Aziz and the journalist get stuck behind trucks carrying cattle to market and it takes them almost an hour to reach the Wardak checkpoint. Aziz parks behind a hut where soldiers of the Afghan National Army stand smoking cigarettes. The journalist gets out and asks a soldier about security.
“As long as you are with us,” Aziz says, translating for the soldier, “you’re okay. But by yourself, it would be too dangerous for you. Beyond the checkpoint is all Taliban.”
The journalist asks the soldier if he may take photos of the cars and trucks being searched. The soldier tells him, “No problem.”
Aziz watches the journalist snap pictures of families gathered in small groups as the soldiers peer into their cars and beneath them. He hears someone shout behind him. Turning toward the voice, Aziz is pushed aside by the checkpoint commander, who strides past him toward the journalist and shoves the American to the ground. The commander picks up the camera that has fallen from the journalist’s hand and shouts at him in Dari. Of course the journalist does not understand. He scrambles backward on the ground, away from the commander, like a crab. He yells to Aziz, “What is happening?”
“He wants to know why you did not ask him if you could take your pictures,” Aziz says.
“I asked the soldiers!”
Aziz says nothing. He knows it’s all bullshit. The soldiers gave their permission. That should have been enough, but the commander pretends to be insulted. He wants to show his power.
The commander rants at Aziz about what would happen if the journalist were kidnapped and his camera fell into the opposition’s hands. They would see how vehicles are searched. They would devise ways to fool the soldiers at the checkpoint. Then what? Wardak is under government control, but the villages around it belong to the opposition. A Swiss journalist was kidnapped not far from here, he says. The commander has yet to find her. She is likely in one of the villages. Who knows what she has told them?
He tells his men to take the journalist to a vendor’s hut. They push him onto a bench beneath a sagging shelf stacked with cans of Pepsi. Two soldiers stand outside. Another stays inside, his gun loosely pointed at the journalist. The commander demands the journalist’s passport and then calls his superior on a cell phone. He reads the journalist’s passport number, struggles to pronounce his name. After a moment, he closes his phone. His superior will call him back, he tells Aziz.
“Get my camera back!” the journalist yells at Aziz.
Aziz does nothing. In the Mujahideen time, when civil war reduced Kabul to rubble, he would run to the bazaar just for some rice, head down, as rival tribal factions shot at one another with Russian Kalashnikov rifles. When his oldest son was arrested by the Taliban for listening to music, he had to pay five hundred dollars to get him out of jail. After the Taliban left, his youngest son lost three fingers when a mine exploded. Aziz carried the screaming boy in his arms, looking for help. Kabul was deserted. Finally, a man appeared and led him to an English doctor. In his fifty-three years, Aziz has never been able to stop the violence around him and his family. He has always been trapped between opposing sides.
“Advocate for me, Aziz!” the journalist yells.
Aziz keeps quiet. A soldier tells the journalist to shut up. The commander’s phone rings. His superior. The commander says a few words and snaps it shut. He tells Aziz to follow him into the hut. He motions for him to sit beside the journalist. The commander pushes aside sacks of sugar to make room for himself. He waves off flies and gives the journalist his camera.
“Erase your pictures,” he tells him. The journalist deletes the photographs of the checkpoint. Speaking while Aziz translates, the commander tells the journalist, “You won’t be able to come back here because you have been seen. The opposition has spotters. You want to avoid a pattern. The Taliban has no information on you yet, but now that you’ve been at the checkpoints, you should not come back for a while. A system has been activated. Information is passed on, money exchanges hands. The number of hands is too much now. The money too easy.”
“I don’t understand,” the journalist says.
“Do you see all the bumps in the road?” the commander asks him. “They are the same potholes that were here last year, and the year before that and the year before that. No one has a job. Today people work from money pressure. I give someone five thousand dollars to kill a journalist. That is money pressure,” the commander says. “You are like chocolate.”
“What does he mean?” the journalist asks Aziz
“A sweet for the terrorist,” Aziz says.