PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- They came from every corner of the neighborhood, dashing out of alleyways and ramshackle houses, pouring into the streets.
Gathered in a makeshift perimeter around the square, muddy field, hundreds of excited Haitians gawk at the 7-ton vehicles, eagerly awaiting the moment when the Marines will disembark and distribute the cargo on board.
The warriors have brought with them a precious commodity, 800 gallons of fresh drinking water.
But as some Marines of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment direct the community to the water tanks and supervise the distribution of the water, others change out of their camouflage utility uniforms and break out green shorts and running shoes.
From out of one tactical vehicle comes flying a soccer ball, and a Marine deftly intercepts it with the side of his ankle. Another Marine leaps from the back of his 7-ton, holding a set of bright orange cones.
Moments later, a group of young Haitian men sprint onto the makeshift playing field, ready to challenge India Company to some friendly, international competition.
Marines of India Company met with the Haitian community in Port-au-Prince’s district of Cite Soleil for some serious soccer action. The objective: build better relations between the community, the Haitian National Police (HNP), and the Marines here.
Marine Capt. Jason Arthaud, India Company’s commanding officer, said these events bring the communities together and show them “what the Marines are all about.”
“We’re always asking (the local community leaders) what we can do to build a better relationship and let the people understand why we’re here,” Arthaud said.
The community leaders actually proposed the soccer game idea, and the Marines were quick to jump on the opportunity.
Not only is it a chance to reach out to the locals and interact with them, but it also gives his Marines a welcome break from patrolling, Arthaud explained.
Events like these are coupled with community relation efforts and humanitarian assistance, he added. In this instance it came in the form of fresh water.
The Marines perform such community relations tasks almost on a daily basis, he said.
“Little Billy,” a Cite Soleil informal community leader, was on hand to enjoy the event. He and other informal community leaders worked with the Marines to make the event possible.
“I’m happy to see the Marines play with my guys in Cite Soleil,” Billy said. “We were waiting for that dream to happen… I have seen too much blood (shed) before the Marines were in Haiti.”
Cite Soleil has had a bad reputation in the past, but this could change with the help of the Marines, he continued.
The community is teaming up with the HNP and the Marines to clean up their part of the city, and events like this help bring everybody together, he added.
Now that security is tighter, Billy said he feels more relaxed and encourages his people to surrender their weapons, open up businesses and go to school.
Marine Col. Mark Gurganus, Marine Air-Ground Task Force-8 commander, said this game is a step towards better relations with the community.
The people of Cite Soleil are “good people in a bad environment,” and it’s thanks to India’s willingness to “take off the stern face” and reach out to the community that this is changing, Gurganus said.
“(The Marines) will walk down the street and you’ll see kids come out and hold their hands,” he continued.
The soccer game eases tension and makes for a better atmosphere all around, he added. Gurganus also said the Marines are thankful for the chance to play some sports and interact with the locals.
Cite Soleil is home to some of Haiti’s most destitute citizens, “thousands living in abject poverty,” Gurganus said. Although the Marines help by patrolling the streets and distributing water, it’s ultimately the responsibility of non-government organizations to come in with food and supplies, he added.
“I want to ask the United States to try to help Cite Soleil, to try to bring something for the hospital,” Billy stated. The district still needs money, medical supplies and extensive cleaning, but its little things like this game that make a big difference, he added.
Dusk descends upon the field. City Soleil has soundly defeated the Marine team with a 4-1 victory. The local team jumps about excitedly as India Company’s weary warriors make their way off the field. The crowd erupts into a cacophony of cheering, whooping and hollering.
The bleak landscape appears almost bright amidst the laughter and camaraderie. With a renewed hope in the future, the people of Cite Soleil disperse.
Through the help of the community leaders, Haitian National Police, and the United States Marine Corps, Cite Soleil may one day become the bright, cheery place its name suggests -- City of the Sun.