Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Joe arrives in Cyprus today en route to Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan for his second tour of six months. Last time I couldn’t really deal with knowing too much detail. Every time there was an incident on the news I felt my throat tighten and a sense of helpless/fear/panic and a pregnant woman’s need to stuff my face, usually cold tins of spaghetti – cold and in twos (haven’t touched it since). Joe called me a numpty because by the time any sad event became a news item, the families had already been informed. It would have been so much easier if Joe could have sent a quick text to say “Am OK xx” but mobile phones were not allowed.
However, a couple of weeks in, I couldn’t bear to listen to any news or watch any reports on the television. When Joe came back safe and sound I asked a really idiotic question “how close did you come..........” Oh a really honest answer and I felt the blood fall out of my face.
This time I want to know what he is going into. I can deal with seeing pictures of Camp Bastion, but there is a lump in my throat that’s for sure.
Should I even put this on our “sailing blog” – well actually we both see it as our diary, and as such, this is happening to us through Joe. There will be those who choose to read no further, that’s OK with us, we can respect that.
I will make no comment as to the whys or wherefores, I will do nothing but convey my worry as a mother of a serving trooper and leave it at that.
I am in the midst of the worst bout of flu I have ever had in my life but hey “man up Pepe, you get to snuggle back in bed”.
Dust storm brewing
Monday the 15th of 2011 this report was featured in the Guardian newspaper, it gives a good overview of life at the camp. If I have broken any rules by using it, well if our boys weren’t......................I said I would make no comment. The pictures I have randomly taken from web images.
It is home to 30,000 people, has its own airport, fire station and police force – and in six years has grown to a city the size of Reading. Nick Hopkins (for the Guardian) visited Britain's vast military base in the Afghanistan desert last year. The planes tend to arrive at night, and if the sky is clear, the moon bathes the airport with an ethereal, ghostly light. A film of dust and sand covers the tarmac and shimmers silver in the dark, conjuring familiar images of lunar walks made by astronauts a generation ago. This place, though, is not some other world, but Afghanistan. And the surroundings are not beautiful or charismatic. It is Camp Bastion: a brutal, functional, military city built from nothing in the desert, from which the UK has orchestrated its conflict against the Taliban for the past six years. There is probably no place like it on earth. It has grown so much that the perimeter wall is now almost 40km long – making it roughly the size of Reading; and its airport is busier than any other in the UK, apart from Gatwick and Heathrow. The Afghans will inherit it one day, should they wish. Otherwise it could turn into a vast, derelict Atlantis in the desert – no better monument, perhaps, to the west's invasion of a country that has been an enduring battleground over the past 30 years.
Nobody ever imagined this eight years ago when the British started looking for a safe place to fly supplies for the troops who were to be sent to the southern province of Helmand. The British didn't want to set up camp too close to any fighting, and they wanted somewhere flat, to build a landing strip for aircraft. They chose a place in the plains of north-west Helmand, where the Soviets had once had a small base, and dug a trench. The Soviets had recognised the area's strategic importance.
"It used to be a trading crossroads. And we can see everything around us," says Commodore Clive Walker, the Royal Navy officer who is currently in charge of the entire camp.
Though the land is arid, it also has boreholes filled with fresh water that has taken years to flow hundreds of miles from the peaks of the Hindu Kush to the underground aquifers in the middle of the desert.
The British decided to call the new camp Bastion – a reference to the huge earth-filled bags that have been used to define its boundaries. The bomb-proof bags are made by a UK company called Hesco Bastion, which was set up by a British inventor, Jimi Heselden. Heselden, who died last year, made a fortune selling his invention to the British military, and thousands of the bags now line the roads around this camp, and almost every other in the country.
The other ubiquitous building block of the city is the Iso freight container, the sort you see on lorries or the decks of ships at ports around the world. There are now 10,000 Iso containers at Bastion, almost all of them brought in by road through Pakistan, after being shipped from Europe or America to Karachi. By some estimates, it would take a decade to remove them all from Helmand, though many of them are likely to stay put.
Rather than bringing in water supplies from elsewhere, the British set up a water-bottling plant on site, drawing the water from the two existing boreholes. The plastic bottles are made at the plant, which provides one million litres a week for Bastion, as well as many of the other smaller bases and checkpoints across the province.
Most of the fresh food is flown in, with the rest coming by road. There is a central warehouse where most of it is stored – it is thought to be the second-biggest building in the whole of Afghanistan. With between 20,000 and 30,000 people on the base at any one time, the quantities needed to feed them are vast; 27 tonnes of salad and fruit come in every week alone. Convoys of lorries, with armoured support, thunder out of the camp most days to supply other bases, often leaving in the middle of the night to minimise the disruption to the villages and towns that they rumble through.
The base has become so big that it has eight incinerators and a burn pit to get rid of the rubbish. The camp also has its own bus service, fire station and police force. There are on-site laws and regulations too. One of them is the speed limit – 24kph (15mph). It is enforced by officers with speed cameras, who can leap out from behind containers, or from inside ditches, to catch anyone flouting the rules. Anyone caught speeding more than three times is banned from driving on the base. Though the limit is quite low, many of the military vehicles are so big, and the dust they churn up so blinding, that it is dangerous for them to be going any faster.
There aren't any pavements at Bastion, or street lights, so walking around at night can be perilous without a torch. The airport is busy day and night. It dealt with 2,980,000 pieces of freight in June alone, including 73,000 pallets of mail.
There isn't much in the way of nightlife – but there is a Pizza Hut takeaway restaurant that trades from inside a converted Iso. Customers can sit outside on pub-style benches. There is also a bar next door called Heroes, which has giant TV screens showing news channels from the UK.
For thousands of staff here, their lives revolve around huge air-conditioned gymnasiums. Bodybuilding has become a near obsession for many of the soldiers who live on site, who have little else to do once they have finished work. The gyms are busy from 5am. There are no weekends at Camp Bastion.
While the airport is the hub for flights in and out of the country, the heliport is busier. Every day, RAF Chinook, Sea King and Merlin helicopters run like buses, ferrying troops to and from the base. They are responsible for the bulk of the 600 movements undertaken across Helmand every day.
"We can take things by road, fly them in by helicopter, or throw it out of a back of a plane," says Commodore Walker. "It all depends what is being transported and where it is going. We used to have 60 or 70 vehicles leave the camp in convoys. But that was not good for relations with the local population. We try to go out first thing in the morning so the convoys don't disrupt the bazaars. We try to time them carefully."
Above all else, though, the camp is a military base. The US Marines, and the Afghan security forces, have their own areas now, but the core of the base remains – and is run by – the British. Soldiers arriving from the UK for a six-month tour will stay at the camp for about a week before being deployed elsewhere. In that time, they will spend five days acclimatising to the heat or the cold. In summer the temperatures reach up to 55C. In winter, it will freeze.
on a visit to the camp
David Beckham on a visit to the camp
One of the most surreal sights in the city is its Afghan village, a replica built by the British. It even has a small number of local residents who tend to a bread oven, riding motorbikes and selling food at a market. It is supposed to give the soldiers a better feel for what to expect when they go on patrol. There is also a training area designed to help them identify the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have been used to such deadly effect by insurgents. There are tell-tale clues the soldiers need to learn; they can be taught about the different techniques used by the insurgents for planting IEDs, and how the villagers might be trying to warn them of their whereabouts. If an Afghan has stopped using a bridge to cross a stream or a river, there is often a reason. Elsewhere in the camp, there is a kennel for the dozens of dogs that are used on patrols, and for sniffing out drugs and explosive material. One of them is called Charm – a German shepherd so big that he rarely has to raise growl to deter potential troublemakers.
The medical facilities at Camp Bastion rely on a taskforce of helicopters, which are controlled by Colonel Peter Eadie, the commander of the UK joint aviation group. In the past, patients were brought into the trauma unit at Bastion before major surgery could begin. Now, consultants fly out in specially adapted Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters to any emergency, so they can start work on the injured as soon as they set eyes on them. "The system is one that has evolved over the years," says Eadie. "Countless lives have probably been saved this way. We take the hospital to the patient." He can hope to get a helicopter from Bastion to an injured soldier in less than 19 minutes. And the most serious cases can be back in the UK in less than 24 hours.
All of this is beyond the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, and that situation is unlikely to change before the end of 2014, when Nato forces will have ended all frontline combat operations against the Taliban. "The Afghans are starting to get themselves into a position to support their own troops but they cannot leap up to our level of technology overnight," says Walker.
How much of this remains when the British and Americans leave has yet to be decided. Even though the drawdown of British forces will be modest this year and next, Walker is already thinking about what equipment will be left in the desert, and what will be carted back home, to be put in storage. "It took us eight years to get to this stage and now we have to start thinking about what to bring back," he says.
The huge canvas tents in which most people live will be repaired, folded up and returned to warehouses in the UK. Some of them sleep up to 32 people on bunk beds. Only VIPs and some of the pilots have better "tier 2" accommodation, which means they sleep in a prefabricated metal pod with has a hard roof rather than a soft one. "The tents can be refurbished and put back on the shelf in the UK for the next time," he says. How many of the 3,000 British military vehicles will return is less clear. Though bomb-damaged trucks and armoured cars can be entirely rebuilt at the workshops in Bastion, some of them are likely to remain in Helmand – they will have taken too much punishment to be of value again. Walker is trying to look ahead without losing grip on the day to day, which remains the priority. Providing British forces with the right equipment, food, and first aid is a juggling act he performs every day. "If I don't get it right, we're in a bad place. We can't fail.”
ALL IN ALL GODSPEED JOE
AND YOUR SAFE RETURN