And other portraits by an American Journalist in Afghanistan
Author’s note: The United States war in Afghanistan is the forgotten war. Private military companies and U.S. troops in Afghanistan are today committing egregious atrocities, and the war is mostly off the American media. When it does appear in the U.S. it is the same old U.S. Pentagon information warfare appearing in, for example, the Atlantic Monthly—whose advertisers include Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman but whose narratives are consumed like candy by Americans hunger to believe any lie that makes then feel O.K. about what they know in their hearts to be murder. The United States today is committing genocide by using Uranium weaponry and other lethal new “toys” in Afghanistan. After commenting on some nationalistic (America) propaganda produced by some editorializing citizen who has eaten the propaganda I (and others) were accused of “standing around in the thinkers pose like that group on the television commercial that is discussing the Heimlich maneuver while someone is choking.” This is American fascism of the Save Darfur variety. I take deep exception to the accusation that I am doing nothing. My story below offers a testimonial to my concern. It was originally published by Kyoto Journal in Japan; not one American outlet picked it up.
keith harmon snow, December 6, 2007
Dead army tanks are everywhere here. One supposes they are dead. There are dead tanks in villages, sunk in streams, crossing fields, sleeping on hills, burrowing into the wind-swept land like crabs at the beach. In some towns the chunky steel tracks of tanks lie across roads as speed bumps. The dead tanks are like beacons of hopelessness, monuments to the failure of international peace and cooperation.
The tanks astonish me, and one almost kills me. On our trek through the mountains Froozan stops the car for me to photograph a dead tank. I bolt out the door and run over the grass up to the green knoll where the tank sits like a sleeping dinosaur. Froozan and Shehkib run after me, screaming and waving their arms. “These mountains are full of landmines,” they tell me. “You cannot walk twenty feet from any road without there are landmines that will kill you.”
“Afghanistan is nothing but mountains.” This comes from the man sitting next to me on the plane from Delhi. He is the perfect portrait of Islamic terrorism painted by the United States. Long white beard, turban, robe and spectacles, and we study each other. “As-salamu Alaykum,” I say. He is surprised. “Wa-alaykum as-salamu,” he nods. The plane descends into Kabul, and fear rises in my belly as we approach the war. The man closes his eyes and prays as the plane touches tarmac. At customs the man passes through the V.I.P. line, passport in one hand, Koran in the other. He looks back at me and then he disappears.
There are two guys hovering outside customs like tired mechanics at a garage with no business. They extort $20 from me for the short ride to town. Their old Renault sedan is banged up. It has some bullet holes, and no windshield. They drive me to the Spinzar Hotel, interrogating me, promising to show me around for $100 a day. The dust of people and traffic covers the sunset sky like a red, gritty fog. I sit low and silent in the back seat.
Day one I sit all morning in the dining room on top of the Spinzar. Looking out at Kabul through the big windows, I wonder how I will do the human rights work I have come to do. I am afraid to leave the hotel, terrified of people who will hate me because I am an American, and terrified of the Americans. I am independent. I don’t support the occupation, and I am here to document atrocities, by all sides, and that leaves me vulnerable, an easy target. I am told, day two, that U.S. troops will shoot me if I photograph them.
I hover around the hotel looking stupid and scared. Orzala, the desk manager, rings up his cousin, Azar, to be my fixer. A “fixer” translates and negotiates and makes things happen, or not happen. Azar will come later. Finally I move outside, exploring the street and the vendors with old books spread out on the sidewalk. As dark approaches a man stops to practice English with me, and he takes me to his family’s restaurant for tea.
Noorullah is a nurse. “Five years ago there was a lot of shooting in Kabul,” he says, “now there is peace.” He describes a scourge of traffic accidents, bullet wounds, stab wounds and unexploded ordinance. “Here in Kabul there was a lot of mines and shooting,” he says, “and children don’t know mines when they find them .”
Noorullah’s laugh is a sad, hollow laugh that echoes his disappearing hope. He earns $125 a month from an Italian NGO that supports his hospital, but government workers get forty bucks a month. “A lot of people are hungry,” Noorullah gestures at the masses shuffling by outside. “So many people are hungry. We are hungry also. Making money is very difficult.”
The masses outside are like ghosts moving through the night. Their clothing, money and prospects are few. On the shelves of Noorullah’s shop I count eighty-one twelve-ounce cans and five plastic two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola. There is little else. The walls and floors are thick with Afghan carpets and dusty mirrors. We eat rice and bread and mutton grilled on a stick. Everywhere I go we eat fresh-baked Afghan bread, steamed rice, grilled mutton on a stick, or off it.
Noorullah walks me back through the night to the Spinzar. He invites me to find him at the hospital, and then he moves into the dark street, his head bowed, like someone who fears being seen but who is too proud to skulk like a thief.