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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 August 2007, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Front-line life goes on display
By Caroline Hawley
BBC News

Afghanistan exhibition
On the wall are the names of 19 of the soldiers who have died
In the heart of upper-class West London, there is a glimpse of the hell of front-line Afghanistan.

A stretcher that turns into a make-shift operating table stands ready.

There is a mortar position protected by sandbags, and an Army quad bike used for evacuating casualties in difficult terrain.

Nearby is a chunk of shrapnel that ripped into a soldier's arm, injuring him so badly that the limb had to be amputated.

But this is not Afghanistan or Iraq. It is the middle of Chelsea, in central London - a safe environment for the public to see the conditions which British soldiers have had to endure living and fighting in southern Afghanistan.

'Hell-land'

Members of 16 Air Assault Brigade, sent to Afghanistan in April 2006, have recreated their experiences on the frontline for a new exhibition called Helmand: The Soldiers' Story.

Just opened at the National Army Museum, it is thought to be the first exhibition of its kind to depict an on-going military operation, and it was the idea of the soldiers themselves.

They have nicknamed the province Hell-land. And it is not difficult to see why. Listed on the wall are the names of 19 soldiers who died between June and September 2006 alone.

"I don't think people can easily understand the stresses people are under, across all ranks," says Cpl Scott Dowds, whose unit was responsible for providing water, food, ammunition, fuel and accommodation for the troops.

It was horrible listening to the screams of people who'd been injured
Lance Corporal John McGowan

"The threat is there wherever you go, because you don't know who the enemy is. You worry that some of the Afghans working with you might be reporting back to the Taleban."

Cpl Dowds helped recreate a tented living quarters for the exhibition, complete with camp beds, mosquito nets, and letters home.

And according to Lt Andy Mallet, a platoon commander with A Company, 3 Para, it is very authentic - well, almost. "The living quarters is exactly what it would be like," he says with a smile. "Minus perhaps a few adult magazines."

It is harder, everyone agrees, to recreate the sense of actually being out on the battle-field - the heat, the dust and, perhaps most of all, the fear.

"It was scary and it was tiring, and it was quite emotional sometimes," says L/Cpl John McGowan, one of 150 soldiers who contributed to the exhibition.

"It was horrible listening to the screams of people who'd been injured."

Afghanistan exhibition
The fighting is considered some of the most intense since World War II

The fighting in Afghanistan has been described as the most intense experienced by British soldiers over a sustained period since World War II.

For Andy Mallet, who commanded between 30 and 40 men, that meant never knowing if he or his men would make it back alive.

"It is in the back of your mind 24/7 that you or one of your soldiers might be killed or injured," he says.

The exhibition includes oral testimony from the soldiers, as well as videos. Among the items of display are ration packs, uniforms and first aid kits.

The display quotes a man described as Sergeant L of 3 Para saying: "They weren't shy to take us on but if they did they was gonna end up losing eventually."

"It is important for people to understand what we did
Lieutenant Andy Mallett

But the exhibition also takes a long-term view, noting at the entrance: "The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, 1879 and 1919, in various attempts to make the country function in ways considered helpful to British interests.

"The physical challenges faced by British soldiers today in Helmand province are essentially the same as those experienced by the men who went before them.

"The countryside, the climate and the elusiveness of the enemy have changed little in 200 years."

Helmand: The Soldiers' Story, which is showing for the next year and a half, aims to help the wider public understand those challenges.

"It is important," says Lt Andy Mallett, "for people to understand what we did, what people are doing there now, and what people will be doing there in the future."




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
The exhibition showing conditions in Afghanistan



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