The man beside me drops a pill in his mouth, swallows it with a sip of tea, and together from beneath a thin angle of shade we stare out at the dirt road and beyond it to the smog heavy skyline of Kabul. The stony ground beneath our feet reeks of dried dung. Chickens scramble around us and flies dart above our heads.
“Your hotel?” the man asks me and raises his chin toward Kabul.
“Yes, I’m staying there.”
He nods, says nothing further. A boy urges some cows forward and they pass us wide-eyed and lumbering, their heads lethargically thrusting back and forth with each step forward.
This morning, I woke up and decided to take a bus out of Kabul. Any bus to the first village it stopped at just to leave the city. Its congested streets and thick layers of smog had begun to bear down on me like a weight. I needed a break from what in my mind was a boom town in the midst of war.
Near my hotel, the Hazim Supermarket sells washing machines when just months ago it sold only laundry buckets. An Italian restaurant will open soon in a local hotel two doors down from a new Chinese restaurant. International aid organisations pay up to $10,000 a month for housing.
After making several stops in the city, the bus I boarded drove into the village of Bini Sar. I got off and saw a man brewing tea in a kettle over a pile of smoking coals beneath a tree. Behind him stood a closed shop. Other men sat nearby smoking. I offered the man brewing tea a dollar. He waved my money away and poured me a cup. I sat beside him. From an envelope, he shook a pill into his hand and reached for his tea. I drank from my cup and looked out on the road.
“American” I tell him. “Journalist”.
He nods, tells me his name, Nasir. He says he had worked as a translator for American troops in Helmand Province south of Kandahar. He quit two months ago when an Afghan soldier on patrol with American forces stepped on an IED. He heard the explosion and ran over and saw the body lying crookedly on the ground and the blood and torn pieces of flesh like chipped paint strewn about.
Two days later he could still hear the explosion, still see the dead man and the blood and body parts. So he left and returned home to Bini Sar. He continues to hear the explosion, see the body. He takes tablets for depression. He shakes some pills into his hand and shows them to me and then puts them back in the envelope and his pocket. Later in the morning, he will open the shop behind him. He repairs hunting rifles and sells petrol.
“No, thank you” I tell him and slap at flies collecting above my head.
Most mornings, Nasir wakes up, makes tea and drinks it with other merchants. Then he changes clothes, opens his shop. He organises the guns that need to be repaired and inspects his gas pump. At night, he returns home and sits with his wife and five children. They eat dinner. The sky darkens, the day concludes. They sleep. There is nothing more to do. He feels he is wasting his time with his shop but he can’t find other work.
“Does he know what will happen in our country when the Americans leave?” a vendor asks Nasir and raises his chin at me. Nasir translates.
“I don’t know what he knows,” he says.
He takes an apricot from his pocket, splits it open and tosses the pit into the road. We watch it bounce through the wheel spokes of a cart harnessed to a donkey. Flies buzzing in clouds above its head break apart and swarm the pit.
Nasir tells me that as a translator he earned about $800 a month. The American soldiers he worked with were involved in mountain fighting. The Taliban would shoot down at them and the Americans would move to the side of the mountain and crouch down seeking cover. Rocket propelled grenades, mortars, IEDs set beneath bridges. It was very loud. The noise would thrust Nasir backward. Pakistan Taliban always attacked American and Afghan forces. The Pakistan Taliban trained the Afghan Taliban to fight.
During combat, American soldiers yelled a lot. They seemed very scared. For Afghan soldiers, combat was like a game. After all, the country has been fighting wars since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded. Then the Soviets left in 1989 and civil war followed and after that the Taliban. For a while, it seemed the fighting would stop when the Americans invaded a month after September 11th and toppled the Taliban. Then five, six years ago, the Taliban became strong again and the fighting continued.
“Do you want a biscuit with your tea?”
“No, thank you.”
One time in Nuristan Province two Afghan soldiers were blown to pieces, Nasir says. He thanks god he did not see this. They were put in coffins and taken to their families. The families were given $970 apiece and food enough for three days of mourning and no more.
Sometimes when there was no fighting, American soldiers wearing only shorts and T-shirts would visit with Afghan soldiers. The Afghans had to explain that for a man to show so much of himself was a violation of their culture and they would ask the Americans to leave.
Nasir worries that life will become difficult when the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. There are places the Afghan army can’t reach but the Americans can with their planes and helicopters. You can’t do anything without air support, he says.
“What do you think is next for Afghanistan?”
“I don’t know.”
I don’t smoke but I take it hoping the smoke will ward off the flies. Nasir waves a hand and the flies scatter. He points to the broken walls of a mud brick house across the street.
“I was born there,” he says.
In the mid-1990s, feuding Afghan factions destroyed the compound. Pashtun and Uzbek forces pounded Bini Sar with mortars and grenades. Nasir and his family left the village and built a new home a few miles away.
He stands and we cross over to the house. An enormous padlock gathers dust on the massive front doors. Peeling wood curls into clumps the size of fists. Dogs ramble out an open side door, leaving paw prints in the dust and scattering chickens. I step around the chickens and peer inside. Nothing, but a ruined staircase and balcony, and broken pottery and wooden beams. The scarred earthen floor bears the remains of the broken roof and a ruined fireplace. A shorn wall reveals a weed clotted courtyard and empty animal stalls. The buzz of insects rises from the ground.
“As a boy, I made snowmen there in winter” Nasir says.
The house was built almost two hundred years ago. His great grandfather died there, as did his grandfather and father, and mother and two cousins. Nasir will die in the home he now occupies outside of Bini Sar. It was cheaper to leave and build a new house rather than repair the old.
“There is no room for sentiment” he says.
He runs a hand over the mud brick walls bristling with bits of straw. I ask him how homes built from mud withstand rain. The walls are very strong, he explains. The family of his great grandfather stomped the mud with their feet and then cut it into squares and baked it and made bricks. After one or two years, they sometimes had to patch the roof, but nothing more. The bricks held.
Afghans, Nasir says, have an expression. When someone asks, How long will your house stand? The answer is, as long as people don’t destroy it.
“Weather” he tells me, “did not destroy this house.”
A man approaches us and asks Nasir about me. Nasir tells him I’m an American journalist. The man wants to know what Afghan President Hamid Karzai will do about education, health and other social problems once the Americans leave. I shake my head. I don’t know.
“What is the United Nations?” he asks.
“Representatives from countries around the world meet and discuss the problems of the world.” I tell him.
“This is not my fault that I ask you these questions” the man says. “I didn’t go to school. Now I know nothing. I have nothing. The Americans support Karzai but he does nothing. Everyone is angry at the Americans. As an American you are a target of people’s anger.”
“Please, there will be no more fighting,” Nasir says. “Not today.”
We watch the man walk away. Somewhere a generator coughs, starts, and I look toward the noise. A merchant has opened his shop. He stands on his toes and turns on the one bare bulb hanging above a counter stacked high with bags of rice. Behind his store, shadows retreat up a rocky hill, exposing a barren graveyard where the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of Nasir lie buried beneath nameless slabs of stone shaped like large arrowheads.
Nasir and I wander back to our spot outside his shop. He withdraws his envelope of pills looks inside it and counts silently. He folds it and puts it back in his pocket. Flies collect on our feet and legs. Nasir wave his arms but I don’t bother. The flies won’t go no matter what we do. They gather in bunches on my knees and I do my best to ignore them. They spin in circles uncertain what to do without the threat of my hand hovering above them.
Want more hopelessness? Read more from our December issue: