Sunday, 27 July 2008

Russell Oliver: 13 steps ........ a very long way from home

This extract from the diary of Royal Marine Commando Russell Oliver has been lifted from today's Sunday website. I've taken the liberty of copying it because a) it's really good and b) I'm finding that a lot of the links I'm adding to my blog are getting broken and I didn't want to lose this.

On arrival at our new home for six months - the Sangin District Centre, or DC as we come to know it - I'm directed to the fire support group tower. It's a three-storey building, where we sleep on the ground floor and carry out sentry duty on the top. Our weapons include an array of machine guns.
The DC is split in half by the river Helmand, and the only crossing point is a rudimentary bridge. This is where we'll wash both ourselves and our clothes for the duration of the tour. The Helmand flows from Kajaki dam, another outpost manned by the men of 40 commando Royal Marines. It is of the utmost importance because the dam provides the only electrical power source in the Sangin valley.
We assume guard duties immediately because the majority of men from the Royal Anglian Regiment, who we have taken over from, flew out on the same Chinook we arrived on.
There are several sangars (fortified positions) dotted around the perimeter of the DC, and a further two on the roofs of the main buildings, one of which is my troops' responsibility to man.
We employ a rota system so each man carries out two hours on duty then has four hours off. This is carried out constantly and for the remainder of the tour. After all, the only security we have is that we can provide ourselves.
It is my first turn for sentry. As I make my way up to the roof I notice that someone has ironically scrawled on the wall 'Thirteen steps stay lucky'. There are, in fact, 13 steps as I count them. But eight British soldiers have been killed on the rooftop we are now manning, the result of attacks by the Taliban. As I look out from the tower I can't help but notice the outstanding views over the whole area.
Anyone who attempts an attack on the DC will be delivered a stern lesson in a very short space of time. Every angle and approach is covered by an array of machine guns varying in calibre.
The views, however, are magnificent. The entire area is ringed by mountains rising up out of the horizon. It truly is a sight to behold. The town of Sangin is a different story to the mountains. It's a town that has been ravaged by war, past and present. Fifty percent of it has been rubble-ised by heavy fighting - some, I'm sure, by the Soviets but also contributed to by the British.
Having completed my two hours sentry, I make my way back down the 13 steps.
I bed down for the night with a book and finally drift off into an uneasy sleep, wondering what the coming night might bring. Several hours go by before I am awakened by one of the lads - it's already my turn on sentry again. I light a fire to boil the ancient kettle that the Anglians have kindly left us. Ten minutes later I'm on my way, tea in hand, to the roof. My watch shows four thirty in the morning. It's pitch black.
The darkness envelopes all and everything. Another modern wonder amongst our equipment is thermal imagery. As I scan the ground to my front, I can see everything despite the darkness. Night instantly becomes day. It's an ace in our pack that we hold over our enemy and they are very aware of it. Once satisfied no-one is about to breach the perimeter I sit back and take a sip of tea. I try to imagine I'm sat out in my garden on a warm summer's evening but the illusion is rudely shattered with the onset of call to prayer.
It is the first time I have ever experienced it. I have heard it in films but hearing it first hand is quite unnerving. It serves as a reminder that I am, in fact, a very long way from home.

The rest of the diary can be read on the link below.

Link> Sunday Mercury: 13 Steps - be lucky! Sentry duty in Sangin, Afghanistan