Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chapter 3: Tree Without Leaves (3/6)

Dear Rachel,
I hope I’m not upsetting you by writing.  What a way to start a letter, I know!  And as you can see, I haven't stopped my habit of writing real hard copy letters when an email would probably do the job.  It’s been nearly three years since we last saw each other.  I hope you’re doing well.  I just thought I’d give you an update and let you know I'm alive.  Please don’t read into this letter anything more than that, not that you would.  Boy, I’m batting a thousand in this letter so far, aren’t I?

Anyway, I found out that you’re still in Afghanistan through Joyce.  Remember her?  She’s still in Kabul doing the same old thing, or so it seems.  She still knows everything about everyone.  Doesn’t she have a life?  LOL.  Yes, as the return address indicates (if you didn’t somehow know already?), I’m here in Afghanistan in a different capacity, but I’ll get to that below.

I’m truly sorry to hear about your grandmother passing away last year.  I wish I had met her.  You at least have her story deep in your heart.  Barry, who kindly sent me an email about the family, said you were the last person she spoke to.  Otherwise, he didn’t mention you much and I didn’t ask.  She was 86 or 87, right?  Wow!  I'm sorry for your loss, truly.  I only hope that the last sixty or so years of her life, surrounded by children and grandchildren, made up for the tragic days of her youth.
Were you ever able to make the trip to Lithuania?  I hope so.  Barry didn’t write anything about that.  (By the way, he said I should say hello to you, but I was going to write anyway.)  Your brother also mentioned that he still wants to visit Japan again in spite of the infamous “Sushi Incident.” :)
The slacker that I am, I still haven’t run a marathon.  I’ve finished a couple half marathons, though, and that’s good enough for me.  I’m still at Hexington, teaching the usual courses and still working on that book.  Kristine and I still don’t really talk…. But I’m hopeful that we’ll salvage a relationship.  I think she’s finally seeing the ugly side of her pot-smoking boyfriend, but maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.  (And yes, I know I share blame for what happened between us.)  Since Kristine’s gone to college, as of two years ago, I haven’t seen April at all.  I don’t know what she’s up to, but I wish her well.
I relinquished my commission a year ago and now spend my non-academic time working for War Crimes Watch, during the summer and on special assignments during other times in the year.  I figured 14 years of fun-filled military service is sufficient for me, and it was getting in the way of what I really wanted to do.  I found out about WCW this past June through a colleague at Hexington.  They might send me to an African site in the future.  If they were to do so it would be my heritage coming full circle.  You might recall that my grandfather was a missionary in Kenya.
But that probably wont happen, for the organization's leadership know I have experience in Afghanistan.  Considering the violence in the region, they’ll probably keep me here for a while.  As it turns out, I’ll be part of an investigation of a mass grave in your neck of the woods, Paktia Province to be specific.  I suppose I can say this much, for its supposed to happen under the radar.
Rachel, your commitment and passion for the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth, rubbed off on me.  (I’m being serious, mind you.)  I wanted to do my part, and determined, given my academic interests, involvement with such an organization would be a good fit for me.  Thanks for planting a seed in my heart.  I mean it.  Helping others, to the extent that I can, is not only a humbling experience but also the path toward my own healing.  I guess Im finally looking beyond the pernicious Self for a change.
For the record, I’m healthy in body and mind.  The past is the past.  I’m a different person. Well, not entirely.  I’m still the morose and sarcastic (and exceedingly handsome!) creature you knew.  But I have a zest for life and have found a degree of contentment.
If you should want to contact me or meet at Green Beans in Bagram for a cup of nostalgia, you have my current address.  Perhaps that’s not a good idea (?), but I just want to see you.  We can have a friendly chat.  Arshad and the same crew still work there!  Can you believe it?  They still have that photo of us on the wall.  It would be fun to just talk.  I’m curious about the work you’re currently doing on the other side of these mountains I'm now looking at.  Would like to catch up.  That’s all.  KAM

P.S. You got me hooked on Bollywood tunes.  Thanks a lot!  It’s my secret passion.  No one must know!
The letter evoked so many thoughts and even more questions.  Rachel felt she couldn't process them all, nor did she want to.  After all, she couldn't afford to divert her mind from the work at hand and redirect it toward a past love, especially one that was so complicated.  She had enough on her plate these days.  She was trying to make a difference for these abandoned girls in a forgotten corner of the world, and she thought seriously about returning to medical school in the not-too-distant future.

Kam was suddenly reentering her life, it would seem.  Rachel had decidedly ended their drama years ago, yet this one letter opened up those discarded feelings.  It had not been easy emotionally to let go that part of her life, though her recollection of its passing was now more tidy in her mind than the situation had been at the time.  She cleared the cobwebs of her heart, yet the spider remained.

Please don’t read into this letter anything more.  Rachel came back to this line again and again.  Was he teasing her?  Maybe he really wanted her to read between the lines.  If she was reading more into this letter than what lies on the surface, she thought to herself, it was an involuntary, half-conscious reflection.  Images and memories paraded through her mind.  She had a smile from ear to ear as she took in Kam’s words, seeing in his comments the same wit she had fallen in love with.  She made a mental note to bridle this smile should the topic of Kam come up around Carol, and Mina too.

Did he want to rekindle their relationship?  Is that presumptuous, if not egotistical, to think so?  Is he back on a personal suicide mission?  Does he not know that she is now involved in the same investigation?  How could he know this?  She knew she still loved him, but she suppressed her feelings.  What else could she do?  She laid back on her bed, as the next day would be a long one.  She returned Bubby’s locket to its hiding place in her bag and tried to fall asleep.

Squinting from the Afghan sun, Rachel, Diet Pepsi can in hand, made her way with Mina to Pete’s security shack, a wooden structure “sunk halfway in the ground and probably built in the early 90s.  It would not have remained standing were it not for the hundreds of empty Soviet mortal shells that lined the foundation and low stone wall surrounding it.  Rachel thought this overgrown dugout a fitting location for Pete’s office.

It was late morning on a Tuesday.  They were going to make their routine visit to the village of Qalabeh in a three-vehicle convoy, the minimum protection requirement.  Pete’s security team would escort them after alerting the U.S. Army battalion in the area of their departure time.  On this particular day the Australian security chief was running late.  One of the Lispee vehicles, an armored Toyota Land Cruiser, had been under repair at the PRT and he left a few hours earlier with some of his men to bring it back to th
e orphanage compound.

Given that the tribal elders in the region and Zormat District officials supported the orphanage, such junkets were relatively safe.  Mine-clearing vehicles swept the area almost daily.  Still, Rachel hated that word relatively, uttered so often when Pete, his Lispee guards, or soldiers at the PRT discussed security measures.  To calm her nerves, she would remind herself that an Army colonel and his staff, along with Farid Gul who would ultimately become the director, had met with local leaders in a jirga, or community council, explaining and reassuring them that such a project was in their best interest.  Overcoming their initial skepticism, the Afghan men signed onto the idea wholeheartedly, seeing opportunities for development and education.  With this stamp of approval by the leadership, what could go wrong?

On darker days, Rachel knew that this question could have a disheartening answer.  There were no guarantees outside the wire.  The Taliban had sent a threatening letter to the elders only a month ago, and what the latter had decided to do about it wasn’t exactly known to internationals in the area.  They had already given a pledge of hospitality to those engaged in humanitarian relief in their land, including the military in support of such work.  The same tribal code of Pashtunwali that obligated the Taliban to protect and defend Usama bin Laden was in play here.

Rachel was also aware that there was more to worry about than the Taliban in this warlord-ridden country.  Jalaluddin Ahmadzai was a name she had been hearing ever since she started working in Paktia Province.  A sadistic Pashtun leader who joined the Taliban when it benefited him personally but easily reneged on any agreement when it did not, Ahmadzai had allegedly been on the payroll of the CIA back in the 1980s.  No tribal code, it seemed, bound his behavior, and Rachel thought such detachment frightening.  Yet for now she managed to push such thoughts away, along with her memories of Kam, at least until she made it back into the relatively safe confines of the compound by the days end.

Visiting the villages and hamlets in the environs allowed Rachel to talk to Pashtun women about their experiences since the fall of the Taliban.  (These connections and her medical knowledge recently landed her the position with Mustafa’s UN-sponsored forensic team.)  She would give tips on hygiene and health, plus a little English instruction if they requested it, with Mina all the while translating and handing out scented sanitizer bottles.

Perhaps just as important, Rachel would lend a Western ear to their grievances, for the women wanted to address problems that the “American invasion” had caused for them.  Often they would end up complaining more about aspects of their lives that had no apparent connection to U.S. and NATO operations.  Getting these women to open up was not difficult.

She relished the cross-cultural experience, the opportunity to connect with the local women, and all too often she would come away from these meetings amazed that two civilizations, the industrialized West and the people of Pashtunistan, had absolutely no clue as to how the other lived.  Rachel loved the children at the orphanage, but she longed for this adult interaction and sometimes went stir crazy inside the compound.

Making connections with the Afghan women was not new for her.  Before joining TKG, she lived with a Tajik family in Kabul and often accompanied the two daughters to the local clinic, the Laura Bush Maternity Ward, where they found work as nursing assistants.  Rachel instructed them and other women on basic nursing skills and bedside manners.  She then started to meet them in their homes, under the watchful eyes of brothers and fathers.

That was five years ago, her first overseas mission with a humanitarian NGO.  A friend of the Davison family, a medical doctor who had worked with Doctors Without Borders in Eritrea, hooked her up with Gardien de Mon Frère, a French organization that focused on education for women in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban.  Worried about her daughter after she unexpectedly dropped out of Johns Hopkins med school a year earlier, Rachel’s mother steered her in this direction hoping to draw out of her whatever seemed to make her lethargic and even despondent at times.  Both of her parents didn’t understand why their only daughter had at that time become so listless, especially given her gregarious nature.  They couldn’t know that for the next five years Rachel would be picking up the pieces of her life, for the life she had plannedthe life that in a way had been planned for herwas not to be.

As she rounded a crate full of water bottles near Pete’s office, she observed Farid and Wahid, the driver of her vehicle, speaking rather intensely with a group of bearded men.  The strangers claimed they had found homes for some of the girls.  Farid, a diminutive middle-aged Afghan American who had lived in New York since the late 1980s, was trying to convince the persistent men that they must be mistaken.  Finally, when two Lispee security guards veered in their direction, they gave up the game, walked back to their beat-up pick-up truck, and departed the compound.  Rachel’s alarm quickly turned to anger.

“Who are these men?  Who let them in here?” she asked.

“They said initially that they were working for Ed,” Farid responded.

“What?  That’s crazy!”  Rachel knew that Ed hired locals to help him on engineering projects around the compound, but they had to pass a security clearance with Pete first.

“Maybe they bribed the guards.”  It was no secret that Farid disliked Pete’s men after one of them made a disparaging remark about Afghanistan’s rivalry with neighboring Pakistan.  Rachel knew this backstory and therefore gave the security detail the benefit of the doubt whenever Farid subtly portrayed them in a negative light.  This time he wasn’t so subtle.

“Shit!  I’ll have to tell Pete about this.  They’re vultures!”  She looked at Mina.  “Did they run out of boys to prey on?”

Ed drove up in a Gator utility car.  He had been overseeing the installation of a new drainage pipe on the north end of the compound.  “What was all that about?”

“Some local creeps trying to abduct our girls,” said Rachel.

Farid gave Ed a more measured explanation.  “Those men thought they could bluff their way into our defenses, or at least they wanted to see how we’d respond.  It was probably a test of some kind.”

“A test?  What do you mean?”  Rachel found Farid’s words disconcerting.

“I don’t know for sure.  Just speculation on my part.  Let me put it this way: they didn’t appear to be here on their own initiative.”

“Everyone’s serving a warlord around here, it seems.”  Rachel worried that Farid would take her words as an insult to his country.  “I don't mean...”

“No offense taken, Ms. Davison,” responded Farid, picking up on her sensitivity.  “You’re right.  Such is my country.”

“This is a good country,” Ed clarified.  “Good people.  I wouldn't be here if I didn't think so.  Yet I wouldn’t be adverse to more security.  I don't know who those men were.” Ed motioned towards the dust clouds still hovering behind the bearded men’s vehicle in the distance.  “But the guys working for me are telling me with increasing urgency that we should beef up physical security around here.  Listen, I don't mean to sound like an alarmist...”

Wahid, leaning up against an SUV puffing a cigarette, had been listening to the conversation.  He acquired a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Kabul Polytechnic but made more money with USAID as a driver.  “You can't trust anyone around here,” he said.

Farid turned to Ed.  “You should inform Mr. Ledbury about this issue,” he suggested.  Farid never seemed to refer to anyone he worked with by the first name.

“Pete knows about these issues,” Ed responded.  “Work in progress.”

“It’s about funding, like everything,” added Rachel, as if defending Petes abilities.  Ed knew that increasing Lispee’s contract to include more guards and equipment was beyond Pete’s pay grade, and Pete himself had complained to his higher-ups in Manchester.  Rachel intended her words more for Farid.

While they were waiting for Pete to return, Mina unburdened her soul with Rachel about a family issue.  An aged district official from the Murrad Khani quarter of Kabul, where Mina’s family resided, wanted Mina’s pretty thirteen-year-old sister’s hand in marriage.  She would be his third wife, allowed by the Qur’an but unprecedented for someone of his stature.  (Mina, as a widower and with a barren womb, according to the vicious rumor mill, did not have to face such proposals.)  She feared for her younger sister, for the official wasn’t exactly distinguished for his kindness.  The man’s wives and female cousins had already started to negotiate a union with Mina’s parents.

“He’s a good man and his standing in the community would bring honor to the family.”

“Come now, Mina, it’s me you’re talking to.  What do you really think?  It’s okay.  You can tell me.  I  know you talk to your sisters and aunt about this.”

“He’s old…and ugly,” Mina responded sheepishly.

“Is there a way out of this situation?”

“It’s my mother’s decision to make.  It would help our family.”

“Yes, I know.  But I think he’s just a horny old man.  She’s just a child.  He'll probably beat her.”

“Don’t say such things, Rachel.  Please.”

“I'm sorry, Mina.  It just makes me angry.  I know it’s the culture.  I really do.  But what kind of man, especially an elder man, a grandfather, would marry a child?  We call this sort of thing pedophilia.”

Pete’s convoy pulled into the compound.  A hefty 50-year-old man with a sandy blond beard and a full head of hair to match hopped out of a Land Rover.  Men in blue and grey jumpsuits followed him to the security office.  Pete’s guards were mostly ex-soldiers from Peru or paramilitaries from Colombia, with the one exception being his “second,” Jimmy, a Fijian who once served in the British army and later became a professional wrestler.  Unlike TKG’s contract, Lighthorse Security, Protection and Investigations recruited no local Afghans.  This was yet another point of contention with Farid, though the company had its reasons for this policy.

“It’s a good day for a drive, eh?”  Pete’s Australian accent boomed over the din of the engines.  “Good weather.  Clear sky.  The gods are pleased.”

“We had some unexpected visitors not long ago,” Ed informed Pete.

“Yes, I heard.  Got Jimmy at the guard shack looking into it.  When we get back today, heads are going to roll.”  Pete didn't seem convincing in his response.  Rachel figured he was preoccupied with the business at hand: getting to Qalabeh and back safely.

“Alright ladies, we’re ready to go!”

“Ladies?  Is that supposed to be flattery?”  Rachel liked playing off of Pete’s good nature.  He laughed heartily in return.

As he climbed into the lead vehicle, Pete inadvertently revealed a sidearm holster under his jacket.  Rachel had always wondered why a man who purportedly served in the Australian SAS and received high recognition for a commando operation in East Timor would walk around Afghanistan unarmed.  Now she knew that Pete was all about stealth.

Even his appearance was deceptively banal.  Though he had gained weight since his military days, he retained muscular arms and legs.  Rachel came to see Pete’s  portly midsection, seasoned face, and jovial nature as a disguise to put locals at ease.  Like everyone else at the compound, he was a complex individual; whereas she had thought of Pete almost as a comic figure, she now could picture him blowing the head off an alligator in the Outback.  Later that evening, she would make the mistake of telling Carol about the pistol; the woman’s knee-jerk response was to whisper a phallic comment into Rachel's ear.

The drive to Qalabeh from the compound led roughly ten miles through a verdant patchwork quilt of irrigated fields.  On either side of the road wheat stalks wove in the autumn breeze.  While it was getting past harvest time, Rachel could see farmers and laborers still carrying bundles of grain and baskets of vegetables, just as their forebears had presumably done in the days of yore.   Paktia Province is a mountainous region peppered with mountain passes and small valleys where agricultural settlements, tucked away near mountain streams and nestled in the auburn foothills, hibernate in the harsh winters and come to life again every spring.

Amid the lush landscape they could see outside their windows evidence of a country at war for thirty years—a few shattered buildings and rusting tanks resting in the middle of nowhere.

Wahid pointed out another scar of war: a gaping hole where a water pump once stood.  “The Russians bombed the shit out of it.  There is more evidence of their cruelty around here, but the brush has since grown over it.”

“Why must this land experience such suffering?” Rachel asked.  “I’m in awe of the beauty, but the harsh living conditions are bad enough.  How can Afghans live with the incursions of warlords and invading armies for so long?”

“People are such.  That’s all.”  Wahid’s laconic answer surprised Rachel.  It could have come from Kam’s lips.

Qasabeh was now in their sight.  For the third time Rachel and Mina were visiting the village.  District officials and the provincial governor had recommended Qalabeh as the location for a free medical clinic sponsored jointly by the Zormat PRT and Afghan National Army.  Its central location, a bazaar that attracted people from all around, and relative ease of access for mountain communities made it ideal for a medical outreach.  This time Rachel and Mina were visiting the women of Qasabeh without the clinic operation, for the military had called it off only the day before.

Pete had the vehicles park just outside the village and instructed his men to stay near them.  Short of an unlikely attack, they were by no means to reveal their weapons.  Armed protection was a necessary precaution in this volatile land; at the same time, TKG’s success in visiting these women hinged on trust.  Armed foreigners were an obstacle in the way of that trust.

Donning brightly colored shalwar kameez, Rachel and Mina covered their heads with pashmina scarves just before they climbed out of the Land Cruiser.  Greeting their eyes once again was a village of thatched-roofed dun-colored dwellings and narrow dirt streets.  The bazaar was in full display from the road: fruit stands, containers of spices, slabs of goat meat covered with flies hanging in a butcher’s shop.  Merchants sat in their stalls counting beads and eyeballing strangers.  Pete escorted the two women to the humble home of Hassan Hasbullah, as females could not walk around unattended unless they gathered into a large group.

What struck Rachel everytime was the virtual absence of women—on the street, at the market, in the fields.  “You’d think that civilization sprung up without the need of women,” she’d tell Carol later.

But there’s another world, one inside those earthen dwellings, beyond the eyes of strangers.  The women awaiting the American and her translator from Kabul congregated in an enclosed backyard of a two-story mud hut, away from the prying eyes of men.  Here they could take off their burqas.  They had set a table with noodles, rice, hummus, naan, rice pudding, and a rice dish (palao) with chunks of lamb meat.

Rachel was pleased to see Mahnoor, a woman she met on her previous visit, preparing tea with her two prepubescent sons at her side.   Because Mahnoor was about her age and seemed genuinely happy with her husband, Rachel was looking forward to a conversation with her.

Barely into their mutual greetings, Nasreen, one of senior women and the wife of the aforementioned Hassan, began to speak in a forceful tone.   Rachel could tell she had something on her mind even as the women greeted one another.  “Government soldiers are looking for my son,” she explained in a raspy voice.  “They think he was part of an attack on a village near Gardez.  This is a lie!  Can you help me?”   As she spoke, Rachel noticed her withered hand just inside the long sleeve of her tunic.

The old woman was originally from a different clan when she came to Qalabeh over thirty years ago.  She was the victim of a Pashtun practice known as swara, which means she was an “offering” as a child bride from one clan to another in order to resolve a dispute.

In addition to concern about her son, Nasreen gave Rachel an earful about the lack of security.  Through Mina’s translation she explained to Rachel that the villagers had given information on the Taliban but have seen no tangible improvements in their security.  Those grim black-turbaned men take harsh revenge on informers, she told them.  Unfortunately, they often don’t know who’s an informer and who’s not, so they kill indiscriminately.

Other women were eager to tell their stories, as if Nasreen had opened the door for discussion.  A couple of younger women in the group, Leila and Sajida, had expressed interest in going to school in Kabul and teach English or work at one of the beautician shops there. Sadly, Rachel knew that she would most likely not fulfill this aspiration. Leila was her husband’s second wife and subservient to the first.  Her husband worked at the PRT Gardez as a construction worker.  The other woman, Sajida, pretty face and plump body, was betrothed to a man three times her age, but her parents were still negotiating the deal.

A woman named Safia talked about her family tragedy, though it was difficult for Mina to hear her low voice over the noise of the children.   About seven months ago, she told them, her cousins Aziz and Dadullah died in a conflict between  a warlord and the Taliban.  When Mina pressed her for more information at Rachel's behest, Safia admitted that they simply disappeared and she suspects they were killed.  Later, during the investigation of a mass grave site, Rachel would follow up Safia’s comment.

The woman’s words reminded Rachel of a story she had come across recently.  She decided to share it with the women to lighten the mood.  For her own sanity she wanted to get away from all those tragic stories the woman loved to tell.  She found herself embellishing the account more and more as she read the faces of the women when Mina translated the story to them.

One day a young man named Zabiullah staggered into a village.  Serving as a bodyguard for a warlord, he suffered from a gunshot to the abdomen and had left a river blood behind him.  The Taliban had ambushed him and his men at a makeshift checkpoint on the Ring Road and a fierce gun battle ensued.  It wasn’t looking good for poor Zabiullah.

By the strengh of Allah, Zabiullah managed to drag himself toward the nearest village.  A woman named Sasha nursed Zabiullah back to health and they fell in love.  They ran off together, because they’re families would never agree to their marriage.  He was from the Popalzai tribe and she was from the Noorzai tribe.  Zabiullah’s parents and many brothers were particularly vehement about the pitfalls of marrying a woman outside their community, but they could not persuade the young man to change his course.  (At this point in the Rachel’s narrative, Sajida sat up and uttered a loud sound, something between a gasp and a cough.  Rachel couldn't tell whether she was disapproving of the story, took heart in Zabiullah’s devotion to Sasha, or found something she ate disagreeable.)

The unlikely couple, brought together by fate, had nowhere to go.  They considered starting a new life in the capital or maybe Kandahar, but they had no connections and no means.  Rachel told her colleagues about the situation to see if they could find refuge—and Zabiullah better medical care—in the United States.

Since they both knew a little bit of English already, Kendra Kasperbauer, the daughter of Sandy and Trent, and the inspiration for the Kendra Group, had connections at the Canadian  embassy in Kabul to make it happen.  They now live in Toronto, where Zabiullah works at an Afghani restaurant near the university.  Sasha, who until recently had been corresponding regularly with Rachel, expressed hope to enter the nursing program at Ryerson University.

Rachel suspects that they’re elopement didn’t really end in bliss, but she left that part out of her story. Sasha’s last letter, a mixture of Dari and English that only Rachel could understand, contained stress signals.  Zabiullah was planning a return to his ancestral homeland in the Korengal Valley, as his father needed him to help his brother look after their patch of land when he dies.  Sasha dreaded this prospect, and she intimated that their relationship had suffered because what he perceived as her westernization.  She wouldn’t give details.  Lacking specifics of what happened gave Rachel enough wriggle room in her romantic imagination to make up a better ending to the story for her present audience.

When Rachel and Mina got up to leave, Leila looked at them with a mischievous smile.  “Tell us about your man.”


“She said she wants to know about your man,” Mina dutifully translated.

“Yes, I got that much.  But I don’t have a man...”

When the women insisted that she share a personal story, Rachel finally decided that nothing communicates openness or breaks the ice better than a few autobiographical reflections.  She had dated a couple of men in the past three years since her breakup with Kam, but her mind gravitated toward Kam for a story.  If the Tale of Zabiullah and Sasha merited editing, Rachel deemed the narrative of Rachel and Kam in desperate need of on-the-fly revising for her non-Western listeners.  It started one early evening at Bagram in the spring of 2006.