What it's like in Helmand


November 9, 2011

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    Holden Basch/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Holden: "This is a thousand-year-old castle right outside Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. Anywhere else, there’d be signs pointing to it and an admissions fee. Helmand has thousands and thousands of years of history just sitting there, waiting to be recognized. It’s a remarkable place. But few are able to see it because of the fighting. This is where most of the fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban is taking place." Photo: Holden Basch/Mercy Corps

Helmand, where I’ve worked for the last two years, is certainly a fascinating place. It is a place where you can wake to yet another suicide bombing that rattles the windows and leaves you wondering who might have been the target this time. There is often gunfire, sometimes even between different branches of law enforcement, and the sky seems empty when there are no helicopters surveying the province, and no drones taking off from the military bases.

It is, however, a stunningly beautiful place. Helmand has vast deserts, long ranges of mountains and a huge river that snakes through the middle of the province. The “Green Zone,” which refers to the fertile land either side of the river is a total contrast to the sandy, rocky land that forms the bulk of the province. While in the towns, there is no shortage of 10-year-old Canadian Corollas, it is a common sight to see men leading trains of camels piled high with goods as they slowly make their way to market.

The people of Helmand are the friendliest people I have ever worked with. Many are very poor, many have suffered terrible losses in the conflict and many have lost members of, if not entire families. To me however, they are unfailingly hospitable, incredibly kind and very happy to discuss all manner of subjects over a chai and some pistachios.

I’m here in Helmand implementing a UK-government funded program that will deliver vocational training to 15,000 young people over the next three years. Mercy Corps has been working here for almost 25 years. The agency was here during the Soviet occupation and subsequent revolution, and continued to work under both the Mujahedeen and Taliban regimes as well as throughout the current conflict.

So what do we actually do here? We train over 2,000 students per day who sign up for three-to-six month courses in a wide range of skills. We teach tailoring, sign-writing, metalwork, IT, English, basic nursing, and even TV repair. Our students come from all over Helmand including many from the most violent parts and those areas most affected by the conflict. We have students as young as 15 as well as more seasoned trainees and the mix of ages, tribes and backgrounds make the training centres great places to be.