By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 9, 2010 - Afghanistan is a Muslim country, but a Christmas miracle took place in this city, a senior Marine Corps officer said here today. Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson commanded the operation that liberated Now Zad from Taliban control and is now in charge of the operation to clear neighboring Marja of the Taliban. He said that the operation in Now Zad, though, is more indicative of the rebirth of the province.
"You've got to remember that this town was a ghost town for four years," Nicholson told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "No one lived here. It was deserted. When the Taliban took over, the people left their laundry on the line."
Now Zad was the second-largest city in Helmand province and had roughly 30,000 people living in it. The population went to zero, Nicholson said, and now "the town is coming back to life."
The Marines launched the offensive – Cobra's Anger – to take Now Zad at the beginning of December. It was the first operation totally conducted under the new strategy of protecting the population that President Barack Obama approved Dec. 1. The Taliban were in the city in force, and the street where Nicholson was speaking today was swept by gunfire and mortars.
But the Marines persevered and pushed the Taliban farther and farther from the city. Around Christmas, the security situation was much improved, though the city was laced with mines and improvised explosive devices. "But the people started coming back," Nicholson said. "They started coming back even as we tried to tamp it down because of the ordnance threat in the town."
The Marines based just outside the city started calling the return of the population "the Christmas Miracle," Nicholson said. "These are the people from here," the general said. "They fled to neighboring cities and towns, but wanted to come home."
To Westerners, if a family was away from a city for four years, in all likelihood they would not move back. "But this is where they are from," Nicholson said. "This is where their ancestors are buried and where they were born. This is home. They came back, and they are still coming back."
The general estimated that some 1,000 families have returned, with roughly 15 more families coming back each day. The Marines still are asking Afghans to wait, though, because while the de-mining effort has begun, it still has a long way to go.
The danger is real. For four years, insurgents placed mines throughout the city. Nicholson said many double amputations have resulted from the mines. Nongovernmental organizations are stepping forward and funding the de-mining effort. The organizations are hiring local people to defuse the mines and rid the city of the scourge, but the sheer number means it must be a slow and methodical process, the general said.
And people are ready to return. "It's representative of what we see in Afghanistan and Helmand," Nicholson said. "We see the country coming back to life."
There is a boys school and a girls school in the city. The Afghan army is helping with security. Afghan police are also helping, and the government is coming back to life.
Marines made it possible, and they are expanding the safe area. The operation in Marja now means there is no place in Helmand province where Marines cannot go.
"There are places in Helmand where we are not, but that is because we don't have the forces," Nicholson said. "But every place that we want to be in Helmand, we are in."