By now, the odor of stale, unwashed sweat and wet animal fur coated my tongue, and I tasted it every time I opened my mouth, but I needed to confirm if the circumstances were really as dire as the young solider indicated. As I bent to hoist up my backpack again, I glanced around the room and saw two Colonels and a Major, all higher ranking than me, waiting together on a bench near the Military Information office. “Excuse me,” I began, “are you waiting for a ride?” One of the Colonels confirmed the unfortunate news. “Our ride won’t be able to get through the roads until they’re cleared. We’re staying here for a while.” If they weren’t going anywhere, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Being stuck in the terminal, forced to “find a cot” until the roads cleared wasn’t okay with me. I had been traveling for two and a half days, I smelled like I belonged in this dirty room along with the goats, there was a fuzz-like film on my teeth, and I was starting to get a pimple on my chin from oil buildup. I was exhausted and I felt a full-blown fit coming on, but before I threw myself on the floor in the middle of the terminal and started kicking and screaming, I decided to call my contact at the Joint Visitors Bureau and let her know I arrived in Kabul. I spoke with the Captain working where I was to be assigned, and I told her I arrived and would be staying with the Army until someone could come get me. The Captain replied, “Great! We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” I exhaled slowly and tried to hang on to what little patience I had left while I reminded this nitwit that the roads are restricted. Her too bright voice crackled over the phone line, “Not for us. We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” I almost fell to floor in a puddle of relief before another realization set in: I would be on the roads, where an attack just occurred, in about twenty minutes. I hung up the phone and made my way to the doors marked “ېزت.” Exit.
Driving through the streets of Kabul, all I could see through the rectangular bulletproof window was the color brown. The asphalt was brown, the bushes and trees were brown, the livestock was brown, even the tattered, peeling billboards were brown, coated with dust and dirt. There was nothing blooming anywhere. Our two black SUVs rushed through the streets, skirting around what little traffic there was, and not stopping at any signs or intersections. It was silent in the vehicle except for the occasional squeak of plastic and Kevlar rubbing together. I sat, sardined between a large sergeant on one side and the narrow window on the other. I was in the backseat with every neuron in my brain pinging, and every cell in my body clenched. Afghan National Police, distinguished by their blue uniforms, stood haphazardly in the streets, waving the SUVs along at each checkpoint through the city. There was a strange wildness to their movements; they were on edge because of the recent attack. As we neared the International Security Assistance Force base, or ISAF, the traffic grew more congested and we had to slow down or risk slamming our vehicle into civilians. We came to a complete stop, surrounded by donkey carts, miniature Isuzu trucks, and pedestrians.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man slowly move towards the SUV. He looked to be in his sixties with a gray beard and a serious, wrinkled face. He carried a bundle of something in his arms. My heart’s rhythm started a frenetic beat and I gripped my M-4 which was resting between my knees, pointed at the floorboard. The weapon would do me no good if he carried a bomb. It would do me no good inside this reinforced cage. The man moved closer to the side of the SUV and I started praying, then I saw a small brown hand hanging from the wad of blankets in his arms. Attached to the small brown hand was a thick reddish-brown rubber tube that looked like it belonged in a hospital room from the early 1900s. There was a scissor clamp closing off the end. The hand was the picture of fragility, dangling limp and lifeless as the man crossed in front of our vehicle and made his way through the other stalled cars to the policeman in the middle of the road. I watched them talk to each other as the man with the child gestured up the road. He was desperate in his pleading, and he kept thrusting the blankets towards the police officer.
“What does he want?” I finally broke the silence of the vehicle and asked the sergeant sitting next to me, calling his attention to the man with his blankets.
“He’s trying to get through the checkpoint,” he answered.
“He probably wants to get to the hospital up there,” he jerked his head in the direction of a sand-colored building a few blocks away, and then the traffic starting moving forward, leaving the man and his blankets behind.