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Authors: Sarah Chayes

The Punishment of Virtue

BOOK: The Punishment of Virtue







Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), Cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in 2006 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Sarah Chayes, 2006

All rights reserved


Chayes, Sarah, 1962–

The punishment of virtue: inside Afghanistan after the Taliban /Sarah Chayes.

p. cm.

Includes index.

ISBN: 978-1-1012-0164-0

1. Afghanistan—History—2001–. 2. Afghan war, 2001–. 3. Kandahar (Afghanistan)—History—21st century. 4. War correspondents—Afghanistan. 5. Chayes, Sarah, 1962–.

I. Title.

DS371.4.C43 2006

958.104'7—dc22 2006043499

Maps by Jeffrey L.Ward

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JUNE 2005

is graveled now, a hard right turn off cement thick enough to bear the weight of Soviet tanks. It passes behind Elephant Rock and the stony crests that form the northern bulwark of the city of Kandahar. It crosses the Arghandab plain, leaving behind its shock of leafy, mud-walled orchards, then climbs through another range of rocky hills to a plateau, with more mountains bulking in the distance. It is a beautiful road, profoundly peaceful—though once the scene of violent battles against the Soviets.

We drive in a convoy, lights and blinkers on, Toyota Land Cruisers mostly, and white-and-green police pickup trucks flanking the black van that bears the body of Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal. I am in one of these.

A few hours earlier I sat in that van, keeping him company for a little while. Afghans don't do that. They don't sit with the bodies of their dead. But I couldn't keep myself away. “There he is, your friend!” his brother had cried at me hoarsely as he pulled back the blanket to show me his face. It was perfect, come to rest in that stern, almost brooding expression of his. Only a nick, a bit of a bruise, and a scrape above the right eye marred his features.
Then what killed him?

A few minutes later, we loaded him, limp and heavy, into the black van. People were flocking to the disused school building near his house, requisitioned for the purpose of receiving them: his brothers serving as hosts, his heartbroken bodyguards and tribal elders weeping silently, raising the long tails of their turbans to their eyes, police officers in uniform, squeezing down to sit cross-legged on the broad veranda. Two men wrestled great blocks of ice to the ground in front of a bank of rose bushes, and left them there. Someone talked about lunch. “What do we want with lunch?” a voice assuaged him. There was obsessive speculation, punctuated by the lament of Akrem's older brother—questions flung at the sky—and by pauses for prayers murmured in unison with hands spread wide. But he was alone in there. And after a time I went to sit with him. I could feel the heat radiating up from the floor of the van, despite the air-conditioning that drew on the motor in pulses like long painful breaths. He seemed so alone, and so small, under his blanket. He who, alive, had been so much the opposite. I sat there with him, a little steadied by his presence beside me. I sat there to stave off my own sudden aloneness, in this impossible place.

It was a suicide bombing. That's what I had heard on the radio, and Akrem's name. And I had dropped everything. A suicide bombing—scourge of our young twenty-first century—words with the alchemy to terrify, to paralyze, wherever they are heard on this earth. It was a suicide bombing in a mosque, no less, my favorite mosque in Kandahar: the ancient one made of mud plaster in the middle of the bazaar, with the four towers leaning a little jauntily into the sky.

An Arab had done it, the governor's thick-lipped voice had lisped on the radio. Documents had been found to prove it, he said. An image was making the rounds, of a young man in a soldier's uniform who had bent down in front of Akrem, as though to reach for his hand to kiss, right before the explosion. That would be the Arab, the implication was. And then, an instant later, the pandemonium so familiar by now from television footage, or worse. The sobs, the smoke, the broken glass, the chunks of bodies—naked, cauterized by the heat—the burning hanks of cloth and hair, the stunned survivors wandering about dazed, the medics overwhelmed. It was carnage. More than twenty dead, dozens injured.

And yet something wasn't quite right with this account. In Afghanistan, there are ways you know things. Outsiders call it rumor mongering or conspiracy theorizing, and when they ask you for some evidence, for something concrete to substantiate this gut feeling of yours, you shrug a little sheepishly because you have to admit they're right—you're only speculating. But still, you know. There is a tuning fork vibrating inside you to the true pitch. A tuning fork forged through years spent here, absorbing the underlying pattern. Because there is a pattern, despite the surface chaos. It just takes some time to grasp its contours.

An Arab suicide bomber does not fit the pattern. We just know it. But now is not the time to prove it. Now we have to go through the motions.

The streets of Kandahar, the dirt roads weaving through baked mud villages, are lined with people, standing silently, watching our cortege pass by. At the left turn leaving Arghandab, about a half hour outside of town, Mullah Naqib and his men, dressed in flowing tunics, turbans or lengths of cloth tied about their heads, have grouped themselves beside the road, symbolically ushering us through their territory. I'm sitting in the middle, and I catch a glimpse of them through the window and my daze. Mullah Naqib, the old warhorse who drove the Soviets out of the Afghan south, looks bowed, his sheep's fleece of a beard shot with gray, his shoulders a little stooped despite the urgency exuding from him as he waves each truck past. Akrem was his armor commander during the decade-long anti-Soviet resistance.

We leave them behind; they will board their trucks and join us shortly, guarding our backs. With them, we leave behind the last vestiges of human habitation. The road mounts the wall of a ravine on a diagonal, then clambers among jagged rocks and hoists itself up over the lip of the plateau. There the peeled, windswept expanse spreads out, uninterrupted to the next set of mountains on the horizon.

The mud-brick village blends in with the landscape. Our trucks pull up and park in rows. Child-sized table-and-bench sets have been dragged out of another schoolhouse and piled up against its walls. The packed-earth yard inside is spread with carpets and seating mattresses. Tents are strung overhead for shade. Akrem's brother waves me to a far corner. Obediently, I step out of my shoes and pick my way across the carpets. But I can't stay a full minute. I can't stay there all by myself, apart from everyone. I skirt the mattresses on my way to the first row, right by the compound door that everyone is entering through, and sit back down. I hear Akrem's brother mutter something about “completely in the way.” I know it. I'm in the way. I'm an eyesore.

I shouldn't be here at all, in fact. Women do not attend funerals in Afghanistan. I am the only one. And the only foreigner. I had thrown on charcoal-gray hiking pants that morning, military-looking, a blue-and-white striped man's shirt, and a white embroidered shawl to cover my hair. I watch the graybeards do their double take as they notice me and, distracted, stare. This isn't even Kandahar, this is Khakrez, back in the hills, one of the most conservative villages in this conservative country. And by some miracle I have been allowed to come here, to share this moment. I say a silent word of thanks to Akrem's brother.

The schoolyard is filling now, as people find places on the mattresses; I get up and return to my corner. Friends of Akrem's sit on each side of me: a businessman, the security chief of Spin Boldak district. We start talking. A little later, Akrem's brother summons the bodyguard who was at the wheel of Akrem's car that morning, easing it up to the gate of the mosque, when the bomb exploded.

The young man in his police uniform kneels in the hollow of our circle, eyes cast down, and describes what he saw. Someone left the mosque, crossed the street, and turned around to watch. “And when the
came, the man did not appear surprised.” I exchange looks with the boy, and with Akrem's brother.

I know we ate something. It is mandatory. Afghan hosts feed their guests and ply them with cups of fragrant tea, should their own children have to go hungry. Akrem would apologize for having only “soldiers' fare” to give me. But I don't remember it. I remember someone berating himself for not thinking to bring a generator. I remember gas-fired lights arriving, hissing and burning white. I remember leaving the schoolyard at last, under a canopy of stars, four or five of us trailing behind Akrem's brother, who lit our way with a flashlight, escorting us in person to one of the family's mud-walled compounds.

Inside, great loads of spindly twigs are piled everywhere—in chest-high stacks filling half the courtyard, in drifts against the compound walls, spread across the low flat roof of the front room, which is sunk partly underground in the local fashion for insulation against the murderous heat. I know almost at once, even before snapping off a stem and seeing the precious grains clasped at the extremities of its fine, jointed ends. Cumin. Black cumin. It perfumes the night.

Several people offered me their homes and their womenfolk so I would not have to sleep with men. But like a waif, I clung to the people I knew: the bodyguards, bless them, with whom I had hardly exchanged words before, when they would respectfully enter the room where I was meeting Akrem, bearing tea or a dish of grapes. I ask if we can sleep outside, in the clean air, next to the cumin and the stars. My companions humor me. The businessman is with us, Akrem's fast friend and benefactor, as well as a criminal investigations officer from the Kabul police department, who keeps aiming barbs at me.

He is an adept of the suicide bombing theory, and has been describing things to suit it. I had goaded him into going to look at the mosque that afternoon. “The concrete underfoot was unbroken,” he proclaimed when we returned, and he repeated the assertion to the assembled company in Khakrez. “It was perfectly flat,” he said, sweeping his hand out in a gesture meant to brook no opposition. “No way a bomb could have been planted.”

The kneeling bodyguard contradicted him. “The ground was not unbroken,” he said, glancing at me for corroboration. I gave it. And so we shamed the investigations officer. In a rage at his disloyalty and his swaggering incompetence, I stared broiling embers at him all evening.

The bodyguards start hauling bedding from the mud-brick house. They arrange pallets for themselves in a square in front of the door. Off to the side, a few yards away, they spread a straw mat for me and place on it a cotton-filled mattress and an overstuffed pillow. Two of them, remembering their training, stake out a position by the opposite wall.

No one slept much that night. The welcome unconsciousness would not last. In the morning, things would be just as bad.

I marvel at the sharp stars, at the Milky Way, stretched across the sky like a thick, illuminated cloud. Before too long, I notice I can make out the lines of the outhouse hugging the compound wall a dozen yards away. I get up and make my way there, then come back and pin my thick blanket underneath me against the desert chill. It will be hot soon. This is luxury.

But I was right. Things are no better this morning, they are worse. The huge anvil that plunged down onto my heart the instant I awoke won't be budged. It's cutting off my breathing. We're going to lose him today, forever.

Shortly, the others stir, call out to me. Someone comes with a thermos of tea, a metal box of sugar, a spoon, a stack of glasses, four or five sheets of flat bread; we gather at the bodyguards' square of pallets and spread a plastic mat on the ground for a tablecloth. I feel the hot, sweet tea spreading through me. Maybe I didn't eat last night after all.

And then it's time to go. Some people take their vehicles; some walk along the dirt road; most of us set out across the denuded hills. We look like some silent exodus. Loyal Karim, who works for me, is by my side. I reach down to snag a sprig from a wild shrub; they're gripped in clumps to the face of the bald clay. I crush it lightly between my fingers. The smell is pungently fragrant, like sage, or absinthe.
someone pronounces for me.

We reach what must be the graveyard and stretch out in long lines, cotton shawls unslung and laid on the ground in front of each man for prayer. There is no wall enclosing this place, just the windy hills, and the sky and the mountains on the horizon. No gravestones, just scattered mounds, some marked with tall poles at head and foot, scraps of cloth fluttering like flags in the light breeze. Before us are three bodies: Akrem's and two more casualties from yesterday; I don't know exactly who they are. They lie on ample beds made of dark wood, carved with an ancient pattern. Akrem's blanket has been exchanged for a velvet cloth, richly embroidered with holy verses in silver thread. Men stand like human tent poles at the corners of great lengths of cloth, shielding the biers from the sun; they are hoisting the cloth up and down to fan the air. It has grown hot. The bodies are decomposing. We can smell them.

We are told that we must wait a little longer. Some important people are coming. No one from Kabul—not President Karzai, nor the interior minister, nor any of the American officials whom Akrem consulted with so often and so generously, nor the journalists who used to interview him. But his tribesman and successor as police chief of Mazar-i-Sherif in the far north is on his way. People from Mazar have been arriving all morning: Uzbeks with their bushy hair and angled eyes, Persian-speaking Tajiks, northern Pashtuns, grateful for the peace that Akrem achieved for them in that bitterly divided town. Mazar was supposed to do him in. But it didn't. He won it over, with all its disparate people; he pacified it.

The governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Shirzai, is coming too. I am aghast. Shirzai is gloating over this death. I know it. My tuning fork hums with it. In Kandahar, Akrem stood up to Shirzai. Shirzai loathed him, wanted him out of the way. How can we tolerate Governor Shirzai here? What is this culture that makes the Afghans, the famously bloodthirsty Afghans, welcome their mortal enemies into their midst, and show them courtesy?

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