KAJAKI SOFLA, AFGHANISTAN
KAJAKI SOFLA, Afghanistan - In the U.S., children gather in parks, along sidewalks and the front lawns of their neighborhoods. They wage massive water fights and play games of tag which last hours, relishing the pure, innocent joy that is childhood. Half the world away, the children of Kajaki Sofla have grown up with the harsh realities of life forced upon them at an early age. Yet even here, in a land that can at times be desolate and cruel – the innocence of childhood remains.
The area, which until recently was home to a number of Taliban sub-commanders has seen many changes since Operation Eastern Storm began in October, when the men of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment conducted a large-scale, helicopter-borne insertion aimed at routing insurgents from the valley.
Now, 3 months after the outset of the operation, the children of this small oasis, tucked between the mountains, can be seen playing soccer on a sparse patch of dirt, within Patrol Base Pennsylvania, the headquarters, for Company B., 1/6. In lieu of tended grass and bright orange cones, they play with goals made from scrap metal and wire. Marines and members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police stand by to coach and referee, while village elders rest on the rocks or piles of sand constituting sidelines.
Felber Field, where the daily soccer games are held, was named after Lance Cpl. Brian Felber, who was critically wounded in an IED strike shortly after the company arrived in Kajaki, explained Capt. Paul Tremblay, company commander, Company B. In an effort to both build rapport and keep the positive momentum they had gained, the Marines of Company B thought to bring some small measure of joy to the children they saw every day while out on patrol.
“We sat down and thought about what we did as kids. What were some of the most memorable things we did as children that we can do to continue the momentum for the children and hopefully, inspire the parents, said Tremblay. “What’s most important to the average [person here] is perception. The kids, they’ve seen soccer on the TV in Pakistan; it’s a national past time. So for them to get excited about coming to play soccer, by default it makes their fathers and elders in the villages take ownership of their own security.”
As the influence of the insurgency steadily waned; soccer balls, books, coloring pencils and a host of other recreational items began to appear in the bazaar. Every afternoon, children could be seen in their family’s fields playing catch, while Marines patrolled past
“It’s a very regimented life for the kids,” explained 1st Lt. Dennis Graziosi, 2nd Platoon commander from Altoona, Pa. “When the Taliban came in here, they stopped the school, sports activities, all of that. It’s just amazing to go from Taliban kicking all that out, regimenting their life, to seeing it crop back up. Their patrolling effort has allowed the kids future to get a lot better, to establish a brighter future for the children here.”
Beyond generating goodwill among the local citizenry, the ability to host an event like this within their company position, with approximately 50 children in attendance serves as a marker for how security has increased in the unit’s area of operations.
“The security here has gotten a lot better. We’ve noticed significant changes in the atmospherics from the civilians,” explained Graziosi. “At first the kids weren’t supposed to come up to us, and the elders, the males in the area wouldn’t talk to us - scared to. We would have to walk up to their compound to talk to them. Now the kids are walking with us on patrol, the people are calling us over to drink [tea] with us and some of the older guys will walk with us, talking. Now they’re comfortable talking to us, giving us information.”
“It’s hard for them and I’ve been on patrol where they’ve told me, ‘What’s the difference between you and the Taliban? Both of you carry guns and we can’t say yes or no’,” continued Graziosi. “But what they’ve slowly seen - is from Marines on patrol, interacting with us - they see that we’re good people, and the Taliban are not, and in the long run we’re the best bet. At the end of the day, it’s the Marines that are out there patrolling every day. Because of them, that security has been established, and the future of these kids has been secured.”
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This work, Soccer field, symbol of hope for Kajaki Sofla children, by James Clark, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.