Thursday, 10 January 2013
Are these the world's bravest women?
Matt Warren joins the inspiring Afghan lady police recruits who face one of the most dangerous jobs on earth...Under a cold Afghan sun, as the call to prayer from the local mosque hangs in the air, Malali and Bebe are graduating from Lashkar Gah’s police academy. Under the guidance of their British mentors, they have spent the last few days learning the crucial skills required to train their fellow officers. Now, on a dusty parade ground, they are lining up with 16 male colleagues to collect their certificates – and take their place in Afghanistan’s deeply uncertain future.
They face one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. For as British troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, these two women – both wives and mothers in their early 40s – will not only be tasked with bringing security to a deeply unstable region, they will also have to battle deep-rooted sexism, rampant corruption and the daily threat of assassination. And all for just £150 a month.
The battered provincial headquarters where the ceremony is taking place is just a stone’s throw from the large British military base where I am staying. And yet I must make the two-minute journey in a blast-proof Toyota Land Cruiser with a group of heavily armed bodyguards.
Lashkar Gah may be far safer than it was, but, in this town, you take nothing for granted. Lashkar Gah is Helmand’s provincial capital, a sprawl of busy streets and low compounds on the banks of the Helmand River. Watered by this vital waterway, the surrounding area is part of the province’s so-called Green Zone, a relative oasis in the barren emptiness of the dasht. Roses, now largely petrified by the first bitter frost of winter, thrive here – but this is also poppy country, a lethal crop that poses just one of the gargantuan challenges faced by Bebe, Malali and their brave colleagues.
But this is a day for celebration. In front of a gathering of their British mentors that is largely made up of a detachment of Royal Dragoon Guards, the newly qualified police trainers are all smiles.
Malali and Bebe talk and joke freely with their male colleagues. As two of just 35 female police officers in the whole of Helmand Province, this is clearly one of the proudest days of their lives.
I speak to Malali and Bebe, both lieutenants in the Afghan police force, after the ceremony. And their attitude is truly inspiring.
‘This is a dangerous job,’ Malali, a married mother of three, says, ‘but danger is normal for me. If I am afraid, what will the other women do? If I am afraid for my family, who will serve the people of Afghanistan?’
Her colleague, Bebe, is a married mother of four – but already knows better than most the potentially lethal dangers faced by women in such a role. ‘One of my cousins informed the Taliban that I am in the police,’ she tells me. ‘After that, they came and stole some of my land. It is very dangerous now.’
Nearby, their colleague, Zakia, is overseeing a checkpoint. It is bitterly cold in the featureless concrete bunker, but here she performs the crucial task of searching women.
Male police officers are unable to search women, so insurgents have been able to disguise themselves beneath burkas – with often deadly consequences. Thanks to Zakia, this is now considerably more difficult.
Zakia – in her 50s (few know their exact age here) – has twice been targeted by the Taliban.
‘Three years ago, some strange men came to my house and asked me to report for duty,’ she says. ‘But when I came out of the house in my uniform, I realised they were Taliban and they beat me. I had to spend 25 days in hospital.’
As British troops begin their withdrawal from Helmand after 11 years of war, the Afghan police are being handed responsibility for much of the region’s security.
And the trials ahead of them seem almost Herculean in scale. Apart from the threat posed by insurgents – only days ago, just moments after I passed in an armoured convoy, the Gereshk district governor’s compound was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device), costing one of his advisors a leg – is the well-publicised threat from within.
On 20 October, six policemen were murdered by fellow officers in the nearby Gereshk area. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying a ‘mujahid… had infiltrated and penetrated the police ranks’.
Just 10 days later, two British soldiers, from 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, were shot and killed by a man wearing an Afghan police uniform, taking the UK death toll from so-called green-on-blue attacks last year to 11. Senior members of the force have been implicated, too. Last August, in an apparently premeditated attack, three American soldiers were murdered after being invited for dinner by an Afghan police commander.
They are also poorly equipped. When I speak to Bebe, Malali and Zakia, they are wearing the official – if well-worn – blue uniform of the national police. But I discover that the six female police officers in nearby Gereshk have so far received neither their uniforms nor their weapons. In fact, I am told by one of their mentors that they live in constant fear of the Taliban – they tell of being followed home when they leave work – and that senior male colleagues, perhaps reluctant to see women join their ranks, have also prevented them from receiving even the most basic training.
Even the Afghan National Army, which shares responsibility for the nation’s security, has expressed reservations about police capabilities. Brigadier General Ghulam Farouq Parwani, deputy commander of the 215th Corps of ANA, recently said: ‘The ANP [Afghan National Police] has limited capability so our [ANA] forces are busy with checkpoints. The police lack organisation, structure and because it is recruited locally, sometimes it has men available, sometimes not.’
Malali and her colleagues, however, remain undaunted. They speak to me with a bold confidence that is rare among Helmand’s women and when a male colleague pushes a joke too far, she threatens him – in jest – with a tightly clenched fist.
In fact, another of her colleagues – a 50-year-old 2nd lieutenant named Nigara – is the epitome of battle-hardened resolve. Beneath her dark headscarf is a scar, left by an insurgent who tried to stab her in the head. She also has two bullet holes in her leg, another reminder of her clashes with the insurgents.
On the parade ground, I speak to Lieutenant-Colonel Jamie Piggott of the Royal Dragoon Guards. He oversees the Police Mentoring Advisory Group, which is responsible for developing the police force’s effectiveness, and is infectiously optimistic about its future.
‘The key thing is the appetite the Afghan police have shown for taking responsibility,’ he says. ‘Put aside what the ANA might say about the police. There is, as with UK forces, a degree of rivalry between each element. In my view, the Afghan police are as good as, if not better, than the ANA. They are delivering security on a daily basis and their appetite for this is huge.
‘The female officers are particularly value-added. Women are quite simply better organised and more detailed than the men are.
‘Regarding insider threat, it’s a measured risk. Of the thousands of interactions with Afghan security forces every day, the vast majority are nothing less than superb and professional.’
But few can be anything but pragmatic about the corruption that is endemic here. Just days earlier, I travelled through the dangerous, narrow streets of Gereshk to the local women’s centre. In this cold – they can’t afford heating or electric lighting – largely empty building, over the traditional tea and toffees, I spoke to a group of local women. Many claimed they had taken a grave risk by coming to meet me, but they were keen to express their concerns for the future. And corruption within the security forces was high on the agenda.
One, a member of the Provisional Community Council, who had lost both a son and a nephew to IEDs, was particularly suspicious of the police. ‘Someone I know had a factory, which had 50 employees,’ she said. ‘But then the manager was arrested and imprisoned. When I went to the district governor, he told me the police chief had arrested him, but when I went to the police chief, he told me that the governor had arrested him. In the end, he had to pay 1 million Afghanis ($20,000) to get released.
‘This is why the people turn against the authorities. This is why they join the insurgency. If the authorities are harassing you, mugging you and taking your money, you might feel like you have no choice.’
Corruption here is a way of life, even among the police.
‘You have to do a job and then earn money on the side,’ Trine Mark, a Danish police inspector who is acting as a mentor to the police in Gereshk, tells me. ‘To take a small amount of money at checkpoints is normal. Many locals only consider it corruption if it becomes too much.
‘You have to accept it goes on or you can’t be here. If you want to get through a checkpoint with a truckload of stuff, you have to pay. People accept that. When Gereshk gets the fuel for the month from Lashkar Gah, one of the Afghans I am mentoring will take some of the fuel and sell it at the bazaar. He says he sells it to provide officers with other things, but we all know that he probably pockets most of it himself. At least he’s honest about it.’
But this ‘honest dishonesty’ has its limits. Only recently, a district governor was caught with a staggering 600kg of heroin in his car, but few think he will face stiff justice. Partly thanks to British troops, poppy production is dramatically down in Helmand – from 25,117 hectares in 2009 to 7,914 in 2011 – but this is the hugely complex and dangerous backdrop against which Malali and her colleagues must operate.
‘I deal with all of these dangers by putting on my uniform and doing my duty,’ she says. ‘I want to walk around all of Helmand and show them that there is a woman in the police, serving her country.’
These female Afghan police officers certainly have a unique and hugely important role to play. Fly over the region’s rural areas and you pass over an expansive and featureless desert, peppered with isolated compounds.
This is the breeding ground of the insurgency. But women, who have an often hidden influence over the male members of their family, can play their part in snuffing the insurgency out – at home. Slowly but surely, the remarkable stories of Malali and Bebe may just inspire other women to follow their lead.
Indeed, while the Afghan policewomen I spoke to told how the men in their families were at first suspicious of them going to work for the authorities, especially alongside male colleagues, they all explained how they had now been persuaded that it was for the best.
In fact, despite all of the corruption and the murder, the discrimination and the hardship, these brave few are perhaps proving that, when the British leave, this is a war that may just be won; one woman, and one home, at a time.
PICTURES: CPL MIKE O'NEILL RLC/MOD
Daily tip from the lady archive
“PEOPLE cannot help being influenced by their surroundings and their environment; therefore how all important it is that both of these should be healthy and cheery, for health and happiness both go hand-in-hand.”The Lady. The Blessing of Old Health, 18th November 1920
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