Larcenous little ones swarm Marine Female Engagement Team
January 28, 2011
MARJAH, Afghanistan — She was about 5, adorable if grimy, and all smiles as she walked over to the interpreter. She darted a small hand into the interpreter’s pack and sped off with a bottle of water.
“Did you see that?” said an unamused Heela Nasseri, part of a Marine Female Engagement Team, an Afghan by birth but American at heart and by citizenship. “She stole my [expletive] water.”
That was just foreshadowing.
The inner door to the elder’s compound opened, and its secret world lay revealed. But there were only seconds to take it in — the old woman washing pots, the clothes hanging on overhead lines, all the women laughing and chattering in their dusty velvets and sequined scarves, two headless chickens — before chaos descended.
Scores of children of all ages crowded around the FET and a reporter.
“Mataroca!” they demanded. Give me — candy, pens, paper, gum, the camera, your watch, the rings on your fingers. They laughed and screamed and grabbed and shoved. They mocked their visitors’ facial expressions, they stuck out their tongues, their little eyes gleaming with mischief.
Finally, the compound’s matriarch appeared, bent, bowlegged and swinging a big stick.
“Yes! Get the stick! Get the stick!” said FET team leader, Cpl. Kimberly Martin, a 22-year-old reservist who’d joined the Marines as a ticket out of her small Arizona town and was now accustomed to differing cultural norms.
The matriarch swung freely. It didn’t matter. By then, the miniature pirates had spirited a tourniquet, two scarves and possibly some cash from American pockets and bags.
They might have gotten a camera, too, except that the young men in the compound — on grounds that their women must never be viewed by unrelated men — ordered that there be no photographs, and that the camera be stowed in a backpack.
This wasn’t the way the FET, one of 16 teams in Helmand province — and all the world — planned it. The mission’s purpose, Martin had explained to the squad of male Marines providing security before heading out, was to “empower women.” Several of the Marines grinned; one broke into the theme from “Rocky,” in falsetto.
Lofty aspirations aside, the mission was routine FET business: to meet with local Afghan women, discuss their concerns, ask what they needed, encourage school attendance, gather intelligence.
Martin had arranged with a local elder to have the meeting at his compound, with the children sequestered so that the women and the FET could talk undisturbed. But the elder had changed his mind and would neither allow the FET access nor his women to come outside.
So, Plan B.
Just down the road, past the mosque, was another compound where the FET had visited several times and were welcome. The children at the compound, though, were wild. The worst in the neighborhood, Martin had said, with what turned out to be admirable understatement.
The gathering moved to a carpeted room in one of the mud huts, where a fan was hooked to the ceiling, although the compound, like most, had no electricity or running water. Martin and Nasseri tried to bring order. The third member of the team, Lance Cpl. Chaunessea Bailey, 22, now smiling stiffly, was ready to take notes.
The pandemonium continued.
The children would surge forward. An adult would drive them back, with a swift stick to the head or a hard kick to the midsection. This happened repeatedly. The children just laughed, ducking and parrying, enjoying the game.
They crawled under a bed at the back of the room to avoid what blows they could, and dove out a small window — and then in again — for renewed attacks. It was equal parts slapstick, farce and terror, like the Three Stooges meets the Marx Brothers meets Lord of the Flies.
Later, when a male Afghan working for the Marines was asked whether Afghan children ever cry, he said yes, they do.
“When their father beats them.”