From army wife to Afghan charity worker

09 April 2013

by Caroline Richards

Top soldier's wife fights to help Afghan children

When her soldier husband announced he was deploying to Afghanistan in 2006, it changed the course of Caroline Richards’ life.

“I got the map out," she says, "then I spoke to my husband and said ‘I need to know more about the country and what you will be doing there'.”

Caroline started researching  -  and what she learned about poverty in Afghanistan shocked her.  She quickly realised that her husband’s living conditions, as Commander of ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan, would be very different from those of ordinary Afghans.

“When I realised what a very poor country it is, I wanted to know what we could do to help,” she says.  “Only a stone’s throw away from the imposing headquarters in Kabul where our husbands were going to be, there was a ragged school in tents.”

She and other British military wives and officers decided to raise money to provide more schools for Afghan children. 

The Afghan Appeal Fund was born.  

Seven years later, this voluntary-staffed organisation has provided funds to rebuild or refurbish eleven schools in six provinces.

To raise money for the latest school, in Helmand province, the charity published an e-book, Afghanistan Revealed, with chapters specially written by some of the world’s top experts on the country.

The book, now released in paperback, goes beyond the usual focus on politics and war.  It examines the many facets of life in Afghanistan and the forces which have shaped the nation.  It is an attempt to correct inaccurate perceptions.

“We wanted to present a different face of Afghanistan,“ says Caroline. “ Most Afghans are just like us - they desperately want peace after the last 30 years of war.”

They also desperately want education.

In Helmand, the Afghan Appeal Fund is helping a retired Afghan doctor, Mohammad Khan Kharoti, to rebuild a school in the village of Shin Kalay.  Dr Kharoti established the school  in 2001, but it was destroyed five years ago.  

Caroline explains that the project has great personal significance for Dr Kharoti, who came from a nomadic family, but was resettled in Shin Kalay following partition. His brother still lives there. 

“His father died when he was eight.  But his father’s last wish was that he went to school,” she says.

And, she adds, the next generation of fathers in the village are no less keen for their children to get an education.

“In our book there is a photo of a man who’s working on the school, on the building site.  He’s been cleaning the old bricks and his hands are  raw and wrapped in rags.  He’s just desperate to finish the school so his son can be a pupil there. The villagers are very excited about their school; they are also in need of work. ”

Caroline’s husband, General Sir David Richards, has since left Afghanistan and is now back in the UK as Chief of the Defence Staff.   He’s been very supportive of the Afghan Appeal Fund.

But overall, has being the wife of a top British military officer helped or hindered Caroline’s aid work?

“It was the inspiration,” she says.  “I think I have quite an unusual perspective, in that I understand why it’s vital we do more development in Afghanistan.  And although you have got to separate the two very carefully, because I know the militarisation of aid is a huge issue,  I also hear how very important security is in Afghanistan. The Taliban were born out of insecurity and civil war.”

“So I feel I’m in this position between two worlds.   I’m an expert on neither, but I can see the strengths of both -  and how terribly important it is that we don’t let down the Afghan people, having come so far at such great cost.”

To learn more about the Afghan Appeal Fund and Afghanistan Revealed –  click here

Afghanistan Revealed is available for ipad with 90 spectacular photos, for Kindle, or as a paperback with a selection of colour photos.