Showdown at Jugroom Fort
August 2008

by David Bathgate

I jumped from the back of the troop-carrier when the convoy stopped. Turning toward a Marine's voice wafting through the dust, I shouldered my bags and adjusted my flak jacket. "Your ride is over there," I heard. I turned and walked to a humvee parked by the roadside. The driver's armored door swung open and I asked if I could have a lift into Charlie Company. "Sir," said the young Marine, "this is Charlie Company." I got in.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
Poppy pods of the season's harvested opium crop dry in the hot sun of Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Our drive was short paralleling a high mud wall not unlike others protecting home and property throughout Afghanistan. To our right, Marine vehicles of all varieties and sizes lined the driveway. Many were outfitted with turrets, manned and pointed toward buildings of clay and patches of greenery that lay across the landscape. We turned left from the track code-named "Alabama" and passed through a break in the rubble wall. Down a narrow lane we rolled, bringing us to a tight complex of single-room structures, constructed of clay like all the rest. Having served as command central for the Taliban in opium-rich Garmsir district of Helmand province, these were now the temporary headquarters of Charlie Company. And, they were part of the 2,400-Marine deployment of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit sent to the region in late April to clear a route south to the Pakistan border.

First Lieutenant Mark Matzke, Executive Officer of C Company, met me when I arrived and offered to show me around. Jugroom is a riverside fort ringed with watchtowers that has long served as a stronghold for Taliban and Al Qaida fighters moving weapons and reinforcements northward from Baluchistan province in Pakistan and opium shipments in the opposite direction and out of the country.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit patrol a Taliban stronghold recently captured in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan.
My arrival here postdated an intense 10-hour battle by several days, yet the aftermath still lay fresh and bare. What was to be seen bordered on surreal – a movie-set scenario complete with bomb craters as deep as two-story houses are high, buildings reduced to rubble and farm plots scorched and smoldering from white phosphorus shelled in to deny insurgents cover and hiding.

But this was no Hollywood production and the exhausted looks on Marine faces were in no way scripted. All was real. As the first lieutenant toured me about the sprawling compound, he recounted just what happened days before. It began around nine in the morning, he said, with Charlie Company moving straight down Alabama. First contact came from insurgents occupying a machine-gun nest near the corner of Jugroom. Two Marines stormed the position with grenades and M16 fire, quickly ending the opposition. At this point the fight was on, he continued. Cobra gunships and warplanes were directed to key Taliban positions within these walls. Marines then entered on foot. "At times there was even eye contact," he said. We got that close.

"It was a surprise, judging from where they [insurgents] were when we entered," said Matzke. "It looked like they thought we'd come across the river at its narrowest point. Instead, we came from behind and above. It was a classic case of counter-insurgency." Matzke continued, "We had a clean battlefield to work with, since reconnaissance showed that the entire civilian population was gone – moved out into the desert weeks before when they heard we were coming. That freed us up for doing the job quickly and in the way we work best."

© David Bathgate/Corbis
U.S. Marines from Charlie Company, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, relax during down time in the wake of a major confrontation with Taliban insurgents in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Charlie Company suffered injuries, but no fatalities in the fight. Among the Taliban there were many, including foreign fighters – Arabs and Pakistanis. They carried personal hygiene kits – identical, right down to the blue carrying case. And they left behind clothing, clean dress apparel meant to be donned when martyrdom was near, an action for which circumstances, in this case, did not allow. Captured, too, were Russian weapons salvaged from the Soviet era, along with an anti-aircraft model complete with operator's seat, that no Taliban got a chance to use.

During the day I worked to the rhythm of Charlie Company that was ultimately tied to the desert and its unrelenting heat. Around about 5 a.m. each morning I'd crawl from beneath my bug net and capture Marines as they awoke and began their routines. Guard duty and perimeter patrol were, of course, exempt from whatever heat the day threw at us, making them recurrent themes for photo coverage. Other than that water consumption was a major occupation, that and hunkering down wherever there was shade until evening brought some relief.

The day before I left Jugroom by convoy for British-run Camp Dwyer to the north, a triad of incidents unfolded. The appearance of a dark-turbaned man across the river drew concern and warning fire from a sentry's 50-caliber machine-gun was issued. With this the man melted into the bushes much like Taliban morph into locals following an attack.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
A U.S. Marine patrol from Charlie Company, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit questions and fingerprints a local villager seen near the site of a recent battle with Taliban insurgents, Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Out on "Cowboy," the main north-south route through the desert to Dwyer, an IED (improvised explosive device) was discovered by a Marine patrol. Then Afghan police fingered an alleged insurgent who Marines took into custody for questioning. Were these incidents probes, testing for soft spots or was this just a mix of unrelated malicious and benign events? Captain Moder, Commander of Charlie Company, was hesitant to speculate. "We need to see a pattern before anything like that can be said," he told me. "But it's not unlike the Taliban to try."

In a week replacements would arrive for Charlie Company sending Marines back to base at Camp Dwyer. They could dine on something other than MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), wash a bit and drink water suited more to refreshment than steeping bags of tea. The plan--as I was privy to it--was for Marine engineers to move in and physically secure Jugroom Fort. Once that was in place, the Afghan National Army would be responsible for occupying and holding it. That was the plan. But the desert can be unpredictable and so too the Taliban.

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© David Bathgate

David Bathgate is a freelance photojournalist represented by Corbis Pictures in Paris. He is also a contract photographer in Europe for The New York Times. Holding a Ph.D. in anthropology, his work frequently centers on other cultures, social systems different from those in the West and political situations that affect us all. For the past few years Bathgate has worked almost exclusively in the Middle East and Asia for publications such as Newsweek, National Geographic Books, Stern, Focus and German Geo. David repeatedly returns to Afghanistan because of his belief that this story needs to be told until the war there is no longer forgotten.

More of David Bathgate's work can be seen at:, as well as at the site of his online teaching of photojournalism:

Links to David's previous DJ "Dispatches":

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