The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. – Wendell Berry
Excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”
Young Farmer with Old Eyes
Most of the farmers I deal with in Afghanistan are children. The first farmer I meet is twelve years old. We have completed a market walk in the town of Nijrab where tables of vegetables, fruits and pungent spices are for sale. In a market walk we talk to vendors and shoppers and gather information to see if people perceive they are better off than a year ago. We ask them what they feel they need to make their lives better; jobs and education are the two most frequent responses.
For this mission I have requested a stop at an agricultural field. Just outside of town the convoy stops at a wheat field alongside the road. I climb out of the MRAP as the SECFOR (Security Force) takes up strategic places around the field, their arms at ready in case of an attack. An ag person needs to feel soil like a junkie needs a fix. Soil is the drug of our choice. And don’t ever call soil “dirt” in front of a soil person. Dirt is soil out-of-place, not the stuff you grow things in. I eagerly scoop up a handful of soil. It is lacking organic material but looks pretty good. As I am mentally determining the sand-silt-clay ratio I notice a young boy coming out to the field. He comes up to my interpreter and me and holds out his hand. He looks to be about 12 and he is the farmer of this wheat field and he has come to see what we are doing. I ask him if I can ask him some questions about his field and he agrees.
Afghanistan is a country that largely depends on snow and rain runoff to water their crops. The steep grey mountains do not show an abundance of snow clinging to their sharp peaks or nestling in deep ravines.
“Are you concerned that you won’t have enough rain or snow to water your crops this year?” I ask.
He gravely looks at the mountains for a moment. “If this year isn’t good, then we hope next year will be better.” Now, every farmer I have ever talked to has said this. Farmers are eternal optimists in spite of drought, crop failure, high expenses and low profits.
“What do you use to fertilize your crops?” I ask, poking the soil around in my hand.
“We use animal and human feces.” I look down at the soil in my hand with a different viewpoint. What is that little brown clump next to my thumb?
I ask him a few more agronomy questions. He is as knowledgeable as any farmer I have ever talked to. I notice a small crowd of children have come out to the field, some are leading babies by the hand. They lift up rocks from a pile as they work on a stone wall around an orchard of newly planted fruit trees. I ask the farmer if I can look at the orchard and he leads me over. He says the children are building the wall to keep animals out. Even the babies are working on the wall, lifting up stones that look too heavy for their diminutive size. Irrigation channels have been dug around the perimeter of the orchard. I ask him what kind of trees he has planted.
“Peaches, apricot and apples.”
“When your fruit matures will you sell it in the market?” I ask.
“No, I have a big family. I grow food to feed my family.” I look down into his dark brown eyes and my heart breaks. At twelve, children in America are attending school and playing video games. He is so young but his eyes are world-weary from shouldering the responsibilities of an adult. I thank him for talking with me and I shake his hand. I also commend him for taking care of his family. He lifts a shoulder as if to say, “It is all in a day’s work.”
This encounter will become poignant to me in the future when I hear about a rogue group of Army infantrymen under the leadership of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. For weeks the men who refer to themselves as the “Kill Team” debate if they can kill a “Haji”, a disrespectful term for an Afghan man, without getting caught. In the winter of 2010 the Kill Team crosses the line from fantasy into grim reality.
On January 15 the platoon carries out a mission to a small rural village in the Maywand district in Kandahar province. Upon reaching the village, soldiers provide a perimeter the same way my security forces do for me when I am on a mission. But this day the perimeter is to provide a clear path for members of the Kill Team to carry out their plan to execute an innocent Afghan civilian. As the soldiers walk through the alleys of the village, they see no armed fighters nor find any evidence of enemy activity. Instead, they see an all too familiar sight in rural Afghanistan, farmers living without electricity or running water, bearded men with bad teeth in tattered traditional clothes, women clad in royal blue burkas and young children eager to talk to the Americans.
While the officers of the platoon talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers break away from the unit and move to the far edge of the village. There, in a poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. The soldiers see a young farmer, Gul Mudin, a smooth-faced boy of about 15 years old. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stand sentry. The young man is the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, they pick the young man for their first execution.
Mudin is wearing a little round cap called a kola and a Western-style green jacket. He holds nothing in his hand that can be used as a weapon. The expression on his face as he approaches them is welcoming. “He was not a threat,” one of the soldiers later confessed. The two men order him in Pashto to stop. The boy did as he was told. He stood still.
The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall and one tosses a grenade toward Mudin. As the grenade explodes, the soldiers open fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun. Mudin buckles and collapses face first onto the ground, his kola toppling off next to his bleeding head. A pool of blood runs from his wounds.
The gunfire alerts the other soldiers and they rush over. When they arrive at the scene they see the body of the young boy. The two soldiers are crouching by the wall, their eyes shining with excitement. When a staff sergeant asks them what happened, one of the soldiers says the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. “We had to shoot the guy,” he says.
The sergeant believes the boy might still be alive, and possibly a threat, so he orders a soldier to make sure the boy is dead. A soldier raises his rifle and fires twice more into Mudin’s body.
As the soldiers gather around Mudin, the atmosphere is charged with a manic excitement. A local village elder, who had been speaking to the soldiers that morning, is fetched to identify the body. The elder turns out to be the father of the slain boy. His grief and disbelief at the site of his son’s bullet riddled body was later recounted in an official Army report. “The father was very upset.”
In spite of the father’s grief, the soldiers are jubilant. The soldiers follow the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death. Cutting off the dead boy’s clothes, they strip him naked to check for identifying tattoos or scars. Using a portable biometric scanner they scan his iris and fingerprints.
The Geneva Convention states, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment. The remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected”. In a direct violation of this protocol, the soldiers begin taking photographs of themselves with the body. One of the soldiers who killed the boy poses for the camera with Mudin’s bloody corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it is a trophy deer. The other soldier gets a similar photo.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the leader of the Kill Team is pleased. Gibbs later states he started “messing around with the kid,” moving his arms and mouth and “acting like the kid was talking.” Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, he slices off the dead boy’s little finger and gives it to one of the soldiers. A trophy for killing his first Afghan.
According to fellow soldiers, the man carried the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” one of his friends would later report. “He was proud of his finger.”
The soldiers, embolden by their success, go on a killing spree over the next four months that claims the lives of at least three more innocent civilians. One is a cleric and one is deaf, and possibly mentally handicapped. A part of his skull was taken as a trophy. When another soldier blows the whistle on the team in the summer of 2010, a military investigation results in the charging of five members of the platoon with the murder of three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province and collecting their body parts as trophies. In addition, seven soldiers are charged with crimes such as hashish use, impeding an investigation, and attacking the whistleblower. Eleven men are ultimately convicted, receiving sentences ranging from 60 days to life. Anyone who creates terror is a terrorist. When the men of the Kill Team crossed the line from talking about killing to the actual executions of innocent civilians, they lost their humanity. The moment they killed Mudin, they became the bad guys.
When I read about the depraved actions of the Kill Team the face of my twelve year-old farmer superimposes itself on Mudin’s face in my mind’s eye. I can see him coming out to the field to meet me with a smile on his face, his hand outstretched. It took courage to walk into that field ringed with soldiers armed with assault rifles. I now realize, this is not a boy, this is a man. I know he will have a hard life and I pray his fields will never be stained with his blood as Gul Mudin’s was.