Why Afghans Didn’t Leave Marja Before The Biggest Battle Of The War
This is day four of the largest military operation since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The assault is centered around Marja in Helmand province. Marja isn’t so much a town as it is a collection of family compounds spread over miles of arid, desert terrain.
While many have focused on the size of this operation–it involves more than 15,000 Afghan, US and British soldiers–to me the most unique aspect of the assault is the way that the civilian population has been approached.
For nearly a month leading up to the operation, Marja was blanketed with leaflets telling people to leave their homes for Lashka Ghar, the largest nearby town. If they refused to leave, the pamphlets said, civilians should at least stay indoors after dark. Meetings were held where Afghan and NATO military leadership warned village elders of what was to come and how best to stay safe.
Sadly it was not enough for the 12 Afghans–mostly women and children–who where killed Sunday when a computer guided missile fired from a US Marine base missed it’s target and struck a compound where the civilians had taken refuge.
The first question that leaped to my mind when I heard the news was, “What were these people even doing in Marja? Who learns that hell is coming to town and sticks around anyway?”
Last week, I had long conversations with people at the Red Cross, I was told that they–along with the Afghan Red Crescent and a government refugee agency–had prepared space for 15,000 families in camps, schools and other public spaces in Lashka Ghar. But on the eve of the operation, only a handful of families had sought refuge there and the Red Cross spokesman told me that some of those families had been there since the last Marine operation in Helmand, in July.
So why did the people of Marja stay put?
Well first of all, not everybody thinks that they did. AFP reported on Feb. 6 that “thousands of people are fleeing their homes” ahead of the operation. But the article offered zero evidence that this was true, and the one refugee the interviewed even said “there are still people living there [in Marja]”
Nobody I spoke with in Helmand could confirm the “thousands fleeing” story, and I frankly just don’t believe it.
I have heard a few different theories as to why many Marja residents (Marjians?) didn’t leave their homes. The first is that the people of Marja are sympathetic to the Taliban, which may be true in part, but I’ve heard too much anecdotal evidence to the contrary to believe that everybody there is.
The second is that Taliban groups threatened the people of Marja and essentially coerced them into staying and being used as human shields. This is credible, especially because the roads in that part of Helmand have been laced with mines, IEDs and God-knows what other kinds of booby traps.
The third theory bouncing around is that it is planting season and so people don’t want to leave their crops un-sown before the spring rains arrive. This last theory is just speculation, and since I haven’t interviewed any Helmand farmers lately, we’ll just leave it at that.
In all likelihood, it is a mix of all three of the above factors that have kept the residents of Marja at home and in harm’s way. These factors are yet another example of the awful choices that so many Afghans face on a regular basis, just to keep living from one day to the next.
Most people, no matter what country they live in, can imagine having to choose between living through a major military strike and braving a road that has been modified to kill anything that travels over it. Or leaving their livelihood. Or being killed by fanatics. Or getting accidentally incinerated by a GPS guided missile.
There are no good options here and any outcome could be deadly.