Afghan Journal
Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Walking with the Marines in the Afghan south

Posted by: Russell Boyce

Asmaa Waguih is a Reuters photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. She is currently embedded with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. Here’s an account of her time in one of the country’s most violent regions.

An Afghan boy walks among U.S. Marines of the 8th Regiment, Second Battalion, during their patrol with Afghan National Army soldiers around Mian Poshtay area, in Helmand province, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

I was set to go with a reporter and a cameraman to join a company of U.S. Marines in a camp south of Helmand province. This, we were told, is where the action is, but now I know that action mainly starts when a new base is taken over from the Taliban. Did I say Taliban? I often don’t hear the word from the Marines, they often use terms like “the bad guys” or “al-Qaeda”.

So we were invited to join a company of Marines walking to a new base. We left from a small Patrol Base called Hassan Abad one morning last week. We were told it about a 3 km walk, and it was, but it took us almost two days to reach the place. We had to wait for Marines with sweepers to detonate about 24 Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on the road.

During those two days on the road, every once in a while, every hour or two, we were told to get ready two minutes before an explosion for a “controlled det”. Then one minute then, 30 seconds.

I would get ready with my camera to get the Marines looking at the explosion, while my heart beat very fast. Often, I missed the shot because the smoke was far away and the Marines didn’t actually look interested to see it. They have seen bombs so many in the last few months. And many of them told us later on camp about how many of their colleagues has been “blown up”.

Soon it was dusk and the commanding officers agreed it was better to keep the vehicles parked in the road, stay overnight inside them, rather than pass quickly through the IED-laced road of death.

That night on the road, the three of us slept inside one vehicle - a Mine-Resistant Armour Protected vehicle, or MRAP - which has a good track record for resisting bombs, but is useless when faced with a rocket. Sitting up with sleeping bags stretched over us to keep out the bitter cold, we tried to sleep, aware that the Marines around us were keeping a look out in case insurgents in the fields surrounding us would take pot-shots at the convoy.

Suddenly at about 3 am, something burning, shaped like a bullet fell in front of us, through the gunner’s hole in the roof of the vehicle. It was on fire. We all panicked; convinced it was a round from Taliban fighters in the field. The three of us clambered to the back of the vehicle to try and open the heavy door. Then the gunner laughed, told us to calm down and knelt down out of his position in the hole and with one quick breath blew out the flame. It was a flare which had fallen from his pocket. We were the butt of every joke the next morning.

As the sun started to rise, we moved again and finally, we reached our destination, a camp that they later called “Barcha”. It looked like a castle from a few hundreds years ago. There were some children and goats when we first arrived but they soon disappeared, as they were asked to leave the place.

The Marines and Afghan Army were starting to take it easy and eat MREs when the Taliban, angry that one of their former hideouts was being taken over by Americans, started to shoot all around the place. The Marines started to shoot back from over the base, and down over some walls, and they didn’t wait too long before helicopters came for help. That was mainly the Taliban’s weak point. Just as the Marines have their M4 and M24 machine guns, “the bad guys; have their AK 47, but nothing can beat the helicopters”, one Marine said.

I knew from an interpreter who listens to the Taliban radio that they call the helicopters “Mosquitoes” and when they often tell their guys to leave the area when they hear helicopters because “the mosquitoes are coming”.

One interpreter had a microphone and he was asked to tell local people in Pashto that they had to leave the area. Then helicopters came and shelled the patch of land where the “bad guys” were fighting from. Three Marines were wounded in the gunfight after the insurgents hit their armoured vehicle with an RPG. They were evacuated shortly after.

We left Barcha a few days later, but the Marines said contact with the insurgents was likely again.