|Marjah Bazaar Centerpiece for Civic Projects, Work Programs|
MARJAH, Afghanistan – Just over two months ago, trash littered the streets and shops made of wood and aluminum stood uneasily, ready to collapse at any moment, at the Koru Chareh bazaar in Marjah, Afghanistan. Today crowds pass through the market place or wait near checkpoints manned by Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, to register for civic work programs, May 5.
Much of the fear and apprehension that was present during those first several weeks in the city have faded, and now families purchase goods in the bazaar and walk freely past Marine and Afghan forces. In the wake of the fighting to take the Taliban held city, and after a poor poppy season, many locals have turned to coalition forces to find employment through cash-for-work programs.
"There's a lot of traffic around here," said Gunnery Sgt. Brandon Dickinson, Weapons Platoon sergeant, with Bravo Company, 1/6. "A lot of people have come back here because we have a very large security bubble around the bazaar. I'm frequently amazed by how many shops pop up every time we go out. Considering the amount of time that has elapsed since we came here, the progress has definitely been in our favor."
When Marines sit down and talk to people on a daily basis, or city residents see the work that coalition forces have done through civic projects, like mosque refurbishment and repair; it strikes a significant blow against the Taliban, Dickinson explained.
"Our ability to employ these people is huge – we get a lot on our side that way," said Dickenson.
"It's been a wild ride from our very first shura when we had ten people, to one of the more recent ones where about 200 people showed up," said Dickenson, referring to the Afghan equivalent of a town hall meeting.
After the coalition forces took control of the city, locals were wary about cooperating with Afghan army soldiers and Marines, but now there are more and more people willing to stand up to the Taliban, explained Cpl. Douglas Woltz, a Marine with the civil affairs group attached to Bravo Company, 1/6. This is due in part to security being restored in the region as well as the ability of coalition forces to provide work for the city's residents.
"The bazaar is absolutely flourishing," said Woltz. "Most people have returned to the city and pretty much accepted that we're here, having gotten over their apprehensions about us."
"We're employing well over 800 people in jobs ranging from canal cleaning, mosque refurbishing, park construction, well digging and the construction of foot bridges," said Woltz. "The ideas for projects come from both us and [the locals]. The requirements are that the projects benefit most of the community."
Through employing local workers and supporting key community centers, Marine and Afghan forces have been able to earn the most crucial currency in Afghanistan: trust.
"We've already had elders tell members of the Taliban 'no' to taxes, which is a pretty positive sign that people are standing up to them," said Dickenson. "We've sat down with important elders, but getting them to step up has proven to be a challenge due to tribal differences. The elders want to work together, they're tired of war, it's just a matter of getting them to see past their own block," said Dickenson. "However, they are open-minded to the idea of different tribes working together with one another."
However, the long-term goal of having the city's leaders take charge is still in the beginning stages.
"Slowly, but surely we're trying to build a community council to represent the entire population. It's a large project and has a long way to go," said Woltz. "There are a few local leaders that are starting to come out and represent their people openly, but it's a difficult transition here. Before we came in, everyone had ties to the Taliban. Now that the poppy season is over, this is the key time. They know they need to come to us for employment, otherwise they'll be struggling."