MARJAH, Afghanistan - As important figures from the community cut the red ribbon, men and children lay down bricks tied with bows.
It’s hard to remember: this is a combat zone.
“There is no weapon or no gunfight that can stop progress,” says Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new high school located less than mile from his base.
Ellison even removes his helmet for the ceremony and, for at least this moment in time, the sounds of gunfire and MEDEVAC birds spinning giant rotor blades are not present.
But in places such as Marjah, Afghanistan, the environment can change drastically and quickly.
Just hours ago ...
Marines muster at their usual spot, but before they begin their morning brief, shots ring out just outside the barricaded walls. The Police Mentoring Team working with the Afghan National Army, just minutes into their patrol, are engaged in a firefight with the Taliban.
Of course, this won’t stop the Marines from today’s mission of visiting the grounds where the new school will be built.
The Marines move out on their patrol, which is in the opposite direction of the now fading sounds of gunfire. The streets of Marjah are relatively quiet today. Only a few children run up to Marines with the usual requests of pens and paper.
At the District Center, the streets are as crowded as usual. As the Marines make their way inside the secure area and rest for a moment in the shade, the sound of helicopter rotor blades increases. A UH-60 Blackhawk MEDEVAC helicopter appears to land in the area of the firefight, reported earlier in the day. Two civilians wounded by the Taliban and a Marine who is also slightly wounded are taken by helicopter to higher levels of medical treatment at larger military bases.
Ellison meets with the governer of the Marjah district, Abdul Motalib Majboor, as well as village elders, contractors, civilians and Marines. After handshakes and greetings, the group heads to the site. They stop just down the road at just another sandy open space. The building behind the area will serve as a vocational school for adults and as an intermediate school until the high school is built.
The Afghans line up, each man holding a part of the red ribbon which will be cut to celebrate this sign of progress.
The ceremony begins with a traditional Muslim opening prayer. The Afghans hold their hands, palms up to the sky, as one man with a gray beard recites the holy words. When he is finished, the men make a gesture of wiping their faces and then the speeches begin.
Motalib thanks coalition forces for this day and for their help.
“Before here in Marjah, no one talked about the schools and now it is good that we have schools and that the children, they are coming to school,” says Motalib. “We are proud of the people, we appreciate the people who have planned for the schools and who are going to make the schools.”
Motalib also asks the elders to help open more schools as they are powerful men in the community, and he urges them to bring any complaints they may have to the District Center.
Later in the ceremony a councilman, the attorney for the district, an elder and an Afghan National Army commander have an opportunity to offer words of goodwill for today’s event.
“With your determination we will make the future for Afghanistan and Marjah in particular,” says Alastair Livingston, Stabilization Advisor to the District Stabilization Team.
Ellison also takes a moment to speak today.
“All of you are men of honor and men of courage. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here today. So today is about the future and not the present. Today is about the children,” he says. “So there’s no weapon, or no gunfights that can stop progress when the people of Marjah, led by strong and courageous men, decide to say no more and stand up for what’s right. And what’s right is a bright future. As (district councilman) Haji Salam said, a bright future using the pen instead of the weapon.”
As the Marines depart, one child is gifted a piece of paper and a pen. He stops to write down numbers for one Marine. A crowd of children gathers around the boy.
For the Marines here, this is a glimpse of progress, a glimpse of what they hope to see in the future.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as multimedia journalists for KVAL News.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.