Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (7/7)

“One monster at a time. It’s a start. We’ll never win over the Afghan people and wean them off Taliban insurgents—and their protectors across the border—unless we do something about these guys.”

“And the we here is the ICC?” asked Parkinson.

“Yes, and the U.N., NATO, and the EU,” reassured Jürgenmeyer.

“Can you explain your organization in more detail?” asked Mustafa.

“We are a non-profit organization based in Kabul.  We focus on nation building and human rights. The graves referenced in the letter we sent you, and alluded to in a phone call, is the handiwork of Ahmadzai’s army.” Jürgenmeyer turned to Mustafa. “Your work is highly valued, Doctor. You have been personally requested for this investigation by the governor of Paktia and ISAF.”

“ISAF?” asked Dr. Anderson.

“International Security Assistance Force, a combined NATO and U.S. contingent of 50,000 troops. Publicly, Ahmadzai has tried to amend his reputation over the years, and the Americans, it would seem, have bought it.”

“Both Afghan and U.S. administrations need this ‘New Afghanistan’ to work, that’s for damn sure,” said Parkinson, as he looked longingly at his glass now emptied of bourbon.

“That has been a tall order, given the absolute chaos the country has been in, as you mentioned, for the last thirty years,” said Mustafa. He knew the political stakes, but had more of an eye on the moral questions. “It doesn’t take much for these mujahedeen warlords to turn their guns on each other—on hapless peasants—over a perceived insult or piece of turf.”

“Man is wolf to man. Hobbes,” Selderhuis asserted, as if that terse statement settled the matter.

“Back to Hobbes, are we?” teased Parkinson.

“Actually that’s Plautus, originally. Homo…Homo lupus ad hominem. Yes.” Jürgenmeyer’s classical education at Heidelberg finally had some practical usage: to upstage his pedantic lowlander neighbor.

“No offense to wolves.” Mustafa had the last word.

“If you agree to the mission, you will fly in two weeks to Bagram Airbase, via Kryzgstan. You’ll meet up with Lt. Colonel Robinson, the force protection commander and military representative of the PRT.”

“Pardon?” said Mustafa.

“Provincial Reconstruction Team,” answered Jürgenmeyer. “NATO and U.S. have funded a number of military units in Afghanistan since 2002 in an effort to help rebuild the infrastructure in the provinces and lend some credibility to the fledgling central government in Kabul.”

“Yes, I know something of them, just not the details,” responded Mustafa. “The PRT in Paktia Province is run by the Americans, is it not?”

“Yes, most of them are. The area is fairly safe, at least compared to the southern provinces…”

“The operative word is fairly,” interjected Dr. Anderson with some trepidation in her voice.

“Eastern Afghanistan is just as dangerous,” Selderhuis submitted.

Jürgenmeyer shrugged off the comment. “There’s been little trouble in the area. Those barbarians send over a mortar or rocket, but the Taliban have less of a presence here than they do in the south and further to the east along the border with Pakistan. The investigation is in a more secure area. Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, the region is riddled with mass burials dating back to Alexander the Great. Just a few years ago they found next to a mine shaft…”

“A grave site dating back to the Soviet occupation.” Mustafa finished his statement. “Yes, I know.”

“I don’t have to tell you that it’s a rough terrain, but you’ll have showers, a dining facility—or chow hall as the troops call them—and suitable billeting.”

“That’s better than Bosnia, I’ll admit.”

“Yes. Once Uncle Sam sets down his roots somewhere, you’ll live in comfort,” mocked Parkinson, overdoing his mocking tone to show unequivocally he meant the comment in jest.

“So I have noticed,” responded Mustafa with a wistfulness in his voice.

Jürgenmeyer soldiered on with the details. “At BAF—Bagram airfield, that is—you’ll also meet with Mr. Sharp. “He looked over his paperwork to make sure. “Cameron Sharp, a civil affairs guy, ex-military. He’s the U.S. liaison between the locals and your team. Once you coordinate with the excavation crew, you’ll fly out via a Chinook to the site. The flight takes only about 20 minutes. The grave is near a little village, hamlet really, called Sorkh Parsa. Civilian contractors and U.S. army engineers are there helping the locals build a new medical clinic, as I mentioned before. For the investigation, we have already assembled a team of medical specialists and forensic archaeologists. You would lead this team if you accept the mission.”

“In the letter you mention that the site has been disturbed,” said Mustafa.

“I concede I don’t have all the details. I haven’t been there, but I have received reports. It’s being guarded 24/7 by Nordhoff and U.S. military.”

“Nordhoff?” asked Selderhuis.

“The security firm contracted to oversee security. I appreciate your time and ask you to consider the importance of this mission. A stable Afghanistan is in the world’s best interest, and this investigation is one means to that end. Please think it over.  You don’t need to make a decision now.  Get back to us.  I thank you for your consideration and time.”

“Where are you staying, Herr Jürgenmeyer?” asked Mustafa.

“At the Hotel Palais just down the street.”

“Care to join me for a smoke?”

“You read me like a book.” Jürgenmeyer was a bit surprised at the gesture for a moment, but grinned like a child.

As he got up with Jürgenmeyer, Mustafa felt an obligation not to leave his dinner partners without an answer to their previous query. “My friends, for the sake of full disclosure, here’s what Mr. Drago kindly said to me, after cursing my mother: Someday I will kill you and your family.” The rest of the group looked at each other with consernation, but endeavored preserve the jovial mood.

“I guess he’s not one to mince words, hmm?” said Dr. Anderson.

“That son of a bitch will rot in prison,” Selderhuis interjected, “and finally join Milosevic and Saddam in a special place reserved for those of their ilk. Forget that vicious remark!  It’s time for a toast. Here’s to success in the investigation and life imprisonment...hopefully. Cheers!”

“Şerefe!” added Mustafa, taking a swig of his cold tea.  The man drinking wine at the next table kept a circumspective eye on them.

On his way out Mustafa grabbed the navy blue Russian overcoat that Sirma bought him while visiting her family in Ankara. Along the wall of the hallway leading from the hotel restaurant to the lobby was a mural of mediocre quality depicting The Hague in the 17th-century.  Stevedores along the waterfront unload crates and barrels full of molasses, tea, and spices from exotic ports in the East Indies or somewhere else in the far-flung mercantile empire. For tourist consumption, the painter, or the hotel management who hired the painter, wanted to show the Golden Age of Dutch civilization. The dockworkers carry their crates oblivious to the sea battle going on in the upper left corner.  Dutch schooners engage a Spanish Armada that, thanks to the painter's use of dark tones, appears ominously on the horizon.

The Turk and German exited the revolving doors, lit up, and walked down the street. The air was crisp, the street wet. They walked along the busy thoroughfare, initially exchanging some pleasantries on international justice and European football.

Mustafa came to the point. “I’ll take the assignment on the condition of complete control. I choose the team. Agreed?”

Jürgenmeyer hesitated.

“So if the people you’ve already assembled at Bagram don’t meet my standards...”  Mustafa had decided he wouldn't take this mission if the terms were dictated to him.  “And I’m not putting my people into harm’s way…”

“U.S. Marines and the 82nd Airborne are in the area. We got a quick reaction force at our disposal. Complete protection from the air. And as far as the Nordhoff security goes, you’re in good hands.  Most of these men are former American or British special forces.”

Despite Jürgenmeyer's assurances, Mustafa knew there were no guarantees in life.  He returned to his ultimatum. “My team, or I’m sticking to my plans for retirement this month.”

Einverstanden.  Jürgenmeyer stamped out his cigarette butt.

“You come from Bavaria, no?” Changing the subject, Mustafa was happy to speak in the Western language he knew best. Jürgenmeyer’s eyes brightened. Mustafa found himself liking Jürgenmeyer as a person, but he did not trust him.

“I’m from Ulm. We like to call it Swabia.”

“My younger son teaches at the University of Augsburg.”

“Not far away at all! Your German is impeccable, I must say.” Jürgenmeyer already knew something of Mustafa’s work in Germany, but feigned ignorance for the sake of a good conversation.

“Tell me, Herr Jürgenmeyer. How do you know that Ahmadzai is the perpetrator of this crime? It could be any number of those Afghan warlords.”

“He’s no stranger to this area. In fact, he has a mud-walled compound within 15 kilometers of the site. With what we know about him, it seems straightforward. But that’s where you come in. You’ll prove, or disprove, his involvement.”

“Let’s say he was responsible for those bodies. What then?”

“Truth be told, it’s politics. It’s about sending a message. For some, it’s about discrediting the Karzai administration. The provincial governor is also pressing for this investigation against Ahmadzai.  He's not your typical warlord; he's worse than bad.  I'm curious.  What’s your take on people like Ahmadzai, Drago, and Joachim Kroll?”  The last name was a reference to Mustafa’s first high-profile investigation as a forensic anthropologist.  Kroll was a serial killer who ate his victims; Musta had the grim task of identifying the victims.  His report of the grisly details on the news had brought him a degree of recognition from Germans and Turkish Gastarbeiter alike.

“Sometimes good and evil originate from the same source,” responded Mustafa.  Yet again Rumi’s words resonated in his consciousness. Men are as demons, and lust for wealth their chain. The chain is made of their fears and anxieties. It urges them towards good and toward evil.

“You don’t have to tell me that,” Jürgenmeyer came back.  “My hometown gave the world both Albert Einstein and Josef Mengele.”

One thing that Jürgenmeyer said had Mustafa thinking on the flight the next morning. After Mustafa’s reference to the crimes of Ahmadzai, Jürgenmeyer responded, “I guess both our nations have their dark past.” The comment was so off the cuff that Mustafa didn’t bother to respond. What did he mean by this? Is he trying to say something?

Mustafa had this statement and many other issues to ponder. Preoccupying his mind in such a way was a self-diversionary tactic, for Mustafa harbored a deep fear of flying. Only as the plane started its descent into Istanbul could Mustafa relax.  He took solace at the comforting skyline of minarets and domes.

Three weeks after the conversation at the Ridder Hotel, Mustafa, refreshed from a brief sojourn on the apricot farm with his grandchildren, walked across the tarmac of Incirlik Air Base and boarded a C-17 bound for Kyrgyzstan.  His connecting flight at Ataturk airport had left him little time to find a rug for Sirma, but, in a way he hadn’t intended, he would end up keeping a promise that he had made to her: the trip would be his last mission. He was off yet again to some god-forsaken land where half-decomposed ghosts beckoned, for he too concealed mysteries buried deep within his heart, secrets that no trowel or shovel can exhume.

For the moment he had more immediate worries: another flight. “Allah, guide and sustain me with your love and righteousness.”  The forensic anthropologist pressed rosary beads between his thumb and fingers.  He leafed through the days's issue of Milliyet to take his mind off the flight. He wore around his neck the nazar that Sirma had placed inside his suitcase before he had left for Europe. He was hedging his bets.