In 2001, following September 11, the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members paved the way for the US-led bombing campaign launched in Afghanistan, marking the beginning of the "war on terror".

This was the context into which Kevin Barke, owner of Barke Craft Bakery in Wickford, Essex, stepped, when he agreed to run an emergency bakery in Afghanistan, distributing daily loaves to 25,000 vulnerable Afghan families. His involvement in War Child’s Bakery Project began after his son saw an advertisement in British Baker, requesting volunteers. "One minute I was a baker in Essex, the next I was being given a radio and code words to learn," he says. "We were taught about land mines and had to take six different routes to the bakery from our accommodation block so the Land Rover wouldn’t be tracked. If I messed up, as the only British baker there, 25,000 people would starve."

In January 2002, Barke travelled to Herat with War Child, a network of independent organisations working across the world to help children and families affected by war. His job was to run an emergency bakery with refugees and displaced Afghans, whom he had to train. Barke says that they were "more or less peasant farmers who hadn’t even seen machines". But together, they eventually made 25,000 breads a day and, in the space of nine months, distributed about six million loaves.

Barke arrived with a small team in northern Afghanistan, after a 10-hour journey in a huge Russian convoy. In the UN compound, there was a very large tent, in which Barke had to plan a bakery within minutes. "The compound had big UN letters on the top, so the Americans would not bomb us," he says.

There was no electricity, only generators. There was also no water, but after about five days, a well was dug. Barke could then start practising on his doughs to decide which type of bread to make. "I couldn’t get improvers," says Barke, "and when I asked my refugee bakers, with the help of the translator, they thought I meant baking powder. Between us we came up with a kind of round, Iranian bread, like a soda bread, which didn’t need improvers. I sent the security guard to the city to ask the locals if it was good enough. They loved it, so we ran with it and it worked well. I was even told once that my bread was found on the black market after it had been stolen."

When exploring the bakeries in Afghanistan to see how they worked, Barke found there were a lot of "tiny" bakeries. He says: "They make something like naan bread. They dig a hole in the ground and put in large cylinder gas canisters to ignite the fire to bake on. These get really hot, then they slap the bread over the hole and it bakes in minutes. We couldn’t do this because my equipment was completely different."

The team had many problems, including condensation caused by the steam in the tent, which left water dripping everywhere. A person constantly had to mop. "You wouldn’t think about this in England," says Barke. Other problems included broken generators and one day, before the well was dug, the water was stolen, which left 10,000 hungry. Although their target was to make 25,000 breads a day, the 10am-6pm curfew meant there were only two six-hour shifts instead of nine or 10 hours. "At first we could only manage 10,000 breads, so we had to do a night shift. This meant we could make bread continuously. If shift workers were late, I would not let the others go until they arrived. After about two weeks, the team was in full production. The ration for these people is one 400g loaf a day and that’s it. The World Food Programme says this is enough to keep them alive, so that’s what we did," adds Barke.

After the emergency bakery had gone, the equipment, which included two Italian spiral mixers, two Tom Chandley ovens with six decks and Mono dividers, stayed in Afghanistan, following a deal made with local bakers; they could keep the equipment if they gave half the produce made to schools and orphanages. Barke says one of his friends was there six months ago and reported that it was still running.

While setting up a bakery in a war zone, Barke experienced many troubles. He says: "A bomb went off very close to me once and I had to go to casualty. Another time, when I thought I was leaving, my driver gave me an unexploded "ornament" that he thought I’d want to take home. I had to get the land mine experts out to blow it up!"

The volunteers stayed in unarmed accommodation blocks with emergency bunkers. An electrical fence was going to be erected for protection, but this seemed pointless, as there were power cuts every night. In the meantime, Barke was also battling with Afghanistan’s winter, as temperatures dived to around -10ºC at night, and the men had to wear long johns and thermals as the heating did not work. "Despite all this," says Barke, "the worst thing I remember was when a woman came up to me with an injured baby, begging for help. She assumed I was a paramedic. There was nothing I could do but try telling her where the Red Cross hospital was. I felt so pathetic. When I first got home, I was on top of the world. Then I had a bad time for a long period; I would get flashbacks and nightmares and a feeling of guilt because I thought I should still be out there, helping people."

Today, the issue of Afghanistan is still highly controversial, with 5,500 British troops deployed in the country. That figure is set to rise to 5,800 in October as part of an international operation to bring stability. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned that Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a "failed state".

The Bakery Project, headed by Barke, was funded partly by War Child and the rest was given in a grant of approximately £50,000 by the World Food Programme, a UN agency. "I’d love to do another Bakery Project," says Barke.

On 28 September, Barke is going to Kosovo with another aid convoy, distributing clothing, bedding, nursery supplies and food. It entails a long 3,000-mile round trip. "There’s no Bakery Project on at the moment," says Barke. "We couldn’t find a sponsor. If there was, I’d do that. Setting up an emergency bakery was the most rewarding thing I’ve done. It’s one of those things you either do once - and not again - or you get the bug." n


=== At a glance ===

Name: Kevin Barke

Age: 51

Project: Setting up an emergency bakery in Afghanistan to feed 25,000 people affected by war

Numbers: Over a period of nine months, the bakery distributed around six million loaves