Garmsir Returnees Angered at Devastation
Residents trickle back to the war-ravaged district to try and piece together their shattered lives.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Helmand (ARR No. 298, 4-Aug-08)
Music has returned to Garmsir district, say delighted residents – the sound blares throughout the marketplace, which bustles with people going about their business, shopping among the well-stocked stalls.
It is a marked improvement from just a month ago, when battles between the Taleban and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, MEU, laid waste to much of the district. The fighting has now stopped, and residents are beginning to come back to their homes and fields. But still there is a sense of anger at the devastation, and fear of what the future may hold.
“We left Garmsir two months ago,” recalled Mohebullah, from Kharko village in Garmsir. “A few days ago I went back, but I could not find my house. There used to be a big mulberry tree in front of our home, but now it is all black, and most of the branches have been blown off. Around the base of the tree were pieces of clothing, and other trash. I saw something in the remaining branches, and when I got closer I saw that it was a blackened human scalp.”
Garmsir, in southwestern Helmand, was the battleground of Operation Azada Wosa (Be Free), launched by United States forces in late April. What was supposed to be a quick manoeuvre to secure a road stretched into a two-month-long fight.
According to Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, the operation exacted a heavy toll on the insurgents.
“During the operation, 500 foreign Taleban, including Arabs, Chechens, and Punjabis were killed,” he told IWPR. “Many locals were displaced, and went to the desert around Garmsir or to Lashkar Gah. We provided assistance to 1500 families, and we held meetings with the tribal elders in Garmsir. They promised to help with security, and now we see that Garmsir is safe.”
This may be an overstatement, according to locals and even the US military, who classify Garmsir as “stable, but not secure”, according to a statement released by the 24th MEU.
Captain Kelly Frushour, a public affairs officer for the 24th MEU, told the IRIN news service that the Taleban has not been rooted out.
“The insurgents are still there,” she said. “They are just not engaging with marine forces the way they were.”
Gul Wali, a resident of Garmsir, confirms this assessment.
“The Taleban are still in Garmsir,” he told IWPR. “Only those areas close to the district centre, like Kharko and Hazarajuft are free of them. The rest of the district has a lot, and they still conduct guerilla attacks sometimes.”
Another resident of Garmsir, Shah Wali, expressed satisfaction that calm had at last returned to his district. “Garmsir is as quiet as Lashkar Gah (the regional capital),” he told IWPR. “People do not seem too afraid.”
But he added that there was, however, some uneasiness about the presence of foreign troops in Garmsir, “The Americans are there, in those uniforms with green and brown dots all over, cursing the Taleban over loudspeakers.”
The Americans have established a fund to pay for what they describe as battlefield damage to those whose homes were destroyed during the operations. According to Frushour, some 480,000 US dollars had been paid out to approximately 400 claimants by July 27.
“Someone with property damage goes to the Civil Military Operations Centre,” she told IRIN. “They report the damage to the marines there. Sometimes the marines will verify the claim… once this is verified, the person is paid.”
Garmsir residents interviewed by IWPR said that the verification procedure was conducted largely by Global Positioning Systems, GPS. They complained that the aid was completely inadequate to cover the cost of repairing or rebuilding their homes.
“My house in Hazarajuft was completely destroyed,” said Sayed Gul. “I gave them my taskira (identification document) and they pinpointed my house on a map and then they gave me 6500 Pakistani rupees (about 90 dollars). It’s not very much, but at least they gave me something.”
Others received more, added Sayed Gul, although he could not determine any system for the payouts.
“Some people got 500 dollars,” he said. “There was no standard, it was just luck.”
Helmand Provincial Council head Mohammad Anwar confirmed Sayed Gul’s account.
“The foreigners are now giving compensation,” he told IWPR. “They locate the houses on GPS and then they pay 100 to 500 dollars. For a destroyed house! With this amount people cannot even reconstruct one wall.”
Mangal also expressed dismay at what he said was the low level of compensation.
“[The Americans] gave money, but to only a few people,” he said. “And it was very little, just 5,000 afghani (100 dollars) or so to each family.”
In addition to houses and people, the land has also been affected.
“We could not see even a single green plant in Garmsir,” said Anwar, the provincial council chief, who has just returned from a fact-finding trip to the district. “It used to be that Garmsir was green from Jauza to Qaos (months of the Afghan solar calendar; roughly May to November) with all the agricultural lands. But everything was destroyed in the fighting. Kharko was bombed so fiercely that no one could recognise it. I have seen craters up to 20 metres in depth where there used to be houses. Very few people have gone back to their lands. They are afraid of land mines and can not go to their fields. Our delegation hit a land mine in our car; the car was destroyed but we all survived.”
Residents say the Taleban left a lot of land mines in their wake.
An official at the Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, in Helmand confirmed that money was being paid, but declined to give details.
Assistance to those displaced from Garmsir has also fallen short of the mark, say residents. According to Asadullah Mayar, the head of Helmand’s Red Crescent Society, about 1500 families had received food, blankets, and other necessities. An additional 1700 families had also been given some form of assistance.
In an earlier interview with IWPR, Mangal estimated the number of displaced families at close to 8,000. This leaves many people outside of the assistance net, and they are becoming desperate.
Dozens of women gather daily in front of the Red Crescent Society in Lashkar Gah, asking for aid. Some curse the governor, others attack the head of the Red Crescent. Still others have reserved their ire for the Americans.
“We have no food, and we need help,” said one woman, holding a small baby on her arms, with a toddler at her side. “We had to flee Garmsir with nothing. Every morning I go to the bazaar and collect leftover food to give to my children. Sometimes I can find things to eat, but other nights we go to sleep hungry. Last night we had no food at all. I cannot go back to my village, because I am afraid that the fighting will start again. My sons are too small to work, my husband is ill and cannot move. It is just me, trying to feed everyone.”
But Mayar insisted that everyone who needed help had received it.
“Those people outside come here every day,” he told IWPR. “They are just trying to get something for nothing. They are not the right people.”
Sardar, a resident of Garmsir, told IWPR that the assistance had not been distributed fairly.
“Only a select few received aid,” he complained. “They could not get the assistance out to the far areas of Garmsir. We spent two months in the desert, and never saw any assistance. Our house is completely destroyed, there are not two bricks together. I have gone to the Americans a dozen times, but they have not helped me.”
In addition to the apparent lack of food and shelter, Garmsir’s people are facing health problems as well.
Media reports state that the 24th MEU had helped to restock a district hospital, giving basic medical supplies. Close to 100 patients a day come to the Garmsir District Hospital, according to a press release by the 24th MEU.
Dr Toryalai Ishaq, head of the Ibn-Sina Hospital, said that there were five clinics operating in the district, all with supplies and personnel. This, he added, was sufficient to meet the needs of the Garmsiris.
“According to our survey, the population of Garmsir is around 100,000,” he told IWPR. “We have built five clinics, and all are active.”
But locals say they do not have access to adequate medical care.
“There is a health clinic in Garmsir, but it has no medicine,” said one resident outside the Bost Hospital in Lashkar Gah, waiting to visit a sick relative. “It has no ambulance or other facilities, so we have to come to Lashkar Gah. In those hospitals, sick people get even worse.”
Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand Province.