Page last updated at 15:26 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Helmand day five - the silent majority

British soldier in Afghanistan

In the fifth and final entry of his diary from Helmand province, the BBC's Ian Pannell speaks to ordinary Afghans living on the front-line.

There are a few thousand foreign troops operating in Helmand province and there are 750,000 or so Afghans living here.

We have spent the last 10 days travelling around and reporting, but the missing voice has been that of ordinary Afghans.

Because the security situation in areas like Helmand is so precarious, the only way of getting out and about in an even remotely safe way is with the military.

"Embeds" are where reporters, cameramen and photographers are effectively implanted into a military unit where they live, sleep and work.


We were... hiding in a ditch, in a stand-off with the Taleban and conducting a 'round-table' type discussion on life in Afghanistan.


It allows you intimate access to see and do what the military does, but getting to speak to the local population is often limited.

Even so, there have been opportunities in the last week or so to snatch brief conversations with ordinary Afghans, who very quickly warm to the subject of living on the front-line.

One word encapsulates life in Helmand more than any other: security.

It is the first and last issue on everyone's mind, whether you talk to a midwife in a family-planning clinic, a shop-keeper in the market, a farmer in his field or a translator working with the British military.

We were caught in a rather bizarre situation one day while out on foot patrol.

'President Karzai failed'

The Taleban had spotted the military and were discussing whether or not to open fire.

We hid in a ditch, moved to a farm, and waded through a stream before finally taking cover in a small village about 650ft (200m) from Taleban positions.

A local man with three small, raggedy children smiled and watched "the foreigners" in action.

British soldier in Afghanistan
The number of UK troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 stands at 150

He was hiding behind a wall on one side of the road; we were in a ditch on the other.

As the situation stabilised he came across to talk to us, and within minutes four other men appeared, squatted down and joined the conversation.

We were in the middle of a village in Helmand, hiding in a ditch, in a stand-off with the Taleban and conducting a "round-table" type discussion on life in Afghanistan.

Man 1: "Every day there is fighting. We cannot work outside in the fields. We are not happy. We are very tired from all the fighting."

Ian: "You are scared of the fighting between the Taleban and International Security Assistance Force (Isaf)?"

Man 2: "We have a problem with both of you. When you fire rockets and guns, it lands in our houses; when the Taleban shoots, it also lands in our compounds. We are very scared of both of you."

At this point I thought it was opportune to emphasise that I was from the BBC, and although travelling with the military, independent and separate from them.

Even so, it was a good illustration of the problems with "embeds". The man nodded and laughed, exposing a fearsome array of dental calamities.

Man 3: "Some of the Taleban are in the ditch over there. It is up to you guys. When we show where the Taleban are to you, you do nothing, you don't catch them. Why?"

Ian: "What would you like, who do you want to be in charge and how should it be achieved?

Man 4: "President Karzai told us he was going to bring security. He promised but he failed, so we can't choose who will be in charge. No-one can bring security here, no-one is in charge."

Man 1: "We just want security and peace. We don't have problems with the British soldiers. We will support anyone who can bring peace, then we will be happy."

Ian: "You will back anyone who can bring peace, even the Taleban?"

Man 5: "If the British leave Afghanistan it would be good. We can take care of our own country. This is our nation and it belongs to us and we should be allowed to deal with the situation. If you leave it would be good."

It is a conversation that can be had at any number of places across the south and east of Afghanistan.

The Helmand diary is reported on jointly by Ian Pannell and John Boon



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