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The General's Bones

and the hope of a nation

By Mary Ann CallahanPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
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The General's Bones
Photo by Mariana Proença on Unsplash

2009

The Afghan National Army base at the end of the Darulaman Road was as neat and well maintained as any site in a country broken by the devastation of war. The feeling of pride of place and the positive attitude of the personnel working there was pleasantly palpable. It was just so very different from most places in the careworn nation.

Even now, eight years after the 9/11attack in New York had brought international forces to drive out the Taliban, most Afghans still seemed to be numb, performing nothing more than the day-to-day tasks required for simple survival. This base, though, was an oasis of affirmative action, a disciplined and determined group of men who were going to change their country. The Quonset-style buildings that faced one another along the dusty paved road and the headquarters at its end, a traditional Afghan-style structure, were adorned with a profusion of multi-colored marigolds planted along their façades. The seeds had been a gift from a US Army major whose love of gardening had allowed him to form a close tie to the commanding general there.

This morning, as Emily Egan and her Afghan journalism team road along the dusty, pot-holed roads leading to the base, they looked over the layout for their next publication. She was pleased with the new action photos of Afghan soldiers going through their training exercises. They had been staged especially for them by that very same commander. He understood how critical the reporting she and her team were doing was. They were informing the Afghan people that their armed forces were there to keep the country safe. The articles for this latest publication described the Afghan National Army, or ANA, in uniquely patriotic terms. They were groundbreaking as they showcased the role the new ANA would play in the defense against Afghanistan's enemies.

She was also anxious to show the officers the video production they had created. It brought a message of pride and encouragement. Afghans could now stand strong against their adversaries.

But even now, the ANA was still in a very delicate state. It was an emerging force that was besieged by many problems. Most Afghans did not think the soldiers would fight. And sadly, the Taliban had never completely gone away after 9/11. Now, they threatened the country again. A strong ANA would be more important than ever.

And yet, reporting on this army as a force that would fight to protect the people had never occurred to anyone. Afghans would find that message hard to believe and the international community did not understand the need for it. The media campaign Emily and the staff were bringing for review was powerful and innovative, providing encouragement where there was not much of it to go around.

As they approached the security checkpoint, the soldiers there smiled broadly. They knew this media team was different from the others who traipsed through the base. These journalists were a unique team. They had come more than just once or twice. They were not just looking for a quick sound bite. They listened as the soldiers spoke of their duties. Their reports to the Afghan people were not portrayals of dysfunction. They were reporting on the seeds of real nationhood that could be found in Afghanistan, if only one looked.

“Salaam,” a soldier smiled as he approached the driver’s open window. He placed a hand on the edge of the door and leaned in a bit. “Miss Emily jon, salaam,” he said as he greeted her and nodded toward the two Afghans in the back seat. He waved them in, skipping the rather lengthy search that was usually required before entering the compound.

Her heart swelled to think that she and the team were trusted by men whose job it was to trust no one.

They drove along paved, well-maintained roads of the base to the offices of General Mengal and entered, nodding to the smiles they received from the khaki-clad staff who met them. In the General’s waiting room, they were greeted with a table filled with tea and sweets, a bountiful expression of Afghan hospitality that not many on the outside knew about or understood.

“Miss Emily jon, please sit, have some tea…” The young ANA aide de camp smiled, obviously proud of his English. He nodded to the team, greeting them in Pashto before addressing Emily again. “The General is finishing with some people, but he will be with you soon. Please, ” he said as he motioned to a chair and poured her a cup of tea.

If only the world could see this, she thought.

Bisyar zayad tashakor,” she said, smiling and nodding her thanks. Afghan hospitality touched her deeply. “The General is most kind. This is lovely.” She pointed to the table filled with tea cakes, nuts, and fruit. Afghans were a very generous people, capable of great kindness, especially toward those they believed understood and cared about them. Years of war had not taken the edge off those traits. Emily had often been the recipient of many such acts of genuine kindness.

They ate more than they should have. When the General’s meeting finally ended, Emily saw several high-ranking officers of the international military forces working in country. They stood in a group outside the office, shaking hands with their Afghan counterparts as they left. Two minutes later, General Mengal’s aide came to the anteroom and motioned for them to come into the office.

After the endless stream of greetings that are a part of the Afghan culture, they all settled down around a gilt French Provincial coffee table to review the productions Emily and her team had brought for approval. The General was intense in his scrutiny, looking up over his glasses to nod happily as the journalists discussed the campaign with him. He motioned often to Faridoon to translate for Emily, mindful of the fact that she was the driving force behind it all. He was especially pleased with their newest ten-minute video, shown to him on the computer of one of the Afghan staffers. It was a rather dramatic portrayal of the new Afghan Army soldier as sons, and daughters, of the country, protecting and defending all the people of Afghanistan. Emily had made sure that the women who served had been included.

The campaign would have been quite good in most countries, but in Afghanistan, it was a breathtaking statement of the birth of a new kind of country. Emily could see that it was inspiring from the look on the General’s face, and the fact that one of his aides turned his back rather than show the depth of emotion it caused.

When they were finished and gathering their materials together, the General took Faridoon’s arm, speaking to him rapidly and motioning to his aide at the same time.

“Emily jon, “ Faridoon explained, “we are invited to lunch with the General. He says that we have been here a long time and we have worked so hard for the Army that it is the least he can do.”

She smiled broadly at the General, shaking her head. “Tell him he has already given us enough food to last a week. But we would be honored.”

The message was conveyed, and there were broad smiles all around.

“Faridoon, tell him we truly are privileged,” Emily said as they all walked through the compound. “The work we do for the Army is my favorite. I will always be grateful for the chance to work with him.” She stopped before her voice could show just how touched she was. Instead, she cleared her throat and added, “We’ll have to call the office. Tell security that we will be changing our return time. Add an hour and a half, and make sure you tell them that we’re okay.”

As they walked to the mess hall, the General returned the salutes of many as he pointed to the abundant marigolds in front of each building they passed. “You see, Emily jon,” he said proudly, “these flowers are a symbol of our strength. They grow even in this dry soil and give us hope.”

When they entered the mess, the soldiers stood as the General passed. At the sound of two hundred chairs scraping the floor, Emily realized how special this was. Few foreigners were allowed to be in this select company and even fewer foreign women. She thought for a moment how fortunate she was. How could she possibly tell them back home how this felt? How could she even tell her ex-pat colleagues here, who were engineers and builders, how this felt? She closed her eyes for a moment, praying that she would always remember this day.

They dined on lamb chops, rice, and an Afghan mixture of spinach in a cream sauce that was one of Emily’s favorites. While they ate, the General talked about his hopes for the Army and his country. She was amazed and humbled as he presented the breadth of his vision and passion.

When they had finished, and there was no more room for another bite, tea was brought. “Choi saabs? Green tea?” their server, a soldier whose uniform was neatly pressed, asked her in both Dari and English.

“Nay, tashakor,” she answered in Dari. “May I have black tea, please?”

The General surprised her by laughing loudly, indicating to the solider that he should bring the black tea.

“The General says that black tea is “man tea”. He says that you are a dangerous woman, Emily jon. He also says that Afghanistan needs more “dangerous women” like you.”

Emily laughed, equally loudly, which was another thing that women were not supposed to do in public. “Tashakor, General sahib,” she replied in Dari as she received her tea. “Faridoon, ask the General if I may take my lamb bones home. Tell him that I have a lovely dog who used to work with the UN and that she loves lamb bones.”

Faridoon conveyed the message and the General smiled approvingly, putting his own lamb bones on her plate as he called a server over to him. The server turned and quickly headed toward the kitchen. Faridoon laughed out loud and spoke quickly to his colleague, who then ran after the man.

Emily’s head spun first to the sight of the server being chased by her staff person and then back to Faridoon for an explanation.

Through the sound of his laughter, Emily heard him say, “the General told his man to tell the cook to give you the bones from today’s lunch. He said to put them in crates for you to take for your dog. We are telling him that it is kind of him, but that it would be too much.”

Emily looked at the General and then looked at the bones now piled high on her plate. How could she possibly tell these men, so toughened by the horrors of war, so unsure of the future of their country, but willing to fight for it, that she was touched more by this one act than she had ever been? How could she tell them that she wished with all her heart that she could show this side of the country and its people to those outside it?

Instead, she bowed humbly to him and said. “Thank you, General. May God bless you all…and may there be peace in Afghanistan."

2021

Emily had been home in Upstate New York for several years now. She still kept in touch with Faridoon from her old staff and now followed the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan with great concern.

One day in late July, an email from Faridoon came. It said:

“Salaam, Emily jon. Things are not good here. We will fight but there are too many of them. The General and the marigolds are gone.”

Humanity
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About the Creator

Mary Ann Callahan

I live in Upstate New York, one of the most beautiful places in the United States. But I also have spent many years working in some of the most broken places on Earth.

My hope is that those expereinces will produce great stories .

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