On barren hills outside of Karezi Kalan, a small village in northern Afghanistan near Mazar-e-Sharif, deminers pointed to human bones half-buried in unmarked graves. One in particular, seemingly relishing his role as guide, scrambled over a dusty hill to each gaping hole, gesturing downward, dirty palms open, eyes gleaming in a late-morning sun. He moved, and his shadow gave way to sunlight, illuminating the bones in the pits below. He grinned like a waiter offering up desserts.
These graves didn’t warrant the traditional shines, stones and multicolored pennants commonly granted the dead in burial sites strewn across the country, lining roads and demarcating one nearly indistinguishable earthen village from another. They didn’t mark the resting places of children or martyrs killed in violence. Nor did they denote the holy ground of a wise man. They represented the final spots – having no resemblance to resting places – for people no one seemed to know, except by rumor.
Locals believed the holes contained the remains of 14 Taliban soldiers, said to have been killed in late 2001 after the Northern Alliance pushed them back to the position and, with the help of U.S. Special Forces, radioed in airstrikes that pulverized the valley – nothing but ruined, contaminated farmland and sandy plain two years afterward. The bombing, no doubt, occurred. The place was littered with U.S. cluster-bomb fragments, the distinctive yellow parachutes that bring each canister to earth tossed into piles like deflated balloons. But no one could say for certain who had walked around on those bones, and no one could say how anyone had settled on the number 14.
Villagers, one man told me, had been digging up the hill and reburying the remains, and so presumably they were keeping count. The government had determined that they were Taliban, he said, although on what evidence he couldn’t say, except to point at the tattered scarves still wrapped around the fleshless necks. The keffiyehs, a few of which by then had congealed into the bones, didn’t do much to prove the case. Keffiyehs are as plentiful in Afghanistan as ball caps in the United States, as Razorback paraphernalia in Arkansas.
The truth is no one available to talk knew who these people had been.
“They could simply have been people who died here, and someone came along and buried them,” Mohammad Zalmai, an explosive ordnance disposal supervisor with a British demining NGO called HALO Trust, conceded after about 30 minutes of laborious questions and answers – all under a blinding, battering sun.
The remains, in fact, were not the concern in this desolate and yet beautiful place, where the wind blew cuttingly around a snow-topped mountain expanse of plains and hills, creating gusts of whirling sand that danced along the valley floor like inverted tornadoes. The deminers, dressed in light-blue protective gear and wearing helmets with blast shields, were spread out across the area in teams of three looking not for bodies, but for bombs, or the remnants of bombs, that had not exploded on impact. The remains just happened to be in the way.
But the bones lured us, perhaps in part because they broke the monotony of trying to figure out a world that had almost no resemblance to our own. We may as well have been on Mars.
I watched Benjamin Krain, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photographer who accompanied me to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003, lean into the holes for close-ups, snapping away as if he were covering a baseball game in Little Rock. You’ve got to love that kind of devotion to trade. But then I got superstitious, thinking about how those bones used to hold up flesh and blood; and how, if the stories were true, the people who once borrowed them spent their last moments literally digging their own graves – to avoid the bombs – in what must have been a full-throttled scramble from the darkness.
“We’re desecrating the dead,” I thought to myself. “Bad karma.”
The skulls, the leg and arm bones, the tattered scarves around fleshless necks – they got to me. I didn’t grieve for the dead so much as I wondered who was grieving, if anyone, and then whether any of us deserved grieving (a dark thought, I admit). The thought took hold of me as we moved around, gingerly, for the deminers hadn’t yet cleared the whole hill: Areas marked with white rocks meant they had; those with red rocks meant they hadn’t. Sometimes the distance between a white and a red rock was barely a foot.
Looking out across the expanse, the Hindu Kush framing my view, my heart beat loud into my neck, silenced only by periodic bursts of wind.
For Hussman, Smith, Bailey and Krain
Periodic Memory Dumps
To be continue ….