PIECES IN THE SNOW |
January 22, 2007
The streets, the fields, the Market Bazaar, everything as far as the eye could see was covered in a coat of pure white. Overnight a snowstorm had passed through our corner of Paktika, dropping just enough snow to cover all the mud and dirt and garbage that paints the landscape of the town.
I stood on the main road of the normally bustling Bazaar, in an expanse of pure white, staring at a mysteriously vibrant pink and red object. Around me, there were no footprints disturbing the snow except my own. It appeared as if this strange object had been dropped from the sky. It lay there in simple repose -- thin fibrous strands splayed like a peacock's tail feathers along its top. At the base, a stiff stalk of white segments adorned with bright red dollops.
After the initial distraction of marveling at its intricate make up, I refocused on my original purpose in approaching it. I needed to identify what it was. Having now done so, I turned and walked back to my Humvee.
It was the neck stem of a human spine, blasted 150 meters in the air from the site of a suicide bombing minutes earlier. I had been in the middle of a slow, frustrating meeting with my Commander and our ANA counterparts, arguing over attendance numbers, when a very subtle vibration passed through our room. It was gentle and unassuming. With no one even mentioning the distant thud, we continued our conversation until one of my ETT Teammates ran into the room and yelled "We're rolling -- there's been an explosion in the Bazaar!"
Now I stood amid a chaotic scene. ANA soldiers and ETT's trying to organize a wide cordon around the blast site, with rumors spreading of a VBIED (car bomb) still in play, and the confusion of sorting out who was dead, who was wounded, and who was lucky.
These initial moments were pretty tense. Scattered in the road intersection were seven unoccupied vehicles. Any one could be a secondary explosive device positioned to kill the first responders, a classic enemy tactic. As we went about trying to get a grasp on what had happened and what needed to be done, we all were within the lethal blast radius of even a small car bomb.
I found myself nervous, but ironically fighting to contain a smile. I kept expecting a fiery white light to instantly wash me away. BANG! Torn Car metal. Flame.
When none of this transpired, I was happy as a kid on Christmas morning. And every second that there was no explosion, my grin continued to grow. I was just happy to have a few more seconds with no technicolor finish.
This reaction probably seemed out of place, given the random burned and twisted body parts laying around me as I walked through the scene. But no one noticed me. Each of us was in our own little world, trying to process the remaining risks and the results of this suicide blast.
The events up to this point were fairly easy to reconstruct. A lone suicide bomber had walked up to a group of ANA soldiers who had congregated at a street intersection outside of our Base. He detonated his explosive vest, which instantly scattered his mortal remains in a truly random pattern. Ground zero was a large blackened circle where he stood, which instantly evaporated the snow and burned the ground below it.
His head flew straight up, landing about 20 meters away on the hood of a white Toyota station wagon. It rolled off onto the ground, leaving a red smudge and streak across the hood. His heart landed about 50 meters in the opposite direction. It sat there, in perfect condition, as if carefully removed from the chest by a surgeon's delicate incisions. An ANA soldier walked by, and kicked it like a small soccer ball down the road. A gesture of disgust at this suicide attack.
And in my sector of the cordon, I stumbled across the aforementioned spine segment. Wandering another 20 meters, I found the rest of the spine, adorned with the remaining ribs, cracked and splayed like old fingernails.
And in this dramatic yet mundane spot, I spent my day. The sun rose, and the sun set. A cold silent street, randomly speckled with red pieces in the snow, devoid of people, activity, and life, except for the soldiers who remained to secure the scene for the bomb experts. The only other visitors to our grim vigil were gaunt dogs who, smelling the fresh meat on the wind, came to steal a meal from the bones of the bomber.
The silence of this morbid scene was finally broken at sunset by gunshots, and the horrible yelps of a dog caught sniffing around the bomber's head. Shot but not yet dead, the dog was howling as it cursed the irony of locating food, only to die from its lucky find.
Up until this moment, I had spent my day staring at parts of the human body normally hidden from view. I had poked at a large sheet of flesh, covered in goose bumps from laying flat in the cold snow. I had spent twenty minutes within the kill radius of a car that was reported to be loaded with explosives. None of this distressed me in the slightest.
But this dog's continued cries, echoing off the cold and silent market place, hit me like an emotional bomb. They were as painful and solemn as any noise I've ever heard. It's what bothered me the most about today.