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A Slaughter of Innocents
by Rajesh Talwar Bookmark and Share
 

Continued from Previous Page

(An Afghan Winter Continued)

The classes fell into a familiar routine. My audience was familiar with me as a teacher. For my part, I now had a feel for the audience. I knew the good students, the troublemakers, the ones who were slow to understand and those who knew what I was going to say before I uttered the words. Yusuf’s and the interpreter’s interventions became less and less frequent.

Three full-length features were punched out on my laptop and saved in the drafts folder. I pretended to my employers that I was still working on them, to have leisure for my own activities. Just days left for the classes to conclude, but things were more or less on autopilot on that score, so I decided to catch up on my general reading.

‘Guest house?’ Yusuf said, as he opened the door of the Toyota. It was late afternoon and we were done for the day.

‘Could you instead drop me off at the Khan Book Shop?’

Yusuf manoeuvred the car out of the cramped parking lot. As the Toyota circled the fountain just outside the main building of the InterContinental, someone called him on his mobile.

‘Aminullah Akbarbai,’ Yusuf barked in Dari ‘Why have you called me?

I had never seen Yusuf so agitated. His voice rose to a public announcer’s volume, his eyes blazed with anger, and with one hand on the steering wheel, he began to hammer the dashboard with the other. I was concerned that he might lose control of the car and veer off into the side of the hill. The conversation, if you could call it that – it was mostly Yusuf shouting – was high voltage. It was as if the person at the other end had poked Yusuf’s brain with a red-hot poker.

‘What was that all about?’ The car hummed along the winding road that came down from the InterContinental.

Yusuf appeared not to have heard my question; his brow remained crisscrossed in deep thought.

‘Some problem?’ I repeated my query.

‘Oh, that phone call,’ Yusuf said, finally bobbing up to the surface from some inner pool of contemplation. ‘A relative asking for some money. I’d told him earlier that I can’t help him.’

Someone asking for money. That part was true, but it wasn’t a relative. Yusuf still didn’t know that I understood Dari. Having taken a decision soon after my arrival in Afghanistan to hide my knowledge of the local language, I stuck to it even after I came to trust Yusuf. I replayed his words in my mind.

You gave me a name, Akbarbai, regarding what happened near Ghilzai and I gave you the price you demanded for providing me that name. I don’t have any more money.

A name? Whose name?

That in itself wasn’t a surprising statement. As a senior employee of a media company with a reputation for providing scoops that included tapes from Bin Laden himself, Yusuf probably possessed authority to make payments for valuable information. It wouldn’t have been odd if Yusuf concealed this information from me and invented a money-seeking relative; as journalists, we routinely protect our sources.

But it was what Yusuf said subsequently, after listening for a few seconds to the speaker at the other end.

What can I do if the American is dead? You didn’t say that I will have to pay more if something happened to that bastard.’

The American is dead. Could this possibly be Michael? Yusuf told me his sister died in collateral action. An aerial strike gone wrong, I supposed till now. How would Michael be involved in this? He didn’t fly planes. But he used to work with Military Intelligence, and could have ordered a strike. Could this be the mess that Zeenat spoke of? But, I told myself, Zeenat didn’t mention Ghilzhai. She spoke of what happened in Sadia. Sad Sadia.

The short conversation wasn’t enough for me to follow a lead. I needed more information.

So I said, ‘I heard you address him angrily as “Akbarbai” twice – that’s an Uzbek name, isn’t it?’ By now, I knew that names that ended with ‘zai’ were mostly Pashtun, ‘aka’ mostly Tajik, and ‘bai’ almost always Uzbek.

‘Not a blood relative,’ Yusuf said. ‘Only by marriage.’ He paused to allow himself a smile. ‘I’m impressed, Anzan jan.’

‘Is he from Kabul?’

‘No. He works in Kandahar.’

‘I thought I heard the word “Ghilzai”,’ I said, trying to learn more. ‘Isn’t that north of Kandahar?’

‘You’ve been looking at a map of Afghanistan.’ Yusuf laughed, but the sound was empty of mirth. ‘You’re right, Ghilzai was mentioned, but Akbarbai works for the Afghan Medical Alert in Kandahar.’

‘Oh, he’s dealing with refugees, is he? He might be interesting to talk to.’

‘I don’t think so.’ Yusuf was clearly anxious to close the subject. ‘He is an IT expert.’

Still looking visibly upset, Yusuf changed gear and stepped on the accelerator as we entered the main road.

A traffic policeman pushed out his palm, forbidding us to move ahead. The President’s motorcade was passing through.

‘Tell me something, Anzan jan,’ Yusuf said, as he shook his head at the delay. ‘You know how ordinary civilians are killed because of careless bombings by the Americans?’

‘Uh huh’

‘Is this a war crime?’

‘I honestly don’t know.’

‘It should be one,’ Yusuf said, a grim expression on his face. ‘The people in charge of such an operation deserve the harshest punishment.’

I didn’t have anything to say. I knew where he was coming from. Yusuf had lost his beloved sister and her family in an act of careless ‘collateral damage’ – technical terminology hiding brutality beyond belief.

A black bullet-proof limousine with a fluttering green Afghan flag passed by – the President’s recent expensive toy – and seconds later the policeman waved us on.

Yusuf swung the car around the roundabout and stopped outside the bookshop.

‘I have to take Sajida for admission to a new school today,’ Yusuf said. ‘Otherwise, I’d come with you and say hello to Mr Khan.’

I stepped out of the car into the freezing cold. The triangular roof of the bookshop reminded me of white woollen caps sold in the market in Dharamsala. I paused to snap the image with my mobile.

As I entered the warm precincts of the shop, Yusuf’s words rang in my mind.

The people in charge of such an operation deserve the harshest punishment.

***

The store’s interior was much larger than one would have suspected from the outside. There were only two prominent bookstores in Kabul. This one was reputed to have loads of books on all aspects of Afghan life. I spent an hour browsing through the shelves, picked up some ‘heavy’ reading on Afghanistan’s history, and for a sweeter pleasure settled on an English translation of contemporary Afghan poetry.

As I approached the amiable, paunchy middle-aged owner to pay for the books, I encountered Richard Brent standing next to him.

‘Hello, hello,’ Richard greeted me warmly. ‘Wonderful running into you like this. Have you met Mr Khan, the owner of this great shop?’

‘Hello.’ Khan extended his hand, looking snug in his wide chair, which appeared custom-built for his size.

I shook his hand.

‘Mr Khan, would you please autograph this book for me?’ Richard put forward a large coffee-table book with the title Afghan Arts and Crafts.

‘No problem.’ Khan readily obliged. Something about the flourish with which he signed off suggested that he was not altogether unfamiliar with the process of doing this.

‘It’s warm in here, isn’t it?’ Richard said.

I said: ‘It’s freezing outside.’

‘We like to keep our customers comfortable,’ Khan said, removing his woollen cap and placing it on the side-table. ‘And you, sir, would you like me to sign anything?’

Realisation dawned. My head began spinning with excitement.

Mr Khan was waiting for my response. I came out of my reverie.

‘Yes, please,’ I said, ‘but I have a further request to make. Would it also be possible for me to photograph you?’

He looked surprised at my request. I guessed Mr Khan was reassessing his celebrity status in his mind – was it at this level now? Two other foreigners stood behind me waiting for him to autograph their books. Khan’s signature was proof that they had been there, done that …

‘Is it for personal use?’ he said, with some curiosity.

‘Entirely personal,’ I assured him.

‘All right then.’ He composed his features in readiness.

I took out my black Nokia, focused and clicked.

Richard and I took our time wrapping ourselves up warmly before stepping out into the cold that hit like a physical blow to the senses.

‘Coffee? Tea?’ I said.

‘Yes, but where?’ His mouth threw off steam.

‘There’s a place I know.’

A short while later we were seated on sofas inside a dark elongated room with purple walls, sipping green tea.

The Chai Khana was less than twenty metres away on the other side of the road. Yusuf and I sometimes came here to discuss and plan interviews with government ministers and bureaucrats for stories I was working on.
.
It was a recently revived quaint little restaurant, upmarket yet authentically Afghan in its menu and ambience. It was unlike some other modern-looking cafés that served baked beans, sardines, French toast and other such items. Those places catered mainly to the expatriate population; some actively discouraged local Afghans from visiting.

‘Collecting background, I see.’ Richard glanced at the books that I had purchased.

‘Exactly,’ I replied. ‘By the way, how’s the novel progressing?

‘You remembered,’ Richard laughed. ‘It’s going well. A French lady comes to work in Afghanistan and falls in love with the country and its people.’

‘Is it a historical novel?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s set in the present. And for this reason, when she gets back to Paris her friends want her to be examined by a psychiatrist. She wants to go back to Afghanistan. I can also now understand how one gradually starts to get involved with the country one lives in.

‘A compelling plot,’ I said, amused. ‘What did she miss about it? The bombings?’

‘After Afghanistan, she found Paris cold and dry.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘It’s the intimate bonding,’ he explained. ‘You see …’

As I sipped the scented tea and listened to the slow, melodious voice of my companion, I reflected that the scenario he painted was not altogether implausible. There was little that Kabul or other Afghan cities offered by way of entertainment: no movie halls, theatre or music performances. In the absence of any nightlife, or, indeed, any other life at all, people fell upon each other for entertainment. People in Western metropolises watched Big Brother. Perhaps Afghanistan offered a more intimate involvement also because of the daily dangers that bonded people.

‘So you see …’ Richard said.

I poured us both a refill.

‘On another more serious note,’ Richard said, leaning forward, ‘I’m just back from some villages near Kandahar. I met Françoise, a French-Canadian girl working with a medical charity there, who told me some horrible stuff. Many Afghan civilians killed in a village she’s worked in.’

‘Something recent? An air strike?’

‘A few months ago. No, it wasn’t an air strike.’

‘Was the area a Taliban stronghold?

‘Not one single Taliban there,’ Richard said, in a slow and serious tone, spacing out each word as if he were performing in a play. ‘It is – or perhaps I should say it was – a village close to the town of Gulzai, a hundred kilometres or so north of Kandahar.’

Ghilzai. The name of the place Yusuf mentioned.

‘Ghilzai?’ I said.

‘Ghilzai, that’s right,’ Richard said. ‘These names are difficult to get right. The village itself is called Sadia.’

I felt my body trembling. They were the same. Sadia and Ghilzai. Only Ghilzai was better known, being a town and Sadia a village. I was speechless with anger and sadness.

‘I repeat, there were no Taliban in the area,’ the big Canadian said in the same dramatic tone of voice. ‘Anyone even remotely familiar with the region would laugh at such a report. Sadia and the Taliban. They just don’t match.’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘Sadia is a large village in the South that is relatively modern – everyone knows about it. Around three months ago, as the result of a tip-off from someone, no one knows exactly who, the Americans launched a ground offensive against the area. They went through the village firing indiscriminately, because the villagers were all supposed to be Taliban, you see. There was this large qala in the area – one of the few prominent buildings – and the Americans were convinced it was a local Taliban headquarters. Actually, there were four families that lived in the building, some thirty people or more – you know how large Afghan families can be. First they blew apart the main gate to the qala with a grenade, and then they shouted for everyone to come out and surrender. An Afghan came out holding a Kalashnikov, and seeing him the Americans were doubly sure that the building was full of Taliban. The Special Forces opened rapid and indiscriminate fire, killing dozens of civilians, including women and children.’

‘This man who came out with a Kalashnikov …’

‘The qala was blown apart,’ Richard said, interrupting me. ‘Who wouldn’t come out with a weapon under such circumstances? Just think of how little provocation it takes for an American farmer to come out of his house with a shotgun. If someone were trespassing on his property …’

I nodded. My stomach tightened.

‘So ironic, the whole thing,’ Richard said. ‘You see, these people were totally opposed to the Taliban. During the course of my friend’s interview with the survivors, she learned that they all thought that it was an attack by the Taliban, their enemy.’

‘Wasn’t there any announcement, asking people to come out?’

‘Apparently, yes,’ Richard admitted, ‘but without explaining anything very clearly. The elderly patriarch my friend spoke to – one of five survivors in this grisly episode – said that when the villagers heard the interpreter speaking with a Kandahari accent, they were even more convinced that it was the Taliban. “We are prepared to die,” said the patriarch. “What we can’t stand is being humiliated.”’

What was humiliation for someone so proud, almost ridiculously proud, like the Pashtun? By now I knew enough of the Pashtun psyche to know how fearful they were of any imputed slight. Everything was a humiliation. Even behaviour thought of as casual and friendly in a Western context might be perceived by Pashtuns as a direct insult.

I looked out of the window at the snow-covered mountains that surrounded Kabul. My mind was on fire and I was barely listening to my companion. My next class was two days away. I would go to Kandahar, because I had to find out the truth.

* * *

When I came back to the guest house after my meeting with Richard, I asked Karim to help me out with some information. Since the day I’d been at his uncle’s house following his kidnapping, we were friends.

‘I need some information about an organisation, Karim.’ I didn’t have time for preliminaries.

‘Tell me, Anzan bhai,’ Karim said. ‘If I know anything …’

‘It’s called Afghan Medical Alert.’

‘Oh, that charity in Kandahar.’

‘You know it.’

‘Only by name.’

‘Can you find out for me, please, if there is anyone by the name of Akbarbai who works there?’

‘Shouldn’t be difficult,’ he said. ‘Let me make a call.’ He picked up the blue telephone that lay on the table and dialled a number. He spoke for a few minutes.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘He’s the number two in the organisation – and my friend says that he is one of the most well-connected people in Kandahar. Do you need his number?’

‘That would be most helpful. Thanks, Karim.’

Mushkile neest. No problem.’

So Yusuf hadn’t told me any unnecessary lies. He didn’t describe his conversation with this man accurately, but my further questions were answered honestly.

I went off to one of the sofas in the lounge to think everything over before calling Akbarbai.

Following my meeting with Richard, it became clear to me that Yusuf had paid money to a man by the name of Aminullah Akbarbai to learn the name of the American military officer who authorised the attack on Sadia. There seemed little doubt in my mind that this person was Michael.

Who was Akbarbai? And how did he possess this information? If he was selling information of this nature it meant that he had reliable sources within the American military. The American military trusted him. Why?

It was my hunch that Akbarbai supplied them with reliable intelligence about the Taliban and possibly even Al Qaeda.

It wasn’t difficult to understand that anyone would wish to know the name of the man who issued a command resulting in the death of loved ones.

But what precisely had Yusuf done with that information?

How should I present myself to Akbarbai? He wouldn’t talk to me unless he was sure that I was who I said I was. I’d have to tell him the truth, that I was a journalist based in Dubai.

What did I want from him? I thought hard for a few minutes, and then decided.

Baley,’ the man said. ‘Hello.’

‘My name is Anzan Safri,’ I said. ‘I’m calling from Kabul. I am a journalist.’

‘Yes, please.’ He switched to English.

‘Am I speaking with Aminullah Akbarbai?’

‘Yes, you are.’

‘Okay, Mr Akbarbai, I’m doing a story on an attack by the Americans in a village near Kandahar.’

‘The name of the village please?’

‘Sadia.’

‘What is it that you wish to know?’

I told him.

We fixed up to meet the following day.

* * *

Back in my room at the Aram, when I logged on I found an email from Lavanya.

‘I’m near the beachside in Florida,’ she wrote, ‘soaking in the sun. Fly to Dubai tomorrow. Wish you were here.’

I wrote back a lengthy reply.

 

24. The Kandahar Revelations
Chapter 24 of An Afghan Winter"

I paced about my room, thinking about my visit to Kandahar the previous day. I lit a cigarette – I was now smoking again, having given up the habit for many years – and blew a ruminative smoke ring. It was freezing outside. Winter had now properly set in. In parts of Afghanistan it was the worst winter in decades: hundreds of deaths in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s most beautiful and well-kept cities. Afghan news channels carried terrible images of patients whose hands and feet were amputated on account of frostbite. Things were bad enough in Afghanistan without this beleaguered country being visited by yet more disasters.

***

It had been a short day-trip. I flew to Kandahar in the morning and back to Kabul the same day. The South was dangerous, where the real battles were being fought: the physical battle and the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

I landed in Kandahar airport a little before noon. To say that not much was happening would have been an understatement. It was a big, empty airport. The aircraft carried few passengers, and I walked down a long, empty corridor. It was intended to be an international airport, built during a period of relative peace and stability, when a large passenger turnover was anticipated.

The airport now served a different purpose because it was partially occupied by the American military and other international forces. From time to time the silence was punctuated by the sound of pilotless drones that hovered above, seeking hypothetical enemies.

It was pleasant here, not freezing like Kabul. I took off my warm clothing and stuffed it into a bag.

‘ANZAN SAFRI.’ A middle-sized man in his thirties, with a nose that covered half his face, stood outside with a placard. His sunken cheeks gave the impression that someone had punched a stapler through them.

‘Welcome, sir,’ he said, as I walked up to him.

Afghan Tourism demonstrated a professionalism you wouldn’t ordinarily expect in Afghanistan.

I followed Sunken Cheeks to a large black Jeep in the parking lot. I climbed into the front seat next to him.

The long, straight road that led from the airport to the town was the place where a great many IED explosions and suicide bombings took place. It was a well-tarmacked road, for reasons of security, quite apart from any developmental factors that might have contributed to its funding. It was harder to plant and disguise IEDs on a clean, flat shining asphalted road than it would have been on a bumpy, worn-out surface. This added to, but by no means guaranteed, safety; terrorists could always plant explosives along the side of the road, with someone watching from a safe distance and detonating them when they pleased by means of a remote-controlled device. Even worse, a jihadi might suddenly emerge from behind the bushes and blow himself up in front of a vehicle that was identifiable as an army or government vehicle and the people inside thought to be valuable enough to exterminate.

The driver stepped on the gas and drove as fast as he could, but even so we were overtaken a couple of times by drivers who raced past us madly.

I stared out of the window at the bleak landscape that was periodically interrupted by small, craggy hills that served as an introduction or trailer for the large, mountainous terrain that formed so much of the country. This was flat, low-lying land that could heat up to 50 degrees in the summer, but at the moment the temperature was very pleasant.

The driver braked the car suddenly, to my surprise – I couldn’t see any vehicle directly in front. He pointed ahead towards a group of Humvees approaching.

Hiliyay mat,’ he urged. ‘Don’t move, please.’

I hadn’t shown any indication that I was about to get out of the vehicle, so I was mystified by his request.

‘Automatic machine gun start firing,’ he said.

I understood that the weapons poking out towards the side of the road were programmed to start firing if they sense any untoward movement.

‘Even little movement,’ he explained.

I became alert and very deliberately immobile. One sneeze and it could be the last time either of us threw out any phlegm.

The Humvees passed and the driver restarted the car.

* * *

There was a low buzz of activity in the main town, but in general Kandahar was very quiet. The place looked calm, and there was no evidence that serious incidents occurred there every day or two. Although the killings and bombings never ceased, the town’s physical environment appeared on the surface to be unthreatening. Largely bereft of street life at a time of year when the weather was pleasant, this to a careful observer was an indication that something was very wrong.

A tractor went past on the other side of the road, with people piled on top, many sitting on their luggage, Afghans, like Indians, using every inch of available space. Roadside vendors sold bolani, fried leek pasties, and other Afghan delicacies.

Sa’ab, you want to go to the Afghan Medical Alert office, isn’t it?’ asked the driver. ‘Is there anyone in particular you want to meet?’

‘Someone by the name of Amin. Do you know him?’

‘Aminullah Akbarbai?’

I nodded.

‘Everyone knows him.’

‘I only have some small business to attend to. I won’t be long.’

We entered a residential area with large double-storey houses on either side of narrow lanes and stopped before a green building.

The security guard pressed all my body parts in Kandahari style – a joke about the gays of the city. I was allowed to enter the building, after someone had been sent inside to confirm that I should be admitted. I had been told to climb the stairs and look for a wooden cabin next to the landing, which I found without a problem.

Amin was waiting for me in his cabin. There was tea and biscuits on the table that must have been quickly brought over.

‘I hope you didn’t have a problem finding this place,’ Amin said pleasantly. He was a young fellow, very thin, bearded, but Westernised in his general demeanour.

‘Not at all,’ I said, sipping the tea gratefully. ‘As a matter of fact, you are well known in Kandahar. My taxi driver knows you.’

‘Oh, it’s a small town in comparison to Kabul, you know,’ Amin said. ‘Now, what is it that you wanted to know?’

‘As you know, I work for a Dubai media company …’ I handed over my visiting card.

‘I’ve checked your organisation’s website,’ Amin said.

I knew he would.

‘But I see you do mostly development stories,’ he continued.

‘Sometimes other stories as well – if they are big enough. And this terrible incident in Sadia is worth reporting.’

‘Sadia. Yes, that was terrible. It’s all common knowledge now. I could provide you with the names and addresses of some of the relatives of the victims whom you could interview. Would that do?’

‘That would be very useful,’ I said, lowering my voice to a whisper, ‘but I need to know something more.’

He laughed. ‘Well, as I told you, that particular piece of information will cost you.’

‘We are willing to pay,’ I said, ‘but I wonder if you could provide me with another piece of information.’

‘Yes?’

‘The name of the person in the American military who authorised the attack.’

‘That’s impossible.’ Amin shook his head. ‘No one can provide you with that kind of information. It’s all strictly confidential and highly sensitive information, as I’m sure you understand. Besides, I only provide information about the Taliban, not about the Americans.’

‘An Afghan journalist in Kabul told me you could help me with this.’ I was carefully watching Amin’s expression, and saw that what I’d said had made fear jump into the thin technician’s eyes. The way his body tensed up and shivered, I could have been pouring iced water over him.

‘Who are you talking about?’ Amin said hoarsely. ‘Don’t believe everything you hear. Who is this person?’

Not a shred of doubt remained in my mind that this was the person who provided Michael’s name to Yusuf.

Amin was a double agent. Clearly he was also supplying information about the Taliban and Al Qaeda to the Americans, for a price. Each side thought he was working for them. Where did his loyalties lie?

With himself, I thought. Amin was a mercenary. He was paid a price for revealing Michael’s identity, but when he learned of my friend’s death subsequently, he regretted the low price he’d quoted for the information.

Yusuf wasn’t rich by any standards. But after Michael’s death, Amin believed he could extract more money from Yusuf. Perhaps, Amin calculated, Yusuf was somehow involved in Michael’s death. If that was the case, he would be desperate to keep Amin sweet; otherwise, he would worry that Amin could sell his, Yusuf’s, identity to the Americans for a price.

And then. And then. Had Yusuf decided to kill Michael? Was he the one to plant the bomb? And there was a further troubling question. Didn’t I owe it to Michael to tell Wendell?

All these thoughts raced through my mind in a matter of seconds, but I kept my face impassive. I now needed to reassure Amin that there was nothing for him to worry about. His identity was secure.

‘I believe it was someone from the Los Angeles Times, an Afghan American I met at a party …’ I imitated a doctor’s smooth and reassuring manner,

Afghan American. Clearly not Yusuf.

Would he swallow the bait? I saw the tension drain out of his face. His body sagged with relief, like the rubber in a slingshot turning slack after it’s been fired. And his expression became relaxed once more.

‘I don’t know anyone from the Los Angeles Times,’ he said.

‘Could have been with some other paper at the time you met.’

‘Yes, that’s true.’

I said. ‘Why do you think that the Americans attacked Sadia, a small, unimportant village?’

‘Someone fed them false intelligence, of course.’

‘That part is easy to figure out,’ I said, ‘but why Sadia?’

‘As I told you on the phone, this is very valuable information.’

‘Tell me.’ I took out my wallet. This would destroy my holiday plans for later in the year.

‘Just give me a minute,’ he said, picking up the phone on his desk. ‘Do you speak Dari, by the way?’

I shook my head.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘I need to make a phone call first.’ He started to dial, then hesitated. ‘I’ll make it from inside if you don’t mind.’ He stood up then, and entered a box-sized office adjoining the larger cabin in which we were seated. Green curtains fell across the room’s single window, blocking much of the view from outside. As the door closed, I knew that this was a conversation I had to hear. I left my chair without making a sound and stood besides the door, straining to hear Amin’s voice.

When Amin re-entered the cabin he found me where he had left me.

‘I have good news,’ he said. ‘I have some information. It will cost you one thousand dollars. I will tell you why the attack took place in one sentence.’

I peeled off the notes and offered them to him.

‘That one sentence will cost you a thousand dollars. Do you understand? Do you agree?’

‘Tell me,’ I pushed the money towards him. ‘Why not a bigger target? Why not a different target?’

‘I don’t know any of that,’ he said taking the money, ‘but I can tell you this much.’ He looked around completely unnecessarily and lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘It was all done to protect a high-value Al Qaeda target.

I was silent, trying to absorb the full impact of his statement.

‘The highest-value target within Al Qaeda,’ he added. ‘Do you understand?’

‘And how would this protect that target?’

‘The villagers of Sadia could not be trusted.’

‘Trusted to do what?’

‘I cannot say anything more,’ Amin said. ‘Urdu samajhtey hain? Do you understand Urdu?’

I nodded.

‘Then why are we speaking in English?’ Amin said. ‘There is an Urdu expression that I like.’ He paused. ‘Samajhdaar ko ishara hi kaafi hai. Isn’t that the expression. To the intelligent man even a suggestion is enough.’

I nodded. His meaning was clear enough.

‘Okay,’ I said, knowing that he wouldn’t say anything further. I was a thousand dollars poorer; this was not money that my employer would reimburse me. Still, the meeting had been very useful. And the information priceless. If only I had possessed it a few weeks previously.

I didn’t underestimate Amin. A man like him is used to walking a tightrope and has razor-sharp instincts. I didn’t doubt that once I left he might start to reassess me and even become suspicious. The thousand-dollar payment for a single sentence was distracting the suspicious or analytical part of his mind, at least temporarily. Right now, I needed to get away from Kandahar and back to Kabul as fast as I could.

I refused an offer of lunch, explaining that the return flight to Kabul would leave soon. I trundled down the staircase, my heart heavy with fresh understanding of the ruthlessness of war.


***

I looked out of the window at the snow-clad mountains that ringed Kabul. This city allowed visitors a view of the mountains from most places; as yet there were few high-rise buildings in Kabul to obstruct the panorama.

Every time there were civilian casualties, whether caused by NATO, the Americans or the Taliban, a hue and cry would go up in the national and international media, but the protests would die down in a few days, and in a week’s time the incident would be forgotten. Till the next occasion when there was a fresh slaughter of civilians.

I lit another cigarette. I hadn’t smoked this much in years. What was I to do with the information that I now possessed?

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Continued to "Last Day - Almost"
 
   

17-Nov-2012
More by :  Rajesh Talwar
 
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