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Afghanistan Dispatch: The Toll

The death of four children is a stark reminder of northern Afghanistan’s neverending state of war.

Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan—Behold the latest toll of war from Forty Meters Street.

Ibrahim and Ismail, twelve and six years old, brothers, sons of Nabi, their slight bodies mangled and unrecognizable on the floor of their parent’s house. Their cousin Mawluddin, age five, son of Aziz Khan, his blood dried in black Rorschach blotches on his white morgue shroud. Their neighbor Samiwullah, age four, son of Akhtar Mohammad, dying at the Mazar Civil Hospital, most of his skin burned into an oozing crust. The doctors said he was not going to make it.

(This is the third in a series of dispatches from Anna Badkhen in Afghanistan. The earlier dispatches can be read here: Part 1, Part 2.)

On Tuesday morning, the children were playing in Bilaq-e-Hawaye, one of Mazar-e-Sharif’s poorest quarters, where toys are sticks and bits of rock, and any shiny thing in the ground holds the promise of treasure. They spotted the sheening curve of a shell. They probed it. The explosion was so powerful that the shock wave shattered windows five houses down the street.

Who knows what kind of shell that was, or how long it had lain in wait in the dry sidewalk dirt? It could have been an aerial bomb left over from the Soviet occupation that ended more than 20 years ago, or a projectile from one of the many times Mazar-e-Sharif changed hands in the internecine wars of the 1990s. It could have been an antitank mine. According to the U.N, Mine Action Service, land mines and old ordnance kill or injure, on average, 40 Afghans each month, and more than 1.3 million people live in areas highly contaminated by explosives.

So routine is this awful oblation that the police abandoned the investigation of the boys’ deaths after ensuring that the shell was not a roadside bomb placed in the sidewalk by Taliban insurgents. In a land where conflict is a near-perpetual state, the newest agents of violence take priority over afterbirths of former fratricides and invasions. The police spokesman in Mazar-e-Sharif did not even know how many children were killed in the blast. “Three or four,” he said. “I will have no further details.”

An hour after the explosion, the bodies of Ibrahim and Ismail lay on the floor of their father’s house. Their white morgue shrouds were badly stained with blood and soot, and relatives had draped them with mismatched bed sheets. Ibrahim’s was fuchsia. Ismail’s was brown and yellow sunflowers. The children were so disfigured, contorted so grotesquely in early rigor mortis, that it was difficult to guess the human shapes under the cotton.

Women filed past a battery of scuffed jerry cans the boys would never again take to the street water pump and sat along the wall, moaning and slapping their knees. The boys’ mother sat between the two small bodies, her mouth moving wordlessly, because no sound could match her grief. In the anteroom, a young man leaned his forehead against the wall and wept, his bloody hands hanging by his sides, his back to the world and to the neverending state of war.

Outside, on Forty Meters Street, men went into macabre cleaning mode. They scoured the children’s blood off their clothes under the corner water pump. They scraped the children’s blood off the dirt road with shovels, but blades fell off old handles with a clink, as though the iron, too, failed in the face of such inconceivable heartache. A man picked up five singed flip-flops and carried them a few feet, then dropped them into a ditch.

By the end of the day, no sign of the explosion would be left, just ownerless sandals by the side of the road.

In late afternoon, men and children hid from the cruel May sun under a canopy by a tiny shop where Ibrahim had worked mornings, before school, selling biscuits, soda, and chilled water out of a plastic cooler. Ibrahim’s shop was shuttered, and the sheets of gray fabric that hung from its awning for shade fluttered like the flags of a martyr’s grave.

Abdul Jalil, a taxi driver, passed around his cell phone with the photo he had taken of Samiwullah at the hospital: a charred shape of a child, scabbed and naked on a stretcher. A clump of white gauze covered his groin, as though it were his sex that was obscene, and not the waste lain to his body. The men looked at the photo respectfully, then passed the phone back to the taxi driver. The children looked on. “I’m going to tell my kids not to play in the street anymore,” said Khalil, a housepainter. He stared sternly at his two preteen sons. They stared back, small and hushed by their terrible new knowledge.

The men smoked and pondered life and death in a land where war is not a marquee but a hideous and continuous sideshow that picks its victims at random. For a while, all was silent. Then, a ragpicker turned onto Forty Meters Street, pushing a wheelbarrow and hollering for people to sell their old clothes and empty plastic bottles. On a street parallel, an ice cream truck jingled its song, unanswered, in the hollow heat.

Anna Badkhen is the author of Peace Meals and Waiting for the Taliban. She is writing a book about timelessness. Her reporting from Afghanistan is made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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