By Terri Judd, The Independent (UK)
"Annabel", as the British had codenamed the tiny biblical Helmand village of mud compounds, was no more. The shattered wreck of crumbling walls and a giant crater left by a 2,000lb aerial bomb bore testament to the ferocity of the fighting that had taken place.
This was the front line between British forces and the Taliban pouring over the border from Pakistan. Until a few weeks ago, it was prime enemy territory, an unforgiving warren of trenches that British troops entered at their own peril.
Looking out over the deceptive calm of the newly planted corn fields, Captain George Aitken said: "We uncovered 37 bunkers. We found their sleeping bags. It was First World War trench warfare around here."
Just 100km (60 miles) north of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, these small compounds in Garmsir were deserted by farmers long ago to be replaced by the invaders from the south. Garmsir – it means "too much heat" – proved a thorn in the British side for a long time. The impenetrable front line was 100 metres from a lookout where the British soldiers and insurgents could eyeball each other.
Nearby, 180 soldiers in the small outpost of FOB (Forward Operating Base) Delhi – the most southern point of the British area of operations – battled to stem the tide of insurgents coming up from the border to be "blooded" on their way north.
But this week there were signs of a return to normality. Small groups of families, the first intrepid pilgrims to return to their former homes, stood staring as a patrol from 5th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) trod carefully through the compounds. The farmers' expressions were neither hostile, nor welcoming, simply guarded.
Everything changed with the arrival of 1,000 US Marines from 24 Marine Expeditionary Unit. As A Company, 5 Scots battled and cleared south of the district centre, the Americans moved east and then further south down through the "Snake's Head", a tangle of small irrigation canals, destroying the enemy in their path. Now the new frontline is 10km to the south. The key question remains whether the Taliban will remain at bay when the American show of strength departs next month.
Capt Aitken, an Irish Guard attached to the Scots, led a patrol through the compounds, all named after soldiers' girlfriends and wives. The Taliban may have been routed from their old home ground but pockets of resistance evidently remained somewhere.
"They keep us on our toes," said the guardsman, explaining that, a fortnight ago, two of their number were injured here by a roadside bomb. Another recent patrol was ambushed as they tried to extract a heat casualty.
Moving tactically through the maze of compounds, vegetation and irrigation ditches, they scaled mud walls to surprise any enemy, maintained a watch from one compound as another was cleared and swept for mines.
"Annabel" was destroyed and "Emily" deserted while two lone men stood suspiciously watching from the roof at "Debbie". But in "Charlotte" – or the village of Abdull Ghani – there were signs of hope. Two months ago British troops were fighting, bayonets fixed, through the compound. Now they are back with a civil military aid team of Royal Engineers to talk to the locals, to see what work needs to be done and help them claim compensation for battle damage.
Mohammed Ali, an elderly farmer with shattered spectacles and a cane, said he would try to rebuild his home and "garden" before bringing his six children back. Left-over military ordnance has proved a huge problem. Two weeks ago, four children died after disturbing some, and yesterday the troops were handing out picture leaflets as a warning as they destroyed a number of left-over rocket-propelled grenades.
The Taliban no longer controls Garmsir. The once-deserted bazaar in Darvishan is booming, fruit shops jostling next to motorbike vendors, barbers and tailors.
A couple of months ago, one doctor – Maula Khan Ahmadzai returned to the shattered remains of the district hospital. Now he has a team of three nurses, a pharmacist and a midwife trying to the cope with the needs of the town and 20 villages. Among the most common problems, he has to contend with the are malaria, TB and depression.
Pointing over the wall, he said: "I had a problem before because the front line was just there but things are much better."
Colonel Gulli Khan, the local police chief, expressed happiness at the calm but reflected the fears of the locals. "They are worried the situation will get worse, the enemy will come back," he said.
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