The mud in the basement at Qala-i-Jhangi is a thick brown mousse, eight inches deep. It makes a sucking noise when I step in it, and then sticks like clay to my boots. It smells of rotting corpses, because that's what's down here, some have been dead for seven days. There are two by the stairs, halfway cemented in the mud, faces swollen, the color of ashes. I walk carefully around them. There are more, a lot more, around the corner, but it's dark in there and I don't have a light and the smell alone is evidence enough.
I back out and go upstairs, neatly avoiding the unexploded mortar shells sunk into the wall. I stand outside the building trying to pick the mud off my boots with sticks from the shattered pine trees, ripped apart by U.S. missiles. When sticks no longer work I try scrubbing it off with snowballs packed from the three inches that had fallen and is still falling, blanketing the battlefield and the rubble, as in photos of the Battle of the Bulge or Wounded Knee. Workers, including a woman who isn't wearing a burka, are going down in the basement and bringing up coats and shawls, dripping wet. They reek. I reek. I sit on what had been the front porch using a brick to scrape the mud off, and just to my right there's a human foot, smudged and bloody, with a little patch of snow on the heel, snapped clean just above the ankle. Perhaps the body was obliterated with the front door, because there's nothing there but a huge gaping hole.
Qala-i-Jhangi, fortress of war. It had been a fuck up from beginning to end. It began with the surrender of 400 foreign Taliban and ended with a slow massacre, like a Coliseum with airstrikes, where only eighty-six survived. Every mistake along the way had something to do with suicide bombers and the failure to understand suicide bombers. Men with grenades who will blow themselves up can't really be taken prisoner.
On November 22, after a two-week-long standoff involving a lot of negotiations, a group of 400 foreign Taliban had decided to surrender by driving, in the middle of the night, five hours across the desert to the edge of Mazar-i-Sharif, where they got out and sat down and waited for the Northern Alliance troops.
Dostum's men took a long time disarming the Taliban, and then they very slowly began to search their bodies. But by the end of the day only some had been carefully searched. It was Ramadan, and Dostum's men were hungry and not keen on getting blown up. This is when Dostum said, "Take them to my castle."
Qala-i-Jhangi was fifteen miles away and had the advantage of being enclosed by a mud wall sixty feet tall, more than 400 yards on a side, with an elaborate stitch of crenellations, very medieval and huge, surrounded by a moat. Inside was mostly farm fields divided into three compounds separated by more high mud walls. The prisoners were taken to the third compound, a pasture with forty tethered cavalry horses. Also in this compound was a brick building previously used as a military classroom, and underneath this building was an air raid shelter, a basement, with thick concrete walls, built by the Russians. The plan was to tie the prisoners' arms and then put them in the basement, but before they could do this one of the prisoners blew himself up along with two high-ranking Northern Alliance commanders. Everybody hit the ground, and, to their credit, the other Northern Alliance guards did not start shooting. They pulled out and left the prisoners there for the night. During the night eight more foreign Taliban killed themselves in an explosion. But the next morning, even though the prisoners had been blowing themselves up, two CIA men ("Dave" and "Mike"), and two Red Cross directors from Australia and Swizterland went into the third compound. The Red Cross was there to ensure the humane treatment of the prisoners, but the CIA was there to interrogate them. It's not clear what happened -- either a prisoner rushed and grabbed Mike in a bear hug and blew both of them up, or a prisoner threw a grenade that killed a bunch of guards, or a soldier threw a rock at a guard, knocking him down and taking his gun and killing him and five others -- but something happened and very quickly Mike was dead and Dave was shooting his pistol and a bunch of prisoners were shooting machine guns and the remaining guards fled the compound shutting the gate behind them, leaving Dave and the two Red Cross directors inside.
The three white guys and their associates found a way over the outer wall of the fortress while the Taliban found a huge cache of weapons near the stables. Why the prisoners had been put in an area with an arsenal of weapons was not clear. Some believed that the whole thing was a set up by the Northern Alliance. Others, including the commanding officer of the Northern Alliance, later said that they believed the prisoners could be contained in the basement and that they didn't expect an uprising. But it happened. For the next two days there was intense fighting, the Taliban hiding behind trees and walls of the buildings, and climbing trees to shoot over the walls of the compound, firing rockets and mortars over the walls, screaming God is great and running into open fire and dying. Or just getting obliterated by a series of U.S. air strikes -- precision missiles dropped from fighter bombers and artillery barrages from AC-130 gunships.
On Wednesday morning it seemed that all the Taliban were dead, and the Red Cross was allowed into the compound to retrieve and bury the bodies. They found 188 Taliban bodies and the bodies of twenty-seven horses, and many of both were in pieces.
Because there were only 188 bodies in the pasture it meant that there must have been close to 200 other bodies down in the basement. Nobody went down there on Wednesday, but on Thursday some old men were told to start pulling out the bodies, which they did, only to meet with a spraying of bullets. One died and one was wounded; incredibly, there were men down there willing to keep fighting. They'd come out at night and cut pieces of flesh off the horses. They'd drank water mixed with blood from the floor of the basement. They'd survived the aerial bombardments, and still they would not surrender.
So, first, the Northern Alliance poured gasoline down through a ventilation duct and lit it. Then they poured diesel fuel down there and lit that. Then they dropped rockets and hand grenades, one after another, all afternoon, so many that it became boring. And then they flooded the basement with water, cold water. So much water that dead bodies started floating and the men who were too injured to stand drowned. This was too much for those who were still alive. They began screaming for the Northern Alliance to stop, and then they started coming out, one at a time, until there were 86 of them -- wounded, wet, filthy, and insane. That was Saturday afternoon, one week after they had been brought there. The smoke from the fires had killed half of them, and then the water had killed half of those who were left , but the rockets and grenades were relatively ineffective because the walls down there were thick concrete -- built by the Russians.
Some were treated by the Red Cross, some were given apples and oranges, all were loaded either into an open flat bed or an enclosed container. This is when a correspondent for Newsweek, Collin Soloway, discovered that one of the prisoners was an American. He was sitting up, leaning on the tail gate of the open truck. His long black hair and beard were caked with dirt and blood and the skin on his face was dark from soot. Suthaway asked him where he was from and he said, "I was born in Washington D.C."
One of the prisoners died that night in the back of the flatbed, which left eighty-five men alive. If you add eighty-five and 188 and subtract from 400 that means there are still about a hundred bodies in the basement. The smell comes wafting up and rises through the air and the falling snow does nothing to diminish it. Naji is in the cab, honking the horn. He wants out of here. I leave and go back to the hotel and use my toothbrush, an extra one, to clean every bit of mud off my boots in the bathroom sink. I even take out the laces and wash them in my hands.
The power is out and there are eight of us in the room of the French television producer. She has three kerosene lamps and keeps her kerosene stove so hot that it glows red. She has pate, and she has vodka, and she has a satellite phone that sits on the floor and is open to anyone who needs to use it.
There's a knock on the door and she yells, "Come in, don't bother to knock. . . . Ah, Damien, you are so beautiful, I was looking for you. Please, take off your shoes."
Damien is an independent cameraman, also French, who's been trying to leave Afghanistan but has no visa to enter any bordering country. It's a complicated story and one that's not uncommon among the journalists here -- they came in not worrying about how they were going to get out.
"Damien," she says, "have some pate, it's very good. I wanted to tell you that we were at the airport today when the French troops arrived, and as it happens I know their commander. He's a very good friend of mine. We were together, years ago, in Africa. Anyway, I mentioned that there were some of us who had no way to get home and he offered to let us travel on his planes directly to Paris. What do you think of that?"
"Wonderful," he says, "you've solved all my problems and given me pate."
Najibullah is sitting next to me on the floor, transfixed, soaking in everything. This is what he lives for, to hang out with westerners and study their ways. He knows everyone and they all like him because he's usually happy and curious and eager to help. He's been offered more money than I am paying him, but he's refused because of his promise to me.
There is another knock on the door and it's the other Najibullah, the number-one translator in town. He's an English teacher and wears a wool suit with a tie, a little stiff for this crowd. He enters and takes off his scarf and hat and says, "I have news. The Black Priest Dodullah, he is in Baaaaalllllllkhhhh." He has a way of torching the last words of certain sentences, either for emphasis or because of a speech impediment. It's hard to tell. The Taliban mullah Dodullah is in the ancient city of Balkh, only eight miles away. This means that there could be trouble, which would be good for business all around.
The situation in Balkh is that there are somewhere between 200 and 3000 Taliban there who refuse to surrender. Or perhaps there are no Taliban there at all. It's hard to tell. The Black Priest is a hard-line Taliban leader known for his severe punishments. He swore never to surrender, but then he vanished. It was thought that he was in Kandahar or that he was dead, but now he's back -- or maybe he isn't. The people of Balkh are mostly Pashtun -- which is why Dodullah would take refuge there -- and Dostum and his army are mostly Uzbek, and they want not only the Taliban but those who support them. They want their stuff, their money and pick-up trucks and maybe even their land. The advantage of the Pashtuns is that they have governed the region for 300 years. Dostum's advantage is that he won the war and has an army capable of surrounding the city and then calling in U.S. air strikes.
That's about as much evidence as we have about what's going on in Balkh. What needs to be done is for one of us to go there and stay for the night and go out and see what's happening there -- at night. This would no doubt be very scary and cause a large amount of pandemonium, and there are no volunteers. We sit in silence, looking at the kerosene lanterns, wondering if maybe there's still some more vodka.