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Saturday, 22 November 2014

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Cumbrian artist's new exhibition: Life on the Afghanistan frontline told by soldiers

For four weeks last winter in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Carlisle artist Derek Eland lived with British troops at frontline army bases. He shared their dangers, and their stories.

Derek Eland photo
Derek Eland, right

In a new take on war diaries Derek asked them to confide their thoughts and feelings on pieces of coloured card. Everyone he spoke to – about 400 people – agreed.

Here is an extract from the thoughts of a medical officer.

‘The young soldier was brought to me following an IED [improvised explosive device] blast... he lay in silence on the stretcher amongst the dust.

‘I didn’t need to ask many more questions – his eyes told the whole story. As wide as possible and conveying such a sense of bewilderment, uncertainty and terror that I shall never forget them.’

“When you read that you can almost imagine you’re there looking into those eyes,” says Derek.

Many more people are about to have a surrogate sense of the Afghanistan War. Those scrawled snapshots, plus photographs and film taken by Derek, have just gone on display at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester.

In Our Own Words: Soldiers’ Stories from Afghanistan gives a uniquely personal take on the conflict which began 10 years ago tomorrow.

Since October 7, 2001, 382 British forces personnel and MOD civilians have died serving in Afghanistan.

The 10th anniversary has helped to stir up international interest.

Derek’s exhibition has featured on TV and in newspapers around the world. Derek is speaking to the News & Star shortly before being interviewed for an audience of millions on the BBC World Service.

“It all adds up to a story that seems to have caught people’s imaginations as a different way of getting inside soldiers’ heads,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get an honest story out of the front line. Soldiers don’t open up to their family or friends. And when they come back it’s much more of a reflective situation.

“To get them to open up is worthwhile if you can do it. And this seems to have done that. In a remarkably honest way you can see inside the heads of these soldiers.”

Derek spent time with members of the Parachute Regiment as well as companies of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards.

During his 20s, Derek served four years in the Paras. His former life allowed him greater access, and respect, than he might otherwise have been afforded as an artist.

He patrolled with men, and women, under daily threat of death. On patrol with the Royal Irish the soldiers ahead of him discovered an IED at the roadside.

“They were pretty much presenting themselves to the Taliban because they know their weaponry is better.

“Should I face forward, so my body armour is facing the Taliban? Or should I stand sideways to be a smaller target? You’re in it up to your neck. You’ve got to commit.

“It brought my time in the Paras right back. It probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise because soldiers don’t trust many outsiders.

“But the biggest fear I had was whether this was going to work or not. Something that was two years in the planning could have gone horribly wrong.”

He gave the soldiers, and other military personnel, just 20 minutes to write their cards in a bid to make the words honest, raw and unvarnished.

Some were written during breaks in patrol. Some of Derek’s photographs show men writing with their guns momentarily laid down by their sides.

Derek was concerned that they might not write anything, or that their words would be little more than propaganda. He was pleasantly surprised.

“There are gems in everything that’s been written. These are things they carry around in their heads. They don’t have to think long about it, it’s just there. They wrote with an intensity that really surprised me. They wrote with the same intensity that they fought.”

Several people wrote about two battles: one against the Taliban and another against themselves.

‘There are two wars being fought. One that is publicised. And one that goes on in a soldier’s head when everything goes quiet.’

There were lighter shades. Two army chefs wrote about their struggle to prepare Christmas dinner for 150 people in eight locations.

One of the chefs told Derek that he went to pin his card to the display board and was there for two hours reading his colleagues’ messages.

These boards have now been reconstructed in Manchester.

“Rereading them, I reinterpreted the subject matter,” says Derek.

“I set off as an artist to do a portrait of war. What came out was more a self-portrait of each soldier. And that’s more interesting. It’s interesting to see what people write about themselves in an honest way.”

Derek says people have been shocked and moved by the intimacy of the accounts.

Particular poignancy comes from a piece of cream-coloured card with green ink.

“What can I say, Afghanistan? This is my first tour and it’s been tough... I’m a UGL [Underslung Grenade Launcher] gunner so it’s even more fun when you get into contact...”

Two weeks after writing these words, the young soldier was shot dead.

Derek thinks another card was written by a soldier who was killed. He can’t be certain because this card is one of the 40 per cent or so which wasn’t signed.

Another man’s legs were blown off a week after he wrote these words:

“R+R in just over two weeks, gotta stay strong, focused, switched on, skills and drills got be perfect, keep thinking, out-think them, out-smart them, out-work them. My love, I’ll see you at Brize [Norton] in two-and-a-half weeks.”

Last summer Derek went to a memorial service at St Edmundsbury Cathedral for 16 Air Assault Brigade.

“That was an amazing experience. Remembering the 23 soldiers from the brigade that were killed in the previous six months. A friend or a comrade carried a candle to the front of the cathedral as their names were read out.

“I’ve had a lot of text messages and emails from soldiers since they came back. The plan is that these soldiers and their families will go and see the cards. The cards say what they couldn’t have said on the phone or in letters home.”

In Our Own Words: Soldiers’ Stories from Afghanistan is in Manchester until next summer before touring the UK. There are no plans to show it in Cumbria but Derek is open to the idea.

He has been approached by publishers about producing a book based on the cards and is keen to return to Afghanistan, to repeat the exercise with American troops.

In the meantime he has returned to the Cumbrian landscape, in spirit as well as in body.

“When I was in Afghanistan I thought a lot about the Cumbrian landscape. I will never not paint, as well as doing other things.”

When Derek returned from Afghanistan he hoped the words he brought with him would help change people’s perceptions of British soldiers and the country they are serving in. Initial reaction suggests he may have succeeded.

“Anyone who comes into contact with this project is incredibly moved by it. Maybe for the first time, people are connecting with these soldiers and this conflict. It’s showing a human side never seen before.”

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