Achlan shrieked again from below. “Come!” Waving his arms wildly at the approaching threat. His voice was adamant: “Come down NOW!!!” He let the word linger in the air like slow strangulation.
Less than a hundred feet away from Achlan a helicopter was lowering itself uneasily. Sand curled up in a fat circular cloud around the airship. Achlan squatted low to the ground. He held a shirt-sleeved arm across his face to keep from inhaling the yellow dust and sand. High above, Machmed replaced the fabric around the book, quickly folding it multiple times then tying it snugly together. He tucked the book inside his shirt. Before he turned to lower himself down the rope, Machmed looked one last time at the good round holes he had drilled. He knew he would never see this place again.
Three men in khaki and leather were already exiting the helicopter. Achlan, adhering to contemporary Pashtun protocol, cleared the chamber of his Kalashnikov and raised it at the flying machine. One man in khakis and a leather bomber jacket stepped out and moved forward in the prop wash. His hand worked in a waving down motion. Loudly, speaking in Pashto, he wanted to calm the two men as he glanced around to see if there were others. He repeated his message.
“We are from the United Nations. We want to talk with you.” Achlan was still. Machmed approached more comfortably. These men felt familiar to him, but he could not tell Achlan so. He wanted to smile and talk of the world outside with them.
“This is Mr. Lo, of the Japanese government,” the man went on in Pashto, “Mr. Schwitzer of the Afghanistan Institute in Zurich.” He gestured individually, and then stood, hands at his side. “And I am Mr. Nolan of UNESCO…”
Nolan seemed nervous, which made Achlan suspicious. He nodded toward the man standing by the helicopter. Nolan didn’t respond. Again, a nod and a fierce grunt. Nolan looked momentarily confused. Recovering, he said, “He is just our helicopter pilot.” Achlan was unmoved. “Our driver,” Nolan spoke, perturbed and confident, in the ruffian’s own language.
The oriental man spoke, this time to Machmed—in English. Nolan translated: “Did you see anything unusual up there?” Conversation. Machmed smiled as slightly as he was able. A short chat was like a feast these days. Mr. Lo continued. “We have been told there are paintings in these caves. Did you see any… paintings?” The man stood still. He ignored the other man’s apparent violent nature. Filled with the hope of a cultural historian, Lo looked imploringly into Machmed’s eyes.
After a long time, Machmed spoke. “No.” He thought of the book he had found. He knew if Achlan found out, he would claim it and probably blow it up with the statues.
“No paintings,” Lo repeated. Machmed shook his head. He had already decided what to do with the book.
Nolan reached out once more to the two men, doing his best to avoid pleading. That was so inappropriate out here. “These three Buddhist statues are great works of art, more than 1500 years old, made by men of great knowledge and skill,” he said. “Many great leaders around the world have reached out to Mullah Omar, asking him to care for them—or at least not to hurt them.”
Achlan was like dry straw, and this outrage – a brief mention of his great Mullah – was all the flint-spark he needed.
“Leave. Leave now.” He raised the weapon in Nolan’s direction. At a distance, the pilot had already trained his rifle on Achlan, a point that Machmed shared with his brutish colleague in a whisper. Then Machmed spoke very gently in his native language to Nolan. “We cannot let you stay here. We have been assigned to destroy this place.” He started to reach into his shirt for the book. He had to get it into the hands of one of the men from the helicopter.
Achlan’s rage reignited.
“These idols you speak of violate Islamic law and must be obliterated. Get out! Get out! Get out!”
Nolan caught sight of wooden boxes filled with dynamite behind Achlan. Beside them was a large spool of coiled fuse and an antiquated electrical plunge-type detonator. Nolan resolved to try again: “If you would just give us two days…”
“Leave.” Achlan said in Pashto. Loudly. His anger was transforming to rage. “You are nothing to us. Soon, this place will be nothing. It is right.” Machmed, almost comedically, shrugged.
The Japanese man spoke. “May I just take some photographs?” he asked. He smiled, meekly, which made Machmed want to laugh. He is cool under pressure, thought Machmed. I like him.
Achlan waved his weapon at the oriental and at his workmate, and whooped. It sent a chill through the air to the visitors. Then he turned to the cloth bags behind him. His bags. Special bags filled with enough explosive to blow up a square mile of homes. Turning back, he shrieked to the whole group, “Make it fast!” He was furious and kept his weapon close, even as he began sorting the materiel—wiring, fuses, the greyish pink clay explosive wrapped in plastic. “Make them hurry!” he shrieked to Machmed. Furious.
The Japanese man quickly tugged out a digital camera and began walking toward the wall of statues, their height the equivalent of a 12-story building. He was snapping photos with the camera. Machmed thought he should act tough, for Achlan’s sake. “Wait. You. Go only with me!” he said firmly to the man.
Nolan began to translate, but Lo interrupted. “I’m okay, George. I get the context.” All the time he kept snapping pictures, zooming in and out for as much perspective and detail as he could grab.
After a few minutes, Achlan fired his Kalashnikov into the air, a loud spray lasting a few alarming seconds. The westerners readily comprehended its message: Time to go. Pushing his black scarf from his face, Achlan turned his eyes to Machmed and the man with the camera. The two other men were walking toward the helicopter, shaking their heads and talking softly.
Time was running out. Machmad knew he had to make the switch—fast and unseen. Then he had an idea. He’d seen it many times before, knew how the man would react. Running up to the man, he pointed his finger at his face. “You are not welcome here… you are an infidel! …” he screamed at camera man.
It was Achlan’s turn to smile. So, he thought, Praise Be to Allah. ‘He is indeed a committed soul. What a surprise.’ What happened next caused the brute to laugh hysterically.
In a flurry of sand, Machmed kicked the small Japanese man’s feet from under him, sending the Japanese’ camo-covered body and his field bag to the ground. Running over to him, Machmed shrieked at his prostrate victim, who was now clutching his camera to his chest defensively. Bending down, Machmed grabbed the man’s shirt.
As he slung his weapon over his left shoulder, his right hand moved under his shirt and fluidly pressed the book and camera as one into the frightened man’s belly. “Go. Go!” he said kindly and firmly to camera man. The man looked confused, hearing English. This was one of Machmed’s safety secrets—his familiarity with another language. Camera man was frozen, expressionless, uncomprehending. Fear, thought Machmed—good. That’s what he needs to feel. Go, his eyes implored again.
Machmed pulled the man to his feet, keeping his hands close as the Japanese pressed the items into his side bag. Achlan began screaming across the makeshift compound. He’d stopped laughing and let out another whoop. Machmed pushed the Japanese man toward the helicopter. Do not even think of smiling, he thought. Just go… go. Now.
As the helicopter lifted off, Achlan was already walking toward the caves. Looking up, Machmed watched the craft rise, turn and disappear with the book. The desert again grew quiet. Machmed thought of a comforting Islamic prayer his Father had taught him, a Dua in the Islamic faith: ‘Oh Allah! I ask you for the understanding of the prophets and the memory of the messengers, and those nearest to you.’
In the distance, Achlan was gruff and serious again. Screaming. “Let’s explode these idiot rocks. They cause too much trouble.” As he pulled himself up the rock face, he looked down occasionally at Machmed pulling the rope down and through the squeaky pulley he had fixed high above the cave. The box it was hoisting carried a satchel of blasting materiel.
To Achlan’s eyes, Machmed’s body grew smaller as he pulled the rope to help lift Achlan and his equipment. When Achlan disappeared into the upper cave, Machmed exhaled and felt peaceful, his face a contrast to the sweaty visage of his colleague. Here was a soul drawn to power rather than intellect; an uneducated man who believed the desert to be as good a teacher as the heavens. Machmed thought about how much of life his companion was missing.
This idea caused him to smile for a moment at his own good fortune for having viewed these great treasures up close, with his own eyes. The statues—with their painted colors and textured marks etched into the stone—and the wall paintings inside, so reviled by other Muslims. A blessing, he thought. He slung the weapon over his shoulder.
Achlan had placed the charges quickly and was lowering himself to the ground. Machmed walked toward the Toyota Land Cruiser, climbed aboard and started the engine. As often as he had witnessed explosions, he found it difficult to get used to their booming and the hisses and shattering sounds that followed. Another blessing, Machmed wondered? Perhaps. He would pray on this matter and speak to his Imam at a later date.
Achlan climbed onto the back seat of the vehicle and wagged a finger at Machmed to drive—fast. The vehicle fishtailed in the sand for a time until it reached a rough, gravelly road. A moment later Machmed felt the booming of the explosion through his hands on the steering wheel and saw a huge brown cloud in the rearview mirror. He flinched involuntarily and continued steering.
He sniffed. In the rearview mirror he could also see the sour, sweaty smelling man with the thick black beard dozing behind him. Soon his slumber became a deep sleep. Allah be thanked, thought Machmed– the open windows were circulating cooler air now.
He was looking forward to seeing his wife. She had always known how to calm him, ease his troubles. An intelligent and lovely woman. Another gift. His thoughts drifted to a distant hope: The quiet reading of a good book, or a conversation with someone intelligent on a new topic … perhaps science, or mathematics! In the next instant he sighed away such thoughts. He felt an emotionless emptiness as he looked over the seemingly endless expanse of undulating sand. Such simple joys, he thought. I may never experience them again. Ever.
After a few more hours listening to the whining of the SUV engine, he would be back in Galalabad. There he would walk and think. And pray.
[i] Bamiyan is the location in Afghanistan of three Buddhas. They were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared that they were idols. More at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhas_of_Bamiyan