'We were under attack. I started filming': ITV News cameraman on facing Taliban fire in Afghanistan
In 2006, the soldiers of C Company, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, posed for a photo at their base in Sangin in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. At that time, Sangin was the most dangerous place on earth, the centre of British forces' fight against the Taliban. The Paras were sent to Helmand Province after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a response to the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. The campaign lasted 20 years and cost the lives of 457 British soldiers. ITV News has tried to trace the people on the C Company photograph 15 years on to tell their stories, in our series Afghanistan: Photo From The Frontline.
Here, camera operator Eugene Campbell, who was part of the ITV News team embedded with C Company, recalls what happened moments after he landed in Helmand Province.
Our time in Sangin was limited - less than 48 hours - but the memories of that brief time still live with me 15 years on.
The men from C Company posted there endured months of this frontline battlefield intensity. Some lost their lives there. All lost or left something there.
My job as the news cameraman is a fascinating one. Professionally, we dip into people's lives and worlds when and where ever that may be and by the nature of news it’s usually for bad or sad reasons.
And as quickly as possible, leave with pictures and memories that sometimes never leave me.
Afghanistan was such a place and Bill and I did many ‘embeds’ there with both British and American forces.
We’d leave the security, comfort and normality of our homes and families and usually within 48 hours we were on the ground, ’tooled up’ with body armour and helmets, first aid trauma packs and my trusty lump of a camera slung over my shoulder with boxes of the other bits that we needed to produce our stories.
Embedding was a strange way to work but it was the only way we could work in this place.
We would become part of whichever military unit with which we were embedded.
We would be treated like any other part of their team and we’d be expected to keep up and fit in.
We did our own professional jobs within their units and our survival and security was completely in their hands.
The Army wanted us in Afghanistan. They wanted us to go to the front because they wanted people back home to know exactly what British forces were facing on a daily basis.
At the same time, the UK government PR machine was pushing the line that the British Army were here to help the people of Afghanistan rebuild their schools, roads and lives. The reality and truth as we found out were poles apart.
We knew that when we got to Sangin, a British FOB (forward operating base) in darkest Helmand Province - where foreigners were least welcome - that there would be an unwelcoming welcome awaiting us.
The first footage filmed by Eugene Campbell as they came under fire from Taliban forces
The RAF Chinook helicopters took off in the dark of night so that we landed in Sangin in the first rays of daylight.
The commander's aim was to literally catch the Taliban sleeping. Unfortunately they were wrong.
It was a very odd sensation leaving safety flying into a ‘hot’ landing zone. Inside the aircraft the deafening whine of the engines and the huge rotors drown out any chance of conversation but we were all past talking anyway.
Each of us was in our own zone, complete and total concentration.
The helicopter turning and twisting in obscure aggressive angles, a sign from the door gunner of final approach to get ready, final checks of body armour, helmet secure, camera on and ready.
The buzz, the absolute adrenaline rush, the feeling of all senses working at 110% and never feeling so alive.
Eugene Campbell rushes to position as Taliban forces attack their base
We sprinted off the rear ramps, completely disorientated by the dust storm blown up by the rotors and totally deafened, following the man in front and doing as he does.
Within 30 seconds of the Chinooks wheels touching the dusty, parched earth their cargo was emptied onto the ground and they were gone. Sitting still, they were big fat targets.
And quickly again we were loading my equipment onto a flatbed lorry to get it back to the base.
As I heaved one of my cumbersome boxes up onto the lorry, an orange ball passed above my head. It was a rocket-propelled grenade.
It took a split second to realise what was happening and the immediate eruption of gunfire all around confirmed we were under attack. I found Bill Neely, our correspondent, took to my knee and by instinct started filming.
All camera adjustments were muscle memory. My eyes scanned in front me and to my sides but not forgetting to check the absolutely most important thing, the recording light in my viewfinder (the camera’s eyepiece) was on. I was recording all of this.
The footage Eugene took from the helicopter before they landed
I don’t know how long it lasted for, but all I could do was stay down and film as best I could the chaos of the battle.
There was a call to move. The fighting continued all around us, joined now by outgoing mortars and the unmistakable sound of the chain guns of the Apache helicopters above us. We were, officially, at the front.
Walking into the base was like travelling back to another time. This was home to the Parachute Regiment and life here couldn’t be any more basic.
Home was the derelict shells of buildings and sleep was a baked, hard mud floor or trenches similar to those from World War One. No comforts here.
Food was combat rations and the only goal was staying alive and fight.
Instead of reconstruction and reconciliation, every day was survival. Not for their Queen and country or the sharp dressed soundbite brigade of Whitehall, but for each other.
The first report Eugene Campbell and Bill Neely sent from Sangin for ITV News in 2006
Gone for them were the tedious worries of bills and commutes. Each day was staying alive and each one knew someone who hadn’t.
This battle was chosen for them and we witnessed the very finest bravery, dedication and kindness to us as visitors to this place.
We were guests to not only their base, their dusty hovels and trenches, but also the place where so many of their own had fallen. This was sacred battleground.
We were there for less than 48 hours and in that time they’d been attacked on the way in and then twice more.
This absurd abnormality was normal life for these boys and men (I still think of 18 and 19-year-olds as lads) for months on end.
Some of their faces were so young but their eyes were of tired old men, staring the thousand yard stare.
That was 15 years ago. Much time and life has passed since. By chance and the sheer hard work and perseverance by my friend and colleague Paul Tyson I’ve had the opportunity to meet up and interview some of those young faces again and for me it’s an extremely rare privilege to do this.
Their memories of then are harrowing and some of their stories since are more so.
I’d guess all suffer from PTSD to various degrees. A few have told me how they’ve tried to take their own lives, unable to find, in their minds, their way home from that distant land and time, lost in a lonely place where normal is still strange.
Our conversations took us back, but there was one question that I wouldn’t dare ask: “Was it worth it?”
The answer could be too hard to bear.
Read more stories from our series Afghanistan: Photo From The Frontline