I'm at the border when one of Edhi's ambulances screeches by, coming from inside Afghanistan. On a narrow stretcher in the back of the ambulance lies an Afghan, Hekmatullah, 22, gasping with pain at every bump. He had the awful luck to be living not more than 200 yards from a Taliban ammunition dump near Kandahar. Hekmatullah was sleeping in his courtyard the night when American bombs struck. The ammo depot erupted like a volcano, spewing bullets and rockets everywhere.
Hekmatullah's house cracked apart like an egg. So did Hekmatullah. A bullet shattered his leg, and another lodged itself inches from his spine. His brother Abdul Halim rushed him to Kandahar hospital. But that night there were dozens of wounded, lying in the corridors on a stinking, bloodstained floor, and the doctors had fled during the night's bombing.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]That was the start of Hekmatullah's odyssey of pain. With the two bullets still lodged in his body, Hekmatullah endured a day's drive over pitted roads to a hospital in Helmand province. "My brother was screaming all the time," Abdul Halim recalls. But no doctors were there, either. Nor were there any other painkillers or anesthetics. With so many Afghans fleeing the cities, another six days passed before Abdul Halim found a car that would take him past Kandahar to the Chaman border, a distance of over 150 miles. Imagine riding six days over dirt roads with a bullet near your spine and another in your leg on the worst roads in the hemisphere.
That's when the Edhi ambulance picked him up. From there, he was taken to the civil hospital in Quetta, where he still awaits an operation to remove the bullets. Abdul Halim, was beside him, gently massaging his brother's hand. Hekmatullah was bearded (of course), and he had a gaunt, ascetic pallor; it was like a deathbed scene by El Greco. "Why has this happened to my brother?" cried Abdul Halim in disbelief. Under the circumstances, I couldn't bring myself to explain about "collateral damage".
I'd been going to Afghanistan on and off since 1990, and I'd seen a lot of wounded Afghans. Usually, they inflicted this damage on each other. But this time was different. This time, it was my government that was doing the killing and the wounding. And I felt awful about it. All the beds around Hekmatullah were filled with Afghans injured in the bombings. Not one of them was a Taliban.
Afghans still don't understand what this war is really about. They can't comprehend the enormity of what happened on Sept 11, nor why our wrath has fallen on them. Remember: the Talibans don't believe in TV or newspapers. Afghans haven't seen those horrifying images of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. An aid worker friend was in Afghanistan at the time, trying to explain the dimensions of the calamity to Afghans. "They couldn't understand what the fuss was about. They thought the World Trade Center was a few shops at a caravan crossing. No building in Kabul is over four stories high. They simply couldn't imagine what a skyscraper was like."