By the time I reach the morgue on a hot August morning, Khwaja Naqib Ahmad has already finished washing the two male bodies he and I and an assistant will drive to a cemetery and bury. He wrapped each of them in white cloth 22 meters long and 30 centimeters wide. A worker from the Ministry of Public Health helped him. Identities unknown, they receive a catalogue number instead: 337 and 312.
At 52, Ahmad stands a little stooped, and gray hair flecks the beard that comes to a sharp point at his chin. His tanned, lined face breaks into an easy smile when he talks. “We carry on; it’s just a job,” he says. Yet as he speaks his eyes have the distant look of a man who spends his time in realms of sorrow and loss, a proximity to death that he experiences alone among maimed bodies unidentified and unclaimed.
He does not know how 337 and 312 died. They did not die at the hands of a suicide attacker; he knows that much. They are whole. Whole bodies are cool to the touch when he washes them. He feels the difference between life and death in their stiff, cold limbs. They appear as if nothing is wrong. He half expects them to talk.
Ahmad has no illusions of life when corpses come to him in pieces. It is complicated when the body has been destroyed by a bomb. The bodies shred apart in his hands. He sees worms. He coughs, gets sick.
On Oct. 8, 2009, Ahmad buried what remained of a suicide bomber who attacked the Indian Embassy. The explosion killed 17 Afghans and wounded 63 more, including Indian security personnel. The Taliban took responsibility.
I tell Ahmad that two days ago I interviewed the widow of an Afghan National Police officer who died because of this attack. Ahmad says nothing. I want to know what he would say to her as the man who buried her husband’s killers, but his silence cuts me off. Perhaps he has enough on his mind without considering the widows and orphans and others who have been left behind.
The 27-year-old widow of the dead police officer lives in a mud-brick house in west Kabul. Her name is Gulaly Majeed. On the day of my interview, she stands waiting for me at the door. I follow her into a living room filled with red carpets and colorful wall hangings. Motioning toward a couch, Gulaly waits until I sit down before she sits in a chair across from me. I give her a bag of grapes, a gift to show my appreciation for her hospitality. She thanks me, gets up and puts them in a glass bowl. She rinses them with water from a pitcher and sets them on a counter near a photograph of her dead husband, Abdul Majeed. Another photograph of her three children, a 3-year-old boy and two girls, 5 and 6, stands beside his.
Abdul has black hair and a thick black mustache. His chin juts forward with pride. He stands before a blue backdrop, unsmiling, a formal look for the camera. I assume the stiff pose is his idea of appearing dignified. I find it almost comical and imagine his shoulders relaxing and a smile crossing his face once the photographer finished, laughing at himself for the stern posture he assumed. But maybe he did no such thing. That is what I would have done had I been him. I am imposing my personality on his to understand him, to make him come alive for me. I tell Gulaly what I am thinking.
“I was not there when the photograph was taken, but you are right in that he had a sense of humor,” she says. “We never fought or argued. He was a flexible man. He behaved like a child with our children and an adult when he was around an elder. I would ask him, ‘Why are you being a child with our children?’ And he would say, ‘With a child you have to be a child to bond with them.’”
She looks out an open window overlooking a street filled with people. I notice two vendors selling bananas and oranges and the men and women picking through their wagons.
“When Abdul died, I lost part of myself,” Gulaly says without looking away from the window. A breeze ruffles her red head scarf and inflates her red pants and long-sleeved red blouse.
After a long, quiet moment, she turns to face me. She remains remote. Her mouth slants down on the left side of her face where she has lost some teeth and gives the impression of a perpetual frown. She takes her time formulating answers when I ask her questions, each pause stretching between us until at times I wonder if she has forgotten the question. At some moments, tears fill her eyes and her face grows taut as she fights them back. I look out the window, wait until she regains her composure.
Abdul called her after the bomb exploded.
“I’m OK,” he told her.
“I just saw it on the TV,” she said.
“I’m OK,” he said again. “I’m in the office. There was a fight between some police and terrorists. They were hurt. I wasn’t in the blast. I’m OK.”
She asked when would he be home. “I’m taking the injured to the hospital. I’m just taking care of others. If I don’t come home, it is because I’m busy with them.”
After three days he returned home on crutches. A plaster cast encased his right leg. Blood leaked through the cast. “What happened?” Gulaly asked him. “I just got a small injury,” he said. After two weeks, when the bleeding did not stop, he told Gulaly he had been severely injured. He had lost most of his right foot in the blast. Gulaly had not noticed because the cast wrapped what remained of his foot. Abdul smiled as if embarrassed.
“I’m fine,” he told her. “After all, I still have my left foot.”
Ahmad and his assistant carry 337 and 312 out of the morgue on green cloth stretchers to a white van. The parking lot reflects the bright sunlight and they pause in the glare, squinting. A security guard shies away from them.
“When the bodies smell, you skip away from the door,” Ahmad says and laughs.
They set the bodies side by side behind the front seats of the van, and the three of us get in followed by flies and shut the doors. The assistant drives. Ahmad and I sit scrunched together on the passenger side. I watch Ahmad reach for a black and gray prayer shawl to cover his balding head against the sun and then, without at first understanding why, I feel frantic and push back against my seat and cover my face and shake my head against an overwhelming odor. Sharp, acidic, spoiled. The bodies. Ahmad puts mint leaves in a surgical mask and hands it to me. I press the mask against my nose and mouth and tie it behind my head and take short, quick breaths. Behind me, I hear the flies buzzing.
“After all these years I am still not used to the smell,” Ahmad says as he crushes mint between his fingers and into his mask.
Ahmad works for the Municipality of Kabul and has been responsible for the burial of unclaimed bodies since 2005. His supervisor then had been in charge of burials. When he retired, Ahmad assumed his job.
According to police documents, 337 came from Parwan Province north of Kabul, and 312 died in central Kabul. Ahmad does not know their ages or causes of death. Because he cleaned them and shaved their body hair, he knows that both of them were adults. The morgue kept 312 for two days before the police notified the municipality about him. Parwan Province police held 337 for 16 days. The drive from Parwan to Kabul would have taken about three hours. Ahmad does not know how long 337 lay in the heat before then. Outside Kabul, most police stations and morgues lack refrigeration.
We turn onto the rutted road leading out of the morgue. The bodies bounce with each lurch of the van. The flies butt against the windows. I press the surgical mask harder against my nose. The sun beats down on us.
“Except for us, there will be no one there to cry for them today,” Ahmad says.
Gulaly’s husband, Abdul, continued working after his release from the hospital, but his injuries did not heal and he was in constant pain. After six months he resigned. He received 1,600 Afghani a month in disability, a little less than $300 at the time. The police department sent him to specialists at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi. The doctors there amputated his right leg below the knee. They told Gulaly that Abdul would be fine, but his leg continued bleeding. The doctors then removed the rest of his leg. “He will be fine,” they said again. Still the bleeding and pain continued.
The doctors performed three additional surgeries on the stump. Nothing relieved the pain or the bleeding. The doctors assured the family Abdul would recover, and they returned to Afghanistan. When the pain became too great, Abdul made an appointment at Kaisha Healthcare Hospital in Kabul. After an hour-long physical examination, the doctors concluded that the chemicals used in the bomb had poisoned his body. They told Gulaly he might live another year, maybe two or more, but he would never recover. She said nothing other than asking them not to tell Abdul. On their way home, he laughed and played with their children. Gulaly tried to ignore their antics; otherwise, she might have screamed. She thought she was the one dying. She felt dead already.
As we near the cemetery, Ahmad stops to help a motorcyclist stuck in mud. He also buys tea and cigarettes. He stops again to collect a pick and shovel at the Ministry of Public Health and two stone slabs to put over the graves so dogs don’t dig up the bodies. We pass a car wash, trucks carrying wooden beams and shepherds urging along goats and sheep. We turn onto what is little more than a dirt path furrowed with trenches by recent rains. Through lines of granular haze in the distance, I see the plain, arrow-shaped headstones of the cemetery. Treeless mountains rise up behind, and the sky above their peaks spreads toward us, barren of movement.
“We are in Tara Khēl, a village in Deh Sabz District northwest of Kabul,” Ahmad tells me. “The municipality owns the land, but a warlord controls it.”
Ahmad parks by two open, narrow graves. Clumps of mud and stone are strewn at the bottom, and the tangled roots of some shorn plant jut from either side. A fierce wind comes off the mountains and stirs the dirt at my feet. Emaciated dogs run ahead of Ahmad as he walks among the tombstones, each of them numbered. He points to a grave. A girl. Murdered in Bagram Village. Stabbed. She had been dead a month before Ahmad buried her 15 days ago, her body bloated like a balloon.
Beside her lies a man from Khost Province, 225. Old man, 70-some years. Murdered, possibly kidnapped. After two months, no one claimed him. Near him, the graves of three Afghan soldiers killed in Gardez. No family. A female commander in the Afghan National Army lies farther away. Murdered. No family. Not far from her lies the grave of a Nepalese man. He had been a guard at the U.S. Bagram air base. Ahmad doesn’t know why no one knows his name. Beside him another foreigner. Ahmad can’t remember the name of his country.
Some of the dead are identified after they have been buried, Ahmad says. A family asks about a missing person, the police make an inquiry and an identification is made. If the family has money, it will pay to have the deceased’s name put on the tombstone. If it does not, and most do not, the number assigned to the dead person remains.
Ahmad walks a few feet from the foreigner’s grave to what appears to be empty space within the cemetery. He stops and points at the ground. Beneath him in unmarked graves lie six men who were part of an attack on the U.S. Embassy in September 2012.
Just once in Ahmad’s experience has a family asked for the body of a terrorist. A man came by Ahmad’s office and said he was a victim of the June 2012 Taliban attack on the Spozhmai Hotel outside Kabul. He asked where the attackers were buried. Ahmad refused to tell him. The man came by so many times, Ahmad grew suspicious and told him to speak to officials within the Ministry of Interior Affairs. It turned out he was the father of one of the attackers.
“So many terrorists,” Ahmad says. “They have family, too.”
Two days before Abdul died, Gulaly asked her husband if something was wrong.
“You look sad,” she said.
“No, I’m fine,” he said. “I have a headache.”
He got his crutches and went shopping with the children. It had been about a year since Abdul had been seen at the Kabul hospital. Gulaly thinks now that he knew he was dying. He had grown weak, confused. He could not stand without help.
The next night, Gulaly was unable to sleep. She tried to pray, but the words would not come. In the morning she fried eggs for the children. Afterward, she left the house to buy water. Her husband stayed behind sitting in their living room, his sister beside him. She had moved into the house to help with his care.
Gulaly had just reached the bazaar when her brother-in-law called her cell phone. He told her that his sister had called him and said, “Abdul is shaking and having convulsions.” Gulaly almost dropped her phone. She ran back to the house, her sandals making slapping sounds on the pavement, the wind dragging at her clothes.
Abdul lay in bed, arms by his sides, eyes closed, a red comforter pulled up below his chin. His breath was harsh and labored, his face pale and damp.
“Open your eyes,” Gulaly told him. “See your children one last time before you leave us.”
Abdul opened his eyes. He turned to look at his daughters and son. He wept. His son started to cry. Abdul closed his eyes. He took three deep breaths and died on Oct. 28, 2012, three years to the month after the Indian Embassy bombing. He was 39.
At the funeral, the son asked why his father was being put in the ground. Why was he being taken away? Because he is in paradise, Gulaly told him.
When they left the cemetery, the boy said, “I want to be with my father.”
“He’s not coming home,” Gulaly told him.
“I know,” the boy said.
For four months, Gulaly did not speak. She prayed and sat in the same chair in the living room day after day and rarely moved. Her family insisted she eat. “You’ll get sick and who will take care of the children?” they told her. “He’s not coming back. Only you are here for them now.”
Nine months elapsed before the police department completed the paperwork necessary for Gulaly to receive Abdul’s death benefits of just under $200 a month. She would have received a higher stipend had he died on duty.
These days, her 70-year-old father helps her. He takes the children to school and provides food. A brother-in-law wants to marry her. He is a rich man, but she does not want to be his wife. “You are like a brother to me, not a husband,” she told him. He expects her to ask for his help some day and then he thinks she will marry him. He knows as she does that her father won’t live forever.
Gulaly bows her head. Her face quivers, and I can see her struggling not to cry. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I say. She nods, looking at the floor. I wait until she wipes her eyes. When she looks at me, I stand up. “I should be going now,” I say. She follows me to the door. She asks me how much longer I’ll be in Afghanistan. “A few more days,” I tell her. “I have one more interview.”
“With whom?” she asks.
“A man responsible for the burials of unidentified people,” I say. “Including suicide bombers.”
Gulaly gives me a sharp look. She steps in front of me and puts a hand out and stops me from opening the door.
“The cemetery man is a good Muslim and does a good job, but they should not be buried,” she says. “There is no afterlife for a suicide bomber. God will sentence them to the worst possible hell.”
At the cemetery, Ahmad tugs on rubber gloves. He and his assistant carry 337 and 312 like sacks. Ahmad holds their legs, the assistant grips their shoulders. The bodies sag between them. A wet stain marks where they had lain on the stretchers. They lower the bodies into the graves. Ahmad shovels in enough dirt to cover both bodies. Then the assistant places the stone slabs over the bodies and together they shovel more dirt until they fill both graves.
Ahmad drops his shovel and writes 337 and 312 on two tombstones. Beneath the number he scratches, “died date unknown.” He wedges the tombstones at the head of each grave. He raises his hands, turning his palms toward the sky, and speaks a verse from the Quran: “Oh, my servants who exceeded the limits, never despair of God’s mercy. For God forgives all sins. He is the forgiver, most merciful.”
Ahmad lowers his hands. “Now we are done,” he says.
The assistant gathers some twigs and starts a fire to boil water for tea in a kettle he brought from the morgue. Dogs bark from somewhere far off. Ahmad brushes his pants of dust. He washes the stretchers and the back of the van with water. He shakes his head at the lingering odor.
We sit and sip our tea. I tell Ahmad about Gulaly and the death of her husband, Abdul. I ask him if the men who attacked the Indian Embassy are buried here. “No,” he says. “They are somewhere else.”
“Do you think they deserved burials?”
“We don’t think about who they are, what group they belong to.” Ahmad says. “Everybody is the same for us. Even suicide attackers.”
He recalls a suicide attack near his office in downtown Kabul in 2012. A red van. About 100 meters away. Ahmad stood looking at it out his window when it blew up. He felt the blast. He lay on the floor amid shards of glass. His ears rang and his head felt stuffed with cotton.
The police collected the body parts of the van’s occupants and delivered them to the morgue. If he had been outside and not in his office, Ahmad would have died in their explosion. Instead, he washed each piece of them, wrapped what remained in white cloth and buried them unmarked and in secret. Their graves would not become martyrs’ shrines.
When he hears of a suicide attack inside Kabul or in the surrounding provinces, Ahmad always stops what he is doing. He looks out the window of his office where the van exploded, where he might have died.
“Another body,” he tells himself. “Another body.”
We go back to our tea. The noises we make sipping it sound loud with so much stillness around us. The wind has settled. The empty sky hovers motionless. The dogs have stopped barking, the odor lingering from the back of the van gone. I turn to Ahmad. He stares straight ahead through the pickets of tombstones. He buries in good conscience whomever he is assigned to bury, the suicide attacker and their victims.
They are all human. They are all grieved. They are all his duty.
J. Malcolm Garcia has written on Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Haiti, Honduras and Argentina, among other countries. He is the author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul (Beacon Press) and What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten (University of Missouri Press), and a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism.
Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley and Colin Morris.