Our Promise to Afghanis‘We Must Not Fail Them’
Rich Martyn fears for the fate of people like the interpreter and teacher he met while in Afghanistan, and explains how the tragedy also affects others who served there
Almost a decade ago to the day, I was in the air flying into Kandahar airbase for my second tour of Afghanistan in two years.
It was dark and we were all tired. We’d all been on the go for several hours already and just wanted to get some sleep. Almost all of us had been through this before: the anticipation and trepidation weigh heavily on your mind and stop you from being able to rest.
Then the shout went over the comms that we were going to go dark and to prepare for landing. With body armour on, the lights in the plane go out, before we descend in a steep dive to the runway.
Despite it being the middle of the night, the heat hits you like nowhere else. Imagine stepping off the plane in Malaga – but it’s twice as warm and you’re wearing several kilograms of body armour, and instead of two weeks on the beach, you’re spending several months in the desert, and that’s somewhere close to what it feels like.
We were taken straight into an Ops briefing from landing. There had been several rocket strikes on the base recently. The Taliban had been encroaching in on areas within striking distance of many of the forward operating bases, and we were going to be hitting the ground running.
Abbas and the Poppy Fields
After a whirlwind orientation to Kandahar airbase and the wider operations, I packed my things again to prepare for a stop-over in Lashkar Gah to meet up with the team I was going to be embedded with for the next couple of months.
Over the next few days, we started going out on patrols and meeting up with locals. We attended some local council meetings and I had the opportunity to meet up with Abbas, one of our local interpreters who I had worked with on previous tours.
We spoke of family and how his daughter had been going to school, and his son was planning on going to America to study engineering at university. His father had been killed by the Taliban since our last meeting. He said this was to be expected as he had refused to grow poppies for them on his little farmstead. Abbas told me that they were subsistence farmers and if they grew what the Taliban wanted, they wouldn’t be able to grow crops to feed the family. Despite the obvious pain his family had endured, Abbas seemed bright though, and was looking to the future with hope.
The council meetings continued, as did the patrols of the area. Groups of little kids came up to us on most patrols with huge smiles on their faces and pestered us for sweet, little toys, and anything else we had, it always brightened my day when they did this.
They were happy, they were living a good life in the middle of one of the most tragic events of the 21st Century. They came to us because they knew we would be kind to them. We went to the local high school one afternoon. I had promised Abbas that I would go in to speak with the kids and help them with their English with the promise that they would help me learn some more Pashto. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Hadia and the Children
Thought I’d spoken with the Hadia, the class teacher, before going in nothing prepared me for the mixed class of boys and girls between 12 and 14 years old all chatting away in a very Americanised English. Hadia told me that they had only recently moved to mixed classes. Despite some hesitation from parents, the kids were loving being able to chat and interact with each other.
But this is a decade ago, and now those young people, the teachers like Hadia, and interpreters like Abbas, are all under immense threat, as is every other person in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of Western troops sent a shockwave through the country. Those who had become accustomed to a secure life where they were in charge of their own destiny have had the rug pulled from under them.
But this shockwave doesn’t just end at the Afghan border, the ripples travel worldwide.
I had word yesterday that one of the young men who served with me on that tour took his own life. We had only spoken last week, and he was distraught that all we had fought for was being lost, and watching the fall of the streets we once walked had been one step too much for him.
We fought to give Afghani citizens like Hadia and Abbas the future we had promised them. We mustn’t let our legacy be one of failure: because if we fail them, we fail each other too.
Rich Martyn served in an education and development role in the Army between 2005 and 2015. He now works with multiple armed forces charities which focus on supporting wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans
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