Kabul Diary — The Peacemaker

Before dinner is served, he takes out his phone and shows me pictures of the dead.

Call him Ehsan, a greying man in late middle age, traditional clothes, flowing turban. He swipes his finger across the screen of his smartphone, reviewing the horrors. The bodies look like marionettes, heads cocked at odd angles. Eyes open, eyes closed. Most are children.

This is his station wagon, he explains. The children in back with a blanket drawn up to their chins might be sleeping. Look closer and you can see the blood seeping into the cloth.

It happened two weeks ago in Farah Province, a firefight between Taliban and government forces. The children were caught in the middle. Collateral damage. When it was all over, Ehsan went to collect the bodies.

Ten of us are seated on cushions around an outspread oilcloth while the women in the next room prepare dinner.

Ehsan is my friend’s uncle. He is the peacemaker of his tribe. He negotiates conflicts before they become bloody. He has contacts in the Taliban and friends in the government. It’s a delicate balancing act. And it takes up a lot of his time. He never had the time to study for a career. Peacemaking is his calling.

The Taliban still run things out in the provinces. And, according to M., seated on my other side, they can’t be stopped.

“Two reasons. One, they hold power in the villages where the religious teachers are masters. People are ignorant. Whatever the mullah says, they will do. It has been this way for 1,300 years. Can it change overnight?”

“What’s the other reason?”

“This government is too corrupt. Their projects fill the pockets of the rich. The benefits don’t reach the masses. Villagers are sick of this government. They prefer Taliban.”

As if on cue, we hear the call to prayer from a loud scratchy speaker in the neighborhood. When it is finished, M. says:

“Every night this mullah talks about religion, the history of Islam, tells people what to do. But he doesn’t care about their practical needs. He should tell them to shovel their snow and clean up the trash from the ditches. If he said it, they would do it.”

ISIS (or daesh) is on everyone’s minds after last week’s attack on the army hospital. The gunmen went through the wards shooting patients, doctors, nurses. All because they work for the government. And the government must be overthrown for the caliphate to come into its own.

ISIS, M. assures me, promises horrors beyond anything the Taliban delivered.

“They make lies to the local people. ‘We’re against the Taliban, we’ll protect you.’ Once they are established with their weapons and their men, you see who they really are. They start killing police officers and government workers. And imposing their terrible rules on the people. Public executions . . .”

Dinner is brought in by one of the children. I’ve never met the women of this household and I likely never will. That’s the way things have been for thousands of years. But their kindness shows in their handiwork, the big platters of kabuli pilau, mantu, fried fish, chicken, sliced vegetables.

We all dig in. No more talk about death and daesh and religion.

With a ceremonial flourish Ehsan leans next to me and puts a scoop of his rice on top of my own. “Now we are friends.”

I’ll take another helping of mantu. And more peacemakers like Ehsan. Please.

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