By: Linda Christanty
A tiny dog falls down on the street. A soldier shot it with an automatic rifle.
I nearly drop my camera. I’m struck with disbelief.
Seconds ago I saw it trotting off, sniffing at the sand, then glancing around as though it was in confusion.
I haven’t even photographed it.
Before long I hear the screams of a child, loudly coming out of that house, a sandy brown structure just 20 m away from where I stand while holding the camera.
Frantically, one boy about six years of age is galloping toward the dying dog while a woman wearing a blue burqa that I think is his mother calls out her son’s name in distress, it sounds like “Alef”, but the kid whose name is being called pays no mind at all and keeps running. Alef’s dark blue clothing makes his pale white skin grow paler.
The lady desperately trails her son who has just darted in front of me.
Alef is possessed by ineffable agony. Unlike his dog that keeled over feebly at once, he’s roaring wildly. No one is running after him, apart from that lady. The mother and her son bear their own anguish. Nobody comforts them, because all choose to soothe themselves.
Some people nearby turn their backs on the scene straight away, or pretend they don’t see what’s just happened. They’re accustomed to turning a blind eye and going into silent mode at certain moments. If you ask them what they just saw, one or two who dare enough to speak will surely answer in unison, “We didn’t see anything, except the bright white sky. We heard nothing, other than a donkey’s brays. ”
Before the soldier shot the dog, I was snapping some pictures, aiming at each object with my camera.
I took photos of children, women and mothers, standing at the doors to their houses or hovering over in the streets. There are many children here. I saw a little girl, probably five years old, carrying on her back her sister who’s still a baby. I didn’t see any grown women nearby. She wobbled and walked all bent over due to the weight of the baby on her back, then stopped and fixed me with her probing look.
I also photographed a little girl in the red dress striding down a narrow hallway, between the sand-colored buildings. She was alone. Her brownish-black hair looked tousled. She has patches of white on her rosy cheeks. Her feet that weren’t covered by sandals or shoes were dust-gilded. She seemed to have no one in this world. My camera flashed time and again on her and she didn’t care at all. She kept walking with a daydreaming look in her eyes.
Sometimes I ask myself, what will happen to these kids in the future, 10 or 15 years to come.
From portraits of children around here you’ll know how much power your enemy has or who’s going to be your adversary in the future.
In one village, even the kids cast cynical looks when my camera turned to them. In another village, a girl lurked behind the door of her house with a toy car pointed to us as if it were a gun while her brother greeted us in front of the metal, green-painted door with body language as though he was a foe trying to lure me and say, “Hi, come and get me,” while having a laugh. However, in some villages, the kids smiled and waved at me. I’ll send some of their portraits to you later, both the sour-faced and friendly ones.
These portraits immortalize what’s bound to vanish. Innocent faces of the boys will one day turn into the faces of bearded men, which the denser and longer beards they have, the more respect they’ll command. The little girls will gradually fade into memories. They will grow to become women who must satisfy the desires of men, whether they like it or not.
The soldier is standing at the end of the street, not far from the dying dog, and he behaves as if he didn’t do anything that utterly shocks a soul and took another.
He acts like the dead dog has been lying there long before he came, like mountains, sand, meadows, hot air, high winds of winter and snow in this place, which have been part of your life for being born and raised in this country, which are taken for granted and you deem no longer important.
The soldier is probably 19. I turn my face away when he spontaneously gazes toward me, exactly in the course of the onrushing boy, as we’re in the same direction, parallel to his line of fire.
I also don’t understand why I should be surprised witnessing a soldier shot a dog. Isn’t it just an animal, a mindless creature whose brown fur even looks dirty and unkempt? A bullet has killed a living thing that wasn’t involved in this war. I’m not going to report this to the supreme commander in the headquarters, because I don’t report to him directly. Probably I’m going to tell the shooting to my superior, who always replies each and every complaint of mine with the same answer: Sorry you had to see that sort of thing. However, now that I’ve thought that through, I shouldn’t write another letter to my superior, save for official reports. The more I complain, the more difficult my situations get. I could be sent home at any time and that means I won’t be able to afford my mom’s treatment, Mark’s tuition and my own mortgage. Maybe that soldier also has a father or a mother who is ill, he might not have other choices for his future, aside from being stuck in this place, like me and anyone else.
YESTERDAY he and his men saved me when our convoy passed through a hostile territory. I was in a bulletproof car while a battle raged around me. My heart was pounding so hard. My throat went dry. That was my first time being trapped in an armed combat as one of the few civilians serving here.
I’m responsible for overseeing turbine construction and I never go anywhere without an escort. I sleep, eat and work in the company of armed men, who pave the way for construction activities by “cleaning” each of my work area before I arrive.
If you ask me where the enemy who call themselves “students” were and how they looked like, I can’t give you the answers. Their ambush was swift. They were hiding cleverly. You hear gunfire or mortar blasts, but won’t see the shooter or launcher. You’ll only see sand and meadows, also the mountains in the distance.
The “students” forbid girls to go to school and also rape young women. In one village I met a girl, 14 years old, who no longer has the will to live. Her face melts, like molten chocolate. One of the “students” poured mercury into Shirin’s face, since she dared go to school.
Our enemy call themselves “students”, but prohibit people form learning and getting educated. They worked with us to drive away tanks of the enemy from the East. However, no alliance comes for free. Some people here even openly said they don’t want us here, don’t want the “students” to wield the power either. That means they refuse to embrace both the modern world and the return of the Stone Age. What kind of world is that? Probably a somewhere-in-between world, a world where printing machines have just been invented and people still travel by coal train. Still it’s an underdeveloped world, I suppose.
Once the gunfire stopped, we identified three casualties in the convoy of the combined forces. Upon arriving at the fortress, I felt dead tired and took a bath in no time. After that I had my meals. I’ve been gaining weight, as I no longer play basketball game. You said, my abs would definitely have more flabs. Like a building. It used to look like a two-story building, and it will be like a three- or four-story one.
The soldier is the same age as Mark, my little brother. Mark now lives in a dorm, no longer renting an apartment. You would’ve seen the portrait of the two of us, which I sent on Thanksgiving. The father of Elena, Mark’s girlfriend, took our picture in his home. Behind us there was a drum set, if you take a closer look at it. Elena’s father likes to play music. Besides the drums, there are acoustic guitars, saxophone, harmonica and piano in his house. That night I sang to the guitar tune of Elena’s father. It wasn’t too shabby. I sang Tom Waits’ piece, “Romeo Is Bleeding”. And today I see a dog’s blood.
The little dog’s body looks like curled up in a pool of tomato sauce. Suddenly I’m reluctant to point my camera around. Other soldiers close to me remain uninterested. Some briefly glance toward the dead dog, and then return to their inspection routine into the surrounding houses.
So, the fine-looking lad was the owner of the poor dog. If it weren’t for this place, I would’ve grabbed and hugged him, consoled him into forgetting his sorrow, as I always do for you when you’re depressed or ill at ease. I’ll probably get him a toy or a new dog, perhaps a tame and friendly golden retriever. I’ll build a decent grave for his dead dog, with a headstone bearing its name. I’ll let him cry until he lets all his woe out then and there and bid farewell to his dog. But in Bala Murghab there are no decent graves for beloved dogs that perish, no dolls on a sandbar put up as tokens of love from those left behind, no dog-shaped granite statues with beautiful words carved for the departed and remembered.
The boy nearly gets in front of the dog’s body. But the soldier doesn’t allow him to touch the thing he yearns for. Before his pale little hands are able to pat the body of his beloved dog, I see the soldier quickly grabs and throws it as far as possible, across the street.
The dog’s blood drips to the ground, and gushes forth in the air.
The dog’s dead body then lands on the face of an old man. He’s startled, then takes a few steps behind and I’m sure, the tip of his robe is splattered by the blood of the dead dog. I see him storming into the house.
Alef, his name does sound like “Alef”, cries his heart out. His body shivers. The lady who I think is his mother has been on his side, promptly embraces Alef, then takes him away from the puddle of blood. Alef keeps crying. The woman continues to comfort him and doesn’t dare to look at me when she and her son walk past me again. She walks hurriedly while guiding her sobbing son. I don’t photograph them. Suddenly I’ve lost my appetite for shooting.
Five days from now I’ll go back to Herat, returning to the Italian army headquarters. Sometimes I can have some wine in their barracks, a little treat to ease my boredom. Yet, there isn’t even a can of beer at the headquarters of US forces. General McChrystal bans its soldiers from drinking.
I also can’t write you too often, Honey. The Internet access isn’t available at all times to write emails. We take turn when using the only computer on hand. My phone signal isn’t always good, so it’s a rarity for me to call you.
I sleep in bunk beds. One barrack sometimes holds eleven people. The sound of people breaking wind is heard every night. The smell will make your common senses disappear in a flash. The stench sometimes makes me want to fart around: I picture myself getting a bag of donkey’s dung hung right in front of their noses while they’re asleep, let them dream of swimming in its puddle and talk in their sleep all night long.
In the next four months I’ll have my field break. I long for comedies and some popcorn. Can you take time off as well, go home and get together with our old friends? You didn’t go home on Thanksgiving day….
I take a deep breath involuntarily. I’m a little tired. The air feels stingingly hot, despite the cold wind blowing.
Alef and his mother are nowhere to be seen. No one dares to touch the dead dog across the street. The soldier who shot the dog suddenly makes a gesture toward me. He asks me to take his photo.(*)