Preparation for explosive charges in the desert is a hot, dusty business. Discomfort is normal. Sand in your clothing, cuts from wire, wood boxes, even paper cuts from ballistics wrapping are your best friends. Each slight irritation is heightened as the temperature climbs to 45°C in a windless world of sand, especially when you’re wearing dark clothing; body-length cotton tunic, in white, loose black pants tied with thick fabric, a dark vest and a thick tan turban. And your load? You’re packing a shouldered automatic weapon as you clamber 40 meters up a vertical rock face.
High up and tucked back inside the cave, the man turned a diamond-tipped drill. It was relatively cooler there inside the high cave. The lack of air circulation helped keep the heat out, but not the bitter almond odor of decay. Machmed’s knees gripped the curved head of one of the three giant Buddhist sculptures in Bamiyan.[i] It was nearly as large as his house in Galalabad. He felt grateful to Allah that the cave reduced his exposure to the sun. The job here was simple and elegant–to carve out a series of perfectly cylindrical holes nearly as large as his fist. The other man, Achlan, the technician, would lay the charge.
It was up to Achlan to prepare the explosives, their wiring, and the detonators and place them in the holes Machmed had drilled. This hole was the last. The other holes around the ears and eyes of the giant stone Buddha were ready for packing, and this last pivotal hole would receive the crucial charge that would split the great stone head.
Two others had been working with Machmed, but they were ordered to join a group returning to Kabul. They had jumped aboard the Toyota pickup and left without so much as a wave.
No wonder. The men had barely spoken. These were not friendly people. Just as well. Machmed had resisted becoming close to anyone in this group. Being here was simply expedient. He had decided it was the only way to have any stature in these harsh times. His wife had begged him not to. Then it was simply too late. One night they appeared at his door. Praise Allah that he had answered the door, and not his wife. She was educated, like him, but feisty. She might have shared her true thoughts. And that would have been very bad.
“Are you finished your drilling?” Achlan screamed from far below. Machmed thought: He’s in a hurry now. He turned to see the sun, still bright, but no longer high in the heavens.
“I am nearly done!” Machmed replied. He wondered if he had sounded too scolding. After all, he was inferior in standing to this man—here in the desert, anyway. In Machmed’s previous life, all of these men might have worked for him in construction of one of his designs. This man Achlan was likely a close family member to one of the Mullahs. Machmed himself got his position because someone took note of his architect’s knowledge of buildings. It was how things worked, now.
Achlan scrunched his face and looked up. He saw nothing. He only heard the deep mechanical whooshing of a fast approaching motor grow incrementally clearer and louder. The chop-chop-chop vibrations of the blades now shocked the air and ricocheted about the massive rock formation in all-consuming sound.
Inside Machmed had strained his ear. What was that–a helicopter? He rushed to the opening that overlooked the expanse of desert at Bamiyan. He could see Achlan below, looking up toward the sound and squinting in the sunlight. This was an inconvenience. After decades of occupation, few Afghans felt any strong emotion. In the past, a helicopter would have been cause for fear and would have torqued a deep rush of adrenaline. No longer.
Both men had been trained to observe, then weigh the situation. Then kill, in victory. Only then would they act, and always in Allah’s name. Machmed blew off the rock dust and dusted the larger fragments with his fingers. He smiled. His work was done. The hole was complete. Perfect. He picked up his muslin bag and placed the tools inside. But as he turned, he noticed something in the dust at the back of the cave. Achlan yelled again from below. Urgent now. Maybe a bit nervous.
But Machmed was distracted by something that drew him to the back of the cave.
His workman’s hands gently brushed at the dust, recalling his previous, gentler life. A box? A package? He sat down and carefully untied the string around the object, pursing his dry lips to blow the dust away as his fingers loosened the soft thick string. As he lay the string aside, his thumbs moved under the fabric several times, unwrapping the layers. What it revealed disappointed him at first.
As the last, when the cloth fell open, Machmed was filled with glad recognition. Oh, how he missed this feeling. He stared at the cover of a book. A very old one. Gently opening it, he saw yellowed pages, brittle and powdery. It was written in a language that was vaguely familiar to him—a series of symbols. There were some French references, and Latin. But the writing was mostly in English, he turned more pages. There were drawings. Some of the sketches were done in bright colors. These caused him to smile. There were several columnar tables, numerous circles and spirals, some were pointed, some moved right off the page! Most of the writing and illustrations were drawn in brown ink. Several were very beautiful, he thought. Involuntarily he shivered, ever so slightly.
Thoughts about beauty made him uncomfortable these days. It was a hunger inside more profound than anything he could remember.