The Fog of War

by Anne Nivat

This chapter is the last in Anne Nivat’s new book, Fog of War: A Last Mission in Afghanistan. The preceding chapters recall her journeys into remote Afghanistan, living and traveling with a company of Canadian paratroopers who invited her to visit them in the Horn of Pandjway, southern Afghanistan, a region inhabited by ultra-conservative Pashtuns whose moral orientation closely resembles that of the Taliban. As Nivat explains, “This final chapter is my narrative of leaving the military camp and crossing into Taliban-held territory where no foreigners are welcome to venture – unless, of course, they are accompanied by friends – in this case, Ahmed, my host in this hostile region. This chapter, then, is about my crossing over to the "other side," like an Alice in Wonderland's of modern times, living with and protected by Afghan civilians with whom I have managed to build mutual relationships of trust over the last decade of reporting there.” Fog of War is Nivat’s third book about Afghanistan in less than a decade.

I pass through the looking glass once again, feeling excitement, mingled with fear as I join my Afghan friends outside the wire, in  real life, in Kandahar. Upon awakening, I put away my military uniform garb and slip into the orange tunic and white pants purchased three years ago in a Kabul bazaar. Even without the veil, which puts the finishing touch on  my metamorphosis, I create a sensation at KAF [Kandahar Air Field], where officially, no Afghan woman has the right to be.

In the “Visitors” parking lot, far from the terminal, I find Ahmed, still manning his post. His turban is proudly tied, his patu thrown loosely over his shoulder, his beard carefully trimmed. In a borrowed car we  head to his place, in a city buzzing with rumors, one more apocalyptic than the next. A general psychosis seems to prevail.

In Ahmed's home, where every other day there is no electricity, I doze off, drained by the heat, while his wife and four daughters take turns fanning me with the plastic lid of a bowl. Exhausted, they relieve each other, while  I, half-asleep, try very hard to make out who it is: Sheherazade? Fatima? Gulalai or Shaheeda? Today is, theoretically, a day with electricity, but at five pm, there is still nothing. Between noon and five-thirty the stifling summer heat prevents nearly all “normal” activity. Enervated by the heat, the village sleeps.

In the early evening, the scorching heat abates somewhat. Ahmed’s wife signals for me to climb onto the roof. The only building that overhangs us is an unfinished clinic; there is no fear of being seen. She prepares my bed for the night, a down mattress on a mat and opposite me, she makes Ahmed’s. I will be dining with him tonight and who will smoke his water pipe, transported back to Dubai, until he goes back down to stretch out on ground of the inner courtyard, among his family.

From the top of the interior balcony, Ahmed urges one of his daughters to bring him the short wave radio so that I can stay current with the “DSK affair”, news of which, despite the tumult in the world, has managed to reach my ears. In one of the terrace walls - the one overlooking the street - a hole as wide as a plump finger has been dug through one of the bricks: by sticking close to the scorching wall, you can quietly observe the outside world without being seen. I write “seen” as a feminine adjective, because it is mainly the women who use this crevice to look outside; the men don’t need it, they come and go as they please. Downstairs, another peephole is strategically placed in the iron door overlooking the alley, just at the height of a crouching adult. Latifa, the wife, uses it nonstop to check out who’s arriving, by car or by foot, or to keep an eye on her sons playing outside; her daughters watch their father return the car to the open-air garage across the road. And me, I sneak a look just for fun, to copy them.

This evening, I see men washing their cars with lots of water: men, nothing but men. Here, the gap between public space and private sphere is dizzying, but one must live with it. I also tell myself that if I were a man I would not have access to these simple moments of happiness that make me forget where I come from, especially since I find myself in a place deemed hostile, where no westerner ventures.

I will sleep under the open night sky, on the scorching roof, with my companions a rooster and two chickens in their coop. Above, there is a full moon so bright I could read by its light. The tall brick walls radiate back the heat they have absorbed all day. The gusts of wind are like warm slaps.

At two-thirty-five am, I am awakened by a violent explosion. My bed trembles. I cannot help but think it is a mine planted nearby. Right here in the city? The next day I ask Ahmed about it, but he heard nothing. He is too accustomed to it. And “since we are not the target, why worry about it? No need to scare the children.” Of course, he’s right. This is how you get used to war, and how you survive it.

At five minutes past six the next morning, my body is already being warmed by the first rays of the sun slipping through the balustrade. The first flies are swarming over my arm, the clamor of the city starting up: the nocturnal calm was short-lived. Our rooster sings until he is out of breath, echoing his neighbors. On the father’s orders, the family has remained virtually silent so as not to disturb me – quite a feat, with two young children. I am told that the electricity returned during night, causing a stir as the children snuck inside to lie down under the ceiling fans. My turn to have heard nothing.

According to reports, the nighttime explosion was a bomb buried on the shoulder of the road, set off by an ANA (Afghan National Army) patrol. Two Afghan soldiers died 700 meters from the house without anyone noticing.

At exactly eight am, a driver (a member of Ahmed’s family) picks up the four girls to take them to school. He will bring them back at mid-day. This arrangement costs their father about $150 a month, but at least he’s assured they are in good hands. When school starts in  2011, his eldest son, who will be six-and-a-half years old, will finally attend the elementary class at a private school for boys. Ahmed’s dream is for him to study in India, rather than Dubai. That would be ideal. The largest democracy in the world is not too far away, and its level of English is excellent. Dubai is too expensive – too “westernized” in his eyes. He does not even consider Europe or the United States, not because of a lack of resources (he has savings), but because he thinks his son would get lost there. That was his conclusion after a short stay in Europe (France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark). While he is curious about different cultures and civilizations, he was disappointed and disconcerted, staying only three weeks out of the three months his tourist visa allowed.

Since February, Ahmed has been employed by a large Iraqi construction company, where he has the mysterious job of  "social counselor." Fluent in Arabic, he is invaluable to Arab businessmen wanting to establish themselves in Pashtun territory, just as he is for me, though in a different way. Ahmed has already rendered great service to his employers by providing unlicensed weapons to several security guards so that the Taliban cannot obtain the lists of their owners, apparently shared with the authorities.

This morning, Ahmed drives me to the Arghandab district in the north of the city, accessed by crossing its famous river, now almost dry. We find one of his friends to serve as a "guide" for this expedition and make our way to the outskirts of the city through an inexorable traffic jam. It is rush hour: horse carts bursting with rolled carpets, rattling cars with open trunks,  showing their cargo of squatting women wearing brown, light grey, white or blue burqas. Backfiring mopeds, decrepit vans, rickshaws with jingling bells clogging our lane. We encounter a foot patrol of American soldiers. Down below, to the left, is the unfinished tomb of a mullah. Then a long U.S. military convoy slows us down. Finally, we turn right on the road in the direction of Uruzgan, along a canal where charming little girls with tousled hair splash about, accompanied by their older brothers, who wash down their mopeds in the water.