Shura. It means consultation or meeting and it was how the most important part of my day today was spent…
An early rise at 6am to make sure I got some breakfast before heading out on a short patrol to the local Afghan National Army (ANA) post. The benefit of this was that we would patrol down and get there in plenty of time to set up the Shura room, and then to be able to chill for a bit before the locals turned up. About half way through the patrol we came to a culvert – basically a little bridge over an irrigation ditch – which we decided to check for IED’s.
To do this properly takes time – and it’s time well spent; you can’t take chances out here. A couple of the members of the patrol go to work checking the bridge and it’s surrounds whilst the rest of the patrol ‘goes firm’ and ‘takes a knee’ behind. But in Afghan, if you stand still for long enough a local farmer will soon come up and talk to you…and invariably try to claim some sort of compensation for something. I don’t blame them I guess, the vehicles we have out here are massive and can cause a lot of damage to the sides of roads and the banks of the irrigation ditches. In the case of the farmer who came to speak to me, he claimed that gravel and mud from the side of the road was being thrown into the ditch and blocking it, each time a vehicle went past.
He has a valid claim, and the farmer spent 10-15 minutes in the canal shovelling mud out onto the bank…but maybe he dug out a bit more than had been put in there by our vehicles…but it’s one of the daily things that I have to face whenever I go out. As he dug, we talked – through an interpeter – about the possibility of reinforcing the side of the road with some concrete blocks. He wasn’t happy. I wouldn’t be too happy standing in a ditch up to my knees shovelling mud. After a short while though I calmed him and we were joking about things. This job is all about working with people and diffusing potential conflicts. It can be difficult at times, but I’d rather face a farmer who is about to shovel some mud than have to face people with rifles. At least I can smile at the farmer and eventually he’ll smile back.
I took some pictures of the road and the ditch and then some pictures of him and me and he seemed happy enough. Once the bridge checks were complete we moved on, and eventually arrived in the ANA post, and quickly set up the Shura. I had procured a big red carpet and then went hunting for the ANA soldier (they call them ‘Warriors’) who was basically the tea man. He already had water on the boil for the Chai, and all was set up for the Shura. Soon the place was buzzing, local elders – wearing their distinctive white turbans began to arrive and began chatting. I joined them and talked for while about their crops. What were they planning to plant next, and then about the weather and if there was any chance of any more rain. They all seemed to think that this was now the breaking of the summer and that it would be unlikely that we’d see any more rain.
Anyway. Very soon, the elders were sat in the Shura room and we awaited the arrival of the Commanders, and the local District Council Member. This was a major boost. It was the first time in a while that the DC member had been able to get back into the village, and shows how the security of the area has moved on. On his arrival we went in to the room, following the CO. I knew pretty much all of the attendees and so as we walked around the room and shook hands with them instead of the formal ‘Saalamu Alikum’ I said the less formal, ‘Tsenga ye’ and followed it up with ‘Juria’ meaning basically, ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m fine.’ As another show of the good will, instead of just a one handed hand shake, both hands were clasped together…again, another show of the respect and the security in the area. These people are please to have us here, and they care about our safety as much as their own. We sat and the pleasantries began…honoured to be here with such respected and wise elders…grateful that the commanders had come to talk to the locals and listen to their concerns…and the meeting began. The Chai was brought in and the most important and most respected elders were served first. It’s funny that you can see where in the pecking order of things you are by when and indeed IF you get a glass of Chai placed in front of you. If you are really important the Chai-boy will make sure that your glass is never empty – like a New York coffee waitress prowling a restaurant to make sure coffe cups don’t go dry, the Chai-boy, usually the youngest person there sits to the side of the room with a tea pot full of a hot green tea. As soon as an elder (or even am member of ISAF) drain their glass he moves in to top it up.
We discussed the security situation; we discussed local projects and how they were going to be managed, and talked about the future and ‘transition’, when the ISAF forces would leave. But most importantly we discussed education.
The education of the children is one of the things I am very keen to help out with here. I am spending a lot of time boosting up and assisting with the construction of a local school. The local Ministry of Education in conjunction with ISAF and the Provincial Reconstruction Team (whom I work for) have built a school and it is just about to open properly. There have been kids in using it recently, but it’s been on an ad hoc basis and not formal…this meeting was really all about making sure that the locals knew that the school was open and that they could send their children along to it.
As we talked the elders of the area listened and put their points across. Occasionally nodding, sometimes adding to the conversation by agreeing with the words ‘Wo, wo wo’ meaning ‘yes’, stroking their long beards – their faces lined from years of hard toil in the Helmand sun, and from the stress of living in a country that has been in conflict for over 30 years. The one constant point of agreement was that they didn’t want for their children and grand-children to have to grow up thinking that war and conflict was normal. They are quite sick of war and want it over. We all sat on the floor and soon the discomfort of sitting cross legged like primary school children began to show on the Brits there. The Afghans, used to sitting on their haunches or cross legged – each one of them a good 20, 30 or even 40 years older, than us – smiled as we squirmed. It’s amazing to watch an 80 year old man sit there for so long and then get up and move away without stretching his legs, whilst we would get up and have to stretch and would let out ‘ohhhhs’ and ‘ahhhhhs’ before limping away with stiff hips and knees.
But get up we did, and we broke into smaller groups outside to talk more privately. One man took me aside and we chatted about his projects, about a well, and about a mosque that he would like refurbished. We talked for a few minutes through an interpreter, and then, with the Shura over, he left.
And us? We donned our body armour, helmets and day-sacks, and set about the patrol back up the road to the Check Point, this time in the heat of the day. But the Shura had been a success. People had left feeling as though their point had been heard – from both sides, and now the work begins making sure what was agreed actually happens. And most importantly, for me, it’ll be about getting the school finished and children inside it, doing what children out here want to do the most. Learn.