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‘Peace Meals’: Breaking Bread With War’s Forgotten Families
Posted on Nov 4, 2010
By Anna Badkhen
The man who kept me safe and fed in Afghanistan last spring is dead. He died of blood cancer, at home: in pain, but in peace, surrounded by his wife of almost 40 years, and his 13 children.
The week he died, the United Nations released civilian casualty figures. In the first six months of this year, the war killed 1,271 Afghan civilians. The total confirmed death toll from the war among Afghan civilians is 7,324 since 2007.
We don’t know how many Afghan men, women and children were killed between 2001 and 2007, the year the U.N. began to systematically track civilian fatalities there. One estimate suggests 14,000 civilians were killed in the last nine years. Another puts the figure at 34,000.
My host’s death will never be listed as one of war’s casualties: Old men die of cancer everywhere. But as far as I am concerned, the war killed him.
In his corner of the Central Asian war zone, there is no chemotherapy. There are no bone marrow transplants. There are few oncologists, and fewer advanced diagnostics to detect the disease early: Government clinics in Afghanistan are free, but most of the equipment dates back to the Soviet occupation. In a country where less than a third of adults can read and policemen adorn their stations with ram’s horns to block jinxes, few people recognize the symptoms of such disease in time. In my host’s final weeks, his family relied on the prayers of a local mullah and the sorcery of a witch doctor whose TV advertisement—“Treats with Plants and Herbs!”—had promised an instant cure.
How many civilians have perished because war, which has been ravaging Afghanistan almost incessantly for millenniums, has decimated the land’s infrastructure, stunted its health care and sentenced millions to deaths that could have been prevented, or at least significantly postponed? One in eight Afghan women dies during childbirth. One in four children dies before the age of 5, mostly of waterborne diseases. Only a third of Afghans have access to clean drinking water; fewer than one in 10 have access to sanitation facilities. Life expectancy, both for men and women, is 44 years.
No one ever tallies these deaths.
Beyond the mountains, writes the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, “there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves.” We often dismiss the peopled landscapes of Afghanistan—and Iraq and Kashmir, Chechnya and Somalia—as merely a sere battleground of the global war against Islamist terrorism. We erect an emotional wall between ourselves and the millions of nameless, two-dimensional figures that move across our television screens, foreign and strange, almost cartoon-like, unsung. One goes up. One goes down. We switch to a different channel.
My host’s name was Nur. He was like many others who have died in Afghanistan. He went to the mosque every Friday, although he wasn’t very religious. He sacrificed a goat on holidays and divided the meat among neighbors poorer than him. I never saw him read—although, unlike most Afghan adults, he knew how. Whenever there was electricity in the house—not very often, because in Afghanistan electricity, like all other commodities, is sporadic—he watched Iranian soap operas.
For a month, the old man was a father to me: because his youngest granddaughter called me Auntie Anna; because he waited for me by the gate each time I made forays into regions under Taliban control; and because in extremity, an offer of shelter is an invitation to join the family.
“Peace Meals” is a tribute to all my host families who live, and perish, on the edges of the world. It is my invitation to connect with the ordinary people trapped in mass violence of the last decade in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and in East Africa; to break bread with them; and to peer past the looking glass of warfare led or backed by the United States into the lives of the people who, despite the violence and privation that kill their loved ones and decimate their towns, somehow, persevere.
Even if they are not mentioned in the daily news feed, they have names.
Excerpted from “Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories” by Anna Badkhen. Copyright © 2010 by Anna Badkhen. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
High on Valium and potent Afghan hashish, Najibullah balanced his Kalashnikov rifle on his left shoulder and reached for the jelebi: a pyramid of honey-colored, deep-fried rings of hot, syrupy dough stacked on a street vendor’s dusty aluminum folding table by the side of a potholed dirt road. He hooked one jelebi: with his long index finger, raised it above his head, lifted his bearded face, and, crooning a Bollywood jingle in a tentative falsetto, began to nibble at the sugary doughnut like some tropical bird, swaying slightly to the rhythm of a song that he alone could follow.
Our clunky Toyota minivan was parked near a bustling outdoor bazaar in the wooded foothills of the Spin Ghar range in eastern Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was believed to have been hiding in a honeycomb of caves, tunnels, and bunkers outside the town of Tora Bora. The mountain complex had been a favorite hiding place for generations of Afghan fighters—warriors who had fought against the British, then the Soviets, then against each other, and now against U.S.-led forces. It had been so elaborately upgraded over the years that by 2001 it was said to have its own ventilation system and a power supply provided by hydroelectric generators.
Whatever had been in these massive caves on the border with Pakistan was being destroyed at that very moment. It was December 2001, and the Battle of Tora Bora was under way—a massive, joint aerial and ground attack by American forces trying to smoke out the terrorist mastermind and a thousand al Qaeda and Taliban fighters believed to be hiding with him. I had come to Spin Ghar to write about this battle.
Guided by U.S. special forces commandos and backed by scruffy Afghan guerrillas, the Americans were pummeling the caves with a dazzling array of ordnance delivered by B-52 bombers, F-14 and F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, and AC-130 gunships: “daisy-cutters” (fifteen-thousand-pound bombs that, when they explode, create a blast wave that kills everyone within roughly three acres, leaving in their wake enormous charred craters and very little else); bombs equipped with sensors known as JDAMs (for “joint direct attack munition”) to guide them to their targets; cluster bombs packed with dozens of bomblets that could wreck roadways and runways and cripple infantry (and, as I had learned in Mengchuqur, civilians unfortunate enough to happen upon them later); and TV-guided air-to-surface missiles that weighed three thousand pounds. I could feel the impact through the soles of my feet miles away whenever the heavier payloads struck the caves. The echo of occasional gunfire ricocheted off the steep slopes, making the firefights seem both dangerously close and elusive.
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