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Ex-cops help to police chaos of Helmand

Published 06/09/2007

Former RUC officers are now taking steps in Afghanistan
Former RUC officers are now taking steps in Afghanistan

It's a long way from Belleek to the medieval and deadly backstreets of Lashkah Gar, but John Brennan could recognise the similarities.

As a young Catholic policeman in the RUC, Brennan felt the bigotry and prejudice that existed in the dark days in the early 70s when he first joined the force and was posted to the remote outpost in Co Fermanagh.

Now, retired from the police, he is in the centre of an Afghan war that is rooted in ignorance and intolerance.

"There are things I'm seeing here that took me back to those days," the 56-year-old told the Belfast Telegraph. "Many of the bad things happening here are caused by religion and tribal in-fighting. It's on a vastly different scale to what happened back home but, all the same, it is based on bigotry."

Brennan, who retired from the RUC as a chief inspector in 2001 after 30 years service, is part of a six-man group of British police officers tasked by the Foreign Office to help train Afghanistan's fledgling police force and centred in the war-torn province of Helmand.

The job is centred in the provincial town of Lashkah Gar - 'Lash', to the ex-pat community - is the heartland of the world's poppy and opium-growing empire and the bitter war between British forces and Taliban insurgents.

Alongside Brennan is another 30-year RUC veteran Cyril Donnan. Now 54, ex-chief superintendent Donnan heads up the six-man police mentoring team. He explained: "The idea was to bring some degree of community-based policing to Lashkah Gar to help illustrate that Britain is here to help Afghanistan, not conquer it or rule it.

"This is a mission to help ordinary people begin to recognise the police service is here to assist them and work for them, not to be a tool of the bad guys."

Lashkah Gar is described in reference books as the provincial capital of Helmand Province.

It is a grand title for a dirty, dusty blot on the map, a passing point along the Helmand River that spawns the fertile strips of land where poppies grow in such abundance the area now exceeds Colombia as the world's largest drug-producer.

More than 95% of the heroin that finds its way onto our streets begins its devious journey from this area, an environment that is a return to the Middle Ages.

It is here that Brennan and Donnan have come to spread the policing concept on serving the community, rather than being the authority that takes bribes and turns a blind eye.

Sitting in a fenced compound on the northern edge of 'Lash' and guarded by the British Army, the two former RUC men talk of their role. The first time the two met - despite serving in the same force for 30 years together - was here, when Brennan clambered off a Chinook helicopter and Donnan stepped forward to greet him.

Donnan, who lives in Lisburn with his wife Sandra and two children David and Emma-Jane, explained: " When I first joined the police I always wanted to serve the community but back then I never realised just how much police work is about serving.

"So after my experiences of 30 years policing through all level, to come here and try and introduce that concept is a real challenge."

Brennan, who has three children, Lee, Gary and Shauna as well as three grand-children lives with his wife Thelma in Lisnarick, Co Fermanagh. He added: "There was a UK police plan, part of a three or four-year-plan to try and assist with what we call 'ordinary decent policing.' It was a difficult concept when you consider this place is centred in Taliban fire-fights and military casualties."

The majority of the town's 60-or-so police officers are paramilitary whose main interest is trying to stay alive amid the chaos of frequent gun battles. Donnan said: "We recognised the pattern because their existence resembled the worst days for the police at the height of the violence in Northern Ireland when we were not concerned so much about community police but in staying alive and keeping the men around you alive."

So it was by chance, rather than design, that soon after they arrived in January they were in the central police office in Lash and were approached by the head of the Traffic Division.

"We were coming out of an office and this guy approached us and said he was from the Traffic division and demanded to know why we were not helping Traffic," smiled Brennan. "Until that point we didn't even know there was a traffic department, so chaotic were conditions on the town's roads."

The chance meeting led to Brennan and Donnan formulating a policy that would focus on the shocking statistics that revealed 18 people, including eight children, had been killed on the town's roads in the previous three months.

The proposal raised a few eyebrows at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) - the joint Foreign Office, Department for Foreign Development (DFiD) and military liaison group set up to oversee the £330m British aid being handed out in Afghanistan over the next three years.

The local traffic department - 30 officers - began to focus on policing " at the point of most need."

That meant dealing with a population of somewhere in the region of 120,000 people, including around 20,000 schoolchildren, who simply had no idea of traffic skills or discipline.

A number of initiatives followed including, for the first time, traffic signs that warn drivers to slow down outside schools. Funding was provided for four police motorcycles and a traffic ambulance - previously the traffic department had been dependent on the benevolence of a nearby taxi firm to get to the scene of accidents and to transport injured to hospital.

The effect was startling: in the five months the scheme has been running there has not been one child killed on the roads, compared with eight in the previous three months.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we think it could have this impact," Donnan added. "At first we thought it was a fluke, but it appears to be lasting. Look, the value of life is cheap here and they'll take your head off as soon as look at you. But what this scheme has done is open a few eyes locally to what can be done by the police to help their own community.

"We've also given the traffic department a new-found belief and confidence and the very simple initiative has saved lives and gives kids a chance of some sort of future and that's very comforting."

Belfast Telegraph

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