Following the end of combat operations in Afghanistan and the closure of the last UK base at Camp Bastion, the remaining British troops in southern Afghanistan have been leaving the country through the once bustling Kandahar airfield.
Getty Images photographer Matt Cardy became the last journalist to be embedded with British forces at the base. He shares his recent experiences with us:
Although my job is normally about the first time something happens, sometimes it is also about the last. Such was the case in my most recent assignment to southern Afghanistan documenting the departure of the remaining British troops. Although officially combat operations had ended in October with the closure of Camp Bastion, there was still a story to be told of what happens next. A perfect opportunity to do so coincided with Remembrance Sunday, which is always something that plays well in UK media with the ‘…and in Afghanistan’ image of troops and poppies in the sand. However this year, it would have all the more resonance as it would be the very last time that any great numbers of British troops would gather in the country for such a ceremony.
With the request accepted by the Ministry of Defence in London, so began a furious few days of paperwork and admin and also the circumnavigating of unfamiliar terms and acronyms. Although the trip was to be short and always expected to be behind the wire of the airbase, there is still a lot to be done just to get there. There is the MoD Green Book to sign, ISAF accreditation to complete, Afghan visa to apply for, medicals to pass and up-to-date hostile environment courses to be attended.
My arrival in theatre was to be courtesy of the Royal Air Force via Brize Norton which is an experience in itself. In many ways, it is just like leaving the UK from a small regional airport – apart from the armed guards at the gate, people checking in weapons and a departure board boasting hostile and military destinations, a stark reminder that travelling to Magaluf via Cardiff, you are not! You are also totally in the hands of the military planners, so when you are told your connecting plane from your ‘undisclosed’ location in the Middle East to Kandahar has been cancelled due to operational reasons, it is greeted by you and your fellow passengers with a resigned shrug.
The implications for that cancellation, apart from losing a night’s sleep, meant that my amended flight, on-board a giant RAF C-17, would get me to Kandahar about the same time early in the morning as the still-to-be-announced VIP, who would also be attending the Remembrance Sunday ceremony now.
What could possibly go wrong!?
Thankfully nothing did. Although my luggage with most of my camera kit and laptop very nearly did carry on to Kabul, along with the Special Forces troops I had unwittingly been travelling with.
Reunited with my camera equipment and still wearing the mandatory body armour and helmet you need for arrival at the airport, I had literally seconds to reset the cameras from their settings of UK November lighting conditions to the bright light of the Afghanistan morning, only to focus on Prince Harry walking from the C-17 he had travelled on from the UK.
His arrival had been a well kept secret, which was now protected by a strict embargo and so began a day of whirlwind visits to various detachments and squadrons that were still operating or waiting to leave the base.
The highlight of the day was the Remembrance Sunday ceremony itself, where a very heavily but discreetly guarded Prince Harry laid a wreath with a very heartfelt message. As with many times in my job, it was only at the very end of the day that the significance of what I had just witness was realized. It had been a very moving and historical day.
With ‘wheels-up’ signifying the departure of the Prince, the embargo could be lifted and the pictures released. Although now dark in Kandahar, luckily, the four and a half hour time difference between the UK and Afghanistan really works in favor of meeting UK print deadlines.
With Prince Harry gone the relief amongst the remaining in-house UK military media team was tangible and so began a more relaxed pattern of days that were all marked with a number of farewells, departures and various flag lowering and sun set ceremonies.
Armistice Day saw another moving ceremony amongst the shipping containers of kit bound for the UK in the logistics compound with Brigadier Rob Thomson laying a wreath which commemorated the 453 British service personnel that had died in the country since 2002.
It also saw the farewell to the last RAF Tornadoes from 31 Squadron and to my fellow journalists from the BBC, Nato TV and BFBS who were all on route to Kabul.
Because I had to catch a later flight, their departure meant I would be the last UK journalist embedded with British troops at the airbase. A strange honor, but also a privilege to be there during such a historic week.
The next few days were spent documenting the departures of remaining troops and visiting the various facilities that remained on the camp. At one time, servicing the thousands of coalition troops, the airbase had included a TGI Friday’s, Burger King and a Pizza Hut. The big brands have now gone along with some of the retailers, but the base still retained a restaurant, various takeaways, a chapel and a large PX store where you could buy anything from chewing gum to Harley Davidson motorcycle. There was also four large themed cafeterias serving a vast choice of food, which, with their strict meal times, gave a strange rhythm to the day.
Very quickly I found myself recognizing people around the base and them, me. From the softly spoken Irish Padre, the cheery omelet-making chef from Goa, US Army’s Wilson Cueva from New York to the young jokey guardsmen at the gates of the British compound. Their greetings and friendly waves made you quickly feel part of a wider family and a glimpse into the camaraderie that many servicemen claim is missing outside of the armed forces.
As the days passed, so did the pace of the packing-up, including the dismantling of the military’s own press office that was slowly relocating its entire staff. In many ways, it reminded me of the end of a giant music festival, where all the vast temporary infrastructure that once supported thousands of people is slowly whittled away until the space it occupied finally returns to the state it was originally in, in this case a barren sandy desert!
As the cable and communication links with the outside world were finally cut, it felt very much like it was time to go home. And so, like the thousands of UK troops that have already done so, I began the long journey back to the UK.
As the final British troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, inevitably questions will be raised as to whether the UK’s involvement was worth it. However, speaking to the troops, they didn’t seem to dwell much on that. Their involvement in Afghanistan was much more personal. As one older airman told me, he had been there at the beginning, several times in the middle and now he was there at the end. Afghanistan had been a very big part of his life.
As our much delayed C-17 finally took off from Afghanistan soil, sat alongside the returning troops from all sorts of services, regiments and outfits, I found myself thinking about all the pre-deployment exercises, homecoming parades, and countless heart-wrenching repatriations at Wootton Bassett and laterally Carterton, that I had attended. Afghanistan has actually been a big part of my life too.
In many way, just like we do in the media, the troops thoughts were on the future, not the past and speculation to where the next deployment will be, be that Iraq or Syria, or being involved in more humanitarian missions such as in Sierra Leone, were pondered.
Wherever or whatever that future deployment may be, having been alongside them for these past few days and witnessing their professionalism, I would personally very much welcome the chance to be there with them.You can see more of Matt’s images here, which have been used in many online galleries including Mail Online, Telegraph Online and International Business Times