Reapers over Kabul

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Write about a character whose job is to bring water to people.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction Contemporary Historical Fiction

Shir Hazrat, 26 August 2021, 19:15, Khaje Bughra neighborhood, Kabul, Afghanistan

I learned this evening that the airport was attacked. Driving back into the city was a mess, everyone racing home, shouting, honking, cursing. 

Tensions are already high now that the Taliban is taking over again. The U.S. has failed in its twenty-year occupation, but I have no doubt that they will carry out another crusade in the future. The Soviets, too, had failed—wasting ten years and many lives—but they learned their lesson and have not truly returned. Neither could have hoped to win: they were always fighting against a deeply embedded ideology. The terrain is just as unforgiving as that ideology and only the people who have inhabited this land for thousands of years can understand it. Whether it was the Taliban or the Islamic State I do not know. Does it matter who it was anymore?

It is better if I continue with my work. I have just finished loading up the water and the remainder of my supplies. Tomorrow I will show the kids in Gogamandah more about soybean farming. Soon their well will be ready and they will be able to grow enough to sustain their community, and it is best to focus on this. The kids will run up to me, as always, shouting “hello, hello, hello,” and Alif will run up shouting “goodbye, goodbye goodbye,” because he finds it funny. Ahmad and Amir will help to unload the water containers from the trunk while the others arrive for their lessons. It is a simple routine, but one that has not grown old on me.

They do not yet know that soon I must go to another province to continue my work.

MQ-9 Reaper UAV, 26 August 2021, 17:53, 3 minutes after explosion, 5 kilometers over Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan

At least one-hundred, one-hundred-twenty dead. Maybe more. Many more wounded. Smoke near Abbey Gate. People running down the canal away from blast, searching for cover. No signs of car bomb. Bomber possibly alive, among crowd. Soldiers transporting wounded to medical tents.

Shir Hazrat, 27 August 2021, Khaje Bughra neighborhood, Kabul, Afghanistan

This morning I spoke with the office in New York I work for and they informed me in the wake of the attack that farming supplies will be difficult to obtain for a while. They offered to arrange passage for me out of the country, but I refused. There are people who count on me to bring them water until the new well is finished. After fifteen years, dropping everything and fleeing to New York would solve nothing for me, for us. It is unthinkable. What else could I do that has more purpose than this? I will stay.

In the news I saw that whoever carried out the attack appears to have survived and has not been caught. He likely pretended to be one of the people fleeing the city, leaving some container or bookbag full of explosives in the crowd. If he truly had believed, as they claim, he would have died as a martyr in the blast.

Since yesterday’s attack, aerial surveillance has increased. A drone’s loud, constant hum now fills the sky over the city every hour of the day. A tireless machine. It patrols, always watching, capturing everything and nothing through its lens at the same time. The atmosphere around the city is tense. People go out only for necessities. Others have already started covering up their windows. At night you can hear the sharp cracks of celebratory gunfire being fired into the air. Sometimes people are injured or killed when these bullets fall to the ground.

The one-hour drive to Gogamandah is usually peaceful. I turn the radio on, roll the windows down and let the air roll through. Just before getting onto the highway there is a Soviet tank graveyard, dozens of destroyed T-55s and T-62s. Up close, you can even still make out “made in USSR” written on them—in English. They are rusty reds and browns now, slowly blending into the desert. Relics, reminders.

The Taliban have already begun setting up roadblocks and checkpoints. They let me pass with a little bit of hassle—taking one container of water as a toll—when they learned I was an aid worker. I do not know what I would have done if they had taken more. Up close they did not look as tired or worn down as I imagined, but this is perhaps a result of the American withdrawal.

A drone passed overhead.

In Gogamandah, I parked the car and Ahmad and Amir helped me unload the two remaining containers of water. Amir, knowing I usually bring three, asked what happened and I told him that the Taliban had taken one, and he told me that they passed through Gogamandah late yesterday night, beeping horns, cheering and shooting into the air. Ahmad spit on the ground. Amir said that the Taliban beat up his father, who had yelled and yelled at the Taliban that he did not want them here, to leave, to be gone. When I asked to see his father, Ahmad said that he did not want to see anyone. It was a courageous thing to do, I told him, he—and you—should be proud. It is not easy to speak your mind to people carrying guns, I added.

And where is Alif, I asked. He has not come as usual. Alif, Amir said, had witnessed the beating of a well-respected man, watched as meaningless violence overcame a relative peace.

Some other local farmers joined us at that point. Trying to move past what had happened, I questioned them on methods and asked them what they remembered from yesterday’s sessions. It was difficult to keep them focused since the Taliban were re-emerging. They discussed loudly and passionately, angry that the United States had left, that terrorists were again taking over, that nothing could be done. One of them had been in Kabul during its golden age in the 1960s—he cursed the Soviets most, for their invasion. Then he cursed the United States for supporting the Mujahideen, the group that became the Taliban, with money and weapons. That was where it began going downhill, he said. The others nodded and listened.

In the evening, when the farmers and most of the kids had gone I pulled Ahmad aside and offered him a little bit of money to help them until his father recovered. He refused.

MQ-9 Reaper UAV, 27 August 2021, 5 kilometers over Khaje Bughra neighborhood, Kabul, Afghanistan

Sedan. Toyota. One unknown male. Loading one, two, three large containers into the trunk. Individual heading east on Tajikan Road. Merging onto Kabul–Nangarhar Highway. Stopped and searched at checkpoint. One container removed from trunk. Delivering to Taliban? Continues without hindrance. Parks next to house in… Gogamandah. Possible safe house? Taliban passed through last night. Meeting with other males. Crosscheck IDs? Kids in area. All military age. Suspicious activity, continue monitoring. Argument looks heated.

Shir Hazrat, 28 August 2021, 13:15, Gogamandah, Afghanistan

I overslept this morning. The news reports said that ISIS has claimed responsibility for the airport attack.

This afternoon the Taliban checkpoint was abandoned. They must have moved onto a more crowded area, for now anyway. 

I have brought my journal on site today. One of the boys, Abdullah, says he is tired of soybeans, that they are only good for throwing at his friends. Maryam is watching us from her doorway. The boys are jealous of her because she has more of a green thumb, a gift. I tell her that the soybeans grow faster so they can meet her sooner. The boys throw soybeans at her too, but in a playful way.

They ask me why I write everything in English and I tell them that it is easier to write my reports back to New York this way. Then they ask if I can teach them a few words. It is fun to hear them shout “hello” and “goodbye” or “bye bye” at each other, sometimes mixing them all up. I poured them each a cup of water from a thermos and asked them to get started on checking the crops and put the containers around back.

Mohammad Karimi—the man who was beaten two days ago—came out of his home to tell me that there is a man who wishes to record his story and has asked me to write it down. His face is badly bruised. His arms and chest are both wrapped in cloth. He introduced me to his cousin Abdul who came when he learned that I had some connection with New York, with America. Not much, I tell him, I am just an aid worker. I do not even live there. No matter, he said, maybe you can pass it to someone who can tell someone else. I agreed to transcribe what he told me. We sat down while Mohammad went to make some tea. He began, speakly slowly, deliberately:

Last year in Wardak, not far from Maidan Shahr, my home was destroyed. Inside, my wife and son. Outside, my friend was sitting and we were talking while I finished some work on the property. He is now deaf and partially blind with severe damage to his shoulder, and will never be able to work. I remember digging through the rubble until my hands were bloody looking for my family while my friend was unconscious but still breathing. I dug until dawn, but it did not matter. My family was dead. It did not end there. I no longer had a place to live and the community began to speculate about my situation. Why was I targeted? they wondered. Soon there was a rumor that I had probably collaborated with some terrorist organization or other—a truly ridiculous and harmful statement to make. But the fact was that my home was bombed and they believed it must have been bombed for a reason. People stopped speaking with me, to me, stopped associating with me in any way. I remember hearing of another village that was also bombed, a Taliban held village. The Taliban suspected one of the villagers was feeding information to the Americans, so they tortured him even though he had nothing to tell. It could have been worse for me. My life was quickly falling apart, but at least I was still alive. Of course there were times when I wished I was not, that I had died with my family. The only option left for me was to go to Kabul, to try and get help from one of the aid organizations there. It is a good thing that the city is close. I do not know what I would have done otherwise. These aid organizations do their best, but they cannot help everyone as much as they would like. I do not wish to speak about my time in the streets of Kabul, that is not the point. Mohammad has been very kind to let me stay here. I am sure there are other stories like mine. If enough of them can be collected, I pray that something can change. Thank you for doing this.

When he stopped, I realized how much time had passed. I thanked him for telling me his story, but when I tried to express my condolences for his losses, he stopped me. “There is no need,” he said. “I will see them again.”

The kids were listening at the door and they scattered when I went back outside, shouting “hello, hello, hello, Mr. Hazrat” and “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, Mr. Hazrat,” and kicking up dust everywhere.

A drone—the same?—is loitering high above.

MQ-9 Reaper UAV, 28 August 2021, 5 kilometers over Gogamandah, Kabul, Afghanistan

Subject following same routine. ID still unknown. Toyota heading east towards Gogamandah. Check point abandoned. Kids in area. Two males unload containers from subject’s car. More males gather. Subject in house for… two hours. A meeting with who? Subject exits. Kids run. Subject heading back towards city. Same route. Call it in.

Shir Hazrat, 29 August 2021, 09:00, Kabul, Afghanistan

This morning my boss has asked me to drive two colleagues to a meeting near the university. They showed up early and we stood around the car in the courtyard chatting. One of them, Khan, reflecting on the Taliban said, “It is very funny, you know. They are called ‘Taliban,’ in English it becomes ‘Students.’ But they are bad students. They have not learned that nobody wants them here.” The other, also called Mohammad, pointed out that it could also mean “Seekers.” And Khan said, quickly, “Yes, they are seeking to make us miserable.” At this we had a good laugh while they helped me load the heavy containers of water into the car.

I pointed to the sky and asked them if this drone surveilling the city was any better or any worse than the Taliban. I told them about Mohammad, who was beaten, and about Abdul whose life was destroyed though he survived. They agreed that the Taliban was worse because of their brutality and that the machine in the sky was no better and no worse than the people operating it. But, I suggested to them that perhaps the Taliban, too, was a kind of machine at the mercy of its operators. “Shir,” Khan said, “Shir, this kind of talk is too serious for the morning. You know we prefer to joke around. Besides, you are just talking about the monster and its creator, you are talking Frankenstein.”

Fine, I said. We will go inside and have some tea before leaving.

MQ-9 Reaper UAV, 29 August 2021, 4 kilometers over Khaje Bughra neighborhood, Kabul, Afghanistan

Two males approaching subject’s house. Greeted by target. Possible explosives loaded into the car. Target pointing at us. Subjects and target going inside. Approximately thirty minutes inside. Another meeting? 

Target and subjects getting into car.

Requesting permission to engage.

Clear to engage.

August 26, 2022 17:21

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H L Mc Quaid
06:17 Sep 02, 2022

Powerful. Impressive piece of creative nonfiction. Thanks for sharing.


Peter Briggs
16:46 Sep 02, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read it!


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Karen Mc Dermott
11:57 Sep 01, 2022

Interesting. This really transported me to another world, not to mention give me new consideration of water. I love the different takes on this prompt I've read so far.


Peter Briggs
16:49 Sep 02, 2022

Thank you. I'm looking forward to reading some stories this weekend. Which of your pieces would you recommend? I have a Vonnegut tattoo as well!


Karen Mc Dermott
09:30 Sep 03, 2022

*fist bump re the tattoo* ! Please don't feel obliged to read any of mine, although if one ever wins I'll be shouting about it. But if you really want, maybe The Museum of OCD. That was fun to write :)


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Allen Learst
01:29 Aug 30, 2022

I thoroughly enjoyed this. It captures the sorrow of war and the seemingly useless attempt to help people despite adversity.


Peter Briggs
18:50 Aug 31, 2022

Thank you. This is, unfortunately, taken from the story of Zemari Ahmadi, a worker for a California-based aid group. He was (supposedly) the last person to be killed via drone strike in Afghanistan and it's thanks to the New York Times and Bureau of Investigative Journalism that it wasn't completely buried.


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