One of those afternoons, a thin little shoeshine boy walked up to me. He was smiling and running his finger across his throat.
"Mother is no more," he said, finger across the neck. "Father is finished."
His name was Nasir and he repeated the phrase in German and French, smiling as he did. "Mutter ist nicht mehr. Vater ist fertig." He dragged the finger across his throat again. Rockets, he said. Racketen. His pale green eyes were rimmed in black. He did not ask for money; he wanted to clean my boots. Then he was gone, scampering down the muddy street with his tiny wooden box.
Kabul was full of orphans like Nasir, woebegone children who peddled little labors and fantastic tales of grief. Youd see them in packs of fifty and sometimes even a hundred, skittering in mismatched shoes and muddy faces. Theyd thunder up to you like a herd of wild horses; you could hear the padding of so many tiny feet. Sometimes Id wonder where all the parents had gone, why theyd let their children run around like that, and then Id catch myself. The orphans would get out of control sometimes, especially when they saw a foreigner, grabbing and shoving one another, until they were scattered by one of the men with whips. Theyd come out of nowhere, the whip wielders, like theyd been waiting offstage. The kids would squeal and scatter, then circle back again, grinning. If I raised a hand, theyd flinch like strays.
If a war went on long enough the men always died, and someone had to take their place. Once I found seven boy soldiers fighting for the Northern Alliance on a hilltop in a place called Bangi. The Taliban positions were just in view, a minefield in between. The boys were wolflike, monosyllabic with no attention spans. Eyes always darting. Laughing the whole time. Dark fuzz instead of beards. They wore oddly matched apparel like high-top tennis shoes and hammer-and-sickle belts, embroidered hajj caps and Russian rifles.
I tried to corner one of the boys on the hill. His face was half wrapped in a checkered scarf that covered his mouth. Abdul Wahdood. All I could see were his eyes. I kept asking him how old he was and he kept looking over at his brother. His father had been killed a year before, he said, but they fed him here and with the money he could take care of his whole family, $30 a month. "My mother is not weeping," Abdul said. I could see how bored he was, and his friends definitely noticed because one of them started firing his Kalashnikov over our heads. That really got them going, laughing hilariously and falling over each other. Two of them started wrestling. My photographer and I calmed them down and asked them to pose in a picture with us, and they lined up and grew very grave. After that they stood behind us in a semicircle and raised their guns, not like they were aiming at anything but more like they were saluting. Then a couple of men appeared on the hilltop bearing a kettle of rice and the boys descended on it. The Taliban came down the road a few months later. Ive got the boys picture on a bookcase in my apartment.
I drove in from the east. I rode in a little taxi, on a road mostly erased, moving slowly across the craters as the Big Dipper rose over the tops of the mountains that encircled the capital on its high plateau. The cars in front of us were disappearing into the craters as we were climbing out of ours, disappearing then reappearing, swimming upward and then out, like ships riding the swells.
I passed the overturned tanks of the departed army, the red stars faded on the upside-down turrets. I passed checkpoints manned by men who searched for music. I stopped halfway and drank cherry juice from Iran and watched the river run through the walls of the Kabul gorge. There was very little electricity then, so I couldnt see much of the city coming in, neither the people nor the landscape nor the ruined architecture, nothing much but the twinkling stars. From the car, I could make out the lighter shade of the blasted buildings, lighter gray against the darkness of everything else, the scree and the wash of the boulders and bricks, a shattered window here and there. A single turbaned man on a bicycle.
Excerpted from The Forever War by Dexter Filkins Copyright © 2008 by Dexter Filkins. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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