September 21, 2014
‘Peace Meals’: Breaking Bread With War’s Forgotten Families
Posted on Nov 4, 2010
By Anna Badkhen
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.
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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