The death count from the sprawling United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif trickled like an arsenic IV drip. Seven U.N. workers dead -- no, eight -- no, twelve. Some foreigners, some Afghans, all killed while trying to bring some stability to a nation crippled by a history of almost incessant violence. On Friday afternoon, a deranged rabble enflamed by vitriolic mullahs poured out of the Blue Mosque, mobbed the U.N. offices in the south of the city, toppled guard towers, set walls ablaze, and, beneath the alluvial slopes bloodred with wild spring poppies, proceeded to deliberately slaughter the people inside.
Who is to blame for these deaths?
The mob of knee-jerk, parochial fundamentalists in Mazar-e-Sharif, to whom anyone inside the U.N. compound -- like the 10 international relief workers slaughtered last August in Badakhshan province, or the Scottish aid worker kidnapped a month later in Kunar province and killed during a botched rescue attempt -- were not agents of reconstruction and aid but symbols of the infidel West, emissaries of the invading forces?
Or the mob of knee-jerk, parochial fundamentalists led by Pastor Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida, some 7,449 miles away, whose callous and xenophobic burning of the Quran last week had enraged the Afghans?
Or the decade-long, excruciating standoff between two seemingly equally entrenched forces, NATO and the Taliban-led insurgency, that has convinced a nation envenomed with despair that violence is the ultimate and only solution to insult?
Underneath its fibrous connective tissue of tinsmith alleys, cerulean-tiled mosques, and rusty chipper vans, Mazar-e-Sharif festers with the memory of savageries inflicted upon it again and again and again. Friday's attack on an office that promotes governance and economic development in northern Afghanistan added a new wound. The Balkh provincial governor told the New York Times the mob fired on its victims with weapons wrested from U.N. guards, and, according to a U.N. spokesman, 24 people were injured. In today's Afghanistan, where some 30 million people eke out a hand-to-mouth existence with virtually no social protection, these injuries will condemn the victims and their families to a cycle of poverty and resentment that already garrotes the country.
I left Mazar-e-Sharif on Monday, March 28, after a four-week-long stay. It was my first trip to the city in almost a year, and a tense reunion. As new chunks of Afghanistan's north fell to the insurgency, this city, and most of Balkh province (of which Mazar is the capital), remained more or less free of violence. But apprehension hung over the city, gray and heavy like the pancake of smog that always looms above its flat roofs. A bomb detonated beneath an overpass near the airport a few days after my arrival; police told me several suicide bombers from southern Afghanistan were scouring the city for a convenient time and worthy targets to strike.
For the Zoroastrian New Year, known as Nawruz in Afghanistan, a pagan holiday that draws thousands during spring equinox, my friends and hosts eschewed the traditional pilgrimage to watch the raising of the maypole in the tiled courtyard of the Blue Mosque -- the supposed burial place of both Imam Ali and Zarathustra. Instead, we sipped haft mewa, a delicious holiday compote of dried fruit and nuts, and wished each other Sal-e-Nau mubarak, Happy New Year, in boredom inside a walled compound. As one of my hosts explained, outside "the security is not good." The 10,000 police and army officers the city government had reportedly dispatched to the streets that day did nothing to reassure him.
"When was the last time your family celebrated Nawruz at the Blue Mosque?" I asked my host. A flotilla of perfectly round cumuli sailed over the courtyard like gun smoke. To our north, a duet of military helicopters hovered above the city.
"Five years ago," he said. "After that, security got worse and worse."
He thought about it.
"Nothing has happened so far," he said. "But we have a saying: The jug is not always broken. It means, it only breaks once, but when it does, you can't fix it again."
A close friend works at the U.N. compound. I'll call him A., out of concern for his safety: In today's Mazar-e-Sharif, friendship with a Western journalist may be a hazard. After I heard about the attack I telephoned him; his cousin picked up and said A. was shaken but unharmed.
I remembered a conversation A. and I had last month. We had been watching news on television: footage from Japan, waterborne cars smashing into pleasure boats and homes collapsing. I found it difficult to watch: people dying in real time, and us, thousands of miles away, utterly unable to help.
My friend lit a cigarette and said, "When I was 18 I drove a minivan and the Taliban had ordered me to deliver dead bodies from the front lines to the morgue. I'd carry 20 bodies every day. Most of them were bodies of dead Taliban. I would throw them into the morgue yard and go back to pick up more bodies."
It was not a non sequitur: A. simply was responding to my vicarious trauma with his actual experience. Now he carries the grief of witnessing another bloodbath. Another atrocity lodged underneath the scar tissue of a city that never fully heals.