority. Along with the rats and the cockroaches, the mangy dog had to go.

But the disfigured, mournful looking mutt won his first battle – the animal was spared and Christened Frankie.

Just under three months later, Frankie is part of the furniture.

So much so, that he insists on following the soldiers on patrol into the Green Zone.

Despite being firmly instructed to stay on the Patrol Base and left with his water bowl and snacks, he occasionally manages to escape.

Blissfully unaware of the improvised explosive device threat and the serious job the men are here to do, he bounds towards the gate of the Patrol Base, before being shooed back to safety.

Sgt Campbell has taken a particular shine to the camp mascot and plans to take him home as a family pet.

It’ll mean jumping through a number of administrative hoops and raising money – but with the process already under way, this is one ‘rescue’ dog that looks set for a loving home in Scotland in a few months’ time.

Goat grabbing film a faithful portrait of Afghan culture

ISAF personnel have attended the premier of a new movie by award-winning filmmaker Sam French based around Afghanistan’s national sport of Buzkashi – a game of horse polo played with a dead goat. I wrote this blog from Kabul.


Still from the film ‘Buskashi Boys’

There was no red carpet, no celebrities and no paparazzi. This was a low-key affair and not your conventional Premiere. Special guest and director of the film, Sam French, wore a three piece grey suit, rather incongruously accessorized with muddy walking boots. Or at least they would have been incongruous even by the most retro Hollywood, Paris or London styles. Here in Kabul, it would have been imprudent to wear anything finer particularly at this time of year.

He was here to introduce us to his new award-winning short film Buzkashi Boys. It’s a coming of age story about two young lads in Kabul who have dreams of becoming Buzkashi riders. These are the gladiators of Afghan society; men who in their traditional robes and hats, with flowing beards, career around a dirt pitch on horseback, sparring over the prize – a headless goat. The match starts with the carcass in the centre of a circle, surrounded by the players of two opposing teams. The object of the game is to get control of the headless beast and get it to the scoring zone. This sounds easy until you picture hordes of other buzkashi (translated literally means ‘goat grabbing’) riders charging while leaning off their horses to steal the carcass. Those who reach the scoring zone – and they are few and far between – are rewarded with points and, not insignificantly, money, fine clothes and mythical status.

For our evening of entertainment, we were joined by ISAF Deputy Commander, Lieutenant General Nick Carter, who by sheer coincidence had just returned from the real thing. That afternoon he had been a guest of the Afghan government and treated to the spectacle that is the country’s national sport. So by the evening, he was well versed in the rules, the culture and just what place this sport occupies in Afghan folklore. He had been impressed by the resilience, the raw aggression and unflinching machismo shown by the riders in what is clearly a very dangerous sport. Much like in the film he said the arena was full of young boys with eyes on stalks, dreaming of becoming one of the men in the ring.


Still from the film ‘Buskashi Boys’

Those boys are portrayed in Sam French’s film by two of Kabul’s young residents . One is the son of a film-maker who is working to resurrect the Afghan film-making industry and an aspiring actor. The other, Tom told us, was “selling maps on chicken street” when he met him. He was unassuming and so earnest that the director cast him on the spot. Ironically in the film, and to great effect, he cast the real street-boy as the ironmonger’s son and the budding actor as the street urchin.

The film shows off the spectacular scenery around Kabul and tells a simple but very moving tale. It is completely faithful to Afghan culture, and I’m told the way people live, speak and behave. And that is testament to its director’s aims and the way he goes about making his films. Sam French has been in Afghanistan for four years having fallen in love with a woman and then the country he followed her to. With his small American crew, he trained up an entire Afghan film crew in Kabul. The cast is the genuine article, and there is no trick to the filming. An old Russian crane and creaky ‘dolly’ were found and dusted off and the crew braved the odd bomb threat as they filmed in the middle of bustling markets in the centre of town. Tom mobilised passionate Afghan film-makers who had been left frustrated when their industry was decimated by thirty years of civil war and the restrictive Taliban rule.

Together they put together a film about hope for the future, following your dreams and the importance of family. It’s already inspired one Afghan – the young street seller who stars in Buzkashi Boys is now at school and getting top grades. He apparently has his sights firmly set on a career as an airline pilot. Sam French hopes his film will encourage other Afghans to have hope, and the international audience to see the beautiful country and people that he has come to love, rather than the one of news reports.

So far, Buzkashi Boys has won awards and rave reviews; there’s even hope it might be nominated for an Oscar. As much as I am sure he will appreciate the professional recognition; I do not think it will be long before Sam French is back on the streets of Kabul in his muddy boots, embarking on the greater challenge of a feature-length movie this time; determined to put his Afghanistan back on the map for the right reasons.