A heart of stone
By Abu Taha
6 July 2015
FICTION: The mountains became my patience stone, and I hoped they could hold my secrets and sins.
The mountains have been my protectors and friends over the last seven years, while I’ve been fighting the enemy. Unlike human beings, they have never betrayed me. The mountains sheltered me when the enemy tried to kill me. They shielded me from bullets. When it was hot, they let me sit in their shade, and when it was cold, I took shelter in their caves. Most importantly, mountains are good listeners. I bear more burdens than anyone can be expected to endure. I take long walks in the mountains, talking to them. Once you become their friend and gain their trust, they will take the enemy’s bullets and shells for you. I am sure many before me have confessed their sins and regrets to the mountains. It might have worn them down a little. They listen to the most intimate, heavy stories, keeping them close. Mountains are strong but they are also very sensitive; there is a limit to their patience. When the burden becomes too much, they may open their mouths and pour out the liquid fire of secrets.
Seven years ago, on a Friday afternoon, my village had gathered in the main cemetery, at the foot of the mountains. It was the second year of the American occupation. Gathered were the grey beards, young men and small boys, but no women. I was 25 years old. We were burying Aka Jaan, a tribal leader, who had died the night before. Some men were digging the grave, and the rest of us sat around quietly. The elders leaned on their walking sticks, sighing and looking at each other anxiously. They knew that soon they would follow Aka Jaan. Young boys carried buckets of water for the diggers. The cold black tombstone, loaded onto the donkey cart, shone in the sunlight.
When the grave was considered deep enough, the elders called Aka Jaan’s immediate relatives so that they could see his face for the last time, as our customs dictated. I saw his brother and sons step away from the crowd and slowly approach the body. One of the diggers wiped the sweat from his brow and carefully lifted the white sheet to reveal the dead man’s face. The brother sobbed and the sons began the burial. Our Imam, barely 30 years old, began to give orders to make sure the burial was performed in accordance with Sharia. He took a deep breath to begin the call to prayer.
I was watching the Imam when my ears rang from a deafening explosion. I was lifted aggressively, as if somebody had grabbed me, and flew through the air from a powerful wave of heat. The earth shuddered with the same intensity. I hit the ground, in the middle of a row of old graves. I felt a dull pain in my head and right shoulder, then darkness swept over me.
When I regained consciousness, I didn’t know where I was. I smelt the stench of charred flesh, and realised I was still alive when I felt a throbbing pain in my leg, shoulder and the back of my head. I looked around at a series of colourful, misshapen shadows running in all directions. Their dull, unintelligible cries sounded like bleating animals.
After lying down for some time, my vision cleared. The tombstone next to where I lay was in pieces. Near me, someone was crying. I turned and saw my friend’s shirt, soaked in blood. He was growling and clenching his jaw, trying to hold back screams of pain. Dead bodies were strewn around, parts of arms and legs. I looked to where Aka Jaan’s burial had been taking place just minutes before. Those who had surrounded the grave weren’t anywhere to be seen. I saw some villagers, baggy outfits flapping in the wind, running towards us. Women, who weren’t allowed at the cemetery, were watching the carnage from their rooftops, their children clinging close. Nobody knew what had happened. Some said that a fighter plane had flown over.
The stench of gunpowder-singed human flesh and burnt earth mixed in the air. Some small fires were burning. A cart was in full flame, with the burning corpse of a donkey still attached to it. Next to Aka Jaan’s grave, what I took to be his coffin, was on fire. Some villagers tried to put out the flames on a burning body with dust, their vests and shawls. I tried to take a few steps, but felt dizzy. I touched my face and winced in pain. My eyebrows and eyelashes had been singed. My cheeks throbbed, and I realised that my jaw must be fractured. I walked to where Aka Jaan was supposed to be resting, but just saw a yawning pit. I collapsed beside it.
I awoke to the sobs of villagers arriving at the cemetery. Those who felt strong wiped their tears and carried the dead and wounded. Someone found a second donkey cart and forced it back to the ghastly sight. The wounded donkey bled from its chest, screaming and panting. The villagers piled dead bodies onto the cart, and proceeded to kick and poke the donkey with a stick when it refused to move. The wounded were also placed on the cart, and faced an arduous journey on an unpaved road to the district’s only hospital two hours away.
Most people only talk about doomsday. They tell stories or imagine it, but we saw it and felt it that day. The sunset was washed a deep red. Folks said it was a bloody sunset, as the blood of innocents had been shed. The following day we buried 52 bodies in separate graves. The unidentified body parts and possessions gathered from the site were placed in a different grave. By the end of the day the cemetery was full, with no space left for burial.
The villagers buried 52 bodies, but a 53rd had also died. I buried my old self. I was not the same naïve young person any more. Before, like other young men, I had thought that because life is short, I should enjoy it as much as I could. In the day I would work on the land and at night I would sneak out and go to weddings and music parties in nearby villages with my friends. I had been in love for a long time with a girl from my village, whom I had seen at a cousin’s wedding. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Whenever I went to a wedding and saw the groom in his white wedding robes, sitting in the middle of a crowd with a big smile on his face, I dreamt of my own wedding. I thought I would smile like that groom, one day. I wanted to have children with the woman I loved.
I was not that person any more. Marriage and children were no longer my goal. I found a new purpose. I was filled with a flame of vengeance and hatred, and the new me vowed to avenge the cowardly murder of my fellow villagers.
I was given a Kalashnikov upon my recruitment into the insurgency. It was not old, but it was certainly not new. It had belonged to a comrade who had fallen fighting the infidel Americans in a face-to-face battle in the mountains. Seven years later, I still carry that Kalashnikov everywhere. In the early days, I was burning with the fire of vengeance and I just wanted to hurt one of them, any one of the Americans. I desperately wanted them to understand the pain they inflict on others. I joined the same day as two other recruits. One was my age, the other just a teenager.
Our commander was a former military officer. He told us that a small Afghan Army convoy was on its way from the Pakistani border area to the provincial capital, and sent us to ambush them. There were six of us: me, the two new recruits, our team leader, one spotter and an Arab IED specialist, newly arrived from Pakistan. I later learned that he had been a member al-Qaeda, having joined as a teenager after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan.
We planted an IED in the middle of the only dirt road connecting villages to the provincial capital, and rushed to hide in the woods. We sat and waited for the convoy, eager at first but with ever less glee as the adrenaline wore off. My heart beat fast, and I began to sweat as a hot breeze blew dust into my face. The absolute silence was occasionally interrupted by the sound of the breeze rustling the trees.
The spotter had positioned himself atop a small mound. I watched him as he nervously sucked on a cigarette. His eyes were fixed east, to the vast yellow desert and range of blue, snow-capped mountains beyond. My heart pounded in my chest every time he stood up to better survey the terrain. He was supposed to stand up and walk away as soon as he spotted the convoy. I tried to glimpse the desert myself, from where we were hiding in a ditch behind a row of almond trees. All I could see was a mirage.
I was nervous, and my body gave my nerves away. I told my comrades that my panting and shaking was due to the hot sun, but really, I was scared to kill for the first time. I had been obsessed with revenge, and imagined it would be easy to kill, to hurt and to shame. I didn’t believe that cold beads of sweat would trickle down my back, or that my hands would shake as I pulled the trigger. I was wrong. One cheek twitched, and to hide my fear, I covered my face with a scarf.
Hours later, when the sun no longer burnt, the spotter slowly stood up and walked to the other side of the hill. Looking towards the vast yellow desert, I thought I saw water in the distance, although perhaps it was just another mirage. I felt so thirsty; my throat was dry and I almost felt as if I was being choked. I tried to find a drop of spit in my mouth, to wet my throat, but it too was dry.
When my brain registered the spotter’s signal, I licked my parched lips. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.
I looked towards the road and saw a small cloud of dust on the horizon. It grew, and the speeding convoy emerged. A yellow pick-up truck with a large Afghan government flag flapping from its antenna sped towards us, as if it knew it was escaping from something. Two more vehicles rushed into view. Camouflaged soldiers sat inside the trucks, and gunners held their fingers nervously on their triggers.
Our spotter was gone from the top of the hill. I looked around and saw him at the bottom of the hill, trying to get a better view of the ambush. He was holding a camera, filming the vehicles. The group leader signalled the IED guy, crouched in the ditch a few metres from us. Without uttering a word, he counted on his fingers: one, two, three – three vehicles. He repeated the action, closing his fingers into his fist one at a time: one, two, three. He closed his fist firmly on three, the signal for the IED guy to hit the third vehicle.
Perhaps because of my nerves, my bowels rumbled, and I felt a severe pain in my stomach. I had forgotten my thirst. Now, my body was telling my brain that it was in pain.
It took no more than a few minutes for the first vehicle to reach the place where we were hiding. It zoomed past. Feeling a little braver as the second approached, I peeked over the edge of the ditch. I saw a soldier no older than me, in his dust-caked uniform. He seemed as tired and thirsty as I was. Did I notice that he too looked scared?
Suddenly there was a boom; the earth shook and a blast of heat knocked me over as I knelt. I was focusing on the driver and had forgotten to keep an eye on our target. I turned in time to see body parts and vehicle scraps flying in the air. My ears rang and I could only hear a whistling noise, but I knew I was supposed to shoot. Without aiming, I let my Kalashnikov choose its targets. We were all inexperienced, none of us good shooters. Only the commander and the Arab had a clue what they were doing.
We expected a reaction from the army. The soldiers in the first and second vehicles escaped unhurt. We randomly assaulted them with bullets, but they did not stop to fight back or check on their colleagues. We kept firing until they disappeared behind the curve of the road, followed by a thick cloud of dust that took some time to settle.
Everything happened very quickly. We walked from our hideout towards the burning vehicle. It had been engulfed in flames, and thick smoke billowed into the air. Smoke and the odour of charred flesh once again assaulted my nostrils, reminding me of the village cemetery after the bombing. It was as unpleasant as the first time, when I had been a victim. I almost threw up – this time the mess was our doing.
The spotter walked towards us. He held a digital camera and was filming the scene. We were supposed to film all of our heroic acts, as it helped the recruiters. The raw footage, no matter how shaky, was always sent to our video men in Miran Shah, across the border in Pakistan. Our acts – celebrated by some, hated by others – wound up on the Internet.
We knew that the army might send a force to check for injured survivors, so we had to finish everything quickly. We posed in front of the burning vehicle as we held our Kalashnikovs in the air and shouted “Allahu Akbar”, “long live Islam” and “down with American crusaders”. The commander recited the statement that all group leaders memorised for the camera.
“This is what is going to happen to all puppets of the American invaders. With the help of God Almighty, we will send you all, along with your Western masters, to hell, where you will burn for eternity, since God Almighty has built hell for those who stand beside crusaders and against their own brothers and God’s religion. We will fight you to the last man, and we will avenge our martyred brothers by cutting your heads. May God bless Islam and bestow his help upon us to fight his war with bravery and steadfast conviction.”
We were almost ready to return to the woods when we heard a pained cry. We cocked our weapons and walked towards the sound. Some 20 metres from where the car had been hit we found the mangled body of a man. His legs were missing, as were one of his arms and half of his lower jaw. His face was swollen, disfigured by cuts and burns. There was a gaping hole in his belly, and his intestines were visible.
The sight of him scared me, and I turned my face away. The spotter had turned his camera on again and was filming the man, saying something in Pashtu. I spotted a steering wheel lying on the ground and picked it up, but immediately I dropped it and stifled a scream. A full arm, bloody but still clenching the wheel. I took a few steps back but couldn’t tear my eyes from the gnarled arm. The spotter turned his camera towards me, and continued his narration. “It seems that one of our mujahideen has found something interesting. Let’s see what it is…”
“What is it? What did you find?” he asked as he inched closer. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how to describe it. I bit my lip and knew it was my duty to put on a brave face. He picked up the wheel and arm and, facing the camera, victoriously proclaimed, “This is the hand of the guy who is lying there. It seems he was driving.” He shouted, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”
I walked back towards the torso, but beneath his swollen face it was evident that he was a young man, younger than me. He had a patchy beard that was now burnt. When I came into his vision, he stopped crying. Or maybe he wanted to cry but he did not have any tears left. We made eye contact. My heart sank. I was filled with shame and regret. I blamed myself for his intolerable situation. This was the result of my vengeance. I had once thought that after hurting or killing the enemy, I would be unburdened of the enormous hatred growing in my chest. I was wrong.
The young man tried to say something as blood bubbled out of the corner of his face. I leaned in closer to hear what he wanted to say, but couldn’t make out his words. Perhaps he spoke a different language. Most soldiers who served in our province were from the northern provinces. None of us understood what he was saying.
He made a few final attempts. Realising that he was not getting through to us, he gingerly stuck out his dry tongue and licked what he could of his bloodied, swollen upper lip. He squeezed his puffy eyes, and I saw two drops roll from the corners of his eyes and mix with the thick blood. We watched with wide eyes and mouths agape. Maybe he cried those two drops because he could not communicate with us, or maybe he was thinking of a loved one whom he would never see again. Perhaps his mother who was anxiously awaiting his return. Was he too young to have a pregnant wife, who would talk to his picture when alone in her room? Maybe a childhood friend with whom he had grown up, who had been proud to see him join the army. Thousands of unanswered questions came to my mind as I watched him die.
It felt like a fist was squeezing my heart. I couldn’t do anything for this man. I wanted to curse everything and everyone, including myself. I wanted to curse the people who had killed my villagers and turned me into a monster. I wanted to curse God for allowing me to commit such a sin.
He started moaning again; loud, painful, long moans. The commander ordered us to march back to the woods and mountains. As I began, he tugged at my sleeve, pointed to the dying soldier and ordered, “Finish him.” I looked at him lying on the ground, then into the commander’s eyes. I wanted to beg him not to increase my guilt by making me kill. I wanted to tell him that we should leave the poor man alone. Or perhaps I hoped that his friends would return to rescue him. It seemed the commander read my mind. He said, “That’s all we can do for him.”
The commander marched back into the woods, and I looked again at the soldier. He was still moaning, but his eyes were closed. Perhaps he was braver than we thought. Perhaps he was not moaning at all, but gently reciting verses from the Qur’an, or some last-minute prayers before meeting his creator.
I didn’t know what to do and looked around desperately. At that moment I was willing to trade anything for the responsibility of killing the dying soldier. I couldn’t shoot him, but I couldn’t disobey orders either. The commander was right, he would not make it. Killing him would be an act of mercy, yet I didn’t have the courage to do it. I thought about shooting at the ground, so that from a distance it would sound as though I had followed orders. As I was struggling with the decision, he opened his eyes and looked into mine. It was clear that he was begging me to shoot him. I pulled up my Kalashnikov and I tried to avoid eye contact, but his eyes wouldn’t let mine go. My hands shook, and I tried to pull the trigger but my fingers were disobeying the orders given by my brain. Then I saw him smile, an ugly, creepy sight. It would haunt me for months. He closed his eyes again. I took a deep breath, fired a shot and walked away. I didn’t bother to check if he was now dead.
I left the rest of my group when we reached the foot of the mountains, and tried to find a quiet place. My cloak of guilt would not lift. No matter how hard I tried to remove the face of the young man from my mind, I couldn’t. I saw his face everywhere. His distorted smile and the tears rolling down his face. I ran deeper into the mountains, tears streaming down my face. I was crying from my heavy guilt. There was a severe pain in my chest and I thought I was about to explode. My body was hot, hot like the fire of hell. Once I was at a safe distance, I let out my anguished cries. My insides twisted and my mouth watered. I threw up, repeatedly. When I had nothing left inside I looked up, but could see nothing but whiteness. Then I collapsed.
I don’t know how long I lay there unconscious. When I awoke I was lying in a field of grass. I looked up at the clear blue sky. Two islands of cloud were floating between the earth and the sky, and the wind was slowly changing their shapes. I followed them until they disappeared behind the mountain in the distance. I took a deep breath and inhaled as much of the fresh air as my lungs could hold. I could still feel the gnawing guilt but it no longer overwhelmed me. I needed someone to whom I could confess my sin, someone who would patiently listen to my story. I thought about talking to my commander but changed my mind.
I remembered a story that I’d heard as a child, a story about a sinner and a stone. A man once spent the day committing all kinds of sins, and at night unburdened himself by confessing to a stone, which he named the ‘patience stone’. One night, the patience stone could not take it any longer, and exploded as the man was in the middle of his confession. I looked around to find my own patience stone, and saw a big black rock. But I realised that even that large rock would not be able to listen to my story. The mountains became my patience stone, and I hoped they would be able to hold all my secrets and sins.
I found some shade beneath a rocky ledge and began to speak. I told the mountain what I had done, and made no effort to justify my actions. By the time I returned to our hideout I was a different man. The mountains had absorbed and accepted my deeds. They did not explode with lava or thunder. The guilt was gone and I was myself again, but one thing refused to leave my mind – the face of that young soldier.
Before you think me gentle and weak, know that killing an enemy of God and his Prophet is like drinking a cold glass of water under the blistering sun. At first the ice cold water is sharp, but then it refreshes. Inside my chest, what used to be called a heart has turned to stone. I have ordered the death of government workers without a shadow of regret, and I am proud of what I have done.
I am not scared of death, either.
I have come to a simple conclusion about life. I don’t know how I came into this world, and I can’t know how I will leave. Yet one thing is certain, something that I will ensure. I will die a martyr, like a real man on a battlefield, fighting the invaders and their dogs. The young men who I now lead tell me we are called terrorists. I don’t understand. They terrorise my people and my act of vengeance is called terrorism? This is for God, not men, to decide. They can condemn my acts, but who are they to call me a murderer? I am only what they made me.
Sooner or later, guilty or innocent, I will die. But I am not afraid. When my body passes from this life to the next, another will pick up my Kalashnikov. By then it will be even older than it is now, and maybe it will be no match for their aeroplanes and bombs, but it has put a man out of his misery. It has tasted victory, and it yearns for more. For as long as this war continues, boys like me will be born, and men, reborn. The war they started will rage on until they stop. We cannot stop a war we did not start.
~Abu Taha is a Kabul-based journalist and fiction writer. This story part of a collection of short stories that he has been working on. He is also writing a novel about the current Afghan war.
~See more short stories from Himal Southasian.