A Helmand that is rarely seen


The BBC's Bilal Sarwary recently travelled about Helmand province where he observed police at work, spoke to people on the streets and nomads on the move in a critical year for Afghanistan.

Helmand from the air

Helmand from the air has always looked the same: a dry patchwork of farmland, a long river twisting its way through an arid landscape. In the summer, it is just a bit greener.

The main highway is not safe enough. It is an irony that is not lost on Helmand residents that the splendid tarmac roads built by coalition forces are so perilous. The threat is posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed by the Taliban who are still out in force and who can suddenly spill onto the roads to kill passing government employees.

The ordinary people who live in the isolated hamlets and farm in this vast province still have to take this road. For somewhere so unpopulated, Helmand is still a dangerous place.

But many still choose to come here - like the Kuchi nomads.

Kuchis on the move

For these Kuchis in Helmand, the danger was in the sky and not on the ground. They were watching a a low-flying drone in the sky hovering over the outskirts of the city. It stayed for about four or five minutes then went away.

You could see its wings, the weapons loaded onto it, and then the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of these young nomads. These drones do conduct lethal strikes on militant targets - sometimes civilians are killed too.

But they have to roam with their cattle and sheep, even to insecure areas. At this time of year there are many Kuchis to be found in Helmand. They travel that dangerous highway - they too have suffered throughout this conflict as they move silently through this landscape.

Road 'stained with blood'

One taxi driver makes the dangerous journey between the Helmand capital Lashkar Gah and Sangin. Hurtling down this highway he has been caught in many fights, he has seen friends blown up.

But he doesn't stop, he continues to drive. The Taliban know him too and that is how he is able to drive between the extremely dangerous Sangin and Lashkar Gah.

"Every time I leave my home, I'm not sure I'll come back alive," he says.

He says he has to do it to feed his family. But this is his profession and what affords him daily dignity.

A bus driver also told me about the road to Sangin.

"This road is stained with the blood of people blown up by roadside bombs."

This 100km (62-mile) stretch of asphalt, interspersed with sand and debris, is notorious for IED blasts, abductions and beheadings carried out by Taliban.

Police on one side, poppies on the other

The eerie silence that followed the bus driver's description of the highway is broken by the whistles of Afghan policemen manning a barricade just ahead.

At the police post a policeman informs us that an IED, placed in a TV set, had just exploded. Another one had been detected nearby and was being defused. Just then, some insurgents hiding in a nearby graveyard opened fire on police.

This type of checkpost is the real front line. There are poppy fields on one side, police headquarters on the other and constant fights with the Taliban.

Part of the policemen's duties is to intercept Taliban radio and in doing so they get a sense of who these people are. A lot of them are just the local villagers.

"In most remote areas, there is neither police nor courts to settle disputes and keep criminals in check," Haji Marjan, one tribal elder from Sangin, told me. "A lot of people look up to the Taliban to settle their disputes as there is no government beyond 5km of the district headquarters."

This also pushes younger people closer to the Taliban.

At the police post, two sentries are always on duty allowing the others a chance to drink tea, listen to music and smoke cigarettes.

Football match

There are flashes of normality. The crowd (below) gathered to watch a football match between the army and the police force. But it was cancelled for security reasons. They heard about if through word-of-mouth. They were desperate for entertainment.

Masood Bakhtwar, deputy governor of Helmand, says it is wrong to say there is no governance in remote areas of Helmand, pointing to schools, clinics, doctors and paramedics.

He says life has changed for the better, but there is no denying that it is still extremely tough.