Captain Jesse Hills, the team leader of Team 3, Civil Affairs Detachment 11-2, 11th Marine Regiment, speaks with a local from the Khan Neshin district in front of a refurbished grand mosque, Feb. 25. (Photo by Sgt. Michael Cifuentes)
Afghans visit the grand mosque in Khan Neshin, Afghanistan, to pray Feb. 25.(Photo by Sgt. Michael Cifuentes)
KHAN NESHIN, Helmand province, Afghanistan (February 28, 2012) — Afghan construction workers, contracted in partnership with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and coalition forces, refurbished a grand mosque which was once a crumbling ruin in the secluded village of Khan Neshin. It has now been returned to the village as the centerpiece of the local government.
A combination of deterioration to the mud walls and plaster inside, the Helmand desert weather elements, and lack of maintenance picked at the 300-year-old mosque. Furthermore, insurgent forces controlled the area, and caring for the mosque wasn’t important, according to the locals.
In 2009, coalition forces pushed to southern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, just a few miles away from Khan Neshin, and took over a fortified compound in the village once defended by the insurgency. With the presence of coalition forces Afghans were able to establish local government for the area.
Marine Capt. Jesse Hills, the leader for Team 3, Civil Affairs Detachment 11-2, 11th Marine Regiment, was the project manager for the refurbishment. He was responsible for finding out what exactly was needed to repair the mosque: the time and resources needed to complete the refurbishment, figuring out the costs, and awarding the contract to an Afghan company.
He said he wasn’t hesitant to hire Haji Zahidullah, an Afghan contractor from the Jalalabad area in northern Afghanistan. Hills said with Zahidullah and his crew of 14 men was able to exceed his expectations and beautify the mosque.
“The locals couldn’t come into town freely to worship,” Zahidullah said. “[Insurgents] lived here, which brought a lot of instability in everyone’s way of life.”
Zahidullah plastered the interior walls, replaced the doors and windows, remodeled the front entrance and garden, installed a loud speaker, and put in a place for worshipers to perform ablution before prayer.
“A very important procedure Muslims do before praying is washing themselves in a very traditional way, and water is very important,” Hills said. “The ablution site was in disrepair and they had no access to water from the well.”
The project began in November 2011. Over the span of Team 3’s deployment, they gained a greater appreciation for the Afghan culture and religion.
“It’s a big part of their everyday life – not only to worship, but it’s ingrained in everything they do,” said Hills, a 28-year-old native of Terre Haute, Ind. “This mosque can become a place where education takes place, a place where elders meet, a place where the government officials can meet with the elders and that [communication line] between Kabul and Lashkar Gah [can be reached], all the way down here in Khan Neshin.”
Team 3 member Cpl. Joshua Brooks, a 28-year-old native of Celeste, Texas, said the best way to measure success is when the community gathers in a place of worship and they feel safe.
“Its been an enjoyable thing to witness from the beginning, seeing a 300-year-old building going from basically rubble to what it is now. It’s quite an accomplishment in my opinion,” Brooks said.
The mosque’s grand opening is scheduled March 2. But locals have already trickled in to worship, and the district governor already held a shura with the village elders. Zahidullah said he feels very proud to help the village of Khan Neshin get back on its feet.
Marine Sgt. Andrew Sanford, 24-year-old native of Costa Mesa, Calif., and a member of Team 3, said he “hopes the project helps the government place a foothold in this part of Helmand province.”
Zahidullah said he feels optimistic.
“Good things have happened since Jesse’s been here,” he said. “A mosque was built. That’s progress.”
Editor’s Note: The 1st Marine Division (Fwd) works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.