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Arts and Culture

‘Peace Meals’: Breaking Bread With War’s Forgotten Families

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Posted on Nov 4, 2010

By Anna Badkhen

(Page 3)

This is also the main reason we react with such shock when one of our number is targeted and killed in such a place.

The news reports said that at two in the morning, two masked men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles had scaled the stucco walls of the compound where Strömberg and three of his colleagues were staying. I glanced up at the walls of Mahbuhbullah’s compound to see whether an intruder could climb them. A bunch of our host’s kids were hanging out on top; they waved at me when they caught me looking at them.

We read on. The gunmen had taken money, computers, and satellite phones. Afghanistan was a cash-only economy, and between the two of us, David and I were carrying more than fifteen thousand dollars to pay for the services of our drivers and translators, as well as lodging, food, and other contingencies. Our satellite phone, a brand-new Thrane & Thrane, state of the art at the time, gleamed on the rooftop of Mahbuhbullah’s house: we were using it to download the reports about the Taloqan killing, at the frustrating rate of fifty-six hundred bytes per minute. The gadget’s bright turquoise LAN cable dangled from the phone to our laptops on the porch below. To make sure no one tripped over it in the dark, we had adorned the cable with little flags fashioned from reflective silver duct tape. That cable was probably the single brightest thing in this town that had no electricity.

Even if we brought down the Thrane & Thrane, this was our second time staying at Mahbuhbullah’s house, and other reporters had lived here between our visits. By now everybody in Dasht-e-Qal’eh knew that Mahbuhbullah was hosting foreigners. Strömberg, too, had been staying in a compound well known for housing foreign reporters.

In response to Strömberg’s killing, several media outlets decided to pull their reporters out of northern Afghanistan. David and I were not leaving, but we felt that we needed to respond in some manner, so we made four rules. One: we would never get out of our car in crowded public places. Two: we would avoid places where Westerners often stayed. Three: we would not travel from Kabul to Jalalabad on the Grand Trunk Road, which we privately renamed, not too creatively, the Death Road. And four: we would do something neither I nor David—who had covered the war in Chechnya for seven years before coming to Afghanistan—had ever done before. We would hire armed guards.

 

book cover

 

Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories

 

By Anna Badkhen

 

Free Press, 288 pages

 

Buy the book

We ended up breaking all four rules, of course. We even spent several unsettling hours in Taloqan—not just without a bodyguard, but also without a translator or a driver. But that November afternoon in Dashte-Qal’eh, when we were pondering how to report from a land where journalists were being killed simply for being there, Mahbuhbullah, ever the discerning host, detected our unease. In the evening, after a dinner of rice, flatbread, and stewed pumpkin, he paraded several of his sons in front of us. The oldest was sixteen. The boys, Mahbuhbullah explained, would take turns standing guard in front of our room at night. We didn’t need to pay them; their services were part of our hospitality package. Mahbuhbullah showed us the weapon his kids would use: a Kalashnikov assault rifle with a well-worn wooden butt stock.

Around one in the morning, when I went outside to smoke a cigarette, I saw our guard sleeping on the porch. It was Abdullah, the industrious twelve-year-old who would always serve us the meals prepared by Mahbuhbullah’s invisible wives and clean up afterward. Mahbuhbullah’s children were better dressed and better fed than most kids in this infertile swath of northern Afghanistan. But even so, the malnutrition and disease that were so rampant in the country—in 2001, one out of four Afghan children died before reaching the age of five—had taken their toll on Abdullah. The skinny boy was about as tall as an average American third-grader.

He was my favorite of all Mahbuhbullah’s kids, with a spray of freckles on his turned-up nose, huge eyes, and a face that was quick to blossom into the most beautiful, kind smile. Now his face looked relaxed in the greenish moonlight. He was crouched up with his back against the wall and the assault rifle in his hands. He looked cold. I went back inside, fetched a flowery acrylic blanket, and wrapped it around him, trying not to disturb his gun.

The next morning, as usual, Abdullah came into our room, rolled out a plastic dastarkhan on the threadbare carpet that somewhat contained the dust on the earthen floor, and arranged on it our breakfast: last night’s leftover bread; fresh, hot eggs deep-fried in canola oil; a little bowl of salt; a small saucer of honey; and a large thermos of steaming, sweet tea. Then, with much ceremony, he approached each of us with a beat-up, plastic ewer, pouring water over a large pewter bowl so that we could wash our hands before the meal. As he squatted next to me, he asked me something in Dari, flashing his heartwarming, earnest smile. I asked Engineer Fazul, the translator we had hired at the border, to interpret.

“He asks,” the translator said, “if you think he was a good guard.”

How could I thank a twelve-year-old boy for risking his life for mine? I felt compelled to give Abdullah something, but how does one even compensate for such a sacrifice? Anything I could have done or said would have been disproportionately, ridiculously trivial. I thought of our kids, of their safe lives in big, modern cities. Alex was five at the time; Fyodor was four. I thought of what they liked. I went to my duffel bag, and fished out a Snickers bar.

Abdullah was the youngest gunman to ever guard my life. So what if he was doing it in his dreams? Of all the boys and men who have served as my protectors in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq—some earnestly, some halfheartedly—Mahbuhbullah’s son was the most sincere in his efforts, even if his dad’s Kalashnikov was nearly as tall as he was, even if guarding me meant he had to stay up way past his bedtime, and his work went unpaid apart from a chocolaty treat.

 

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By gerard, November 6, 2010 at 9:13 pm Link to this comment

And for yet one more on “peace meals”, regarding the President in India:

Counterpunch has an article by Vijay Prashad. One point he makes is:  “Behind all this, full steam ahead, is the agenda of Monsanto, the giant agro-business firm. When Bush came to India in 2006, Monsanto’s agricultural policy masqueraded as his own, and much the same is on offer from Obama. The push is to bypass public domain science for the secret and profitable world of private capital dominated intellectual property – the Umbrella Science Agreement (2005) sets the terms. Perhaps Obama should smuggle onto his plane some farmers from Iowa who have lost their land to the financial crisis, and go with them to visit the families in Vidharba who have lost their loved ones to the epidemic of farmers’ suicides. They might find that the distance between Saikheda village and Rockwell City, Iowa is not so far after all.”

It is to be hoped that all TD readers catch the full meaning of this without further details.

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By gerard, November 6, 2010 at 8:47 pm Link to this comment

Just for a very sad side comment I turn to my Yahoo “home page” and find these foods “recommended as better than a Snickers bar”!

4 piece chicken McNuggets
KFC red beans wit sausage and rice
Black Forest ham, egg and cheese English muffin
Wendy’s small chili
Fresco crunchy taco

No wonder Americans are slightly soft in the head, living with grotesque contrasts like this.

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By gerard, November 6, 2010 at 7:16 pm Link to this comment

Stop for a moment and consider—really consider—this one line from the article: 
  “I went to my duffel bag, and fished out a Snickers bar.”

How many times now have how many Americans gone to their “duffel bags” and “fished out Snickers bars” to assuage the pains of those they have tortured or abused—or watched being tortured or abused, and did nothing?

There has come a time now when Snickers bars will no longer turn the trick—if they ever did.  The world is turning to us now for a lot more.
  For peace—for an end to our wars and weapons of mass destruction (fouled water, oil-soaked beaches, poisoned hamburgers, withheld medicines, plastic-wrapped left-over rations, overpriced medicines, NAFTA, IMF and all the rest) including drones and bunker-busters).
  For mercy—for an end to starvation and homelessness, which is completely avoidable considering available technologies capable of bringing plenty to everybody.
  For love of life and the fragile beauty of trees, birds, flowers, butterflies and the clouds over mountaintops.  And for the unthinking grace of hungry lions and the cowardice of a mouse. For love.
  We cannot—must not refuse such opportunities

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By rm, November 5, 2010 at 11:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The key statement is “no one ever tallies these deaths.” The US has been at war against Afghanistan since the mid 1970s. No one has counted the levels of death and suffering caused by American aggression. My guess is that it runs into the tens of millions, making this one of the great genocides of human history, dwarfing the WW II holocaust. Don’t forget that in October 2001, about one-half of the Afghan people were totally dependent on UN food shipments coming in from neighboring countries—some 15 million people. The US sealed the borders and bombed truck convoys. What did these 15 million people eat all winter? The US promised to drop food and did drop fewer than 1 million meals-ready-to-eat—virtually nothing. How many people starved or died in the cold winter of complications due to malnutrition?

The US simply does not care. The genocide of people it intends to colonialize mean nothing in America. That’s what empires to. All empires are criminal and genocidal. The US is the latest and worst of all empires. Let’s hope that Afghanistan is really, as its nickname says, “the graveyard of empires.” The sooner the American empires dies, the sooner the people of the world can begin to live again.

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By Jerry Lobdill, November 5, 2010 at 8:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The horror, the insanity, the depravity of this Bush/Cheney-created hell cannot be overstated. I don’t know how people like Anna can stay immersed in it for years and remain sane.

And we, here, supposedly safe, septically chant our Prayers of the People in our civilized Episcopal churches, praying for peace and reelecting sociopaths to lead our country as it pursues empire and nurtures these nightmares on the edge of the world far away from us.

Insanity!!!

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