The Children of Asadabad
By KRISTEN L. ROUSE
March 17, 2009
ONE afternoon in April 2006, my Army unit got word that the hospital at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, might need help carrying possibly dozens of litters from medevac helicopters into the emergency room.
The story gradually filtered in: the Taliban had attacked a primary school just east of us in Asadabad. The school taught young boys and girls together in an open courtyard outside a mosque. One rocket made a direct hit on the children as they sat in class. A second rocket exploded nearby. Seven children were killed. Thirty-four were wounded.
We had arrived in Afghanistan only a few months before and it hadn’t occurred to us that schoolchildren would be among the Taliban’s targets. But we soon learned that the Taliban routinely burned school buildings, assassinated teachers, and even singled out the children themselves for maiming, dismemberment and attack. As the Taliban see it, boys should not be educated beyond rote learning of narrow theology, and girls must not be educated at all. The Asadabad attack — although one of the most severe to date — was hardly unique.
In the end, only a half-dozen of the children were flown from Asadabad to Bagram for advanced care, and we weren’t needed to carry litters after all. But we still wanted to help. We made paper toys and took them to the few who were awake and able to move around. Some of the boys and girls were fine, but it seemed most of them weren’t. We smiled and visited with them for a few minutes, but ultimately I found it hard to look.
It has been two years and one month since I returned from Afghanistan, and I hadn’t thought of those children in a while. But the news last month that Pakistan conceded the Swat Valley to the Taliban, and with little apparent objection from American officials — it’s been getting to me. The valley’s a mere 70 miles or so east of Asadabad. And when I heard that the Taliban proceeded to shut down nearly 200 Swat Valley schools — well, it’s been keeping me up at night.
It’s also made me get back in touch with many of the soldiers I deployed with, sharing stories and talking about Afghanistan’s future. We hold diverse views about the war and about what should happen next. But I can tell you this much: many of the veterans I know are outraged at the possibility of the United States negotiating with the Taliban as if they were just another Afghan political party and not a criminal gang that inflicts and enforces the most extreme ignorance, poverty and violence upon innocent people — upon schoolchildren.
It was actually Jeanette Martinez who reminded me about the children in Asadabad. She was a medic from my unit assigned to support combat troops in the eastern mountains bordering Pakistan, and she was on the scene in Asadabad right after the attack happened. Jeanette said that at first she thought the call on the radio was a drill. But she soon found herself with other medics and corpsmen amid dozens of injured children, organizing their limited medical resources and triaging the children who might make it from those who wouldn’t.
Jeanette remembers handing a ventilation bag to a Marine who had helped to carry a little boy to a shaded spot in the yard. She remembers showing him how to place the mask over the boy’s mouth and use the bag to keep him breathing. She knew the boy wouldn’t make it. When she checked in on them later, she found the Marine overwhelmed with tears, dutifully squeezing the bag as he watched the boy die.
Jeanette also told me about a little girl she helped to take from the yard into a mud-brick building they used as an impromptu clinic. The girl had an open head wound. Jeanette began treating the girl but quickly realized the magnitude of her injury.
She told me: “They wanted me to fix her, suture or staple her closed. But I could see her brain, and had no idea how to properly close that wound. She was the toughest little girl I’ve ever seen. Didn’t cry or anything; she was awake, just looking around. Victim of the Taliban’s way of thinking.”
Again, these are the people Obama wants to sit down and reason with. And so many folks in this country and around the world still think he is sane.
The life of Indigo Red is full of adventure. Tune in next time for the Further Adventures of Indigo Red.