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.
We have a discreet meeting planned in the village of Khwaja Mulk with a friend of a friend of Ahmed who has agreed to receive me. “If the local Taleb ‘commander’ learns that a foreign woman has entered the house, he will have it burned down,” says our host, who nonetheless seems more concerned about finding a place to park the car (canal on one side of the road, tightly packed houses on the other) than with the extreme danger of our situation. In this village, people are typically caught in the crossfire: active Taliban elements terrorize them, planning attacks from their territory, and they are simultaneously under pressure from Coalition forces. The village has been bombed several times by American fighter planes, and there have been numerous casualties.
Upon reaching the road, I recognize this place. I had taken this route, paved by American soldiers, two days earlier, when I left the Canadian FOB [forward operating base] to return to KAF. Canadian Major Frederic Pruneau had not found me a place on the Chinook helicopter and I had to opt for the road. With a team of American linebackers, a convoy of nine super-vehicles used for “clearing” the roads of mines and other explosive devices, traveling extremely slowly, I crossed the Pandjway district from east to west ending with a "detour" in Arghandab, territory under American control. "On both sides of the asphalt jungle, you'll find nothing but Taliban!” the patrol commander – a 28-year-old reservist, a truck driver in the Minnesota – had said to me in an overawed whisper.
With the car problem solved (our “guide,” a friend of Ahmed, takes care of it), we cross a makeshift bridge over the canal on foot. The burning morning air is suffocating, yet we have to keep going, some three hundred meters alongside the adobe houses. I walk in Ahmed’s shadow, head down as is required. I focus on my gait so as to not attract attention. Everything around me is yellow: the ground, the walls of houses, the sky. I feel my burqa billow with the rhythm of gusts of stinging sand. Rather than making me anxious, the strange movements of my clothes – my protective shell – give me a certain sense of security. With my left hand I squeeze the sides of the veil in front of me so as not to get entangled in its folds, and with the right I carry my purse, borrowed from Ahmed’s wife – one in keeping with the local flavor of shiny plastic and woven decorations.
Finally, we are at the right house. Ahmed ducks down to slip through the wooden doorway. I hurry behind him. He locks the door. We sit down in the guest room, which is relatively cool thanks to its thick walls and narrow passages. The furniture is rudimentary: in addition to two bicycles, three mattresses line the walls. The image of a spiritual leader assassinated by the Northern Alliance during Taliban rule reveals the household’s political affiliation. There are also tourist photos of mosques and schedules for the five daily prayers. Living conditions are harsh here: no electricity, and no accessible water at less than thirty feet below ground.
The master of the house appears. Torn between his sense of hospitality and fear, he remains reserved. His father is one of the village “elders” regularly consulted, due to this status, by the U.S. military during shuras at the mosque. While we wait for two Taliban “leaders” we are served hot green tea, fresh water with syrup and ice cubes in a bowl. Ahmed gestures to me to start asking some questions. The conversation is slow, punctuated by his translation. In any case, I know I must not accelerate the pace or show the slightest impatience at the risk of disrupting the meeting.
The man, a former mujahedeen, seems a little shy. He confirms that fifteen people died a year ago in his village, not from bombing, but in combat against the Americans. “They have become martyrs,” he says.
“No, there is no school, hospital or clinic here.
“The only school (for boys) was functioning until 2006, but everything changed when the Americans moved into the district.”
In fact, this village, like many others, is not controlled by anyone: formally, there is no sign any of governmental presence, or any sign of Taliban presence. Only the road is “governmental” he says, “but in the afternoon, no one uses it any more. It was riddled with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) until the Americans paved it. This is also the only project they were able to develop here."
“Yes, the villagers are happy to lose less time to go to the bazaar, but so far they have not changed sides.”
We are soon joined by two young men in their thirties. They are clearly the ones we have been waiting for. I don’t make the mistake of shaking their hands, but remain seated on the floor, palms on the heart, while they pay respects to Ahmed, who sits at the place of honor with me on his right. The boys bring us fried eggs and vegetables, along with some homemade nan. Ahmed is first to make the guests laugh, saying, “Well, you see, it’s a woman…Plus, it would be useless to kidnap her because she does not represent anything or anyone! You know, the French are not too powerful (everyone nods in agreement), and besides, she always works alone.”
The introduction is daring, but it works: The duo cheer up, not yet venturing to look at me, something I am quite used to. Ahmed then recounts my “exploits” in Chechnya and Iraq, which impress his interlocutors and puts them at ease. This is a strategy Ahmed and I have already tested in this type of situation. Through the doorway into the yard I see the girls of the house who, in turn, crowd together to find the best angle to catch a glimpse of me. I imagine what they are going to tell the women, in the kitchen… What excitement for them!
Finally, the two Taliban start talking, while watching me take notes:
"We have no confidence in the military, whether Canadian or American. For us they are all the same, no matter where they come from.
They have made endless promises that they do not keep, nothing but claptrap, beginning with the fact that they were going to repair our mosque, you see!
In fact, we do no not really understand what they want…They say they are here to win against the Taliban, but that's fucked up, they will never manage to do it. The Taliban are everywhere and they are too powerful!
And now people are more and more against the foreigners, because what have they succeeded in doing? No, I think they are much worse than the Russians!
Yeah, their methods are different, but the result is the same: they are killing us."
I remind them of the glaring inequality between the military striking force of the regular Western army and that of the Taliban villagers:
Maybe, but we have the ultimate weapon: suicide bombings, easy to organize here inside our homes.
Yes, there will be more and more of them, that is certain.
Well, we have already shaken them up with our IEDs, and we will continue to put them everywhere, but the suicide bombings, that they do not like.
No (one of the two nods his head), they are not good people, really! And on top of it, they are thieves! We hate them!
Besides, look, Americans are criticized the world over for what they have done here.
I say bravo for the operation in Kandahar and for the escape from prison. Specifically thanks to the suicide commandos, this is now the least stable town in the country. That’s great!...The ANA and ANP (Afghan National Police) are nothing without the help of the Americans and they will find themselves alone, they will be screwed!”
We finish eating. Ahmed, the oldest, quickly offers a few words of prayer, which I know means the interview is over. It is best not to linger too long.
"We see that you love Afghanistan, otherwise you would not be here…" one of them takes the time to tell me before leaving.
* * * *
At six-thirty pm today, the electricity is weak, but there's just enough to watch the small TV placed in a corner on the floor. The whole household (except Ahmed, who is still out, and his mother, who looks after the baby) are fascinated by an Indian soap opera in Urdu, straight out of Bollywood. Right after the fourth call to prayer of the day, the sun having moved to the other side of the wall, to the west, it is always the same ritual: Latifa hoists my bed onto the terrace; the mat, which stays on the ground all day, releases heat. In the absence of the patriarch, children squabble, the wife and mother chitchat. Once he arrives, the noise levels lower, they are all well behaved, ready to serve him. I notice that Latifa no longer wears bracelets as she did eight years ago when I first met her, but she is still stylish, wearing flattering and colorful clothes.
When Ahmed returns home (he spends long hours outside preparing the groundwork for me), he joins me upstairs and stretches out on his carpet, always the same one, which he wove himself as an adolescent in exile in Pakistan. He even shows me his weaving mistakes (reversing the colors), and we laugh about it today. Our cushions are face to face, and this is how we start the evening, chatting under the stars, while the sweltering heat dissipates in the middle of the night.
Ahmed estimates he will be “rich” in six to eight months, when he has repaid the loan on the four cars purchased “on credit” from his friends, and which he rents at a high price to the construction firm he works for today. This company, like many others, appeared in the wake of the Americans: for two or three years, to their great displeasure, local contractors found themselves consigned to the status of sub-contractors, the ranks of Arab middlemen having exploded. Ahmed receives a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a month, which allows him to live normally, but he hopes that the company will eventually offer him another position in the Arab world. He would not be opposed to expatriating with his family for a while.
Ahmed is a born provocateur. In the midst of the “Koran case,” he shocked his colleagues and Arab friends by telling them that, “if I was king of Afghanistan, I would burn one each year.” First they protested, refusing the listen to him, and even treated him like a kafir, but he eventually he made himself heard. Here's what he told them: "On the contrary, this kind of act unifies and strengthens the Muslims because they are pushed onto the street with indignation, it can even cause revolutions. It’s exactly what we need!” In Ahmed’s eyes, this kind of provocation is beneficial to jihad, and not vice versa. Cleverly, he even admits to what he would actually do: “I would never burn the holy book, never! No, actually, I would take a large dictionary of English and on it paste a false cover of the Koran.”
He also has insatiable curiosity. Ever since he met a Georgian from Tbilisi in Dubai, as well as another fellow from Baghdad, he continues to dream of the two cities as destinations of rest. “Ah, when will I travel peacefully, enjoy life and friends? When will this madness stop? And when will you come visit me not because it is war, but as an old acquaintance?”
I know these complaints. They are always the same ones with all my friends from war-torn countries.
In Afghanistan, Ahmed can no longer even go for a “walk.” It’s been a long time since he visited his two most favorite parts of the country: the Kunar, and Nuristan, in the northeast. A friend, whose father was killed by the Americans is commander of a group of insurgents belonging to the Haqqani network, continues to call him to come visit. “After the war,” Ahmed says each time.
Our conversations more or less center on the same themes: What could he do? In what business could he earn money honestly and regularly? Not to buy houses, cars, a flashier lifestyle, but to gain respect and power? “A tribal chief who is supposed to exercise power is nothing if he has no money. That's the new Afghanistan, finally, like everywhere else,” he grumbles, sucking on his narguilé. He is firmly convinced that the only way to make it would be to manufacture something, anything, that would sell, but anyway, he does not have the initial capital. “Look at China, they have surpassed Japan and are now the first global economy: it’s because they manufacture! Even useless things, or of poor quality.” Like the carafe in which his wife served us fruit juice? “With a good logo, we can even make cartons, I’m sure of it.” He has had long (but useless) discussions with his rich Kandahari businessman friends: “They all prefer to buy cheap in China and pay for transport rather than produce. I’ve tried to convince them, but they only think in the short term!”
What would Ahmed do if he became rich?How would he use his money? Under the stars of Kandahar, between bursts of Kalashnikov and the ballet of two Apache helicopters over the American PRT [Provisional Reconstruction Team] not too far off (A fight? A wedding? No one knows.), the man reveals his dreams: he would first launch a television station where you could win games and prizes (which would keep the whole population in suspense, he assures me), and then create a private university. But since there is no chance of this happening, he is willing to “fall back” on the simple idea of a local radio station for which he would need only 100,000 dollars. Unfortunately, again, this plan is stuck: Those he tried to convince to lend the money called him crazy, asking him: “But if you have so many good ideas, how come you are so poor and always out of work?”
Back to square one: humiliated, Ahmed is struggling to find his place in contemporary Afghan society, especially since returning from Dubai a year and a half ago. Suddenly, screeching police sirens take me back to Manhattan, where they fill the soundscape. No, in France, their tone is different, I have to explain to Ahmed.
Through the skylight in the corner of the terrace, we watch his family for a moment, gathered around the Indian soap opera broadcast on the television below. The children are stretched out, his wife enters, pauses in front of the screen, disappears into the kitchen, comes back. Ahmed shows great affection for his four daughters, whom he educates himself whenever he has time: not just reading, writing and rudimentary arithmetic - he also holds his own on topics like history, geography, Afghan and foreign civilizations. They are only pre-teens, but their father is already flooded with marriage proposals. No, he will not yield; they must each first finish their studies – so they can become teachers, or better, work in a private clinic that would belong to them. But to be able to do so, once again and always, it is a matter of money.
Finally, Ahmed goes down to join his family and sleep. He will take his place on the mat where his eight family members have gathered. The baby (the second and last boy) is curled up in a basket under a mosquito net, between his father and mother. The two younger children are next to their mother and the eldest daughter is in the middle, at right angles to them. On the other side, the grandmother is flanked by the third daughter, who still needs to be told stories of djinns or of ghosts, the very ones she told Ahmed once upon a time.
Anne Nivat is on the Advisory Board for Warscapes.