Michael's Dispatches

An Afghan Story


District Governor Haji Obidullah Populzai before going on mission with 1-17th Infantry.

Published: 9 May 2010

If normal life were a river, most days would likely be a slow-moving, meandering passage.  But when a life squeezes into the gorge of war, there can be a deafening whitewater, falls and yet bigger falls, slams against stones, falls again and underwater no air and over the falls again and time stretches and compresses and seems to defy normal experience and over the falls again and you drown or don’t.  Some people come out the other side exhilarated and want to do it again and again, while others are terrified, and yet others will just do what needs to be done.  The persistence of the memories wrought would seem to leave clocks drooped over limbs or floating away.

From wars grow countless wild stories, many of which are true.  Even a single witness will hear thousands over the years.  Back at home, the retellings can seem vague, distant, and as soulful as a soleless boot.  But when you are in a war zone with civilians or combat troops, some stories might start like, “Be careful here.  This is where Jimmy got blown up,” and there is still a crater and all the branches are blown off a nearby tree.  Later in the day, “Be careful here, bullets sometimes come through that window,” and there are pocks on the walls inside the room.  The retellings are not secondhand, not ancient, but immediate and pressing.  In the wars, stories are road signs to the here and now, and so you seek out stories not for entertainment.  They are not entertaining anyway.  Few people likely would be entertained by the story of their own death.  “This is where the suicide bomber hit,” and you are standing there, knowing lightning makes habits.

Captain Max Hanlin of Charlie Company 1-17th Infantry was living with his soldiers at the Shah Wali Kot District Center in northern Kandahar Province, and he said to me from across the tent that the District Governor for Shah Wali Kot district had some interesting stories that should be told.  We walked out to the perimeter under the watchful eye of a machine gunner in his guardpost, and around the corner to see the District Governor so that something useful could get out.

On the way from the tent, we walked under this guard post.

Along with translator, Captain Hanlin and I walked into the District Governor’s office, and we sat down to tea and a story began.

This comes through translation.

The Shah Wali Kot District Governor is Haji Obidullah Populzai from Nish District.  In Afghanistan, the last name is often the tribe, and so Haji was from the Populzai tribe.  His wife is from Barakzai tribe.  He had five brothers.  Two were killed nearby.  One brother was killed about thirty feet away from where we sat and the other was killed by a roadside bomb.  Captain Hanlin said that the blown-out hulk of the vehicle used to sit where our mess tent is now erected.

Haji said one brother had been District Governor in Khakrez District.  One day he was ambushed and lost thirteen bodyguards but they had killed four Taliban.  “Why did Taliban attack your brother?” I asked.  Haji said they attacked because his brother was working with government.  “Did the Taliban threaten in advance?”  They did not threaten in advance, Haji answered.  “When was this?”  Six years ago in fall time, Haji answered.  “Where were the Taliban from?”   Two were from Arghandab, one from Khakrez and one from Thari, Urozgan.  He didn’t know where the others were from.  “Were any captured?”  Haji said they captured one wounded Taliban and handed him over to NDS at Kandahar City.  “What happened to him?” Haji said he didn’t know.

The NDS is the rough equivalent of our FBI.  Their methods are reputed to be rough.  I’ve asked British and American officers about the reliability of the NDS information.  Most have said NDS is usually spot on.  The NDS have an office about one minute’s walk from here.

The brother who had been ambushed in Khakrez was killed in a roadside bombing, Haji said, just near here.  Nine family members were also killed, and that was the hulk that used to be located where the current chow tent is located.

And so that was Haji’s retelling of his first killed brother.

“How was your second brother killed?” I asked.  A suicide bomber, in this building.  There was no bombing damage so this was curious but I decided to save that.  “Why was he killed?”  Revenge.

“Why the revenge?”

Haji answered that the Taliban Commander Abdul Hadi, who is Kuchi, attacked this district center one night about four years ago.  They were fighting all night, for hours and hours, and they killed twelve Taliban.  “Were you fighting too?”  Haji said of course he was firing too.  “Was anyone in the District Center hurt?”  Nobody was hurt.  The checkpost just outside the wire was taken.  “Did you get the Taliban bodies?”  No.  Taliban took the bodies.  “How do you know you killed twelve?”  Some weapons and much blood was left behind and villagers saw them.  “And so they killed your brother in revenge for losing twelve in this attack?”  Yes.

Rising moon: observation post just outside the Shah Wali Kot district center.

About three months later revenge came in the form of a young man disguised as a begger.  He had a prosethic leg and it was filled with explosives.  Haji’s brother was about thirty feet from where we now were sitting.  Haji was down in Kandahar City, he said, and called a friend who was standing just here in this room, talking to Haji on the phone.  The friend’s AK-47 was up against the wall just outside this room.  The assassin was already in the building.  Just after Haji hung up the phone, the assassin picked up the AK-47, walked the few steps around the corner and shot his brother in the head.  Six bullets were fired.  A guard jumped on the suicide bomber and his leg broke off and they found the explosives.  Wires ran from the leg up his side but they tore away.

I asked many questions about the assassin.  He was Kuchi from Sulimankhail subtribe of the Khilji Tribe.  Through the translator, Haji said they beat him for three days, and the assassin admitted that the target actually was the District Governor who was in Kandahar City so he shot Haji’s brother instead.  “What did you find on him?”  The assassin had nothing in pockets.  During the torture he admitted he did those things for money, and admitted that the Taliban commander was paying him only to commit revenge and this was his first time.  The translations were getting confused.  At first the translator said that after the interrogation Haji slit the assassin’s throat.  So I asked, “You slit his throat.  Did you cut off his head?”  The translator looked a little nervous and said no, and that the assassin was killed on the first day and was killed by the police before Haji arrived back from Kandahar City.

“Where is the body?”  Haji said they left his body outside for two days so the family would come get it but the family was afraid so a third party came and took the body.  Meanwhile, Haji took his brother’s body to Nish District for burial.

“What kind of explosives were in the leg?”  He didn’t know.

“Where is the leg bomb?”  The police gave the leg to Canadians.

“How were the Canadians?”  Haji said he worked with the Canadians and they were supportive.  The Canadians were very good.  I asked if he remembered some Canadian names and he did not remember.  He said there were different groups of Canadians and so there was no permanent group to work with, but they brought various sorts of work and were helpful.

“How much was the assassin paid?”  One million Pakistani Rupees and this was in revenge for the twelve who were killed during the attack.  “But why would a suicide bomber do it for money?  Was the bomb just the back up plan?”  Maybe, Haji answered, I don’t know.  “Can we go see the bullet holes?”  The bullet holes have been repaired.  “What was his name?”  The assassin’s name was Mohammad Sadiq and was about 23 years old.  He was Kuchi and so wasn’t from anywhere in particular.  His father was living in Suznai Village near Arghandab District but still in Shah Wali Kot.  After family found out the son was involved, they moved to Pakistan.

“Is Taliban getting stronger or weaker?”  Haji said the Taliban are 95% weaker since 1-17th got here because 1-17th came when Taliban were in Pakistan for winter.  (This much was told to me by military intelligence, and so Haji added to confirmation that MI were correct.)  And so this is causing Taliban to react to us, Haji said.  He continued that there used to be a lot of ambushes on ISAF, but now the Taliban cannot hang around in large groups, like 25 guys, because Americans will kill them.  They are afraid of the helicopters, Haji said.  He said they plan to strike mostly with mines and suicide attackers, but have not hit with suicide attackers here yet.  They want to hit us again at this district center.  (The U.S. had said the same, possibly with a car bomb.)

“Where do the suicide attackers come from?”  Pakistan, he said.  “Some come from Afghanistan,” I said.  Haji said two suicide attackers had come from his own Nish District.  They were brothers.  “What were their names?”  One was Adam Khan.  Adam blew up in Helmand.  Adam had gone to Peshawar.  His brother Mohammad Jan is still a policeman, Haji said.  Adam’s whole family is in government.  But Adam went to Pakistan when he was 12 and blew up in Helmand when was 17.  Adam’s father is a good man, Haji said.  Mohammad Jan, the policeman, is very sad that his brother became a suicide attacker.

“Do you have children?”  Haji brightened up when talking about his girls.  He said he had three daughters and they are 2, 4 and 6.  The 4- and 6-year-olds are going to school but no school yet for the baby.  Haji said he had 18 children in the house.  The two brothers who were killed had 9 children so he took them, so with Haji’s three that made a dozen.  “That’s only 12 children, where did the other 6 come from?”  I asked many more questions and the summary answer was that in Nish District, he has grapes, pomegranates, black and white cumin, wheat fields, 12 goats, 8 sheep, and a brother has a horse.  His three surviving brothers run the family farm, and he houses their kids so they can go to school.  The oldest of the 18 kids is 15, and the youngest is the 2-year-old girl.  Haji also has the two widows of his dead brothers and Haji said he is the sole breadwinner.  He liked talking about the kids and said they have a dish (satellite receiver for television) and the kids want to watch television but he only allows them to watch it for a short time, and then only sports.  Never the news.

“How do you like having all those kids around?”  I like it, he said, and smiled brightly.

“How is their health?”  The kids are of normal health.

We had to go so the story ended there.

(Happy Mother’s Day!)

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Janet Smirkee · 11 years ago
    Wonderful story, thanks Michael.

    Wow, can't imagine raising that many children.

    Stay safe ya hear!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Donnette Davis · 11 years ago
    Beautiful Story - thank you! Have re-posted links so that It can be shared with others also.
    Stay Safe, Special Man,
    Always in my thoughts and prayers xx
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenz Gude · 11 years ago
    The kind of post that may still be found in an anthology of war reporting 100 years from now. The immediacy and the humanity are universal, timeless, and arresting. I have never been in a war zone exactly but have spent quite a bit of time in Zimbabwe around the year 2000. Although not as intense and deadly as a war zone the level of social chaos is remarkably similar. The pattern of taking in children and seeing they get schooling is common there. They do whatever it takes - just like your governor Populazi. I also met a 9 year old girl who won a baking contest and then immediately started a business selling her pies. Successful too and she knew her costs exactly. Also a 15 year old boy who ran small corn milling operation. People are far more resourceful that they are generally understood to be.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Shea Brown · 11 years ago
    I wrote this poem today in memory of my great friend Gary Craddock who was a sentry dog handler in Vietnam, who died of stomach cancer last January,, most probably from the Agent Orange that was literally dripping off of trees where he had to patrol.
    There is never a valid excuse for war,, and your efforts to be in a war zone,, and to write about it ,,should consistently send out messages that armed conflicts between nations are not valid,, in any matter or form.
    Simply stated,, there is never a valid excuse for war. Incredible pictures,,but you show no horror.
    It is late,, and I have not read all your messages,, but can we not agree,, that every war is a failure?
    And,, by the way,, can you tell us why U.S. troops need to be in Afghanistan? I would sincerely like to read your answer to this question,, for you are there,, and I am not. Perhaps I understand,, if you are not able to respond in a carefree and cavalier manner. Peace,, it is very possible. If there were no profits in wars,, we would have so many less. I wish I had the same courage to report from a war zone,, for surely, you are braver than I.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Deidre · 11 years ago
    Deaths of loved ones...why cannot we ban cars...why cannot we ban airliners...horses...factories...hospitals...rain forests...so death can be avoided? Why not the same outrage at death from all other causes? Why just outrage at death during war? A man can be at peace within himself in the midst of war. Lack of war does not equal peace. Who would really want to live in a world where our individual and collective freedom is non-existent? Essential wars are fought because freedom is at stake. Individuals die. Land is torn up. Animals slaughtered. Crops burned. Freedom is worth defending even to the point of death. Death of loved ones in war is the lot of many of us...death at a young age...death which left loved ones bereft. But that death worthless? That death a failure? These are my opinions. Do I expect everyone to agree? Do I think that anyone who disagrees is automatically somehow less moral than me? Of.course.not. So, please, no moralizing that the anti-any-war point-of-view is the only good, correct and valid choice. I have forgotten the sound of my lover's voice but I have not forgotten and continue to respect his freely-given sacrifice for me, his country, the Corps. It will ever be so.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gismo Fly · 11 years ago
    If you can sift the junk science and pot smoker philosophy....you will be a man, my son. Remember, there will be wars and rumours of wars untill the end of time and the good soldiers job is to be ready for it. It's up to the politicians to keep the peace not the soldier.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    britsarmymom · 11 years ago
    Shea Brown,
    I'm ashamed to be of your generation. We'll raise our voices in righteous indignation that something must be done for Darfur. Yet after reading Yon's account of Haji's integrity, courage and love of family we attack WAR as the source of evil? I'm disheartened to acknowledge that you and your peers ascended to seats in government. I'm equally reassured to know that veterans who have put their lives between evil and innocents are "coming of age" and running for office. Our generation's Congressman Barney Frank has one such opponent: Sean Bielat. http://seanbielat.org/
    Deirdre, thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barb Mungovan Koch · 11 years ago

    A world away and still adding form and depth to this sculpture of life in Afghanistan. We are able to more clearly see the universality of life, scarred by war, healed by love, mixed with a modicum of fortified vengeance. Families mourn and grieve over senseless loss and violence, while children still need mothers and school, and families.... rally to support each other. Begin each day with words from you enlightening me to how many more could use a prayer. So, thanks again....for your words, and your pictures and your time. No doubt, your words have added depth and understanding and validation to countless mothers.....on this Mother's Day, or any day.....where mothers love, miss, mourn, and fight for family members touched by war. Thanks. lovin' you, BMK
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John Findley · 11 years ago
    Heady words, for certain. If your opinion was more universally accepted in this country we would all now be speaking German or Japanese. At least those of us who are not Jewish, or some other disfavored group, because they would all have been murdered by now. Or we would still have slaves, for their freedoms would not have been worth the sacrifices made. Or we would still be paying our taxes and living under the heel of Britian. But those who have not shared your narrow vision have made those "unjustified" sacrifices so that you may be free to espouse your foolishness, and I hope you enjoy those freedoms so dearly bought.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Daniel W · 11 years ago
    Who doesn't want peace? But wishing everyone were peaceful doesn't make it so. What do you do if there are others who feel like using force upon you? For example, those who would want to make a third reich, or would make a worldwide mulsim caliphate, or are just engaged in blind revenge-seeking? Of course one wants that these find love and peace in their heart and desist their murderous intentions. But sitting and thinking and wishing real hard doesn't do it. And so, it's necessary to have a group of people who can stand up to the ones who do not choose the way of peace.
    Anyways, nuff said about that. Thanks Michael for your continued coverage. You're one hell of a photo-journalist.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 11 years ago
    Your poem reminds me of the works of a celebrated 19th century Scottish poet:

    William McGonagall.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    kelly b · 11 years ago
    shea; you are both right and wrong. right , kind of ..... but wrong mostly.
    while there are very few good reason to start a war,there is every reason to end a war that was brought to your doorstep.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Oma Brown · 11 years ago
    On Friday I received a bunch of flowers for Mother's Day from my son. The card read, "Thank god for the internet otherwise you wouldn't have gotten these. :-) I Luv U Mom, even from Afghanistan. - Me"

    I'm not certain I can as eloquently discuss the pros and cons of war. There is only this fact I truly understand. My son, my only child, is in a war zone for the 5th time in his life. Hopefully he will be 40 this June - God willing. His job is difficult as an EOD tech, he either stops the carnage or wades through the results. He isn't sleeping well and this concerns me greatly. This is the life he has chosen and I am very proud of him. Does this make it easier on me, no. While he is deployed I get very busy so that for periods of time I can have less stress. Does it work... sometimes. I found a poem on the internet and adapted it for a class project (I've gone back to school to stay busy).

    I am a caring mother
    My son is going back to war,
    as he has done so many times before.

    Everyday, I try to keep my thoughts from
    turning black.

    I may be scared,
    but I am proud.

    My son has got your back.

    The explanation was: Time is a bandit, it steals from us, those we love and charish. There are pockets of time; eddies, if you wish, where a river backwashes and stays stagent. When the one you love disappears into the miasma of time; deployment to a war zone reduce the entire family to a holding pattern. Waiting for hime to come home becomes our own personal time warp. "It's astounding. Time is fleeting, Madness takes its toll..."

    This is intensely personal when any of the family is in harm's way. We can debate all we want, those are our rights. They are maintained today by young people like my son and several nephews. In the past, my husbands, brothers, sister, father and uncles. So this Mother's Day, I have the right to make my small opinion public because of my family's sacrifices. I am proud of all of them and appreciate what they have given to this country and the world. It's really all a matter of perspective. What can I do to make things better for my fellow man? My family has chosen to serve. I have chosen to honor them.

    Thank you Michael for the stories, the photos and your books. It makes my days easier.
    Blessings to you and keep your head down!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 11 years ago
    I read the above article and was a little surprised-I never heard of these tribes. In the end, rich men in suits will try and make peace, in a country that still lives in the year 700AD. Will it work? I dunno, it will get worse this coming spring and summer. Where will we stand? In the mix of tribal hatred and people who believe thier GOD wants them to kill those who don't believe as they do. Godspeed Mike Yon
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tracy and Buzz · 11 years ago
    Thank you from the bottom-of-our-hearts for your service, courage, bravery, dedication, honesty and talent in writing. Thank you for telling the stories of our service-members, NATO and the Afghans too. Please keep healthy and safe. We send you our love, admiration and respect.

    Tracy and Buzz, May 9 ,2010
  • This commment is unpublished.
    walrus · 11 years ago
    So as best as I can read between the lines, you came up with this whole philosophy about how unilaterally refusing to fight would end all wars while smoking pot. Hmmm, must have been some heavy stuff...nuff said.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Patrick · 11 years ago
    ...peace without freedom is called slavery.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chris Smith · 11 years ago
    NOBODY likes war, most particularly those whose job it is to fight them. Pacifism comes cheap and easy to those who do not. As someone previously said, when someone else brings a war to your doorstep, the only rational thing to do is respond. Radical Islam (which I differentiate from mainstream Islam) brought a war to our doorstep. They are an implacable enemy, and they want you, Shea, personally, to be dead. And along with desiring your death, Shea, they also desire mine, my wife's, my son's, your mother's, your children's (if you have any), and the deaths of all your other fellow Americans. If you think that a simple refusal to acknowledge that terrible reality and act accordingly is the way to make it stop, then you are dumber than a bag of hair, and about as useless.

    Grow the hell up.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael · 11 years ago
    To those who "believe" in pacifism - perhaps you would like to dwell on this thought:

    Pacifism does not equal passiveism.

    Think about it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ROUGH-JUSTICE · 11 years ago
    Every war in the history of mankind, has been started over economic gain. But once started, the aggressor must promulgate a reason for patriotism, for men and women will not go off to suffer and die for the economic gain of others.

    Since the US has been neither the aggressor, nor the defender since 1898, our government's reasons since then must be something other than those of the aggressor or the defender in the wars into which we have sent troops. As the most militarily powerful nation on Earth, we get to choose our wars and our reasons. We have not entered every war fought over freedom. We enter only wars that threaten our own wealth, or that threaten our own power. Or for one other reason...

    “The first panacea for a mismanaged nation,” said Ernest Hemingway, “is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

    Shea Brown is not wrong to ask his questions. It is the answers that nobody likes to acknowledge. Those of you who criticize him for his questions, and belittle him for his opinions, are the cannon fodder for whom he asks the questions.

    Interesting, is it not ? - for the most part the pi**ing contest about Shea Brown comes from males.

    For the ladies who have written today - Mother's Day in the U.S. - you are the sustenance of generations and the beauty of the Earth. I'm sorry for your losses, grief and worry. But thank you for your gracious contributions.

    Michael - As always, an outstanding piece of photo art and writing. Your chosen path and your contribution to people around the world is incredible. Just one man, walking one path. Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon worldwid · 11 years ago
    Small Wars Journal put this dispatch in PDF form: http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=10 7

    To reiterate, media outlets worldwide are still free to reproduce/translate my 2010 dispatches for a one time use. (Within 0 days of publication.) Price is permalink to: Michaelyon-online.com.

    Michael Yon
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ROUGH-JUSTICE · 11 years ago
    (I think) I understand your thought, Michael, and I agree. Well spoken. I'm not totally sure why you direct your thought to those who 'believe' in pacifism. Those who believe in pacifism would already know it is not the same as passive-ism - would they not ? Shouldn't your challenge to 'think about it' be directed to those who 'do not' believe in pacifism ?

    Dang it ! Here we guys are in the den arguing about war, and we left the womenfolk in the kitchen - on Mother's Day !
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Richard John Brehme · 11 years ago
    Mr. Yon,


    taliban above rock

    08 true

    Lotus Blooms RED

    no taliban
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ROUGH-JUSTICE · 11 years ago
    My bad. You are correct. Had to sleep on it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cosmo · 11 years ago
    Michael - first time I've ever seen those two subjects in the same paragraph. Bravo!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tired · 11 years ago
    "Gen. Stanley McChrystal, facing Obama and Karzai in the front row Wednesday, has said he is willing to let a few killers slip away if it means saving civilian lives." - Fox News

    Just my personal opinion.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenz Gude · 11 years ago
    Yes I agree, Cosmo - that is some opening paragraph. And I think it shows just how hard Michael works to find metaphors that match the intensity of a soldier's experience. And how far outside of conventional journalistic practice he will go to bring us a fuller appreciation of what this war in Afghanistan is like. They have tried to stifle him a few times but he only gets better with practice. Godspeed Michael and stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James L. Owens · 11 years ago
    Read my bumper sticker: Pacifism is a luxury paid for by warriors.

    Michael, be careful. You are doing a great job and I only wish the MSM would run some of your posts.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Shea Brown · 11 years ago
    So, a few months later I come back to this page and read some of the comments,, and I am struck by the wisdom of the
    words of "Rough Justice". Well said Sir.
    I have friends who were arrested in front of the White house recently, and I have a friend working as a military planner for NATO in Kandahar. All of these people believe in what they are doing.
    I wonder if "Rough justice" is a writer himself ?
    I, for one, would like to know where some more of his wise words are to be found.

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