Afghan notebook: Going home to Helmand

Schools are open across Helmand province for both boys and girls
Image caption Schools are open across Helmand province for both boys and girls

During the Afghan presidential election, BBC Pashto's Saeeda Mahmood went to report from Helmand. The southern province has a reputation as one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan - but it was also a return to the place where she grew up.

I hadn't been home to Helmand for 17 years - my last visit had been under the Taliban.

I'd arrived after a long drive from Kandahar in a ramshackle taxi which broke down on the way. The other passengers had seemed increasingly tense and by the end of the journey I remember feeling pretty nervous myself.

This time I hadn't told anyone I was coming. When I arrived unannounced at my niece's house we were both in tears as we hugged each other for the first time in so long.

Back in 1997 things were very hard for women in Helmand. Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work or to go out alone.

I remember meeting many women who'd lost their husbands in the war. They were desperately worried about how to feed their families now they could no longer earn any money.

Now I'm struck by the fact that there are women out on the streets, even in the evening.

Back then all women had to wear the burqa and you never saw a female face outside the home.

Nowadays, for many the burqa has been replaced by pretty embroidered scarves and Iranian-made patterned chadors.

Image caption Saeeda seen here when the Taliban were in power - they enforced a strict dress code during their five-year rule
Image caption These days, Saeeda (centre) and many other women can now wear headscarves instead of burqas

In 1997 everything in Lashkar Gah looked dusty and run-down.

The beautiful conifer trees I remember from my childhood, had long since gone - destroyed in the fighting or cut down for firewood.

Image caption Saeeda at home in Helmand aged nine

But there was a sense of security that seems severely lacking now.

Under the Taliban people left their doors unlocked, confident that the strict sharia punishments would deter thieves.

Now they've built big concrete walls around their homes to protect against break-ins.

Many people tell me they're scared that crime and the overall security situation will get even worse when the British troops here finally pull out.

One thing that has changed is that all across the city the schools have re-opened for boys and girls.

At my old school, Bost High School, I meet many young women with big dreams.

Fatimah wants to be a doctor and help improve still chronic levels of maternal and infant mortality.

Dewa wants to be a lawyer and tackle domestic violence which is still prevalent.

"Our women don't have anyone to defend them and that's why they're putting up with injustice," she says.

Image caption Six thousand girls now study at Bost High School in two shifts a day

Many girls told me they wished the government would build a medical college locally because their parents won't let them go to Kabul to study.

Others complained that they still had to get permission from husbands to go out or take any decisions about their lives.

Lashkar Gah is much bigger, brighter and busier than it was in 1997.

There are new roads, new private colleges and clinics, and rows of small shops stacked with Chinese consumer goods.

Image caption Lashkar Gah's Bost main road in 1997 had lost most of its trees and power lines
Image caption Bost main road today after extensive reconstruction work

Houses have been repainted, and new conifer and acacia trees planted along the roadsides.

It feels as if the city I grew up in is slowly coming back to life.

Many people spoke warmly of the impact the British military have had on reconstruction efforts.

They're credited with helping realise many projects here, from the local factory producing cooking oil, cotton and soap, to a secure rehabilitation centre for young boys caught working for the Taliban.

This centre - a smart modern building - provides a home to boys as young as nine, to help them reintegrate back into the community.

When I visit they tell me about their training in computer skills, cooking and tailoring, meant to help them find jobs.

As elsewhere in Afghanistan there are many complaints in Helmand that the reconstruction could have achieved much more if it weren't for corruption.

And along with corruption there's another big problem in Helmand, which overshadows progress made.

Image caption Helmand farmers in a poppy field in 1997
Image caption Opium poppies remain one of the most profitable crops in Afghanistan

On my last day in Lashkar Gah I see a big convoy of tractors heading for fields outside the city.

They're off to eradicate the poppy crops.

Helmand produces around 40% of the world's opium, and this year's harvest looks set to break local records.

Once local mother, Zarghona, tells me her son is unemployed and can't afford to pay the bribes demanded to get a job.

"I'm so worried he's going to get involved with drugs," she says.

I heard many other similar stories.

It's a reminder to me that although life in Helmand has improved, it still has a very long way to go.

Some of the names in this report have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

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