The Death of the Taliban Fighter
A beautiful vision turns into darkness
Abdul had grown up as the fourth child of a tailor in Kunduz, a small town in northeastern Afghanistan. He was somewhat small and lightly built, compared to his brothers, and of a more serious mind.
One evening, his mother took the children out of the house to see the stars in the night. She sang a sweet little melody. In the song, she named the brightest of the twinkling stars and spoke about Allah who lived above them. Little Abdul thought he could see Allah’s friendly face in the darkness and felt very happy. Since that night, Abdul wanted to learn all he could about the world around him, the names of all the stars and also of all the plants and animals, and where they lived. Instead of running around in the streets with the other boys, he enjoyed sitting next to his father, learning to read and write.
The Taliban were in control of the city, business was slow, and there was not enough money in the family to send Abdul to school. But school was what he longed for most. One day, an uncle came to visit. He had done well with a little business across the mountains in Pakistan, on the Karakorum Highway that led down from China along the upper Indus valley and past the enormous Nanga Parbat Mountain to Islamabad and Rawalpindi. This uncle was impressed by Abdul’s learning and proposed that he attend a school run by a mullah in the uncle’s vicinity. The uncle would graciously pay for the schooling expenses for the best son of his nicest brother.
The school, it turned out, was actually a madrasa, where a village mullah made a living for himself and his family by boarding some thirty-five boys in Spartan accommodations while teaching them all he knew about the Koran, however much or little that was. At first, Abdul was disappointed that he didn’t learn anything about the stars, plants, and animals. But then he discovered another world, the world of the Koran, the teaching of the right course through life that would give him access to paradise, and he learned about so many old stories of Allah’s help to people in the historic past. Would Allah help his family, too, one day?
The mullah treated his students well. At the end of Ramadan, the mullah’s wife brought them some of the sweet pastries that she always baked for the mullah, and the students could smell the wonderful aroma of the roast she was preparing. After all, when the mullah ate well, he was less stern in his teaching, as when he described paradise.
Then the fighting in Afghanistan began with some American bombings around distant Mazar i Sharif. The Taliban called for more volunteers for their jihad. Abdul had just turned seventeen and thought about joining the holy war against the infidel. The mullah wanted to make a name for the holiness of his madrasa by sending some volunteers. Some of his students were village boys of little inclination for learning, who might possibly have good fighting skills and who were also not paying much tuition to the mullah.
The better students were mostly the sons or nephews of merchants who paid full tuition and brought gifts. Abdul belonged to the latter. The mullah didn’t want to let him go, but Abdul insisted. It was Ramadan again, and on the evening before his departure, the mullah brought him some extra food before he sat down with his family for the usual feast. The mullah felt good about sending twelve of his students, even Abdul, the serious one, to the Taliban.
The group of young volunteers left during the night, in order to not be discovered by the Pakistani border police or by the assumed enemy. As the first light of morning appeared, they had already crossed the pass into Afghanistan and walked down into a beautiful valley, with trees along the course of a small river, dense bushes, and occasional small, well-tended fields. Abdul felt like he was coming home.
A group of armed men stopped the group of youngsters. As they learned that the young men were volunteers, they became friendly. Only one of them was different, the leader of the armed group. They were told he was an al Qaeda fighter. He was arrogant and stern, as if he was better than the rest of them. He ordered the volunteers to stop talking and to carry heavy loads of supplies that had just been delivered from Pakistan. There wouldn’t be any food until the evening.
Several days of marching later, they arrived in Kunduz. Abdul’s parents had fled. All his former friends had been drafted by the Taliban, the wilder ones by al Qaeda. The young volunteers were taught how to use guns and were ordered to stay in stables now serving as barracks. Was that the holy war leading to paradise?
Then the American bombing of Kunduz started. At first, the group of volunteers heard some explosions in the far distance during the night. Hours later, some wounded fighters were brought in.
Every night, the explosions came closer and turned louder. Upon one of the worst of the explosions, the building began to rattle and the air was filled with dust. They had received very little food lately and only bad water. Some of the wounded men were brought into their compound—some had only shrapnel holes through their bodies, others had parts of their limbs torn away—crying loudly, staying silent, or just whimpering in pain. Nobody dared to go out during the night any longer, and their room became a stinky mess. They prayed for many hours through the night, but some just stared into the darkness. They knew that they would not escape this horror.
The next night, the bombing started early, right after sunset. Abdul thought of the mullah who would now be sitting down with his family for dinner. A bomb hit the side of their building. The explosion was deafening. Roof beams fell on the volunteers and the wounded soldiers. Some were killed.
Suddenly, Abdul was filled with enormous rage against the mullah. He thought he saw him standing there. He took his rifle and fired wildly at what he saw.
An older, wounded soldier next to him quietly put a hand on his arm and said, “Allah is merciful and compassionate.”
With the next bomb explosion, Abdul heard two distinct metallic sounds. Were they the first notes of that melody his mother had once sung?
Abdul got up and walked out into the night.
He looked up at the bright stars, but he couldn’t see Allah’s face above them in the empty darkness.
He didn’t even hear the whistling of the bomb that came down to tear him apart.