Afghanistan : Marines, au coeur de l'enfer
Sandstorm in the province of Helmand, the extreme south of Afghanistan. - Oh shit, this thing never lasts. Yes, it really sucks... Go shoot it! These kids are marines. For three months, they have been living on the front line, harassed by the Taliban.
- It's not true, my phone just died... F***** wind! It's a Platoon of about thirty men, morale does not fly high. - It was still sunny, half an hour ago. P*****, that sucks. - But you have sandstorms in the United States? In Arizona? - Yes, I know, but I'm from New York.
I don't have a storm like that. We have snowstorms. It's cooler.
Here, we cannot take refuge. - Your motto is to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. You believe in it ? - They don't want us here. It doesn't matter what we do there.
Karzai, the president, no longer wants us and yet, he was the one who asked us to come. Now he wants to appoint Taliban to the government, the very people who are shooting at us. This is their country, not ours. It can't be settled, if it's only up to us. When we leave, it will start again as before. Since they conquered this position, barely two months ago, these men have already lost three of their comrades.
And a fourth will soon come under fire. Their camp is called Griffin, after the first Marines to die here. A combat post located next to a village that the insurgents controlled for ten years. A village that remains full of Taliban. Elusive enemies who mingle with the population and who do not hesitate to attack in broad daylight.
For three weeks we will live in Griffin's hell. First day, here is the road that connects the rear base of the Marines, at the outpost of Griffin. An umbilical cord regularly targeted by the enemy. - There are constantly mines on this road. We have already jumped six times. There, we are obliged to send deminers in front, in case, like that, we are sure not to damage our armored vehicle.
- Have you ever jumped on mines? - Yes, it was about fifteen meters from where we are. We ran over a mine, it exploded, but there were no injuries. - Why are there so many mines on this road? - We're in the North.
And the further north you go, the more Taliban there are. In the South, it's fine, we cleaned up. We pushed them back north. On this road, they come back all the time to lay mines. But they are not strong enough to confront us directly, with fairness.
The outpost is only five kilometers away, but it takes 3 hours to cover them. The road is scrutinized centimeter by centimeter. The slightest alert taken seriously. The Marines just got a tip, but we have to negotiate. - Does anyone smoke here? There is a local asking for cigarettes.
He says he knows where there is a mine. - And you, the journalists, you don't have cigarettes? The guy over there asks us for two cigarettes in exchange. He will tell us where there is a mine. Thank you gentlemen.
improvised explosive devices, this is what causes the most losses to the American army. So the convoy is immediately stopped. The deminers will check. Apparently it wasn't a burst pipe.
- If you step on it, it explodes. How it works ? See, the silver thing. If you put your foot on it, it activates the cable. It arms the machine and it farts. - He's watching us? - Yes, of course, he is watching us.
- Where are they watching us from? - Everywhere ! They watch us all the time. When we pick up their radio communications, we hear them say: They look tired or thirsty. They are sitting down. They keep watching us.
The machine is indeed an artisanal mine. It still contains 20 kilos of explosives. A load to which even new armor of the American army do not resist. - It's a big mine, but we've seen bigger ones around here.
The road is cleared, at least for today. The Americans know it, as soon as night falls, the Taliban will lay new mines. End of the day, we finally arrive at the front, at Griffin. With the mail. - Are you looking forward to this? - Yes, it's like Christmas, every time the mail arrives.
- Why ? - Because when we get all this stuff from our families, it lifts our spirits. As always on the front lines, what strikes, it is the youth of the fighters. - Yes, it's for me, it comes from my mother.
- Me too, it's my mother who sends me this. She's a good woman. She sends me socks, beef jerky and razors. - I didn't receive anything this week, but last week, yes.
- No, no, I haven't received anything this week. My wife doesn't love me anymore. - Say, she wrote you three f***** pages. - Is your chick writing to you? - No, it's like a sister.
She is single like me. - Yeah, a sister. - She is looking for a decent guy, who would take good care of her.
- I'm the guy she's looking for. The platoon of Marines lives like a brotherhood. Men share everything. - I love your mother.
What did she send me today? What package did your mother send me? - It's this one. - So, let's see what your mother sent me. Meatballs, soda. What good things! These kids earn $1,000 a month.
Unlimited commitment, but different motivations. - I was a drug addict. I was part of a gang. One day I thought I'd rather die for my country by doing something good, rather than dying in my country for something silly.
- It's a bit like I don't love you either. I both love and hate being here. I love the end of a fight, when I can say to myself: Oh, I'm still alive, that's what I like to be close to death. - Why did you join? - To kill. The others think it's not right to admit it, but basically, for everyone.
This is the main motivation. Average age 21 years old. The platoon boss is barely older. Lieutenant Scott Cook, 25, already a veteran of the Iraq war. - Do you have big responsibilities? - Yes I know. This is the job I signed up for. I have a good team, good soldiers, good lieutenants, but it is a heavy burden to bear.
I have to take responsibility for my decisions. - You have no room for error? - I'm not perfect, I make mistakes. The problem is that my mistakes affect my men. In three months, Scott has already lost three men. It must be said that this camp is within gunshot of the insurgents. The last assault dates back to the same morning, the Taliban were 50 m away.
- You have to go to this side of the canvas. Because like that, we can't be seen. It's pretty sheltered here.
Except that this morning, we had a stroke. Fortunately, no one was injured, thank God. - Did you have to shoot? - Me no. But the sentries of that post and that post over there, yes. Over there is where we go to pee. There are two pipes.
There again, we installed a canvas so that we couldn't be seen. - Why is it important that they don't see us? - The village, right next to it, is almost safe now. But a few days ago, we surprised a Taliban installing a mine. He ran away before we could shoot him. The problem is that we don't know who is the Taliban and who isn't.
Suddenly, someone approaches, it could very well be a sniper came to shoot us. For the moment, this has not happened thanks to the canvases that we have installed. So we're pretty much at peace. There, all these holes in the wall, they are loopholes. If the Taliban cross the front line and get there, a Marine stands behind each hole and fires. The walls are thick, the bullets cannot pass through them.
Loopholes, trenches, in fact, the Americans unpacked their technology, a high-tech war machine against an elusive insurgency. - What are these screens? - These screens are controlled by this remote control, which directs our two cameras. - Are they automatic? - Yes, one of them is automatic.
We enter the coordinates where we want her to look and she does everything on her own. You can also control the other camera with this joystick. We can zoom. There is autofocus. Here you have the map of the surroundings.
The first camera is here and there, there is the second which shows us this side. On this screen, we observe what is happening at 2,200 m. If we spot something, we can send a drone or send a patrol giving him the coordinates. - But is it really useful? - Yes, thanks to these cameras, we have already killed ten or twelve enemies.
While the cameras spy on the Taliban, Lt. Scott listens to them with an Afghan police captain who lives with the Marines, on the camp. Like every night, he tunes into the enemy's frequency, the frequency of the Taliban. - How far away are they? - On the Lord side, at night they move away a little, but during the day they often roam around and they can approach up to 300 m. - But it's amazing. They are close! - It's very close, it's true.
Often they send the scouts to find out how many there are. If we go on patrol and then they transmit the news by radio or they get on their motorcycle and go to warn the fighters. - So, we're really on the front line? - Yes, yes, absolutely.
We are really on the front lines. We're a stone's throw from the enemy. It's the rule of the game. - There, are the Taliban we hear? - Yes of course. They're saying they're planning to attack the camp sentries.
Yes, the post just behind. It is by listening to them that we have the information. But we only listen to them, we never talk to them.
Tonight, finally, there will be no attack. It was nonsense. Some experts call this war the Fourth World War. Drones, satellites, nothing helps. Since the invasion of Afghanistan nine years ago, nothing seems to be able to contain the Afghan resistance.
Today, almost the entire population who wants the occupation troops to withdraw. Griffin men never venture more than three kilometers from their base, but even this close, they know they are never safe from an ambush. No one forgets that in two months they have already lost three men, i.e. 10% of their group. At each patrol departure, contact is almost certain.
This morning, it's not a routine patrol. Scott's men, aided by Afghan police, have a specific objective. - This morning, we have information that the Taliban were blocking a road 500 m to the north. In recent days, they keep making dams in the Oued and they tell the people that they are the bosses. So we play cat and mouse with them. And the game starts at 6 a.m.
For the moment, radio silence on the side of the Taliban. To reach the wadi, where the insurgents would have installed their dams. Lieutenant Scott's men must first pass through the nearby village.
Soldiers walk in each other's footsteps, in column to avoid the mines disseminated on the roads and the paths. We are now 500m from the camp and apparently our progress did not go unnoticed. The talkie begins to crackle.
The Marine interpreter, simultaneously translates what the Taliban are saying. - They know we took a left. They saw us, they pass on the information. - They talk about us, the Taliban.
They don't know exactly where we are. This time it's not nonsense. The confrontation is imminent. - We will divide into several groups and we will progress towards the North, towards them, to take them in pincer movement. After crossing this field for more than 300 m, the Marines take position. The enemy is now very close.
- They just said on the radio that they were ready for combat. A precarious calm sets in. A few minutes later, the Taliban opened fire. Lieutenant Scott is in charge of operations management. - I am currently at position 8, 7, 2 in the Oued, 300 m north of the Taliban checkpoint. We are under fire.
Sporadic. The news falls on Radio Taliban, the tension is growing. - They say they are many. Many fighters are ready to attack. - What we're gonna do now is have a soldier turn them on where the shots are coming from.
And his guys will advance on the objective in order to put the pressure on them and figure it out. - But there's no more navy here. - So where are the Marines? - I do not know. There is no one 20m away. Lieutenant Scott is isolated. He must join his men in the front line. - Movement to the left.
Have you seen him, Richards? At 200 m, there is movement, it moves in the trees. There's one of my men and his team advancing 100m to the east. They will consolidate their positions and at that time, me and my group will push us north. There is a helicopter that will fly over the area to tell us where we have to bomb. - So you have air support? - Yes and in addition a drone to help us. An unequal fight.
Some insurgents armed with submachine guns against a sample of the most powerful army in the world. The other group of Marines managed to take position. Now it's up to Scott's men to close in on the enemy. Discovered ! Bullets are flying all over the place. - I crouch on the ground waiting for a lull. I find myself cut off from the group.
A few moments later, I join Scott and his men. - What does it say on Radio Taliban? The insurgents are now located. They would be grouped around this building, 150 m from our position. - We intercepted a communication in which the Taliban say that they will shoot in all directions to find out where we are. For the moment, they have no idea of our position. Very often they water like crazy hoping to hit someone, by chance.
That's how they hope to find us. At the slightest movement near the house, the marines shoot, but the insurgents seem difficult to dislodge. So it's the air force and the artillery that will finish the job. - Hey brother, do you have a yellow smoke bomb? Behind the trees, 300 m away, it is there.
Throw the grenade as far as possible! Scott asks that we mark the target with a smoke bomb. - Go ahead, back up. It's good, we see the yellow smoke. The Taliban eventually spotted Scott and his men. Enemy fire is more accurate but it won't last.
A shell has just fallen on the farm where the insurgents are entrenched. Then a second. Now is the time to retreat.
Four Taliban are said to have died in the bombardment, but the area is far from completely cleared. On the way back, we try new bursts. And when we cross the village, the artillery fire still resounds. Sheltered behind clay walls, the children of the village are afraid.
Return to Camp Griffin, after a morning of fighting in close to 50 degrees. For Scott's men, an ordinary day. - Are you hurt? - No, I just sprained my ankles. - Oh, I'm dead. - How many grenades did you fire? - 16 grenades and a smoke grenade. - Have you been very active this morning? - Yeah. The most important thing is that no one was injured.
- 5 hours of combat? - If you say so. Yeah, it's been a long time and everyone is intact. - Hey, do you have any intellectual readings? - Yeah and I have others. Bob Dylan and the ghosts of Vietnam. 30 years after the same melody, nothing changes for cannon fodder. Everyone escapes as best they can.
- What are you playing at ? - Rummy. - I'm busy. I spend the time. - Do you think of your three friends who died here? - My best friend George Davis, Taylor Griffin and Soriane Lamar. We can't stop talking about it. - The first death we had was Griffin.
After the explosion, he remained conscious for a while. He was calm. He knew he had just blown up on a mine. He had just lost both his legs and an arm. He was not afraid.
- He was conscious. He was fine for a few more moments. - He kept his calm, even though he knew he had hit a mine.
He was not afraid. - That's a picture of Davis with two other buddies. - The second one we lost was him. I had just fallen asleep and half an hour later, I was awakened by the shots. We all got up and we all ran.
Davis' group spotted an explosive device. They wanted to take it off and all of a sudden I saw Davis on the floor, who was screaming, who no longer felt anything and who could no longer move. I couldn't move either.
I asked him to talk to me and he died moments later. - Do you feel hatred? - Yes all the time. It makes you want to shoot everyone. Now when I go back on patrol in the village, I look at people smiling at me and waving at me.
I think maybe it's the Taliban. Well, we can't do anything. It's like losing your best friend or your brother.
- It's a part of your life, your friends are here. You make plans. And suddenly, your friend is dead. - With scratching, we thought that once we were back in the USA, that we would have fun in the bars, that we would go to the beach. I can't wait to go back to the United States.
- Me, as soon as I land in the United States, I kiss the ground. I say that's it, I'm home. The first thing I would do is go to a fast food restaurant. And I would order anything. I'm going to fill my stomach.
- And the fact of meeting people telling you that there is no risk that they will shoot you, it will be great. The important thing is to return home. - Back to the game! Three more months ago the village surrounding the camp was in the hands of the Taliban.
For nearly a decade, these residents submitted to the insurgents. This morning, under the tent, just at the entrance to the camp, about thirty men, the chiefs of the village, palaver around a problem of distribution of water. It's about winning hearts and minds, as Washington would say. Since the Marines were conquered, the village, Lieutenant Scott, is the highest authority.
This morning, he must arbitrate a dispute between peasants. - The water arrives in our fields, the work is well done. There's no problem, I don't understand! - Why are you leaving ? Stay ! Last time everyone agreed and now everyone changes their minds. - There is a big problem on the irrigation network. The manager did not do a good job. Some fields are not irrigated at all.
So they came here to appoint a new manager. There are two camps that disagree. We are in the middle and we have to mediate. Whitebeards submit to the authority of the Marine, because the Americans know how to be generous, irrigation network, schools, roads. They finance without counting the reconstruction of the villages. Whatever the invader, Russian, Taliban or American, money has no smell for Afghan peasants or for their children.
- It's the only way to win this war. We have to get people on our side. That's why we build schools. We do what we can, we take care of the irrigation problems in the fields. We do what we can to fix what's wrong. But it's a long way.
Candy, handshakes. However, no one is fooled. The Marines remain an army of occupation. Their arrival here has not changed old habits. Almost all of the fields remain devoted to poppy cultivation. 90% of the world's heroin comes from this province.
- You don't mind seeing so many drug fields, everywhere around you? - What do I think of it. It's crazy, but it's their way of surviving. They have to get away with it. They don't ask questions. The peasants grow opium. Drugs make them a lot more money than anything else.
But the drug money, is it used by the Taliban? - Yes, in fact, that's the problem. They tax opium and with the money they buy weapons and explosives. - When the children follow us, it's a good sign. - Why ? - That means the Taliban won't attack right away. - Because the population knows when they are going to attack? - People know when the Taliban are around.
Everyone knows each other here. Everyone knows each other, only no one wants to talk. Americans have great difficulty in identifying the enemy who easily hides among the villagers.
Even if they did not adhere to the Taliban theses, many peasants joined the uprising. So conversations with natives are never really trivial. - We walk around, we ask people their opinion on our presence, if they are happy with what we are doing. To pass the introduction, it turns to the interrogation in order. Ancestry, descent, mosque attended.
For a good quarter of an hour, this man will have to answer to a pre-established form. - What is the name of your father and your grandfather? Gradually, all the inhabitants of the village are thus registered. Painstaking work. But it is above all the ambushes that the Marines attempt around that help unmask the Taliban.
This afternoon at Camp Griffin, Lieutenant Scott and his men prepare to lay a trap. - Our target is this building. Bill Rose's group will stand along this line of trees until dawn. We will be inside the building.
To hide ! Normally, no one will know we're there and a priori, we will be covered. The plan is to attempt an ambush with the Afghan police. We will climb in the mountains, like this when the Taliban come down towards the village in the early morning, we will catch them. In general, in the morning, they descend into the valley. The operation must begin in the middle of the night.
But difficult to be discreet. It is 3 a.m. when the column of Marines moves off in the dark. For two and a half hours, Lieutenant Scott's men will march in absolute darkness.
Guided by an Afghan informant. - He pointed out to us the places where there could be mines. He will help us find the best way to reach the ambush site. - The only thing that I distinguish, the silhouette, who precedes me.
The march is led by a soldier who has a mine detector and we follow in his footsteps and we go exactly where he went. The ambush is going to take place here? - Yes, over there. - Are you going to wait for the Taliban? - Yes, there is a group waiting here. The Taliban often send scouts. In the early morning, they frequently pass by here.
The other group of Marines will beat them down and we will catch them. We'll search them in the house next door. If we find weapons on them, we keep them.
Otherwise, we'll have to let them go. A few minutes later, day breaks. On the other side of this house, a dozen Marines and Afghan policemen took up positions. We are not allowed to film the ambush.
We wait with the rest of the group. Despite the tension, some don't lose a sense of humor nor self-mockery. - See, I put a sticker in case I forget, to put on the shoulder. And there I put: to point at the enemy. That way I'm sure I won't forget. The first suspects are arrested on the way behind the house.
Are they Taliban or simple peasants who passed by? This is indeed the whole point of this war. Each man is led inside for questioning. A few questions, but to identify the suspects with certainty, above all, the marines have a new toy. This camera that scans the iris and take fingerprints. All data collected is transmitted in real time to the United States.
If the man is already on file, he is immediately arrested. The checks are linked. The Marines are only waiting for one thing, to do battle with the Taliban. - It will surely shoot today. It's gonna be fun.
It's a crazy thing. We're going to have to release most of them. And as soon as we take the cuffs off them, they gon' get their guns and no doubt follow us to shoot us.
Better to have your rifle fully loaded. It's a beautiful day ahead. Until then, all is calm. But it won't last. - They're shooting someone. Civilians are worried.
The Marines are on high alert. The Taliban came into contact. We must quickly find a way of fallback in case the situation escalates. - There are the Taliban who have descended. Afghan commanders opened fire. One of them was hit in the hip.
The other two fled. That's why they were shooting. When you think they missed two. But hey, we have one, that one, we'll take care of it. - We were going to a wedding.
- And you have nothing else to tell me? - Yes, I can show you the map. - You have the card, so no problem! Eventually, most of those checked are released. - And you ? No, I'm from another village, further down. - Me, I was accompanied by car.
There were two other guys with me. We didn't expect to be checked... - What we're going to do now is go back with those who seem sleazy ones and bring them back to Camp Griffin. Of all those who have been checked, only these three suspects will be kept in detention despite their denials.
- We have these three guys. It must be scouts who came to see what we were up to. Then, a little later, we waited and three guys showed up. Two were on a motorcycle with Talkie and k**********. We hurt one. It now remains to bring the prisoners of the day back to Camp Griffin.
Undoubtedly the most delicate phase of the whole operation. Crossing the village with handcuffed Afghans makes the sailors very nervous. - There are loopholes up there. They fear that the Taliban will seek by all means to free their comrades in arms. - Pay attention to women too. There are two kids there.
Normally, there are no children when the Taliban are there. But hey, you still have to be careful. We have a position not far away, he could help us in case.
It's a little safer here. Now we are in the field of our cameras, it's safer. - And another day's work.
The three prisoners must spend the night on the camp before being transferred to Kabul. They risk big. It can end up in an American prison, like Guantanamo. But the village elders do not hear it that way.
The next morning, crisis meeting under the tent. These men came for a claim. - What do they want? - Actually, one of the guys we captured during the ambush yesterday. One of them is a mullah and they say he's innocent and that certainly he has nothing to do with the Taliban.
Marines and Afghan police agree to release him, but there are conditions. - If you want to control these people, really do it! We want to know what they do, you have to tell us everything! - We have no connection with the Taliban. - If you say he's innocent, I believe you! - We know him well... The word of the wise is not enough for American soldiers. The deal needs to be formalized. - We established this document with their photos and they signed with their fingerprints.
They thus certify that they stand surety for him, that he is not a Taliban and has nothing to do with the Taliban. If it's wrong, we can turn against them. There, you see, that's his father. This is the guy I spoke to.
And there are the six wise men who gave their word. The mullah is immediately released. There is no question of alienating the population. - We're going to compensate you for the rockets that were fired at your house. For Scott, under the tent this morning, the grievances are linked. Now it's this man's turn.
- It will be quick, someone will be there in fifteen minutes with the money. - Rockets were fired at his house by mistake. So we're going to give him money to repair the damage. By the way, the peasant is also stuck, using the famous camera that scans the iris. - How much are you giving him? - We'll give him $2,000 US.
£1,000 for... And especially $1,000 because the roof of his farm was badly damaged. Since he can neither read nor write, he just makes a mark. The money is given to him immediately, in cash. - Tell him to hold this, like that, we'll take a picture! Hold this, like this, take the money. Okay, flawless! Explain to him that I will give him a receipt.
We have a copy, he can do what he wants with it, even the pier if he's afraid of getting caught by the Taliban with it. Either way, it's his copy. Explain him ! The man will not hesitate long. - He doesn't want it, he's afraid. In fact, he doesn't live far from where we ambushed yesterday. There are plenty of Taliban hanging around there.
So if they catch him with that, he could really be in trouble. - If the Taliban learn that you are there, you risk reprisals? - Yes, of course, they can come after us and hit us. In their eyes, accepting this money is a bit as if I had reported on them.
- When we go back to the village, people are bound to wonder where the tickets come from. - If they learn that we came to discuss with you, they can go so far as to hang us or cut our throats. - If the Americans leave.
What do you think will happen? - The Taliban will surely come back if the Americans leave. What we appreciate with the Americans is security, the reconstruction of schools. You know, when I saw you writing earlier, I wanted to cry.
We haven't been to school and our children are illiterate too. You saw well, just now, no one knew how to write his name. Last days at Griffin. Soon, we leave the camp and these kids who made us share everything.
They will wait several weeks for the relief and won't be back in the United States for two months, with their ghosts. - I had a dream last night. I was back in the United States. We were all together and we went on patrol and it farted all over the place. A real butcher.
- Do you have friends who suffer from post-traumatic syndrome? - Me, my brother suffers from it. He was a Marine about five years ago. He lived through atrocious things in Iraq. - What did he have? - It is difficult to explain. - It's like anxiety. It's stressing you out! Been to crazy places.
As soon as you hear a boom, you want to kill the people around you. You freak out all the time. - My grandfather told me the story of a guy who came out of his house, in the middle of the night, almost totally naked, and crawling on the ground. The guy was completely West.
Some of these soldiers have already decided to return and come back to fight in Afghanistan. But others are exhausted and want to turn the page, as Jack Richards told us. - When I go back to the United States, I'm going to take a long shower first. I'm gonna drink a liter of iced tea and then I'm gonna make love to my wife for three days and I will take care of my daughter.
I will become a history teacher and teach in high school where I studied. No one will shoot me anymore. I will take care of my family.
A few days after my departure, I received this email from Lieutenant Scott. “Paul, I have very sad news from the Camp Griffin family. On June 26, returning from patrol, Corporal Richards hit a mine.
He died at 10 p.m. He leaves behind a widow and a three-month-old daughter, Kayden." This report is dedicated to Corporal Richards 22 years old, killed in action.