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 Photo: Ray Nayler
 Photo: Ray Nayler

Afghanistan: A Very Short Walk in Bamyan
By Ray Nayler

About forty meters from the hotel, standing in the middle of a snowfield, I freeze. I simply cannot move any further; panic has gripped me. The onset has not been sudden; it began as a feeling creeping into my legs, an anticipatory feeling, as if at any moment it could happen. I could step on a landmine. Now the panic overwhelms me. I find I cannot take another step.

It is early morning in Bamyan, Afghanistan in winter. My room at the Roof of Bamyan had been so cold that I woke with the dawn. When we arrived in Bamyan, it was –20◦ Celsius. Usually I am a late sleeper, but the wood stove had gone out, and the cold seeped in through the zipper of my sleeping bag and woke me with its teeth. I was restless: I had to move. From our hilltop location at the hotel, I was sure I could find a way down to the niches where the great statues of the Buddha used to be, the statues that had been tank-shelled into non-existence by the Taliban.

I stand in the middle of the field. Radiating out from me are vague paths shuffled through the white by human feet; there the trampled snow is tinted brown from the feet that have passed before. I remember one of the recommendations about landmine safety: walk in the tracks of others. Some of the paths lead back uphill toward the hotel or across the field to another cluster of mud-brick buildings on an adjoining hillside. Others lead downhill toward a small stream. From there I could cross a footbridge into the lower town and make my way to the cliff face. Maybe.

We entered Bamyan through a steep defile full of frozen dust, the colors muted by twilight until everything inside and outside the car was variegated shades of brown and gray, including our faces and arms. Dust filled the Toyota 4Runner, filled our duffel bags, filled our mouths. We had been travelling fourteen hours up through the river valley, past villages of mud-brick clinging to the cliffs, irrigation channels funnelling water in the ancient way to hand-tilled fields, over the passes from Kabul. Near the town we were stopped and searched by friendly, well-accessorized Kiwi soldiers. They looked relaxed and comfortable. Here in Afghanistan they had landed themselves perhaps the cushiest of NATO jobs: protecting the Hazarajat, possibly the most pro-NATO and anti-Taliban region of Afghanistan.

My friend Dave had a funny story about almost stepping on a landmine. He had gotten out of the car to relieve himself. Everyone else was just going off the pavement, but he wanted a little American privacy, so he went behind what was left of a mud-brick wall. When he looked down at the dust he was darkening, he saw it—a landmine, half-uncovered, about 20 centimeters from his left foot. He remembered the advice he had been given: Step on the grass. Grass won't grow on a landmine. He could make his way back to the car safely by stepping only where the grass was. Only there was no grass.

You see the big-shouldered US soldiers all lined up at the side of the road, peeing off the pavement together.

There's nothing heroic about losing a leg to a little metal enemy in the dirt. It's impersonal. It may not even have been meant for you. It might even be left over from a war where the ideologies—the ideas being fought over and died for—had ceased to be relevant. A communist landmine. Killed by an anachronism. What could be more ridiculous?

It is very quiet. There are almost no birds this high up in the cold mountains in winter. I stand there for a moment and shiver—actually shiver—from fear. It is the first time I have truly been afraid in Afghanistan.

We were here to interview high school students, to send them to study in the United States for a year on a government-sponsored program. We had interviewed ten kids—seven boys and three girls. You didn't know what to ask them, looking into eerie green eyes set in faces too weathered-old to be in high school. The question bank for the interviews had been written on another planet.

"What is the most difficult thing you have ever had to do?"

This starts a story about how the Taliban came, and his family hid in a cave in the mountains for three months without food. The Taliban were killing the Hazara men in the bazaar.

When you ask this question in Russia, the kid usually responds that he placed second in an English contest. But it's okay: the next time, he tried harder and got the coveted first place.

The girls come accompanied by brothers who sit drinking tea while you made small-talk with their sisters, the young girls' faces framed by white headscarves.


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