Service Of Life

Entry by: Zanna

27th April 2018
The Encounter

The battle cry was heard in high spirits on my own land but now with the raining of arms, the heart was not as valiant as it should be on this foreign land. I did not join the army to kill soldiers although they were my enemies. My aim in my life was to be of service to my comrades here on this battlefield and to anyone who needed medical aid.

My heart sank when I heard of the Kandahar massacre that happened a week ago on 11th of March, 2012. A US Army Staff Sergeant murdered sixteen civilians and wounded six Afghans. Nine of them were children. I knew him since we came from the same neighborhood in Ohio but I had no contact with him until I met him in February. I had been here since 2011 being assigned by the US Special Operations in Afghanistan as a cultural mediator but my core work was to serve as a trauma surgeon at the medical camp here. I racked my brain wondering whether I could have seen some signs to stop the terrible atrocity. My whole body trembled as I felt as if I was bare-knuckled out of the ring of humanity. The punches that knocked sense into me were buzzing in my ears. Why did I feel cold perspiration running down my spine? Why was I blaming myself when I had nothing to do with it?

A heavy air of gloominess hung in Panjwai where the killings took place as mourning prevailed after the Muslim burial rituals. The lips of relatives voiced out the dying of their loved ones as fate but grief-stricken hearts could not accept it as such because they blamed the presence of soldiers even if they were there to fight against the Taliban's uprising in Afghanistan. I remembered the words of the mother, Safia, who had died in the brutal slaughter: 'Sufferings have been embedded in our lives. Here, the music of joy does not come from the heart because even a lullaby is sung in fear. Sound of blasting rockets and explosions have instead become the cursed music in our lives!'

In January 2012, Safia's family had welcomed me into their house. It was their custom to welcome guests with respect and to offer food and drinks. I removed my shoes at the door. I was invited to sit on the floor and to dine with the family. It was a simple hearty meal of naan, a flat bread; Badenjan, an eggplant dish; Shorba, an Afghan soup; Lassi, a sweet yogurt drink and tea. I was not used to eating with my hands but I managed somehow. Her son, Azfaar who spoke reasonably good English, Pashto and Dari worked as a translator at the medical camp. I would be at a loss without Azfaar, an eighteen-year-old lad who helped me to communicate with the Afghan community and learn their customs. We had grown to be friends though I did not treat him as a buddy when working.

The head of the family, Abu-Zar shared stories of his life as a farmer before he became disabled after being shot in a crossfire. He spoke of the hardship experienced under the Taliban rule. Abu-Zar said, 'My daughters had to stop schooling because girls were not allowed to pursue an education.' He looked at his girls with loving eyes and continued, 'Sanaz here wants to be a doctor. She wants to be like you giving service of life.' His voice trailed off to a whisper and then bloomed with excitement. He kept pouring tea into my cup.

Just days after the tragic episode, sorrow had changed into rage for the villagers blamed the rich countries with power of creating a war whereby innocent people, their flesh and blood, were wounded or killed. Like in a game of chess, they were pawns that were sacrificed in a game of war. They were casualties of war in which their existence were merely recorded as numbers. I wondered how many lives had to be perished before peace had a chance to sweep across the land.

Sergeant Jasper who brought in a soldier with a battle injury to the medical camp warned me of violence from the local people. And he said, 'You should realize by now that you don't belong here. Why put yourself and others in danger here? The military has made a wrong judgment by sending your kind here! But you're welcomed to my quarters, at least you could put yourself to some good by entertaining the boys!' He laughed mockingly.

My eyes blazed and I told him,'Go screw yourself!' I left in a huff to see to the soldier with a bullet wound.

After performing his Fajr prayers at his mosque, Azfaar, wearing a long white cotton shirts that hung over his baggy trousers and a kufi cap came to the medical camp and met me saying he would not be returning to the camp to work. I wanted to hug and wish him my condolences but he was in a hurry and never looked at me in the eye. He even returned the books I lent him. There was a deep sadness that came out from his throat as the hoarseness of his voice was a testimony of a wounded heart. His cold demeanor cut deeper than words.

It was midnight and the temperature had dipped especially when a cold breeze nestled in the medical camp. Like Florence Nightingale, I moved from a soldier with an amputated leg to another who was blinded in his left eye. I did not carry a lamp like her but there was something that glowed here and I think it was hope. Some faces grimaced in pain, some had blank looks and some revealed a serene hue while fast asleep. After the routine check, I was ready for bed. My eyelids closed but the sound of footsteps woke me up. Walking to the doorway, I stood there peering into the darkness. The sky was a blotch of dark blue ink bleeding and spreading out wildly. In this part of the world, quietness was a rare joy at night with the silence being broken by the howling wind passing through the desert; whimpering cry of the men in my care; or sounds of gunshots. I heard the calculated footsteps again and I caught sight of a shadow. I was about to raise the alarm when I recognised the lean figure.

'Azfaar, what are you doing here? How did you get pass ...?' He hushed me with a gesture.
'Dr. Lily, I cannot be seen here. Can we go somewhere?'
'Sure, let's go to the room at the back,' I said while pointing to the room where I did my surgeries.
'No, I cannot be seen in a room with a woman.'
'We keep the door open,' I said with an authority in my voice and he nodded.

On my way to the room, I caught a glimpse of me in the glass door of the white medicine cabinet. The reflection took me by surprise. Auburn hair was styled into a pony tail and my blue eyes stared back at a stranger where I had changed from a scrawny timid girl in my teens to a bold trooper but now I did not seem to recognise myself. I must not reveal the trembling of my hands.

When we were seated facing each other, he said, 'My heart hurts a lot...' At that point, I tried holding his hands but he pushed my hand away. I steadied myself on the chair while feeling remorse because I could not cure his pain. His tears flowed wetting his cheeks and lips. And I cried with him. He then let me touch his fingers and slowly I clasped both his hands. Calmness filled our hearts softly and gently as time passed.

When Azfaar finally left, it was past 3am. Sergeant Jasper caught me by surprise. I was not sure how long he had been standing there.
'What was he doing here at this hour?'
'Were you spying on me?' I asked.
'Don't reply a question with a question!'
'He's mourning. Half of his family members are dead.'
'I know that. I asked you what he was doing at this hour. What kind of solace was he looking for?' He jeered at me.
'Don't you go there! That's beneath you. He wanted to talk to me without being seen by others.'
Jasper came closer and licked his lips. I could smell his strong body odor. I squirmed my way out and went straight to the ward.
'I can report you.' His voice trailed to an echo. I did not turn back and I whispered to myself, 'So can I.'
The soldier lying on the bed with his head bandaged said, 'Don't worry, ma'am. I won't let no man take advantage of you.'
I smiled and said, 'That's sweet of you. Living my life as a "combat woman" comes with all these undesirable advances. It's no big deal.'
I thought to myself, 'I can surely protect myself. I won't shoot to kill but I can still aim especially if it's an enemy within my own...'