Reconstruction mission Uruzgan, Afghanistan
“Gentlemen, we are entering a combat zone!”, the pilot of the Canadian Airforce calls over the radio on board of the Herculesplane. He also reports that a day before half of the Canadian troops had a hangover while landing which, to put it mildly, goes quite violently. In order to minimize the chance of attacks, the plane drops almost vertical out of the sky just before landing. A few minutes later, we arrive in Uruzgan, a province in centre of Afghanistan. The tent where visitors and soldiers are registered reports “the beginning of the end” for moral support. Welcome to Kamp Holland.
In addition to the Dutch, Australian troops and American special forces have been stationed on the enormous army camp. Two soldiers from a logistic company are looking for shelter from the merciless burning sun in the shadow of an army truck. “Fuel is very expensive, we use 25,000 liters per day”, they say. “Afghanistan has no harbors, so everything has to be transported by ship and truck through Pakistan. Recently there was a driver who left on january 10 and arrived in mid-april. Along the way he had been under fire a few times. This was for him once but never again”.
Sergeant Joost runs his service at the watchtower on the edge of the camp. All Afghans working at the camp are searched at entry and departure. Joost shows the harvest of the day: “Look, jammed knives, a radio antenna and about ten bags of drugs”. The guard posts are also the first to deal with wounded Afghans at the gate. “Last week there was a five-year-old girl with wounds from gunshots. Locals dropped her a the gate of Kamp Holland. She survived thanks to the camp hospital”.
It soon turns out that there are major concerns among the troops about the destruction of the poppy fields by the Afghan government, which is being assisted and advised by the Americans. “The timing of this operation is very unfortunate. We have just accumulated a little bit of confidence. This drives poor farmers who are completely dependent on poppy towards the Taliban”, Captain Twan of the Provincial Reconstruction Team says. According to Minister of Anti-Drug Affairs Khodaided, the Dutch do not have to be afraid: “We have all the support of the people”. That turns out to be somewhat euphemistic. When we take a look at the destruction of the opium fields with American marines the next day, we walk into an ambush of angry Taliban and farmers who empty their AK-47 rifles at us and shoot with rocketgrenades on the helicopters. One of the helicopters is hit and we can barely get away. The evening after the shooting I notice that I see the camp with a different feeling. More then before, I realize how dangerous the work can be at just a few miles outside from the camp. A soldier of a combat unit came across the same: “After my first fight, I was nervously leaving the gate, suspicious of the people on the streets”.
A week later, the campaign to destroy the puppy field is demolished after new Taliban-attacks. Of the planned 2000 ha, only 140 ha has been destroyed. The commander of the Dutch reconstruction team, does not want to speak of a failure. “The message has arrived with the population, they have now been warned. There are even farmers who have informed about alternative forms of agriculture. That is the profit. We must give people alternative ways of life. Many people here happen to be Taliban-minded, sometimes out of opportunism, sometimes because they are forced”.
The fact that poppy cultivation is playing right now is not a coincidence because it is full of harvest time. This is mainly experienced by the inhabitants of the city of Chora, located on a strategic junction of roads in the north of Uruzgan. The Taliban uses the poppy to buy weapons and is committed to getting the city of Chora in its hands. A few days there is heavy fighting around the city, with the Dutch to prevent the city falls into the hands of the Taliban. I travel to Chora with a logistics convoy. The policy of the Dutch is to gain confidence from the local people. Smile & wave is the motto. But with the risks of roadside bombs and suicide attacks that is easier said than done. When a car arrives on the convoy in the capital Tarin Kowt and ignores all stop signs, there is panic in the bushmaster that we use to transport the convoy. Only at the last minute does the car stop.
Like all men, we sleep in armored containers, transformed by some into complete living rooms. The American former Marine Jay stays in our accommodation for a few days. He tells how hard it is to be away from home for a long time. “I was in Iraq for six months and was back in time for my son’s delivery. Still, it took three months before I became part of the family again. It was as if I was looking from the outside to my family “. Dutch troops who have been away from home for a long time have the same experience. “At home, life goes on without you. When you come back, you have to find your place in the family again. That is sometimes difficult, “says Major Eric. “In the beginning everyone is interested in your story, but after a few weeks they say: there you have it again”.
Bart Coolen is a freelance photojournalist and member of the International Federation of Journalists. He stayed with the Dutch troops in Uruzgan for four weeks. At the request of the dutch Ministry of Defense, the troops are only designated with their first name. The text has been checked in advance by the Dutch Ministry of Defense. No changes have been made. Photos can be seen on www.bartcoolen.nl