British troops offer glimpse of life on the Afghan frontline

24th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

On small pieces of paper, some covered in sand, British soldiers in Afghanistan have set out their hopes, fears and everyday musings for a new exhibition which paints a picture of modern war.

Artist Derek Eland, a former paratrooper, visited members of 16 Air Assault Brigade in Helmand in January, where he asked them to write down their thoughts on everything from fighting the Taliban to their families back home.

The result is 400 cards giving what he describes as a "self-portrait of a modern conflict", which is on display at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, northwest England, to mark 10 years since the Afghan war began.

Eland told AFP he wanted "to find a different way to get inside the heads of the soldiers on the frontline". And so, during a month, the 50-year-old followed several units on their often life-threatening missions.

Returning home from patrols or during downtime on base, the soldiers agreed to write honestly about how they felt about the war.

"I did worry that when they did write, they would write something that they thought people wanted to hear, or something they wanted the army to be happy with. I was completely bowled over," Eland said.

Bearing messages that range from the prosaic to the emotionally charged, from crude to poetic, the little coloured cards are crammed onto huge placards in the exhibition, creating a patchwork of personal experience.

Some speak of fear and fighting: "To go forward could have meant death by a command wire IED (a roadside bomb). To go back down the alley could have meant death by small arms fire.

"I had to make a hasty decision. I have seldom felt so alone in my life, or so scared."

Another soldier admitted: "It's hard to explain what it feels like to know one of your friends has been hit. It's easy to feel like you will be the next."

Some messages contain no words but drawings, while others keep their emotions in check with brief phrases, including: "War is not about who is right or wrong. It's about who is left."

Another simply says: "I'm an infantry man with hell on my shoulders."

Other soldiers filled up their cards with words and had to use numerous bits of paper to get their message across.

Many write about the second front, the challenge of being away from their families for months on end, which one soldier describes as a "day to day struggle" that is never portrayed in the media.

Others lighten the mood with humour, including one who writes as if he were sending a postcard on holiday: "Dear Mum, weather lovely, locals friendly, food fantastic."

Small pleasures are also celebrated: "Just back a 5-hour patrol. Received parcels on 21/01/2011 -- 17H51 Afghan time: tortilla wraps, corned chicken, corned ham, coffee, gloves, sweets -- It's such morale; it's unbelievable."

Eland believes the power of the cards comes from the fact that he only gave the soldiers about 15 or 20 minutes to write their messages.

"They were literally pouring the thoughts they carried around in their heads on to these cards," he said.

The cards were first displayed in a "diary room" on the military base in Helmand, where the soldiers could read each other's contributions, and Eland has recreated the exact set-up in Manchester, sticking tape and all.

"It's the honesty of these stories that makes them important," one soldier said.

"In Our Own Words: Soldiers Thoughts from Afghanistan" runs until June 24.

© 2011 AFP

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