French Army paratrooper Steeven Ballein inside an observation tower at Warehouse camp, Kabul.
French Army paratrooper Steeven Ballein inside an observation tower at Warehouse camp, Kabul.

Afghan veteran plans to write wrongs

FOUR years ago, I was a French Army paratrooper stationed in Afghanistan.

Make no mistake, it was, and still is, a war zone.

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

But Australia knows that. Only last week, five more Diggers were killed, bringing its toll to 38.

Since 2001, 88 French soldiers have died there, too. And almost 2000 Americans, as well as more than 400 Britons.

Twenty-eight countries have sent soldiers to Afghanistan, and all have lost troops.

It is a place where lives are lost, and others are changed.

Mine has been changed.

I had my 20th birthday in Kabul, on October 29, 2008.

I remember the day clearly.

It was when I realised that the best way to combat the world's injustices was with a pen, not a sword.

I had joined the French Army earlier that year, keen to travel and discover the world.

Like most teenagers, I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was certain I needed to change it and get to know myself better.

I thought the army would be a good way to do it.

I had grown up in Allinges, a small town of about 4000 people in eastern France, near Switzerland.

I went to high school and graduated with A-levels in economics and sciences.

Our family is close, and though my parents have always supported me, they are pacifists. T

hey were not keen on my decision to join the army. When I joined up, I was young and unaware what it really meant to be a paratrooper.

You are trained to kill and survive in the toughest of situations.

At age 19, I was excited and anxious, but I did not know at that stage whether I would graduate from the intense paratrooper training.

The six-month training we did was intense. It tested us physically and mentally.

At times we had no bed, no food and we trained in the forest.

Only 22 of the 52 trainees who started, graduated.

Even so, I did not expect that a month later I would be considered ready for Afghanistan.

I will never forget what happened in the five months I was there.

My tour with the UN peacekeeping force, while having many dramatic moments, luckily saw no one wounded from the 20-or-so soldiers in my section.

Some did train Afghan troops, though, but I was too young.

By the time I left the army, I had been promoted to corporal.

But I will never forget what the army taught me about the world, as well as myself.

Through effort and lack of creature comforts, I discovered a part of myself I would otherwise not have known.

My duty was to push my limits, share everything (although I had almost nothing to share), help others, and be ready and willing to risk my life.

But then I realised that the Taliban had their duty, too.

They were fighting for something they also believed in.

I was involved in a war I did not really understand, but the situation was having a huge impact on me.

Never more so, though, than on my birthday in 2008.

To try to make sense of what was happening to me in Afghanistan, I kept a journal.

I felt a need to write to help me understand what was happening to me.

Little by little, word by word, an idea grew.

I decided I wanted to become a journalist.

Rather than being a soldier, I believed I could help people by re-telling real stories.

I had been in Afghanistan - and Gabon in west Africa for several months - and I saw poverty and its consequences first-hand.

I will never forget the children, behind our armoured combat vehicle, begging for food.

Strangely, I had felt at times that I had nothing. In reality, I had everything.

It made me realise how lucky I was.

And I now understand how vital it is to live the experiences - and to share them.

I began a journalism course by correspondence.

But I felt that if I wanted to fulfil my dream, a command of the English language was a must.

I decided the best way to speak English was to visit an English-speaking country.

Rather than renew my three-year contract in the French Army, I bought a plane ticket to Australia.

My father had always wanted to travel Down Under, and it felt like more of an adventure so far away from home.

When I arrived, I could hardly speak the language, but I knew what I wanted to do now.

I attended an English language academy for five months, then applied to the Jschool journalism course in Brisbane.

I did not choose journalism as a job.

I believe it is my vocation.

My observations may shock some people.

Despite political issues surrounding our troops in the Afghanistan war, I believe it is necessary for us to be there.

We need to help rebuild the country and to train the Afghan soldiers.

I spent three years in the army trying to find where I belong, but I have little doubt it will take me all my life to figure out the world around me.

What I believe (so far) is that journalism has the power to hold a mirror to the world and reflect life in the most objective way.

I believe I have a moral duty to try to show what is happening throughout the world and perhaps even try to provide solutions.

That is how we can make the world better for future generations.


* Steeven Ballein now wants to write and shoot documentaries.

He also plans to publish a book - Garde a Vous (Attention!) - next year.


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