From Gravesend to Helmand: Cleo Blackman’s story

09:00 03 August 2012

Cleo Blackman in Helmand

Cleo Blackman in Helmand


It is hard to believe that when I speak to Cleo Blackman on a perfectly clear phone line she is standing in blistering 40 degrees heat within a military base in Afghanistan where life is unimaginably different to England.

Cleo Blackman with International Development sec Andrew MitchellCleo Blackman with International Development sec Andrew Mitchell

The former Gravesend Grammar School pupil is spending a year in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, where she is co-ordinating aid projects to build infrastructure such as schools, health clinics and roads.

The 31-year-old works for the Department for International Development (DfID) and this is her first posting abroad – and it is very moving.

“It is an emotional job. It is an intense environment and you get personally involved.

“It is very easy in London to not get a real idea of the impact you are making.

“But having seen the pictures from 2009 with no people in the bazaar it is amazing to then see people now going about their lives.

“I recently went out to a health clinic where they now have six local midwives who delivered 49 babies this last month. That wasn’t possible the month before,” she said.

The risks of working in a war-torn country are obvious, but Cleo is level-headed.

She said: “I don’t feel unsafe here. I think we are very well protected. We always wear body armour when we go out and about in the town. The fact that we are able to run development projects here speaks volumes.

“As a civilian working in a military environment you really understand that the army are out there on the front line. It is an amazing thing to do.

“When you hear of a casualty it is always somebody that someone you work with knows. Everyone really pulls together and it makes you more determined to carry on so that it is not in vain.”

Her brother Matthew, 29, is also abroad – he is in the navy and is based in the Gulf.

With both their children away in volatile areas, how do her parents cope back in Gravesend?

“They were a bit worried but my mum and dad are proud of everything we do. With things like Skype and Facebook it is really easy to keep in touch.”

She is also 3,500 miles apart from her boyfriend, Andrew, also 31, who she shares a flat with her in South London and who also works for DfID.

Every couple of months she is able to make the three-day journey back to the UK.

“It rams home how lucky we are to have everything we do and the basic freedom we take for granted, and then you come back to Helmand knowing how important it is that these people have those same rights.”

We end our call and Cleo goes off to teach her first yoga class to a group of soldiers and civilians, offering a moment of tranquillity within the insecurities of war.


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