“We are mainly involved in the surgical field in Peshawar,” the man explained. “We have a hospital of one-hundred-bed capacity, and we treat mostly, uh, victims of war inside Afghanistan. Most of the wounds we have are bullet injury, mines injury and let’s say also broken legs from normal accident inside Afghanistan.”
It was refreshing to hear his crisp Swiss-French accent. He was very clean, and in fact the hospital was much cleaner than anyone had a right to expect.
A man lay shiny-eyed in the bed, watching the clear liquid drip down from the plastic bag into the first white joint of the plastic tube, then down to the second, not far above his face, then down onto his arm with its white dressings, and his hands were outflung and open, and his chest was etched like a map of islands black upon a sea of tender pinkness. The Roos had dropped napalm on him.
“How are the patients referred to you?”
“Well, most of them are coming to our hospital by themselves. I mean they have very often to walk about two, three days from inside Afghanistan to the border, and then they take taxi or private car to the hospital here. The weakest ones die on the road due to the length of the trip. It’s more difficult to treat something that is already old, and this is infected sometimes, and they don’t have the right thing to treat inside, right on the spot where the accident happened.”
(“Accident” was a quaint term, the Young Man reflected as he came to the man who had taken a bullet in the jaw, so that a bandage went around his head like a bonnet and a plastic thing pulled his lower lip down so that slobber ran down it from his bloody tongue and his mustache was wet with sweat and blood and a tube went up his nose and his red-rimmed eyes stared very wide and still and patient.)
“There is a lot of infections, and a lot of amputations,” the man went on, “and we have an artificial-limb workshop for these people after they have been treated, and we help them to walk again after this. And we have a facility for the paraplegics …”
The detail that the Young Man most remembered later was a lovely, intricately carved wooden plate. Having nothing else to do, the patients who were still capable of using their hands produced these artifacts. They sold them for next to nothing.
In his undergraduate years, the Young Man had been very impressed with the way that Wittgenstein would demolish beautiful ontological edifices with taps of a chisel, each tap a vicious, laconic, numbered proposition (“298. The very fact that we should so much like to say: ‘This is the important thing’—while we point privately to the sensation — is enough to shew how much we are inclined to say something which gives no information”). As he went about trying to Help the Afghans in the Best Possible Way, his mind composed — effortlessly — a similar set of entries in its ledger of self-torture. At first they were vacuously abstract, like a nightmare brought on by some vague bodily discomfort. As the Young Man’s health continued to decline, however, they took on an anecdotal character. The Young Man accepted them, as he did his many free Sprites, with passive courtesy. He knew that they could do him no harm, since he never abandoned a project that he had begun, even if something convinced him that it was wrong. Besides, they tended to contradict each other:
(1) Being a citizen of the U.S.A., I really don’t understand what anyone is doing in Afghanistan. This failure of imagination, while not directly relevant, nonetheless vitiates my activities.
(2) Even if the Afghans get their country back, in the long run it will be invaded again. Whether or not this is a ludicrous argument depends on how long the long run is. It does not make sense to give up brushing my teeth on the grounds that someday they will fall out anyway, but it may be intelligent not to rebuild a house of cards in a strong prevailing wind. I suppose that if Afghanistan were left to itself during the rest of my lifetime I would be satisfied. But that would hardly encourage me to live a long time.
(3) Since I have decided to be “of service,” people might well ask me whom I will be of service to, and under what circumstances. — “If I saw a woman being starved by her relatives I would help her.” This absurdity can be demolished fairly easily. Afghan women and girls tend to be malnourished. They eat last. Sometimes, a doctor in the camps told me, their families just let them die. If the only evil that had been brought to my attention vis-à-vis Afghanistan were the suffering of women within the family, I’d never have lifted a finger, because I am neither Afghan nor a woman, and so right away I would KNOW that there was nothing that I could do. It might well be that in changing the position of a woman in an Afghan family I would destroy the Afghan family. (Maybe, for that matter, it is better to be an Afghan woman than an American woman. I might prefer to eat last and to be protected from men’s eyes by my thick black veil while I sat in my hot tent than, wearing my fashionable skirt, to eat all I want in some restaurant while enduring comments about my tits. Who am I to say? — How simple, by comparison, is the wrongness of a napalm wound!) — Most likely, if I were an Afghan woman I would have no idea of what it would be like not to be an Afghan woman. As it is, I have no idea how to help any or all Afghan women be Afghan women. Should I marry four refugees, as the Holy Qur’an allows, and try to make them all happy?
(4) “If I wanted to help a woman I would not rape her.” —This, too, shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I must take photographs of Afghan women. Otherwise, American women might think that Afghans are sexist (wouldn’t that be wrong?) and not want to help them. American men would be disappointed at not having the above-mentioned exotic faces and tits to comment on. — Fair enough. — I explain my requirement to the administrator of the camp, a very obliging Pakistani gentleman. — “I understand, sir,” he tells me. “I get some women for you.” —He turns to the refugees and explains. Voices rise, but he does what he has to do; he yells at them; the voices become more excited and angry than ever; he lifts his arms firmly, shouts the Afghans down, reaches out, pushes away a boy, and points to a woman, whose baby on her shoulder turns its head, sees me, and starts to cry. The woman crouches miserably in the sand like a dark bird. Her husband comes forward, balling his fists at me, and the administrator puts a hand on his chest and pushes him back. He stands there looking at me. We are surrounded by people — the woman, the administrator and I — all of them standing and looking at me. The administrator speaks to the woman rapidly and fiercely. Everyone is murmuring and watching my face. The woman removes her veil. She will not look at me. I see her cheeks, her mouth. Her unbound hair. I move to one side and raise my camera. I believe I am taking good pictures. — Afterward, the administrator goes to speak with her husband, who finally comes forward. —“Dera miraboni,” he says to me. Thank you very much. — We shake hands.
(5) In proposing to help the Afghans, I must accept the postulate that it is better for people to be exploited by their neighbors than by strangers. I cannot prove this.
(6) Nor is it fair to claim that the atrocities currently committed by the Soviets represent what would be an ongoing situation once the resistance movement was wiped out. Surviving Afghans would probably be forced into a more equitable system of distribution than currently exists. The women would receive as much food (or as little) as the men, we might hope.
(7) “But this would mean destroying the indigenous culture.” —After x years of Soviet rule, it would be the indigenous culture. Surely the current culture of Afghanistan displaced an earlier one. There is thus no need for action. Anyway, what does being indigenous have to do with whether a culture is “good” or “bad”?
(8) “But isn’t inaction in situations of human suffering even worse than making the wrong decision?” —Oh, I don’t know about that.
(9) If the Soviets took over the world, humanity would become more homogeneous. It seems that heterogeneity is one of the principal causes of strife: the conclusion must be that every new school of fish that Leviathan swallows extends by so much the dominions of peace. Of course, the process of mastication and digestion is a little painful, but ah! after that, each glob of excrement will be like every other; and Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps (if Fate smiles its wide, toothy smile at us) we ourselves will all be one mass of tranquillity and quietude.
(10) Besides, nobody else is interested in Afghanistan.
At the far end of the park which the General had arranged to be built was an Afghan camp. On the Young Man’s evening walks with the General and the Brigadier, he saw a man bent down, carefully going through the grass to find twigs and thick stalks to burn. A polite distance beyond, women were collecting dung to add to the fuel.
“They would stop it if anyone asked them,” the General said. “But they have such a miserable life, poor chaps — nobody would ask them.”
There was a lovely purple sunset on the mountains, along which ran the Durand Line dividing Pakistan from Afghanistan.
The next day he walked over to see the camp. It was a hot morning, so hot that he became violently sick. Children were swimming in the big canal, in which, from time to time, excrements came cruising along. The women were washing their pots in that water. As the Young Man walked along the edge of the canal, boys waved at him and begged him to take their picture. He raised his camera. At once they formed two rows, smiling and extending their hands. When the shutter clicked, they bowed to him and hugged each other for happiness.
The camp extended for a long way. A man came up to him and showed him around. Now indeed helplessness was the Young Man’s leader, in the person of this man who strode ahead of him along the wall of the canal, brown heels lifting in white sandals; over his head, to keep off the sun, he wore a kerchief that resembled nothing so much as a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, and his baggy shirt and trousers hung limp in the breezeless air as he went on toward the wrinkled dirty tents between which little children toddled silently in the sand, toward the cornfields that did not belong to him, but in the canal a naked girl of three or four stood rubbing her belly and sucking her fingers; seeing the Young Man come, however, she rushed to squat down in the dirty water to cover herself. — Some of the families lived in tents, some in wretched grass-grown houses of earth. They all bowed or nodded to him: He could help them.§ It was still Ramazan, and their lips were cracked with the heat and the dryness, but they offered him tea. Guilty and ashamed, the Young Man refused. — Another little girl was running naked along the side of the canal. When she saw the foreigner she jumped into the water. Something gray and bloody floated by her and snagged itself in her hair.
As he came to a great cornfield (owned by Pakistanis), he found a dozing water buffalo blocking his way. He stood there for a minute, wondering what to do. Children ran up and slapped and pulled at the beast until it finally yawned and got up. As he walked on, they followed him. Presently they came to a mullah with sky-blue eyes and a white beard. The children stopped respectfully. The mullah took the Young Man’s face in his hands and looked at him for a while, then stepped back. — “Peace be upon you,” the Young Man said. — “And upon you, peace,” said the mullah. He stood there smiling and nodding after the Young Man…