“Never heard of him,” says Mirza the tumbleweed-gatherer. “Was he an Arab? Someone who helped the Taliban?” asks Nazar the hunter. Aman Bai, a former mujahedin commander, squints at the wasteland that clenches his village in a menacing, infertile grip. After a rainless winter, the spare blades of hard, thorny greens that have poked at last through the clay soil are not enough to graze Oqa’s washboard-ribbed livestock. “No one here knows Osama bin Laden,” Aman Bai says at last, speaking for most of the residents of some 40 houses anchored in the loess dunes of northern Balkh province. “His death is irrelevant here.”
In a way, bin Laden’s life has conditioned the life of Oqa for decades. The anti-Soviet insurgency, which the Al Qaeda leader sponsored in the 1980s, helped thrust Afghanistan into a decades-long cycle of conflict and destitution. And, ten years ago, bin Laden’s attack on the United States triggered the latest paroxysm of the incessant tide of invasions and fratricides that have battered Afghanistan nearly perpetually since the beginning of recorded history, locking the residents of Oqa, like most Afghans, into a medieval, hand-to-mouth existence.
Yet, for Oqans, bin Laden is merely another name etched into a grim and seemingly unending roster of warfare and privation. Few villagers have heard of the terrorist architect, and the significance for the United States of his death is lost even on those who have heard of him: They do not know about September 11. “Who can possibly attack America?” says Nazar, the oldest man in Oqa, and his surprise deepens even more the lines that crisscross his tall forehead. “That can’t be true. America is the champion of the world.”
Why, then, I ask the men, do they think the United States has deployed 100,000 troops to Afghanistan? For almost a minute, Nazar thinks in silence. “Maybe because they wanted to help the Afghan people, like the Russians, who had come to help before them,” he responds.
But he concedes that Oqa has received no help as a result of either invasion. The billions of international aid dollars that have poured into the country since 2001 have not reached the village, nor much of rural Afghanistan, where child mortality remains the second-highest in the world, one out of eight women dies during childbirth, only a third of the population has access to clean drinking water, and life expectancy, for both men and women, averages 44 years. As they have for centuries, Oqa’s men spend their days in the scorched desert collecting tumbleweed for sale as firewood in nearby towns, to which they trek for hours, their wares strapped to the backs of pack animals. Oqa’s women take opium with their morning tea to stave off hunger and draw murky, dysentery-infested water by rope out of an open well 75 feet deep. Oqa’s chronically malnourished children flock barefoot even in winter; each winter, at least one child dies of common cold, which goes untreated because the nearest hospital is half a day’s walk away. No road leads to Oqa, where no one has ever owned a car.
“I have seen no changes here since I was born,” says Aman Bai. “Certainly no changes will come because Osama bin Laden is dead.” Nazar agrees. “Osama bin Laden’s death has no effect in Oqa. Life here can only get better if the government starts caring. But this? This isn’t a government. This isn’t life, what we have.”
The villagers receive news of the outside world via Nazar’s 30-year-old shortwave radio, which he rarely turns on, saving the expensive nine-volt batteries. They have heard about the massacre of United Nations workers in Mazar-e-Sharif by an enraged crowd last month, and about the tsunami that devastated Japan. They have heard about the Taliban offensive in Kandahar, which has left at least 25 dead since last Saturday. They imagine that one day, possibly even soon, the steady progress of the Taliban may reach Oqa. If NATO troops pursue the insurgents here with heavy artillery and air raids, the villagers may have to tie their paltry possessions into blankets of rolled camel wool and head for some larger village for safety, as they have done many times when war drew perilously close.
For now, however, local calamities eclipse all news from outside. The focus of the latest crisis is Mirza, the tumbleweed gatherer. He had to sell his two camels last month to pay more than $1,000 for his treatment for a perforated appendix that had degenerated into general inflammation of the peritoneum. Gravely, Mirza produces a plastic bag containing his discharge papers from the hospital—papers he cannot read because, like most Oqans, he is illiterate. Until surgery, selling tumbleweed was Mirza’s only source of income, but, without his camels to lug his goods to market, he will not be able to make a living. Mirza’s brother, a day laborer in Mazar-e-Sharif, has been sending some money to feed Mirza, his wife, and his twelve-year-old son, but he cannot support Mirza’s family indefinitely. Even if Mirza sells his two sheep and two goats—which he ties to an old artillery shell half-dug into the ground and feeds the tough greens his son brings from the desert—the money won’t last long. “He’ll go door to door, begging from families here,” Nazar says, sitting with other village elders on a tarp Mirza has thrown atop his clay stoop. “But they, too, are too poor to help him.”
The pink plastic bag with Mirza’s hospital papers puffs up and ebbs in the wind. Attracted by the rustle, a mynah bird hops by to peck at it. The men on the tarp fall silent, contemplating bin Laden’s death, and Mirza’s life, and how the two are connected, even if on the surface they don’t seem to be.