Afghanistan

Afghanistan: British Military Personnel Help Reopen School in Babaji

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UK Ministry of Defence

Captain Martha Fairlie is in charge of the British Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST) for Babaji in Helmand province. Here she talks about one of the team's latest projects to reopen and develop a school.

Captain Martha Fairlie, from the Royal Engineers, arrived in Babaji at the start of September 2009, just a few weeks after the end of Operation PANTHER'S CLAW which cleared the Babaji area of insurgents. She is now midway through her tour.

Here she explains about one of the development projects that the MSST she heads up is undertaking:

''We are a team of nine men and women from all three of the Armed Services who are serving on Operation HERRICK 11 with the Coldstream Guards Battle Group to deliver stabilisation in the Babaji area, building up the role of the Afghan Government and restoring basic infrastructure and public services to allow the local population to lead a normal life after years of fighting in their villages.

''Over the past three months, the team have already seen changes in the attitude of the local population towards engaging with ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] soldiers and the Afghan Army and Police services and taking steps towards rebuilding their communities.

''During the first few weeks, the locals were very suspicious of us and took a lot of persuasion to discuss how we could help them. Three months later, we have over 80 projects ongoing, providing work for hundreds of local people and ranging from the repair of water wells and clearance of irrigation ditches to the rebuilding of a school and a clinic and the restoration of hydroelectric power to many villages.

''The best moment for me came recently when we saw children going to school in the area for the first time since the end of PANTHER'S CLAW.

''It has been an enormous struggle to persuade parents to send their children back to school - many are still scared of Taliban intimidation, but by working hard to improve security in the area they have slowly been convinced that they can have education here again.

''A few weeks ago we held a shura [meeting] in Spin Majid, Babaji, with officials from the provincial and district Departments of Education and the local villagers. After a long meeting they eventually agreed to reopen Wazir Fatir Han School the very next day, and within a week we had two tents erected as temporary classrooms and furniture delivered to the site.

''The local ANA [Afghan National Army] Commander addressed the crowd saying, 'Without your help we are nothing here. There are big plans for your community, schools, clinics, but we need your help. If you don't protect your children, they are not your children. Let's stand together and protect your children against the Taliban.'

''The school had been closed since 2005 by the Taliban and was destroyed earlier this year after the Taliban had turned it into an improvised explosive device factory. The shura established a school management council formed by 12 community representatives.

''They agreed to open a temporary school and where it should be located. An Afghan contractor has started the construction for the 12-room school at a cost of $200,000.

''The project will employ about 20 Afghans until its completion during summer next year. The site has been cleared in preparation for the foundations to be laid. The school will have a capacity to teach more than 800 students.

''Now there are 150 pupils and three teachers registered, and we have to find even more tents to keep up with the demand for schooling. We visited the school this week and it was incredibly exciting to see children sat at their desks being taught maths and Pashtu.

''My Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Toby Gray, Commander of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, said 'The security situation in Babaji has improved so much that the Battle Group has opened the school in Spin Majid. Although the school is currently under canvas, the new school-build will be complete in the spring.

'Satisfaction in this job and the success of our mission can be measured by the number of young smiling faces each morning filing into the school. These children have a life-enhancing opportunity, something not afforded to the previous generation.'

''Of course I miss my family and friends very much, but when I see we are making such a huge difference to the lives of the children in this part of Afghanistan I feel what we are doing is worth being away from home for.''