After each morning’s eight o’clock meeting, I’d make coffee inside the guard shack where I slept at night. In my last few months, my door would often swing open at random; I’d be hailed by two little Afghan kids who, despite having impeccable manners, did not believe in knocking before entering.
Their father was the mullah of the Governor’s mosque, and they spent most of their days with him on the provincial headquarters compound. Once done with their chores, they’d visit us. At night, they’d return to the qalat about a mile outside of the city center where they lived with their mother, father, older brother, younger brother and four sisters.
Shams ul-Haq was ten and Syed ur-Rahman eight. Their uncommonly Arabic names were due to their father’s religious education. Both boys were both extremely small for their age if you were to (unfairly) compare them to American kids, and they weren’t easy to tell apart. They were both about four feet tall, somewhere between forty-five and sixty pounds, light brown complexions, brown eyes and hair. After numerous interactions with them, I was able to tell a few differences: when it was cold, they would both don their well-worn early-nineties pastel snowsuits. Shams ul-Haq’s was blue and Syed ur-Rahman’s was red. Shams ul-Haq didn’t smile as much, but when he did, you’d see that he had most of his adult teeth, whereas his little brother was wholly gap-toothed, had more freckles and laughed a lot more often. When they wore the identical blue Chinese-made jackets we gave them in winter, the only real difference was the fact that Syed ur-Rahman would wear a set of castoff grey rubber boots with pink cartoon skulls all over them.
In August, a few days before the 2009 election, I opened the padlock on the gate separating the American compound from the larger Afghan one. I was shepherding some UN election advisors and some bearded private military corporation agents who were conducting a security survey. One of them stood fast upon entering the Afghan side and pulled out a camera. He snapped a photo of who I would later learn to be Syed ur-Rahman, clad in traditional Afghan clothes, the long shirt and baggy pants, the round apprentice cap, inexplicably drinking a Red Bull. I stared in disbelief and wondered who gave that miniscule kid an energy drink—in my eyes, he looked no older than six—but then again, six-year-olds smoke cigarettes in Afghanistan and no one bats an eye. You find twelve-year-olds in active combat—we’d often catch them with mortar rounds wrapped in cloth bundles or inside their decrepit school bags.
Immediately following the election, Ramazan started and adults in Afghanistan developed a half-starved languor in the hundred-plus heat of August and early September. Kids aren’t necessarily exempt from Ramazan fasting; they can opt to start at a young age, but it’s understood that they aren’t required to keep the fast as adults do until they enter adolescence. Throughout the holy month I would see Shams ul-Haq and Syed ur-Rahman performing a variety of tasks in the morning: first, they were watering a garden bed created in what might have been intended to be a lawn outside of the Governor’s office. They were growing alfalfa, and later we’d see them cutting the plants with sickles and loading it into a wheelbarrow. My guys would bring them ice cream bars or juice boxes from the dining facility on the American side. They never made any pleading gestures for them, but they’d always smile and nod or say manana, which means “Thank you.”
All of us had been on missions in which we entered some flyblown town or crumbling village and, suddenly, flash mobs of runty boys demanding baksheesh swamped us. They could get out of control, either in an innocuous way (when they would reach up your shirt sleeves to steal your watch, or try to snag pens out of your trouser pockets) or in a far more threatening way, when the larger adolescent boys would start flinging rocks at your vehicles or at you personally. There was no love lost between us and these kids, needy and desperate though they might have been, because they were so aggressive with us and with each other. If you tried to hand a piece of candy to the better-behaved and smaller-sized ones, the bigger ones would slug them, take the candy and bolt.
“This is why we can’t have nice things,” I wanted to say, but that didn’t translate well into an Indo-Iranian language that you didn’t know to begin with, and there were never enough interpreters, so you just said zah or wlaar shay, “go away” or “begone.” And the boys would put their hands on their hips and say back, with headstrong schoolyard defiance, na—te zah! te wlaar shah! “No, YOU go away.”
“Believe me, I’m trying,” I’d think.
Still, it would take a harder person than me to walk past a pair of undersized grammar school-age kids doing farm labor in the blazing Afghan summer and not want to at least share some of our nutritional advantages. There is probably an official memorandum in Afghanistan disallowing even this, penned by heartless trolls in distant, plywood-and-Hesco-barrier chateau, safe from from the tectonic shifts of heartstrings that take place when even the most marginally thoughtful witness imagines what these kids’ lives will entail.
In early autumn, they’d stand around the same plots of alfalfa with a skinny cow with a frayed rope around its neck. Our interpreters asked them what they were doing; they simply said feeding the cow. We asked them if they went to school; they said yes, but we wondered when they’d find the time. They seemed like inquisitive kids, certainly more energetic than the sad-eyed, malnourished ones we’d encounter in the hinterlands, and they even lived in a place where it was safe for boys to receive an education.
In November, we discovered the cow’s purpose. The mullah had raised it for slaughter on Eid ul-Adha (what the Afghans call Eid ul-Kurban), and once butchered, its meat would be given to the poor of Sharana City. We assisted in slaughtering and dressing the animal (we held it down, the Afghans made the cuts). Syed ur-Rahman watched the whole process with a fascinated smile. I imagined that an eight-year-old would be disturbed by watching the animal that he had nurtured and raised be reduced to meat parcels in less than an hour at the hands of a skilled halal butcher, but he simply asked if we had any candy. We took pictures of the whole endeavor, and I snapped one of him squatting on a ledge with eyes fixed elsewhere, hand clasped over his mouth, his feet shod in Pakistani counterfeit Puma sneakers called “Cheetahs.” He’s wearing a miniature plaid scarf and earmuffs to stave off the cold. Almost two years later, it’s hard to look at that photo without worrying about him.
We had about six palletized boxes of donated clothes that had originally been intended as gifts for the populace. In November, we received guidance that patrols heading to Afghan villages must not hand out clothing, because it was creating an expectation of gifts that led to frustration, disappointment and contempt when none were given. We still had the boxes, though, and they weren’t doing us any good. So, when we’d hire day laborers to help with digging ditches, building shelving, painting, cleaning, laying concrete or any of the other myriad tasks at hand, and after we paid them we’d let them take donated clothes as a job perk for having worked with us. None of them gave the impression that they were hoarding; mostly they wanted socks, coats and sweaters for young children. It was painfully cold at night.
The clothes were made in China and packaged for sale there or elsewhere in Central Asia. Others were saggy, outlandish hand-me-downs from the United States. Once the boys saw our day laborers walking away with parcels of garments, they asked us if they could have some as well. Of course we said yes, if not just for the hilarity of seeing the two of them needing to be picked up and set down inside the palletized boxes to be able to rustle around and toss clothing everywhere in the hunt for a good fit. I let them take far more than their share, but when Syed ur-Rahman told me that he was one of eight children, I figured it was plenty fair.
Shams ul-Haq wanted to learn how to speak English, and unlike his brother he was already pretty accomplished at reading in Pashto. I didn’t think anything of it, but at his request I wrote out a list of expressions in English, and alongside them I wrote their Pashto equivalent and Pashto-letter phonetic pronunciation. He practiced a little with me, and we both laughed, but it seemed just another quick parenthesis in the usual conversation, which revolved around his requests to look at pictures of the U.S. on Google Image Search, requests for clothes, requests for candy and a request that we buy them a bicycle.
However, about two weeks later, I returned from a supply run to the nearby airfield in a ceaseless rainstorm to find Shams ul-Haq waiting for me outside our building. Why he just stood there getting soaked beneath the torrents I have no idea, but when we brought him inside and put his coat near the heater to dry, I overheard his conversations with my soldiers. He asked them, “What is your name?” and said “My name is Shams ul-Haq.” “Where are you from?” “I am ten years old.” The accent wasn’t perfect, but he had clearly been practicing at home.
Syed ur-Rahman later showed up, and we made them both hot chocolate we had received in a care package (primarily out of concern for how wet and cold Shams ul-Haq had been). They both hated it. Some things are clearly not universal.
As winter wore on and we came closer and closer to returning to the United States, I gave them the remainder of the Afghan money I had converted at the finance office. I told them to buy a bike. It was 3,000 Afghani, which was about $60 US, but it was a risky proposition for them. A shopkeeper could easily accuse them of theft for possessing that much money, and then in turn steal it from them with no bike in exchange. I wanted to send my interpreter with them, but everyone in town knew who the interpreters were, and I didn’t want to put the boys at risk. So, they left and later returned with the most beat-up pre-school size bike I have ever seen. It had rickety training wheels and tires held together with lacing wire. I used my rudimentary bike repair skills to mend their ancient caliper brakes, and we sprayed every interconnecting piece with WD-40. Clearly, they got ripped off.
They, however, were ecstatic, as neither one of them knew how to ride a bike to begin with, so maybe it wasn’t a loss. I left only a few days after; it was the last I ever heard of them.
While deployed, a friend of mine sent me an encouraging message discussing her grandfather, who had grown up in Germany under U.S. occupation and still to this day remembers having been given candy by American soldiers, something very scarce and precious at the time. She encouraged me to remember that we were making a difference in kids’ lives, no matter how small it seemed.
It’s a nice thought, but I don’t think so. I’m bothered by the chasm that separates what we did from what we feasibly could have done if humanitarian assistance was our only mission there. I know what I wanted to accomplish, and it rises to perhaps Icarian heights over what was truly possible. Then again, maybe someday they’ll remember me and my soldiers. Maybe someday we’ll see them again. We have only the limitless blank landscape of upcoming years to find out. I’ll keep hoping.