By James Seddon
“Conversely, be cautious about allowing Soldiers and Marines to fraternize with local children. Homesick troops want to drop their guard with kids. But insurgents are watching. They notice any friendships between troops and children. They may either harm the children as punishment or use them as agents. It requires discipline to keep the children at arm’s length while maintaining the empathy needed to win local support.”
— Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 section A-36
It was a beautiful morning—sun and blue skies—as I sat at my desk looking out our open office door. The weather was finally cooling and the breeze felt wonderful. I could hear the morning bustle of Kabul, Afghanistan, coming over the wall—car horns and city-hum mixed with birds singing in nearby trees.
Then I saw something I couldn’t comprehend. The picturesque scene outside was blurred into a surreal image. I was seeing a massive shockwave race silently, relentlessly, toward me. The blast wave slammed through the doorway and into my office, pressing me back in my chair, stealing my breath in the process.
It smashed windows, tore things off desks, walls and ceilings and carried with it the loudest, sharpest sound I’ve ever heard. It sounded like the earth itself had cracked open. It deafened me.
When I could hear again, the sounds were of breaking glass, shrapnel hitting around me, curses, shouts and screams. The air was full of dust.
It was not a good day for Kabul—especially the city’s children.
Afghan children don’t know their country’s history is one long, never-ending tragedy. They don’t know they can only expect to live 45 years, and to live those years in poverty. And no one need tell them they’ll know the sights and sounds of combat before they are teenagers.
To grow up in Afghanistan, children must survive sanitation, health care, nutrition and other challenges in one of the world’s poorest countries. They must survive the warfare that has seized their country for more than 30 years. They must dodge the demon of war.
They didn’t seem to realize any of this as they laughed and played. Those who didn’t have to work, attended school.
I loved meeting them and I’m sure part, in part, it was because I missed my own son badly. When I deployed, I lost daily playtime with him.
I had read the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual’s order to avoid dropping my guard with kids, but I made only a half-hearted attempt to follow it.
I met kids all over the country. I handed out candy on the streets of Kabul and outside forward operating bases in the east and south of Afghanistan. There were two farmers’ sons I met very near to the Tajbeg Palace south of Kabul, the location of the old Soviet headquarters. I met several more at the children’s hospital in Kabul. One of the patients was so badly burned he could barely walk, but when he heard we were at the hospital handing out toys, he insisted on walking out to meet us.
I met a Pashtun boy on his bike in the Helmand province village of Nawa in southern Afghanistan. A month earlier the Taliban had controlled his village and school was impossible for him. He had probably observed the battle over his village. I traded a pen for his picture.
The first kids I got to know, and the ones I knew best, were the “street urchins,” at least that’s what my roommate and I called them. About a dozen regulars hung around outside the front gate of our base in Kabul. I tried and failed to learn their unfamiliar, difficult names. Instead, I gave them nicknames—Tex, Runt, Pushy, Bully.
They begged for money or sold trinkets to those that came and went every day—Afghans, international troops, diplomats and businessmen. I made several trips a week to the nearby American Embassy or other U.S. military bases, often on foot. I would pause to hang out with them for a little while before I headed out. More than once my commander yelled at me to leave them alone and catch up with the the patrol.
Pushy—my favorite—was my son’s age, and his nickname described his sales tactics. He had several sales pitches he would try in rapid succession: You should buy his trinket because it was the best trinket on the street…or it was a special price, just for you. Sometimes he displayed reserve stock shown only for “friends like you.” You should buy it because he needed money for school supplies. Other times it was because he needed to buy food for his baby brother. Once it was because if I didn’t buy it his father would beat him. When all I did was raise an eyebrow at him, he couldn’t get the words out without smiling. With skills like that at such a young age, Pushy was destined to be on top of Kabul’s expanding merchant class.
Runt was tiny—the size of a 2-year-old—but we all figured he was more like 8. He never said a word, just stood there in his traditional Afghan jumper and bare feet with his hand outstretched. It was hard not to hand over the money. Often he would appear out of nowhere. I would be alone and look down the street for a moment. I’d look back and he’d be in front of me. I don’t know how he did it.
When I was preparing to leave the base I had a lot to check. My weapon, ammo, armor, first aid and water all had to be attached properly. On top of all of this, I would load up on two additional, critical items—pens and candy.
Kids everywhere love candy. Sometimes kids would gather around you so densely that you could actually have trouble moving. Sometimes the best defense was to grab a handful of candy and throw it behind you, sending the mass scurrying off to scuffle over the bounty and you could clear the area.
However, someone taught me that it’s not candy the kids really want. They’d much rather have your pens. I was in a small village called Ma’Sum Ghar on one of my first trips out into the field with the ambassador. I noticed the embassy photographer had a bunch of kids gathered around him and was trying to hand out a package of cheap plastic pens. It was a mad-house! He said they love pens, though he wasn’t sure why. I can only guess it’s because they’re harder to get than pencils and seem fancy. If you asked, the kids said they wanted them for school, since schools—closed while the country was under Afghan rule—are opening everywhere.
Before, only a tiny fraction of boys—and virtually no girls—were enrolled in school. Most Afghans place a high value on education, including for girls, and the dramatic increase in school enrollment, almost half of which is made up of girls, is one of the few bright spots in recent Afghan history.
While I was escorting a group of congressmen to observe the training of the Afghan army at the Kabul Military Training Center about an hour east of downtown Kabul, I met two children.
We took the congressmen to the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere overlooking some training exercises. Here, Afghan army generals briefed their visitors on the exercises as well as the challenges and successes of the nascent Afghan force. As we climbed the hill, I saw a kid peering out from around the hill and I considered going to talk to him and his friend, but I really wanted to hear the briefing. I decided that, long after my return to the States. I was much more likely to regret not meeting the kids than not hearing the briefing. Separating from the gaggle, I walked around the hill and headed toward the little men.
At first, they thought they were about to get in trouble, though they soon warmed up when pens and candy appeared out of my pockets. It gave me the opportunity to put my Dari language skills to the test, and. through a joint effort, I learned they were cousins–Jawid and Kamshad. They lived in a village almost a day’s walk south of the Jalalabad highway with their family and a dog named Peeshoo. That’s where their school was too. They were grazing their family’s 22 goats that day and couldn’t attend class.
It was clear that they weren’t supposed to be there when an approaching Afghan Army truck sent them running around the hill to hide. I held my finger to my mouth in the international sign of “shh.” They nodded their heads emphatically. I don’t know why. The Afghan soldiers on the hill a few feet away didn’t seem to mind them.
It was spring but the cold of winter was still in the air and at first glance it looked like they were bundled up nicely. Upon closer inspection, their clearly worn-out hand-me-down coats were too big for them . One had an “ISAF” logo on it, the symbol of the International Security Assistance Force led by the Americans. I hoped that was the only way the war would touch him.
The coats didn’t help keep their legs or feet warm, though, and what I hadn’t noticed right away was that their pants were thin, like pajama pants, and they wore sandals. One wore thin socks that were too big. The other wore no socks. They were both shivering while they chatted with me. I felt quite guilty with my feet snug in my warm socks and boots.
They were in a good mood nonetheless. They talked me out of the only money I had—a couple of Euro coins, but I made them promise to share whatever they bought with it, insisting it include new shoes. After ascertaining that I really didn’t have more money to give, Jawid, in the ISAF coat, very secretly revealed something to me. He had three American dollars hidden away. He showed them off, giving me an exaggerated wink and nod. He was rich! I asked him how he acquired such a bounty. As it turned out the Afghan soldiers on the hill had given him the dollars.
There was no demon here.
The kids kept an eye on their goats while we talked and whenever one started to stray they made a strange, loud clicking sound with their mouths that I have never been able to reproduce.
A few hours later I was waiting outside the Presidential Palace with the congressional staffers while the congressmen met with President Karzai. I asked them what they thought about the trip so far and what they were learning. They mentioned that they saw me hanging out with Jawid and Kamshad back at the hill. They seemed more interested in the kids’ stories and their lives than with what the Afghan generals had to say. That seemed entirely right to me. Maybe something about the kids would eventually filter up to the congressmen.
Back in Kabul one evening, I was working my way back to my base alone from the U.S. Embassy. Strictly speaking, this was against procedure, yet I wasn’t the only one who took that hike solo now and then. It was a relatively “safe” area, but it’s just good sense not to travel around a combat zone alone, even on short trips. However, no one else was heading that way and it seemed silly to call someone to come get me for such a short walk.
It was getting dark as I hurried down the road. Pushy, my favorite urchin, was hidden behind a tree and startled me as I walked past. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, counting his day’s sales. Anxious to get back to the safety of my base, I was already thinking about the paperwork I had to finish before I could rest for the night.
“What’s up, Pushy?” I asked, and kept hiking toward the base’s front gate, just a few hundred feet away.
“Commander! Wait! Wait!” he yelled.
“Sorry, not now. I gotta get back to work.” It had been a long day and it wasn’t over yet.
“No, no, no! You stay! I have something special for you! I’ve been saving it just for you, since I know you like bracelets!”
This was probably another sales tactic and not any more truthful than his others. However, when I bought trinkets from him, it usually was the bracelets I chose.
I stopped and looked back. Pushy was making a big show of searching through his pockets for the “special” one. I felt my pocket and found a Euro coin I could give him. I looked up and down the road. It was empty in the gathering dark—no vehicles or people around. The only other person in sight was an Afghan policeman manning his checkpoint not far away.
“Ok, Pushy, but make it quick.” I faced him with my back against a wall and the street in view.
He held up the bracelet proudly. “Two dollar! Special price for you!”
It actually was a bit different than the others I’d bought. It had different shaped beads, black and red, and a fascinating knot tying it together.
“All I have is one Euro. Yes or no?” I exchanged the coin for the bracelet.
“Ok, for you, no problem. Now, I have something else.”
I got a little annoyed and didn’t want to be sucked into another long and sad sales pitch. I walked away quickly saying over my shoulder, “No way, gotta go.”
“Come back tomorrow, I’ll have more!” He shouted after me.
“Insha’Allah,” I shouted back as I flashed my badge at the guard and ducked through the gate.
I dearly wish I had talked with Pushy for awhile. I could have had the Afghan policeman take our picture. Somehow, of all the pictures I took of, and with, the kids, I don’t have one of Pushy. Maybe I could have learned his real name. The reality is, I didn’t give him another thought that night. I rushed to grab dinner and finish my pile of paperwork in time to get a decent night’s sleep.
Two mornings later, I was sitting at my desk looking out the open door at the beautiful day when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his vehicle-borne improvised explosive device within feet of the front gate. The 1,100 pounds of explosives and shrapnel demolished the gate. The blast wave, on its way to me, tore open and destroyed a barracks on our base. It also smashed the Afghan ministry building across the street. The bomber killed at least seven and wounded more than 90. Some of the casualties were Afghan and coalition troops, but as was often the case, most of the casualties were Afghan civilians.
Pushy and Runt were among the children hanging around the gate that morning. They didn’t survive the attack.
Despite my predictions, Pushy did not become a successful Kabul merchant. He didn’t enrich himself plying the ancient trade routes through the Hindu Kush. He didn’t allow his sons to attend school full-time instead of selling trinkets in the street. He didn’t finish school, fall in love or even grow up. Pushy and Runt likely died only a hundred feet from where I bought a “special” bracelet from Pushy two nights before.
Once again the average life expectancy of Afghan males had dropped. The depressingly consistent Afghan narrative of never ending tragedies continued.
Why did Pushy and Runt die?
Was it because Americans like me invited attack with our mere presence? Did I cause their deaths by allowing them near our base? Was it because I didn’t follow the field manual’s guidance?
Did they die because Osama Bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan?
The Taliban attack that morning was just a show of might to prove no polling place would be safe if they could strike this close to the head of the infidel snake just five days before the election. This was why Pushy and Runt traded away the chance to grow up? Did the Taliban find it a good trade?
For me, the most terrifying question of all is, did Pushy die because I didn’t do enough to save him in the moments after the attack? I prepared for a gunfight against additional attackers that didn’t come. I treated wounded Afghan civilians and police at the gate. I searched the wrecked barracks for survivors. What I didn’t do was find and help my little friends.
Maybe I’m searching for answers that don’t exist. In war, it feels like an invisible, uncontrollable and unpredictable force exists—a dark demon prowling the Earth. It snatches anyone within reach, especially the undeserving. It isn’t subject to questions or reasons. It’s random.
Set loose a war and you set loose the demon. We are powerless to stop it. Pushy and Runt didn’t die for a good reason. They just crossed the demon’s path.
Soon after the attack, a care package arrived from my 9 year-old-son. He’d sent a brown lunch bag full of candy and pens. On the outside he had written in crayon, “For your little friends!” How could I tell him that my little friends were gone? How could I explain that the demon took them?
It took weeks before kids started hanging around the front gate again. I had a harder time getting to know them. I’d learned the field manual’s lesson the hard way but, though I tried, there wasn’t much we could do to shoo them away.
I saw Tex a few weeks after the attack. He was still smiling and still wearing his Longhorns cap that was somehow, still clean. Happy to see him alive, I gave him a huge hug.
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