Marjah residents take stock after offensive

With the exception of small pockets of resistance, Taliban fighters have been driven out of Marjah town in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, but many local people are struggling to return to some kind of normality and are fearful of the future.

A rapid assessment by the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) said the conflict in Marjah had left 35 civilians dead, 37 injured, and 55 houses destroyed.

The assessment does not specify which side killed how many civilians.

“It is impossible to measure every war-related misery and impact but we have tried to collect some basic figures about casualties and destruction,” Ahmadullah Ahmadi, director of the ARCS office in Helmand, told IRIN.

Before and during the military operation, Marjah residents were promised rapid aid, but some three weeks after the end of the offensive local people say they have yet to receive any meaningful assistance.

“A government assessment team will investigate the damage in Marjah and compensation will be given to the affected people,” said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand. The process is expected to start in a few days but it is unclear when it might be completed.

People who lost their houses, shops and other property in the fighting urgently need shelter and want to resume normal life quickly. 

''It is impossible to measure every war-related misery and impact but we have tried to collect some basic figures about casualties and destruction.''

“We provide compensation to those who suffer property damage and other losses due to military activity, including within the farming community. We do this as quickly and comprehensively as possible, in consultation with community members,” Paul Scott, a UK military public affairs officer, told IRIN. The UK has thousands of troops in Helmand Province.

Quick cash-for-work projects have been launched in Marjah to employ local men and help “clean-up and refurbish” local bazaars, Scott said.

However, efforts to normalize the situation in Marjah have been impeded by fears of improvised explosives which have killed and wounded dozens of people over the past few weeks, according to NATO and government officials.

Opium deal?

During their two-year rule in Marjah, Taliban insurgents banned schools, TV and beard-shaving, and allowed farmers to grow opium.

Afghanistan is the world’s top opium-producing country and Helmand Province accounted for over 50 percent of the 6,900 tons of opium produced there in 2009, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Taliban insurgents make hefty profits from the drugs trade, says UNODC.

The government has vowed to reopen schools, restore civil liberties and enforce the ban on poppy cultivation: “We will eradicate all poppy fields in Marjah because opium cultivation is illegal,” Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman of the Counter-Narcotics Ministry (MCN), told IRIN.

But farmers are pleading for a stay of execution: “We ask the government not to eradicate our current poppy fields; in return we promise not to cultivate poppy next year,” said local farmer Abdul Ghani.

The farmers say destroying their poppy fields could ruin them, and that the conflict has damaged their livelihoods.

A senior government official, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN the government had unofficially agreed to allow farmers to harvest poppy this year because eradication was deemed too risky. "The government does not say this publicly because it is illegal but no eradication will be conducted in Marjah this season," he said.

Photo: UNHCR
A UNHCR map showing February displacement and return of families to Marjah and Nad Ali districts of Hilmand Province. (See larger version of map)

“Very skeptical population”

Over 4,000 families were displaced by the conflict in Nad Ali District (which includes Marjah) in February. Most have returned to their homes over the past three weeks, according to aid agencies, but there is uncertainty about the future; some are unsure how long NATO and Afghan forces will hold the area.

“We've got a very skeptical population here,” said Lawrence Nicholson, a US army general, adding that people were unsure what NATO and the Afghan government would be able to do for them.

“We are in competition every day for the confidence and support of the population. We're in competition with the Taliban,” Nicholson was quoted in a 5 March press release as saying.

Pockets of resistance

Meanwhile, the Taliban are not completely defeated in Marjah, according to the provincial authorities.

“The enemy is still present in some pockets,” said Helmand spokesman Ahmadi, adding that pro-government forces were working to defeat them completely.

NATO said coalition forces are trying “to take the oxygen away from the insurgents” by separating them from the population - no easy task, according to a NATO statement.