Now Zad is a town again. In just two short months the small farming community Afghanistan's northern Helmand Province has turned around faster than anyone expected.
In December 1,000 Marines and Afghan security forces moved into Now Zad in an operation designed to wrest control from the Taliban. The town, once home to 30,000 people, had been a ghost town for four years.
Over the years bitter fighting between British troops, Estonians and U.S. Marines resulted in dozens of injured and killed international troops but made little difference to the situation in Now Zad. Insurgents ringed the area with thousands of homemade bombs and booby traps, creating a stalemate that remained unbroken until late last year.
Capt. Andrew Terrell's Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines led the fight in an operation dubbed "Cobra's Anger." Its effect was almost immediate.
"People here are probably guys who were fighters two months ago," said Terrell. "They've put down their weapons, they want to be part of a functioning society. They have an option now, and that option is the government of Afghanistan."
The changes in Now Zad are astounding. Two months ago the only sounds on the streets of this once bustling market community were chirping birds and squeaking doors.
Today some 1,500 people live in the center of town. More than 60 shops have already opened, and every day more ex-residents arrive to survey their property and weigh the possibility of returning.
Nyaz Mohammed owns the local bakery, among the first shops to reopen. He says "business is ok but I'm looking forward to much better business in the future." He's confident that in "6 months Now Zad will be back."
The town, and his shop, have a long way to go. Four years ago the bakery was pumping out 1,200 loaves of bread a day. Today it's only producing about 200.
Now Zad's buildings, made mostly of mud, are in need of substantial repair. Many homes and shops were damaged by years of fighting, and every single building has deteriorated after exposure to the elements for years without any attention.
Capt. Jason Brezler, a Marine reservist and New York City firefighter, heads up the Civilian Affairs Group. His job is to coordinate reconstruction and economic revitalization of the town.
"It's a huge job, putting this town back together," Brezler said. "Though it's awesome to see folks returning, there are some significant challenges going forward. After four years of protracted conflict a lot of folks are coming back to shops and homes that have sustained significant damage."
Maybe the biggest sign of progress and hope is the large number of kids resuming their studies. Now Zad and the surrounding area once prided itself on the education levels of its kids. Four years ago some 2,500 kids attended school throughout the valley.
Today, a private home serves as a school, and another school has opened across the river in Changowlak. In all more than 230 kids -- about 30 of them girls -- are either jammed into undersized rooms or conducting their studies in the open air.
Neimatullah Balooth, a 13-year-old student who spent the last four years working on his family's farm, said he doesn't see "much of a future in farming. I want to become a doctor."