The Afghan Easter Egg Hunt
1 October 2007 | Esquire
There are body parts hanging from the trees of Baharistan Park.
When the bomb exploded, it cut the bus in half and emitted a blast wave that shredded the people on board, shot expanding gas and shrapnel a hundred yards down the street, and sent body parts flying into the foliage. The bus detonated as it passed in front of Baharistan Cinema, which—along with passengers and passersby—bore the brunt of the damage. The bomb cleared the theatre’s interior, destroying everything except a few movie posters that somehow weathered the blast unmarked. They’re fiery collages of sneering Indian men holding guns, riding motorcycles through flames. Dhoom and Kasam, the films are called.
The government was surprisingly efficient; within a few hours they had washed the blood from the street and craned the wreckage away. This is a well-traveled area, kids pass by going to school, day laborers look for work, and terrorism is more effective when it lingers. So shopkeepers and local tenants follow suit, and the restorative sound of repairs being made is audible from all around. Broken glass being swept away, hammers striking nails. It’s a communal, reactive way of fighting terrorism. You cover it up and do your best to ignore it.
But it’s not really working. There are still hundreds of people assembled at the sight of the bombing. It’s like a high school dance, everyone mills about with a feigned sense of purpose, crowds form and disperse without pattern or reason. Rumors find willing hosts and spread like viruses, so soon it wasn’t a suicide bombing but a charge affixed to the undercarriage of the bus, the tacit suggestion being that either someone breached security at the Ministry of Defense where the bus came from (and where it was going), or it was an inside job. They are equally damning propositions. For the Karzai government, the implication of incompetence is scarcely more forgivable than that of corruption.
A young man climbs a tree to reach the scattered body parts caught there, but the branches up high are too thin for climbing so he tries to dislodge the bits of flesh by jostling. He hugs the tree and shakes his body until something emerges from the ruffling leaves and falls to the ground, the people say it is a piece of intestine. A child with a plastic bag scurries over to pick it up.
This is what the kids do. They assemble in the park to sift through the grass and dirt looking for bits of human flesh left over from the initial cleanup, or they poke through the open sewers. It’s a bizarre derivation of the Easter egg hunt; an indulgence to human curiosity endorsed by an ostensible religious justification—here, to ensure every victim can be buried. The kids might even score a few Afghanis by selling a bag of remains to the bereaved.
So kids walk around with plastic bags stained red with blood, eagerly scouring the earth for prizes. When someone claims to have found something, other children clamor over, and the Afghan National Police, fearful of a second bombing incited by a gathered crowd, try to disband them with wooden sticks. For those currently bearing witness to the destructive power of the Taliban, wooden sticks hardly constitute a compelling disincentive. Nor do the inadequately trained policemen who wield them. So the kids continue. A boy no more than ten years old approaches me, beaming, and extends a hand with a dime-sized piece of curled flesh.
There is a clear generational divide at the site of the bombing, the kids are engaged in their search, or they are walking around with the nervous smiles children find irrepressible when something heavy happens. The elders are silent and expressionless, and the young men with budding beards carry the façade of informed discontent: brows furrowed, they profess their opinion that when the Taliban was in power, there were no suicide bombings, no kidnappings, no murders. And it spreads. The Taliban’s responsibility for the attacks becomes secondary to the government’s for not preventing it. People’s patience is already short because they’ve all woken up at 3 a.m. and won’t eat or drink again until nightfall. During Ramadan, the national insulin level bottoms out, and discontent is an easily accessible sentiment.
My driver lays bare the bomb’s psychological effect: “Everybody saying Karzai don’t make security, he is nothing for Afghanistan son of batch mother fucker he not know what he’s doing what he’s talking, what he’s saying. Every minute we are working so hard. We are doing something to make our beautiful life for ourselves when bomb happens why are we doing this? I think so everybody is going to join together and Karzai home attacked.”
It’s abundantly clear that the bombing was a tactical success and a strategic touchdown for the Taliban, as ruthless politically as it was militarily. Karzai has recently re-started his appeals for peace talks with the Taliban, and instead of answering the phone, they’re demonstrating their capacity for destruction. Whether intentional or not, it comes off as a kind of Realpolitik—what you are capable of determines what you are entitled to. It’s Truman in 1945 with a finger on the button and an eye towards Yalta.
In a room on the fifth floor of Afghan National Army hospital, the survivors with head trauma lie silent, and for the most part, motionless. The bombing was several hours ago, and the hospital staff has now managed to mitigate the sudden influx of dozens of maimed bodies. A man with a bandaged head and glazed eyes moves his mouth to tell of what he saw, but no sound comes. One of his hands is outstretched and resting on a bedside table, palm up and open, a gesture of passive acceptance to the liquid sliding through the tubes to carry him away. An unconscious man lies on his side, a knee pulled to his chest, so he sleeps as a child might. They could all be children; all jaundiced with the yellow antiseptic staining their faces, it’s a maternity ward full of bearded babies. Soldiers aren’t supposed to look so helpless, but really, these are the lucky ones.
The morgue after a bus bombing is something out of a Tarantino movie. The soldiers with strong stomachs come in to look at their fallen comrades, covering mouth and nose against the metallic smell of blood. It’s a smell that doesn’t leave you even after you leave it, which the soldiers do quickly. There is blood everywhere, bodies have opened and crimson streams flow from examination tables to floor drains. There is no dignity in this death. And up on a table is the specimen that has everyone’s stomach turning. His uniform is shredded in the middle, his left leg is twisted back on itself, the bottom-half of his pants scorched off so the discoloration where bones have been adjusted is evident, all the inhuman angles wrought by an extra-human force. And this man has no head.
The forensic specialist is giddy with energy. He is dressed in business casual, black slacks and a crisp white shirt. His appearance belies entirely the grisly job he has been called in to do. But he has done well; there are only four unidentified bodies left. Maybe less. He can’t be sure, because when a bomb detonates in a confined space, the definition of “body” loosens a bit. There are arms and legs that belong to someone, maybe the same person, maybe not.
Anyone better than seven years old in this country has seen such things, but still for my driver, it’s all too much, his countrymen disemboweled like this. He becomes sick, and goes outside to take some water from a hose, to splash his face. He can’t drink though; water can’t pass his lips during the daylight hours of Ramadan. He takes his sandals off, and goes through the ritual of rinsing his feet.
Out in the garden beside the morgue, relatives make the rounds, the elders shaking hands without putting down their tasbih, so that when their hands envelope mine, the prayer beads press my palm too.
Found in: Afghanistan