Critics may question the UK’s military strategy in Afghanistan, but no one can doubt that the generosity of the people of this country made a difference to the lives of orphans in the war-torn region.
It is what retired Air Vice Marshall Sean Bell discovered when he re-visited Kabul, six years after spearheading a campaign to improve the pitiful existence of children living in two orphanages.
He said: “Our country’s strategic adventure in Afghanistan might be judged unfavourably, but through the amazing efforts of Rutlanders we have delivered lasting change to hundreds of children who now have a future and ambition.”
Mr Bell, of Harringworth, in Rutland, was Commanding Officer at RAF Cottesmore in 2008 when he was deployed to Kabul for nine months and visited two orphanages that were home to 500 boys and 350 girls.
He said: “It was startling. The kids had little food, no running water, no sanitation, no education, no heating, no medical care, no sports facilities - they were truly the lost generation.”
Determined to “do something to help” RAF Cottesmore’s small team in Afghanistan decided to raise around £700 to help the children.
Mr Bell brought back boxes of Pashmina scarves from markets in Kabul which were sold through a network of Rutland volunteers.
The collective efforts of staff at RAF Cottesmore as well as Oakham-based colleague Paul Beech, his wife Carol and the Mr Bell’s wife Julie, more than £92,000 was raised within months. “It was a truly outstanding effort by the local community,” Mr Bell said.
The money was channelled through a US-based Afghan charity PARSA, to renovate and refurbish the property and improve the lives of the orphans.
Mr Bell, who is now on the board of PARSA, returned to the orphanage earlier this month as a civilian.
He said: “I could not wait to visit the Orphanage. The transformation was phenomenal. Before even passing through the guard post the noise was palpably different. The throng of children playing, laughing, shouting and bustling, was amazing - just like any Western school.
“The 19-year-old interpreter who accompanied the centre’s director was an orphan when I first visited. As a direct result of our investment he had secured skills, qualifications and a job. The orphanage has a full education syllabus, sports facilities and language classes.
“Students have access to a computer, email and Twitter accounts, they learn a trade and are clean, well-dressed and with typical teenage hair styles. When I presented to the graduating class, I learned they had ambitions to be doctors, lawyers and dentists - a complete reversal of the lost generation of orphans I witnessed six years ago.
“Where there was abject poverty there is now hope and this generation of Afghans will be able to directly relate that to Western support.”
There is a lot more that the charity plans to do and PARSA’s immediate aim is to spread the Kabul success across the world.
But for those who believe that hope is lost, Mr Bell says, his message is: “We have made a lasting difference”.