It was dawn, 2004, the stars still shining over Shoraback district’s American base on the front line of the Kandahar/Pakistan border. The Marines were monitoring the Afghan National Army who were responsible for keeping illegal activities from the district. Shoraback was well known as Islami Tahreek’s territory, an ant nest for Taliban insurgents. They would sneak in from Pakistan to Afghanistan and swarm.
That morning I drew up my pillow and lay down to sleep. The majority of soldiers were already sleeping when my heart started ticking. A loud siren, an emergency announcement, instructions to take cover, to stay away from the windows. On and on it went, a repeated recording, threatening in its mechanical way. We took our weapons, afraid and perspiring from a probable attack. Everyone scattered.
After a few minutes, we heard “All Clear.” Later we found out that someone had mistakenly pressed the siren. There was no attack. But what concerned me were the few seconds in which I realized that I did not know what to do, which direction to run, whether to crouch, where the attack might be coming from.
He called it, “Mission to Mars.” That’s how it appeared to all of us, even the Afghans.
Around 11:46 a.m. we loaded two H2 Hummers with some IT items, personal belongings, and portable tents. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Stroup was the lead in charge for this delivery and Major Adam was second in charge. I had recently joined as an interpreter with the U.S. armed forces and this was my first mission from Kandahar to Shoraback. After a few days on the site visits, I consistently asked Colonel Stroup to let me be part of the team. He allowed me to work with them; my English was good and he needed it. After getting clearance from Kandahar Airfield, we were told to take the reg (desert) route instead of the main road. With thirteen marines we left the compound, singing the old Marine songs. I did not completely understand the meaning of the songs but hummed along with them anyway. It was a long, boring trip.
Mr. Smith was in the hot shield spot, manning the machine gun on top of our Hummer. It was unusual for this type of vehicle to be outfitted this way; normally hot shields were reserved for military tanks with MK-19 machine guns. First Lieutenant, Brian, forgot to wear his underwear during the emergency “duck and cover” early that morning. We were teasing him, asking, “What will happen if you’re stuck, pants down, in the middle of the battlefield?”
“That’ll be my gift to the enemy,” he said.
We had enough water, Meals Ready to Eat, medical supplies, and a K-9 occupying the seat for sniffing suspicious chemicals. During the trip, we were on alert because anything can happen while driving the mountainous areas, in the crags of those giant rocks.
Just then, Colonel Stroup got a call. A small team was chosen to visit a village en route, one that stood at the top of a mountain, one so steep, they called it a cliff-side dwelling. A humanitarian operation, they called it, after an earlier botched operation in which civilians were wounded. Days earlier, they had seen men carrying RPGs to the top of the mountain.
“We have to do this quickly,” Colonel Stroup announced. “We’re gonna have to pull this vehicle up by hand.” He called it, “Mission to Mars.” That’s how it appeared to us of all, even the Afghans.
The darya, a circular Afghan traditional instrument made from the skin of cows, produced a hollow rhythm. The relatives were singing songs on the old bus making its way from Quetta, Pakistan. One of the old women had pulled her chador back, her mouth full of gapped teeth, and her voice booming, “Ah, Naeem! Naeem! My son, we are finally able to bring your spouse to our home!” They had married just two days before, but because of Naeem’s job, selling shoes that came from Pakistan, the wedding had been a long promise, one that Naeem, in his loneliness, sometimes doubted. The roads from Pakistan had been blockaded while Americans cleared the insurgents from the passes. Now at last, they could travel.
Naeem smiled timidly. His mother was getting carried away. Her face, normally furrowed and full of worry, seemed almost girlish to him as she conducted the bus in their rousing songs. Naeem’s wife was sitting at the back of the bus with the other women, but his mother had come to the front and was now in full command. Naeem’s closest friend, who shared his quietness and always seemed worried about finding work and a wife, was congratulating him, though with a sadness in his voice. Naeem constantly thought of how he could one day put Sajad to work, but having just married, he couldn’t ask anything of his boss.
As the sun began to cut between the sharp angles of the mountains, Naeem’s mother told him that they should continue driving and arrive in Kandahar as soon as possible so they could settle in their family home and make his new wife comfortable. Naeem replied, “Don’t you think we should wait until tomorrow? It’s getting dark and there’s no guarantee that the militia have been entirely removed.” But his mother insisted. She could make her voice sound like a mewling cat and not stop until he complied with her.
Naeem told the driver, “I know a shortcut.” The driver, blowing smoke out the cracked window of the bus, said, “Straight to your bride!” His Pashto was gruff, and he took great humor in his own jokes. The road began to flatten out and was covered with sand. “Aaow waie!” the driver said, the vehicle slipping on the surface. It was rapidly growing dark, and easy for even an accustomed driver to lose his way. After a while, the music stopped. Most of the children were very hungry. The ladies were tired, too, and began resting their heads on each other’s shoulders. The men began to settle in. The driver whispered to Naeem that he was using the stars as his compass.
How could he tell them they were making music? Men and women together, making music?
Five armed people appeared from behind the high, rugged crags in front of the bus, almost 20 meters away, pointing their guns and shouting.
“Come down! Hold it there!” One of the men, covering his face with a handkerchief, gestured with an AK-47 at the driver. Naeem told the driver to keep going, run them over if he had to. Then he changed his mind. His family members were with him and he did not want to jeopardize their lives. Or he did not want jeopardize his. In either case, he finally told the driver to stop. In moments like this, one can never know what the motivations are; the driver had followed the stars and, in that moment, the nervous clarity in Naeem’s voice.
Naeem thought that these armed people would be insurgents or thieves; the difference could be critical. A long silence spread over the bus as the men outside approached and looked in through the windows, rubbing them with cloth, as though they’d uncovered something they’d never seen before, something fallen from space. They just moved around the bus, and the women covered their faces, the driver turned the lights off, but the men used flashlights to continue their inspection. They returned to the front of the bus and forced the driver to open the door. One of them told Naeem to come down. He felt Sajad’s hand clutch his arm, but stood and walked toward the men. A man outside asked Naeem why men and women were travelling together. Naeem recognized their accent, from Uruzgan province, a people that even Pashtuns feared. He took a deep breath, “It’s my wedding party. They are all my family.”
The questioner told Naeem to get on his knees. The sand whipped his cheeks in the night air. From behind the cloth, the man asked, “Why are you carrying the darya?” They had seen it with their flashlights on his mother’s lap.
How could he tell them they were making music? Men and women together, making music?
His mother was impatiently looking outside, but one of the men nearest her window took the butt of his gun and smashed it against the taped glass, cracking it. He then continued to smash out the panes while the women gathered as far as they could, shrinking from his violent thrusts.
Naeem’s interrogator asked him to empty his pockets. His keys, some mixed currency from Afghanistan and Pakistan, a picture of his wife in the thin, nearly empty wallet lay on the sand in front of him, almost immediately engulfed by it. The interrogator didn’t seem interested in the money, and that worried Naeem even more.
“How old are you?” the man said through the muffling scarf.
“Why are you marrying so old?” There was a strange softness in the interrogator’s voice that might have been the whistling of sand, the elements that would remove the traces of whatever was to come.
“Sir, I am just a shoe salesman. It has been very hard to make the money for the wedding.”
From behind Naeem, another man locked his throat in a tight hold, nearly suffocating him. A sudden sharp pain came from his Achilles tendon. Someone was trying to saw his foot off. He heard his wife and mother screaming, and then the sound of two shots, and that whistling of the wind. Laughter came from a man on the bus, and Naeem imagined he could also hear the stunned, blood-soaked silence of everyone aboard, the sound of people wishing they could drown in their own breath. The pain in his foot, as they began to cut through the bone and twist it from his ankle, made him fall face forward on the ground, inhaling the sand. He had never imagined that pain could be as wide as the sky and full of burning holes, like its stars.
One of the men mounted him, wrestling his pants down and forcing himself into him. Sajad, motivated by his own life of humiliations, hollered out, the first to break the silence of the mesmerized passengers. In a moment, Naeem could see his friend being guided from the bus by his ear like an Eid sheep. The man forced Sajad to put his head a few feet from the front tire of the bus, his gun at his temple and his foot on his chest. He hollered to the driver, “Move ahead until I tell you to stop.”
The driver, hearing the people on the bus yelling for him not to move, and a man behind him pushing a muzzle into the back of his balding scalp, turned the key in dumbfounded silence. The bus shook into gear, and suddenly they all heard Sajad’s voice, weak and tearful, not the voice he would have wished for when he first spoke out against Naeem’s humiliation. “Please stop! Please don’t drive! If you believe in Allah, please!” Tears ran from his eyes, blurring the already blurry night.
But the bus moved slowly toward him until he felt it pressing against his ear, his hair pinning him down. When the insurgent hollered to stop, the bus still moved forward, crushing his windpipe and half his face. The insurgent called the others to look at the eye that had been disgorged from the socket, and to listen to the gurgling of Sajad’s throat. “Again,” they shouted, and those still alive on the bus, felt it go over the head like a melon in the road.
One by one, the insurgents asked everyone off the bus, demanding complete silence. Naeem’s wife and mother were already slumped forward, the blood still pouring from the holes put in the middle of their foreheads. The blood ran around the rusted legs of the bolted seats, and each person added to the bloody footprints through the bus, as though painting its floor. Beneath a rusted seat, the darya was drying in it.
He took out his chako and followed the base of her spine up to her neck. In one quick gesture, he removed the spine from her skin, with her yelling out into the blackness.
The men and boys went first; there were fifteen of them, the boys stoically holding their father’s laman. Some fathers led their boys, hands on top of their children’s heads, as though they had set out to celebrate. One at a time they were led to different points around the bus where small glints of the stars touched the sand. The insurgents didn’t waste their bullets. They slit the throats of the fathers first, knowing that a father might imagine his son surviving, knowing that it was a father’s obligation to show courage.
The boys were then dispensed with, some raped before they were dismembered, arms and legs tied, and stomachs opened with chakos, long serrated butcher’s knives. Tongues, penises, fingers, ears were brought to different places and planted in the sand, small, tilting pyramids of flesh.
Then, unable to get them to move silently, the women and girls moved off, moaning both in mourning and terror. Naeem’s aunt went first. Her name was Shukria. With her sister slumped and bleeding beside her, she walked toward death with a greater willingness than the rest. She had never seen her sister so happy; and it was she who had brought the darya. Fortunately, she had never had children, so there was no one to explain to, no one to impede her walking. When she exited the bus, she thanked Allah that she had no child who would witness the gore or who would survive it and have to carry its memory. A man holding a scarf over his mouth—none of these men tied their scarves around their faces, but held them, as though the wind carried poison on it—took her arm and pushed her in front of the gun’s muzzle, digging it into her lower back. He walked her farther than most. When the bodies were discovered, the women were the last to be found, as all of them were taken to more remote areas surrounding the bus. She may have expected to be raped, or worse, gang raped, but her assassin did not touch her. He asked her only to sit facing the mountain. He took out his chako and followed the base of her spine up to her neck. In one quick gesture, he removed the spine from her skin, with her yelling out into the blackness.
The other women and girls were not raped, but similarly filleted like fish, their spines removed, or their intestines lifted from their slick wounds. The youngest girls were killed while their mothers watched, and sometimes, if a mother turned away, the chako was used under her neck to turn it in the direction of the daughter’s assault.
The murderers gathered, laughing and leaning on the bus. The last shot was unceremoniously reserved for the driver. His death was like an afterthought, not worthy of the gross abuses they had unleashed on the others.
The stars were moving rapidly. The killers could read the messages of the stars on the sand. They had learned to read the simple world of the wind, the spare trees, the tracks of snakes, light and dark, life and death, though they did not know on which side of these worlds they existed.
By the time we made it to the village on the cliff, it was already late afternoon, and a silence engulfed us all, a silence that, for this translator, was deeply worrying, for it had no whispers on it, nothing to discern. Colonel Stroup was the first to speak. “Javid, what’s your gut telling you?”
“I’m hungry, but my stomach is saying ‘no MRE tonight.’”
The men were taking turns getting out of the Hummer and putting stones behind its back tires to keep it from slipping. One man was required to stand in between the banks of headlights, shouting out where to place the stones; the visibility was that low. The ascent left us exhausted. When we finally arrived at the top of the mountain, it looked as though someone had hacked off its peak. The sudden, gray flatness of the area was stunning. We stopped, all five Hummers idling with our lights on.
A few mud houses had cooking flames already in the kitchen windows, and the air was frosty; you could feel the ice in it. Some children ran out, barely clothed, wearing the kamiz, or long Afghan shirt, but no partoog, or traditional pant. The boys ran straight to the Hummers, carrying stones in their hands, and began throwing them at the vehicles, knocking out two lights. “Shut ’em off,” Colonel Stroup hollered. Then we heard the stones falling on the hoods, but at least they had stopped aiming for the lights. “Javid, tell them they have to stop.”
I was standing with my head emerging from the hot shield, and I reprimanded the boys roughly, “Ma Kawaie!”
One of the boys hollered back, “Konaa ma shlawa!”
“What’s he saying?” the Colonel asked.
“Well, it’s kinda not welcoming. It means, ‘Don’t fuck with us.’”
“Don’t fuck with us?” The Colonel’s indignation hadn’t reached its full force. “Don’t fuck with us? After we come this far out of our way to provide medicine and food to these people? Tell him to go fuck himself. Get these asshole kids out of here.”
I didn’t tell the kid to go fuck himself, but the words formulated in my mind, worza kona warka. Instead, I just told him to get the elders, masharan.
“Masharan ghaie aw ka sapakaie!”
“What’s this idiot saying?”
“Well, sir, he wants to know whether we’re going to fuck the elders, or what? This kid’s not happy with us.”
“Well isn’t that a shame. I guess Santa gave him shit for Christmas. Warn him that if the elders don’t show up, we’re coming in.”
Another group of younger boys, one with a cracked tooth and another with sores on his face, were fighting over what at first I assumed was a toy, but later realized was a dead pigeon on a piece of kite string. Colonel Stroup, tired of the lack of elders, started hollering. “Get them the hell out of here!”
One of the boys swung the pigeon on the string and let it go, hitting the windshield and scaring First Lieutenant Brian out of his stupor.
I heard him say, “What the fuck just hit us? A dead pigeon?”
“Well, there seems to be a miscommunication.” I didn’t want to tell Stroup that this elder was telling us to get our stupid asses out of there.
When I told the kids that they were seriously in trouble, the one who’d thrown the bird was standing with a hand on his hip, just smiling. None of them seemed the slightest bit concerned about the armaments on the vehicle. In fact, we worried they would climb onto the vehicle if we allowed them to get any closer.
Just then, an old man ducked out of one of the small doorways. He wore a large black paj, a turban I’d seen worn by many Taliban. He was unstable on his legs, but walked determinedly with his cane. He used the cane to smack the boys, who suddenly seemed compliant and even afraid of him.
“Zai Khar Kosano!” he shouted.
Stroup asked, “What’s he saying?”
“Well, there seems to be a miscommunication.” I didn’t want to tell Stroup that this elder was telling us to get our stupid asses out of there. I wasn’t sure why I hesitated, except in that moment, I thought I could talk the old man down, and that I could keep Stroup from getting impulsive. I also felt embarrassed. I’d never encountered people like this, wild people, who did not at least attempt to extend hospitality.
I told him respectfully that we’d come to deliver medical supplies and food; that there’d been an accident, and that any problems that they’d experienced as a result of fighting could be compensated. I told him that we needed to know what the village’s needs were.
The man ground his cane into the earth. I saw his fingers so cold they were split at the knuckles and his face took on the contours of the land, its coarse and pitted stone craters.
The man said to me, “We have no need for anything you’ve brought us. You have thirty minutes to leave this village or else you will face death like cowards. No one is welcome in this village unless I invite them. You tell your American whore bosses they will be fucked by our donkeys while we drink tea.”
I had never heard an Afghan speak to me this way, with the confidence of the entire village behind him, and I felt my cheeks blush and my temper flare.
I asked him if all of these kids were from the daughters he fucked.
Stroup, angry with me, called out. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“We’re having a nice conversation. He’s granting us thirty minutes to get the hell out of here. He refuses to take anything from us.” Though I knew I was breaking the code of conduct by not translating exactly, I suddenly didn’t trust Stroup or the elder, not if it got really heated or if Stroup decided we were going to insist on going in. I thought I would just let him know that we should probably not engage with him.
“Are you kidding me? This shivering old man wants everyone in his village to go without any food or medicine? He must be crazy. We’re going to leave them supplies.”
“Sir, if I can suggest, they don’t give a shit about the supplies and it could get ugly if we don’t honor his request.”
Stroup said, “I’m letting you have this one. If these people don’t want us in, we’re going out.”
The vehicle turned around, as slow as a beetle attempting the same maneuver. As we approached the sharp descent, we turned on the bright lights and still could barely identify any valley beneath us. It seemed we could slip off the face of the mountain easily, rolling into its depths as naturally as a large stone. Brian, who worried about the kids throwing more rocks at the Hummer, started honking. The sound of the horn in those mountains echoed back after a long delay. It was mournful, like the sound of human moaning, as it returned to us.
Stroup asked me if I had ever seen lunatics like that before.
“Hell no,” I answered. But I’d heard of groups of people like this, remote, wanting to remain apart and live without law and, in that way, without fear. I had grown up in the district, miles away from where our vehicle had just climbed, but word came down that the hills held people, some of whom my parents had warned me were not even converted, and were not discernible to God.
We heard the sound of gravel under the wheels as our Hummer hit flat road. We could see only inches in front of us, and it seemed the sand was creating apparitions, dancing before the windshield and making Brian anxious. “Fucking place,” he said, leaning forward at the wheel.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he answered, looking at me angrily. Just then he leapt back and slammed the brakes. We saw the hulk of the bus before us, the shattered windows, but none of the bodies. The empty bus provoked Brian. “This fucking place is full of ghosts.”
Stroup called, “Hold your positions!” We had our arms ready. Stroup called, “Lights out,” and the few remaining headlights shut off. We could hear the wind and then that terrible moaning.
Brian said, “Someone’s injured, Colonel. Should we look and see what’s happened?”
Stroup said, “We’re not authorized. It could be a plot. We stay down, let them act first, but stay alert and put on your scopes.”
With our night vision lenses, we could see a figure squirming in the sand. It appeared to be trying to escape; then it stopped. The moaning became words. “Help me. Help me.”
“Talk to him, Javid. See if he’s one of yours. But stay low. We’ve got you covered.”
I called out in Pashto, “Sok yai?”
“Naeem,” he said. “I speak English. They’re gone. Everyone’s gone.”
I asked in Pashto how many had been there, what had happened. I reported to Stroup that a wedding bus had been attacked and he didn’t know if there were other survivors.
I asked Naeem if he spoke Dari, thinking if he did, it would be less likely that insurgents in this area would understand him. I wanted him to tell me whether he was bait.
“Aya kase dega hanoz ham ast?” Is there still somebody around?
“Nai, kase naist,” he answered in Dari.
“I think he’s clean,” I told Stroup.
“Send out the canine,” Stroup said. “Tell your friend not to be frightened.”
The animal leapt out and began sniffing for ammunition and IEDs. It moved around the bus and returned after a short while.
“Area cleared. We’re going out. One at a time. Split it up, circle the bus, clean it out, and cover each other’s asses.”
“Brian, stop holding your dick and get the hell out,” Stroup said.
Brian looked terrified. He stepped out, crab walking and aiming in all directions. “I got a body,” he called.
“I got a body here.”
“I got another one here.”
The calling continued, as I squatted down beside Naeem. He tried scrambling away at first, his mind disordered, panicked, but his eyes wide and begging. “What happened?” I asked, but I could see he was unable to speak and I saw the wound then, with my goggles up above my head, gushing into the sand. And then I saw the foot, still in its shoe, about a meter behind him. “I’m gonna tie this up and stop the bleeding. I need you to remain still. I’m going to tear off a piece of your shirt.” I took out my Leatherman and cut the fabric. Just then I heard retching.
“What the hell’s going on out there?” I heard Stroup ask Brian.
“I found something, Sir. You need to see this.”
In a pile, like sea anemones, the boys’ penises were dusted with sand and, in the starlight, bluish. The fingers, a few meters away, rested on each other, like many hands patiently folded. Stroup called me over. “What the hell is this, Javid?”
I stood looking at the bloodless digits. “How the fuck should I know? I got a man with no foot over there.” I had no expression in my voice. The entire scene became unreal to me; it was not a military engagement or anything I’d been trained to understand.
Then we heard Naeem say, “They took them to the mountains.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The women,” he said. “My wife. My sisters.”
We fanned out around the place as though it was another planet and we were seeking samples. I imagined the Mars rover, and thought perhaps this was why I felt nothing, because I was merely wires and lenses, something created by the Americans to scope out new worlds. This is what I was thinking as I covered the landscape with my flashlight. And then I saw the first woman, her spine lifted out of her back like the fin of a fish. Then the others, still clothed but for the gleaming of their spines. And Brian retching, crying like a child.
During the months I considered leaving, I remained at the sea floor, continuing to visualize those body parts in the sand, that bus we had come upon that looked as rusted as a drowned ship.
Stroup and Brian eventually helped me load Naeem into the Humvee. His eyes were rolled up, still producing tears, and his hands clenched. I tried to talk to him, to comfort him in his language that I took to be Pashto. But he winced at the sound of it and again said he spoke English.
“We’re going to get you help,” I told him. What from, I still was unsure.
Ten months later I officially resigned from the U.S. armed forces. Stroup was sorry to see me go. Brian was discharged; it wasn’t clear if he’d left for psychological reasons. He may have claimed something else, but even returning that night with Naeem, his behavior seemed erratic and fidgety, and I didn’t blame him for fearing every gap in the mountains, every loose grain of sand sweeping over the vehicle.
During the months I considered leaving, I remained at the sea floor, continuing to visualize those body parts in the sand, that bus we had come upon that looked as rusted as a drowned ship. Without concentration, I could do nothing, not even close my eyes and rest.
I’d heard that Naeem was transferred to a good American military hospital at Bagram. The day before I would have to turn in my uniform, I flew from Kandahar to see him. It was, they told me, a good day for Naeem. They had fit him with a prosthetic foot. He was walking on it with crutches when I entered the physical therapy wing of the hospital. I introduced myself as the person who’d found him. He sat down beside me. “I know who you are,” he said.
He pulled a box from beneath the bunk and lifted the paper off a new pair of shoes. He seemed uninterested in speaking with me and instead worked the shoe onto the prosthetic.
I joked, “It won’t pinch if the shoe doesn’t fit perfectly.”
“You’re right,” he said. He smiled for the first time.
I sat for a few minutes watching him, then asked what I’d wanted to ask from the moment we discovered him. “Who did this to you? Were they Taliban, Hakani, insurgents?” I don’t know why it would have mattered then; I was done with the battlefield.
He stiffened. “They weren’t people; they had no identities. They weren’t animals. They were like shadows that pass across the mountains.”
Khalid Ahmad Atif served as a translator for U.S. forces in Afghanistan for three years. “The Sea Floor,” while utilizing the broad experiences he encountered with the military, is fictional. He did, however, leave his translation work after witnessing the aftermath of a bus massacre. The transliteration in this story, his first work of fiction, is of a distinct Uruzgani dialect, from the area in which he grew up.
“The Sea Floor” appears in The Gifts of the State and Other Stories: New Writing from Afghanistan, forthcoming from Dzanc Books and edited by Adam Klein, author of The Medicine Burns and Tiny Ladies and singer of the band The Size Queens.