KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean wrapped up a secret two-day visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday that saw her weep for Canada’s war dead and for the conflict-racked country’s youngest victims, insisting all the while that the sacrifices won’t have been in vain.
Jean spent the duration of her visit clad in the uniform of the Canadian soldier, symbolic of her role as the Canadian military’s honorary commander-in-chief. For security reasons, her visit had to be kept secret until after she had left Afghan airspace and was on her way back to Canada.
Jean wiped away tears while laying flowers at the centotaph at Kandahar Airfield, which bears the names of 129 Canadian soldiers killed as part of the Afghan mission since it began in 2002 – including Maj. Yannick Pepin and Master Cpl. Jean-Francois Drouin, both of whom died Sunday when their convoy was struck by an improvised explosive device, or IED.
“It’s painful when we see our soldiers being wounded or being killed by these IEDs,” Jean said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“But we have to remember that every time they try to destroy those terrible weapons, they’re saving lives of civilians here and the Afghan children.”
Jean later told several hundred Canadian troops that their deeds would not be forgotten.
“Know that your fellow Canadians are very proud of what you accomplish here and are very much aware of the sacrifices you make,” she said.
“You have come to this troubled area of the world to defend the democratic ideals to which all peoples should be able to aspire. You, who risk everything to create a safe environment . . . (for) the women, children and men of Afghanistan.”
Jean became misty-eyed while addressing a classroom of young Afghan women at Sayad Pasha school, not far from the base. In a land where women have traditionally not been allowed to get an education, Jean said she was thrilled with the progress that’s been made.
“We need to seize every opportunity to realize our dreams, and I want you to tell me what Afghanistan needs,” she said.
The answers she heard back were hardly surprising.
“The best thing needed in Afghanistan is peace,” said one girl. “For the past 30 years we lost lots of our family members and we are hoping we will get peace.”
“This is the message that needs to be told back home,” Jean replied, as she turned to the entourage that accompanied her on her journey. “We will do this together.”
A trip to the multinational Role 3 Hospital on the base appeared to be almost too much for Jean to take.
A young girl, her grandfather by her side, had been brought in for treatment and was laying quietly in a hospital bed.
“How old is she?” Jean asked, grasping the hand of the little girl, who was identified as Amina.
“Nine,” replied the interpreter, who explained that Amina was on her way to a village to buy presents for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid when an IED went off.
“I have a daughter,” Jean said. “She is 10. I will tell her that I’ve met you.”
“Nice to meet you,” Amina replied, smiling shyly.
Earlier in the day, Jean paid a visit to Camp Nathan Smith, the headquarters for Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar city.
Once there, she told Afghan leaders that she’s “saddened” by the fact any debate exists at all about whether Canada should be in the country and helping its less fortunate.
She said the suggestion that Canada’s war in Afghanistan is a “lost cause” hurts her deeply.
“I think it’s important to see that our efforts are not in vain, and when we hear Afghan people and even children saying that the priority is security – this is what they hope for,” she said.
“It’s very important that Canadians realize that, yes, our soldiers are taking many risks, but are also doing something that is absolutely exceptional.”