For more than a week, CNN International Correspondent Atia Abawi has been embedded with U.S. Marines who are working alongside Afghan soldiers to rout out Taliban forces from the southern Afghan province of Marjah. Abawi filed this inside look at Operation Moshtarak:
It's been over a week now since Operation Moshtarak began here in southern Afghanistan. The city of Marjah shakes with the sound of improvised explosive devices, most of them set off by controlled explosions. Between IED blasts, the air is filled with the sounds of whizzing bullets, booming mortars, clacking helicopters, and other noises of war that I can't even express in writing.
The U.S. Marines and the Afghan Army are fighting a fierce battle against the Taliban inside Marjah while other NATO forces are in the surrounding towns in villages. The story started well before the launch of Operation Moshtarak on February 13. In fact, journalists - aware of the impending operation - began deploying to Helmand province at the beginning of the month.
"I'm scared as f**k!" one Marine told me as he headed out, days before the operation started. "And I'll tell you now, we all feel this way."
I instantly connected with that emotion.
For over a week, journalists camped together shared our concerns about the impending military strike, not knowing why we were brought in so early or why we were given the OK to report so much on the operation.
The fear mainly stemmed from the fact the Taliban knew what was about the cross those city lines. NATO commanders have said for many months that Marjah would be the next major battle of the war.
And they've made sure that we, the media, passed the message along to our audiences.
At Camp Leatherneck, print journalists, photographers and TV journalists arriving from all over the world shared one big tent. Some were veterans and some were newbies. But one thing almost everyone had in common was that this was the first time we were all actually a bit nervous of what was ahead on our military embeds.
And as odd as it sounds, there was comfort in knowing you are not alone in feeling that way. But those nerves didn't stop us from wanting the story.
We all eventually separated to join our units and learn about the mission ahead. The CNN team was about to embed with the 1st Battalion 6th Marines, Alpha Company. We were told this was the main company in the battle for Marjah.
It was hard not to look around at the faces sitting near me as we sat on the CH-53 transport helicopter with the Marine unit heading into the city. The unit was made up mostly of young Marines in their late teens and early 20s, but also veterans – the ones the young guys look up to.
Their expressions did not show fear or excitement; the faces I read were those of acceptance – accepting the unknown of what they were about to encounter. The men weren't cocky, as infantrymen are sometimes thought to be. But at the same time they weren't showing their nerves.
You could tell that prayers were abundant and their minds were racing with thoughts of their wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings or children.
I remember feeling one-third fear of what was ahead and two-thirds of something I can't describe.
Talking to the Marines on that day, they said they were expecting to be surrounded by Taliban small arms fire the second they stepped off the bird.
As our helicopter was flying overhead I was half hoping we would get there already so we could face whatever was there. The other half of me was hoping we'd be called back to the airfield.
When the bird landed, a Marine interpreter, Solomon, helped put my extremely heavy bag on my back. The pack was so much easier to carry without a flak vest and trudging through a muddy field in the black night.
All I kept thinking was, "Head down, head down" to make sure I didn't hit the rotor blade. And as I ducked with my heavy bag, I fell. And I wasn't alone. The Marines carrying all their heavy equipment and weapons didn't have an easy time either: the first four members of Alpha Company that were wounded were the result of the tricky terrain and the heavy packs they were carrying.
But luckily the Taliban were not firing, at least not when the sun was still down. Marines used night-vision goggles and Afghan soldiers walked blindly.
The explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team went ahead of everyone scanning the fields for IEDs – the Taliban weapon of choice and a very effective tool of engagement for them. IEDs are the number one killer of NATO troops in Afghanistan.
We stood in the muddy field in freezing temperatures, huddling together to stay warm as we waited for word on when we could move again. The night was so bitterly cold that one Marine was medevacked out to be treated for hypothermia.
When the hot sun began to rise over the horizon, the crackles of AK-47s could be heard from various locations. The Taliban's targets were in sight and the bullets were flying.
Our initial reaction was to get to the ground – and we did. Our second reaction was to run – but we couldn't. Running through the empty fields of Marjah would be gambling our lives. You don't know when your next step could be your last because of the threat of those unseen IEDs.
The EOD team who went ahead of us were the ones taking the gamble, as their IED detective dogs sniffed the fields for potential bombs.
When it was all clear, we went running across the muddy fields as the Taliban continued to fire from their perspective areas.
The fire increased as the sun continued to rise. Crackles of fire erupted from various parts of the city as the Taliban woke up to the fact that D-day was here and the Marines had arrived.
And that's when the real fighting began and has yet to end. We are in week two of Operation Moshtarak, and yet the battle for Marjah is nowhere near over.