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Alumnus Reflects on Working in Afghanistan

Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier, B.Sc.76, Commander, International Security Assistance Force with NATO in Afghanistan

With its deserts and majestic mountains, the natural beauty of Afghanistan is unforgettable. But the terrible level of destruction and poverty leaves a more permanent memory. More than 20 years of war have left the country in ruins. Palaces, dominating the city of Kabul, are now broken skeletons. Irrigation systems are destroyed. Mud huts, buildings, roads and bridges are shattered. In Kabul the sights and smells are a constant reminder that there is no water or sewerage system.

Despite the destruction and poverty, the spirit and toughness of the people is obvious - serious people, with stern faces that are transformed by smiles when they see Canadian soldiers. Daily, a caravan of their life, representing the last two thousand years, passes by. Trucks, colorful buses, yellow taxis, bikes, wheelbarrows, carts, horses, donkeys and the occasional camel - all with enormous loads - mix with a teeming mass of the descendants from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. A herd of huge water buffalo, in no hurry to go anywhere, can bring them all to a halt.

The threats are many to this country. But Afghans are determined it will be stable, secure and democratic. The threats result from an insane lust for power by the few. Men with massive egos want to dictate to others every aspect of their daily lives, reduce women to slaves, make money and remain immune from the rule of law. Whether terrorist or criminal, none of them want an Afghanistan that holds them accountable for their actions. They use horrible tactics - explosives in cars and bikes and on people to tear apart men, women and children, explosive rockets fired randomly into populated areas, shooting innocent victims and instilling fear by the unpredictability of their violent acts.

Making an impact is a challenge for the almost 2000 Canadian soldiers here. They help provide security for Afghans by supporting police forces and an army still in development. Canadian soldiers create a more secure environment in which Afghans have started to rebuild their lives and their country. The tactics are simple. Well-led, motivated and superbly trained soldiers develop a link with the local population, who see them as their guests and protectors, and who, in turn, protect them. That connection allows soldiers to support Afghans by removing the threats to them. Soldiers give Afghans hope. Hope that life may get better and that they can live without fear and want, but, more importantly, hope that life for their children and grandchildren will be much better. Hope that they can have the most basic of human rights, the right to life.

Canadian soldiers provide a security framework for the effective use of the International Community’s massive investment. Wells are dug to provide clean water. Schools are built to meet the awesome demand for education. Thousands of students, both boys and girls, use small, decrepit schools in three shifts because of the desire to be educated.

International investment also brings improvements in basic medical care such as polio immunization. It brings washing machines for hospitals to wash bed sheets that before now were cleaned with sand.

Because of these improvements many people are experiencing, for the first time, warm homes, basic diets and secure neighborhoods. They contrast greatly with those whose children have visible skin diseases and parasites, go hungry and, even during winter, run barefoot on the filthy, cold ground. The immense challenge can be seen in the legless war veteran, walking home on his hands, simply because crutches, wheelchairs or prostheses are unknown and unavailable.

Support from home, as Canadian soldiers face many challenges, is vital. Without it life would be difficult. When Canadian soldiers walk the dangerous streets of Kabul, they truly believe that every Canadian walks with them.

The privileged lives we have in Canada brings an obligation to help others, less fortunate, throughout the world. The skills we have, our quality education and the basic values that Canadian soldiers represent, prepare us well for our role. No soldier, no Canadian, and certainly no Newfoundlander or Labradorian could ask for a better opportunity to contribute to something that is so fundamentally good as the mission to help those who desperately need help. The best citizens in Canada wear our uniforms here. Canadians should be proud of them.

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