From Gravesend to Helmand: Cleo Blackman’s story

15:12 06 August 2012

Cleo Blackman with International Development sec Andrew Mitchell

Cleo Blackman with International Development sec Andrew Mitchell


It is hard to believe when I speak to Cleo Blackman on a clear phone line that she is standing in blistering 40 degrees heat on a military base in Afghanistan.

Cleo Blackman in HelmandCleo Blackman in Helmand

The former Gravesend Grammar pupil is spending a year in Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold, where she is co-ordinating aid projects to rebuild 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.

“It is an emotional job and an intense environment.

“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. 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.”

But Cleo is fully aware that it is the army on the front line.

“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 their son and daughter 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 boyfriend, Andrew, also 31, 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 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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