The Place Where Good Men Go
By Caleb Mitchell-Ward
Prrrrrop. They had an assault rifle on the roof and the mud wall we crouched behind was covered in machine-gun holes. The firing stopped, and Mohamed and I could hear the man softly cursing. I nodded to Mohamed and we kicked back the rubble blocking the door, then with only one other officer we surrounded the man on the roof.
“Open your shawl!!” I yelled.
He was clear of bombs. I zip-tied his hands then handed him to Yafiz.
“Mohamed,” I said waving to him.
We hopped off the roof into a dusty garden and started to search the house. A man came rushing out with his Kalashnikov. I shot him twice in the chest with my pistol before he could raise his gun and he fell to the ground. The last rooms were clear so we grabbed the body and left. Yafiz was waiting by the door with the prisoner and we dropped the body to talk with him.
“Are we going to pull the flag down?” asked Yafiz.
It was a piece of black cloth loosely attached to a long stick and it moved gently from the wind.
“No, let’s leave it up. That way his friends will think it’s still safe for them and they’ll come in shooting range.”
Mohamed and I threw the body of the dead fighter in a ditch because it was too hot to bury him midday and as he hit the dry ditch bottom the folds of his white hijab, bloodstained and powdered with dust, fell back from his face. He was a man younger than me, probably a teenager, with a hopeful face and piercing blue eyes.
“Let’s go,” said Mohamed, slapping me on the shoulder as he walked to the humvee. Yafiz put the prisoner in the backseat with me and Mohamed before starting to drive back towards town. The Humvee was a gift from America you could say. I remember when the Americans came into our town for the first time, their wide-brimmed tanks caking the houses behind them in dust from the road, town greeting their arrival. But now they were gone. The only ones who came into our town now were Dostum’s men; the Taliban stayed only in the outskirts, sometimes getting left behind in their retreat from the police, like the fighter sitting across from me now. He had a narrow face, a deep black beard, and cold eyes, which looked calmly ahead. They always looked so damn calm. I could tell it was making Mohamed uneasy by the way he eyed the man and kept his finger hovering over the trigger of his Kalashnikov, steady even as the Humvee went across bumps in the road. I looked out the scratched window, yellow from the sun on the dust at a dead wheat field with tassels of sand spinning across it. The trees of town appeared in the window, tall against the wide stretch of dead earth rising into the bare mountain slopes that were crowned with the pure white snows of Hindu Kush, distant and hazy in the hot air. Driving through the narrow street, lined by crammed mud and rock houses, we passed a child leading a goat to market on a rope. We parked by the police station which was on the top of a rise in town, right by the Mosque. The station was built from mud and stone, like everything else in Abdan. Abdullah Mazari, the police chief, was sitting at a table when we arrived; the light that streamed through a hole in the wall shone onto his thin black mustache and a childlike face.
“You got one!”
He looked happy.
“Aryo, that’s my boy. Did he give you much trouble?”
“There were some machine gun rounds fired but nothing we couldn’t handle.”
“That’s good, that’s good. Listen, you and Mohamed do your nightly sweep, then I think you should be done for the day.”
I thanked him and then Mohamed and I left and walked across town before going to the outskirts because nothing ever happened in town. In a field on the side of the main road, the elders were playing Buzkashi. So we watched for a while as they reared and whipped their horses, whose muscles moved beneath their tight brown skin and hooves dragged and hit the ground, making the dust rise and turn gold from the dusk sun so that the men and the horses became only shadows that shifted in one mass of struggle. It was almost dark when we left.
The sky was pink above the black mountains. We sat at a wood table beneath the glow of a lantern outside the inn, watching the mountains and drinking tea.
I couldn’t sleep that night and I often couldn’t sleep, not because of the heat of the summer night, but because of the distant booms and piercing whistles of mortar shells being shot off by the Taliban in the towns around us, or sometimes right by the city edges, sometimes all night. So I lay in my cot, staring at the ceiling. There was a sweet smell in the room. I turned and saw Rashid, who lay in the bed next to me smoking opium from a long pipe.
“Do you want any?”
I shook my head.
“You sure? It’ll help you sleep.”
“No, I’m fine.”
Mohamed walked down the stairs that went to the roof.
“Hey, you should come and see the fireworks show.”
“Sure, I’m not going to sleep anyway.”
From the roof of the barracks I could see over the town and the country beyond it, where the mortars, sometimes illuminating the trees and soldiers around them as they were fired, made blazing orange arcs that cut across the sky and burst into flame with faint thuds when they landed and were followed by the gold spray of bullets.
“So, you couldn’t sleep?”
“Because of that kid I shot.”
Another mortar shell cracked far away.
“I know, you know, that kids grow up quick here.”
“You probably killed a man.”
“I’ve killed too many men already. I’m getting sick of it.”
“That’s why you’re a good man.”
“I keep thinking that this isn’t a place for good men.”
“The only place for good men is heaven, my friend.”
“We’re on our way there fast.”
“On that happy thought, I think I’m going to go to bed.”
The shells kept booming all night but I slept finally. Then early in the morning, I woke up to the banging of metal on metal.
“Wake up men, we have an emergency,” said Abdullah.
It was still dark, but early enough that my mother would be awake. I used to live with her in the house at the edge of town, and we had livestock and a wheat field, and she still farmed even though she didn’t keep the livestock. I knocked on the door.
“Who is it? Who it…” She opened the door.
“It’s me Ma.”
“Oh, come in. Tea?”
“No thank you.”
We sat together in the eating room.
“So what made you stop by?”
“I… I’m going on a trip, uh for the police, and I wanted to say goodbye to you before I went.”
“Really… Uh… Uh… Well… Uh…when are you going to be back, are you going to be gone for long?”
“I don’t know Ma. That’s why I wanted to come and see you.”
“You be safe on this trip. Ok?”
There was a knock on the door. It was Mohamed.
“It’s almost dawn, so I thought I should come get you.”
“Yeah, I’m coming.”
“Goodbye Ma, I have to go.”
“Ok, son. I’ll see you later.”
“Yes, Ma. Goodbye.”
It was almost light outside and the eastern clouds were orange. I walked with Mohamed to the barracks, where I dressed in the combat gear that we got from the Americans, a bulletproof vest and helmet and a strap for my Kalashnikov cartridges with two filled canteens strapped beneath it. I grabbed my Kalashnikov and pistol then walked to the front of the station. The first Humvee pulled up to us with the two Humvees from Kholm behind it. Yafiz stood crouched over with his helmet off, vomiting. We all got into the first Humvee. I could see town from my window and the clouds flashing with white light as they gathered against the mountains and the long dark lines of rain falling from the clouds onto the empty fields. We passed the remnants of a Russian tank, and it made me think of all the places I’d been in the past, more places than most of the people in Abdan. While on a tour with the police force, years ago, when NATO was still here I had seen the white doves perch on the sea-blue domes of Mazar-i-Sharif and the old mud houses of Tashkurgan spread beneath the long grey ridges that the cold wind blew down from Bam-i-Dunya.
Gajan came into view in the front windshield an hour after we left. Black smoke rose from behind the yellow stone walls and a woman in a burqa and her kid, who had sandy hair and wide eyes, walked past the Humvee. The poplar grove was feet in front of us, but the Humvee stopped.
“There’s an IED,” said Yafiz.
Rashid hopped out from the passenger seat with the stick he was going to use to remove it. Then after a moment, I heard the thud of a bullet from outside. The driver talked panicked to Abdullah from his radio. I stood up so I could see out of the front windshield. Rashid was rolled over on his back with blood spreading from his head onto the black road, and the woman and her kid were running into a field. They must have a sniper on the city wall.
“Abdullah says go!” yelled the driver.
“Did you tell him what just happened?” I asked.
“He said go. GO now!”
I opened the door and Mohamed and Yafiz and I ran to the edge of the road, hiding behind the trees. A poppy field went all the way to the city wall and along it was a dry irrigation canal. I slid into the canal and kept low so that my head was hidden below the poppy bulbs. They moved side to side in the wind and some had cuts on them and dried liquid from the opium harvest. Even in the shade of the poppies, it was very hot, so we stopped and drank from our canteens. We stared at the ground, drinking in silence because there was nothing to talk about, other than the fact that we might die. I didn’t want to die because I knew the feeling of drinking cold water in the heat and tea in the evening, and that was enough to make me want to live. A spurt of bullets hit something far away, probably the Humvees.
“Those assholes. They’re not going to get shot,” said Mohamed.
“Ha.” Yafiz smiled.
We sat drinking for a while longer.
“Alright, let’s go, we’re almost to the city,” I said.
The canal kept going and ran alongside the stone wall then ended at a small gravel road heading to the city. We crawled to the edge of the road. The road ended at a green door and above it, on the wall, a Taliban fighter paced nervously with his Kalashnikov.
“Mohamed, can you get him?” I asked.
“Yeah, but when I do, you and Yafiz have to run to the door.”
Mohamed eyed his shot carefully and fired and the man fell back off the wall.
Once we came to the wall, bullets burst from the other side and tore up the door, sending pieces of wood through the air. I waited until the firing stopped and counted to three on my hand. I pushed the door open and Yafiz and Mohamed rushed in behind me. A gunman stood in front of us, confused, and Yafiz shot him and then a man came down a tower by the wall. I shot him in the head. Deeper in the city two fighters walking side by side saw us and the road exploded in crackling gunfire. I grabbed Yafiz by the collar and pulled him into the room at the bottom of the tower. Dust rose in small craters from the bullets as they hit the ground in front of us. Mohamed ran into the tower and rested his Kalashnikov on its handle while grabbing the rifle butt and put one finger on the trigger so that he could shoot them without being hit. Something hit the ground near us that wasn’t a bullet so Mohamed looked past the doorway. After a second he stood up and walked out of my view. The room crackled loudly with gunshots again. I ran to save Mohamed but he was standing calmly in front of two dead Taliban, one lying in the middle of the road and the other leaned against a doorway.
“We should go,” I said to him.
We knew that we had made too much noise when we came into the city to go on unnoticed, so it was best for us to hide. We ran up the staircase in the tower. There was a door at the top that opened to a walkway going along the wall, where we could see the stacked and sun-stained mud houses that cast shadows on the narrow alleys and smaller buildings of the city. There was another tower diagonal to us, which I pointed at and everyone else nodded. We ran to it, crouched and threw the door open then closed it. No one fired at us. We went down a stairway in the tower that led into a dusty square, empty, other than a rubble pile on the far wall that had an open doorway next to it. I led Mohamed and Yafiz to the doorway cautiously. POW! Blood sprayed from Yafiz’s head and he fell back in front of the doorway where he had stood. Mohamed rushed in front of Yafiz’s body with his finger held down on the trigger. I could hear the sound of boots stomping on the ground from across the other wall. There was only one way out now. I ran up the rubble pile.
“Mohamed!!” I couldn’t reach the top of the wall. As he ran towards me I shot the fighters coming through the doorway and dropped the rifle when he was next to me, then helped him onto the wall, and he pulled me up over its edge. There was a platform in front of us that we crawled towards as bullets burst the mud of the low, cracked ridge between us and the square. Mohamed slammed open a trapdoor at the top of the platform and dropped down, landing on his back in the room below. I closed it as I dropped and landed next to him on a cool sandy floor. There were no doors or openings in the room, except for the one we fell in through and a small square hole we couldn’t reach. We leaned against the wall and drank from our canteens.
“What the hell are we going to do, Aryo?”
“I don’t know. Try the radio.”
He unhitched it from his rifle strap and spun the top dial until he was on the right wavelength.
“This is recon team, we need cover for a retreat. Located roughly 30 feet south of the west entrance. Is cover possible, over.”
Prrrrrr. The radio crackled from static and gunshots.
“Request for cover is not possible. Frontal assault is delayed over.”
“Fuck!!” Mohamed threw the radio and it broke against the wall.
“How many bullets do you have?” he asked.
He sighed and I sighed.
“So this is it then. This is where we die.”
“Yeah, maybe so.”
“You know I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my mother.”
Mohamed was almost crying.
“I didn’t know you had one.”
“Yeah, she’s a little ways out of Abdan.”
We were both staring at the wall.
“It’s a shame about Yafiz. He was still just a kid.”
Mohamed looked like he was going to say something but stopped.
“You don’t seem that afraid,” he said.
“No, I’m scared too. I’ve just learned not to cry over my fate.”
“So you’re ready then?”
“To go to the place where good men go.”
“When you put it that way, maybe so.”
“I know you’ll be there.”
“No, I’ve done some terrible things.”
“So has everyone.”
The sounds of gunfire and stamping feet were close to us now.
“Il a al-iqqa my brother.”
“Il a al-iqqa.”
I knew that even though I would be dead soon the towns would still ring with prayer in the morning and a Taliban leader would spray bullets into the air in celebration of last night’s slaughter and the wind, always the wind would sweep down cold across the land.