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This story is rated T for any or all of the following: language, alcohol/drug use, non-explicit, sexual, adult, or otherwise disturbing content, and graphic violence.
The Meaning of the Word "Liberating"
(This is a quick oneshot about the massacre at Mazar-e-Sharif that Assef referred to prior to beating Amir down. It's ahistorical in a few small ways, but I feel that I've stayed close enough to true events to consider this piece a historical fanfiction of sorts.
By the very nature of the topic, this piece will be very brutal, violent, and disturbing—it's rated T for a reason, and I would strongly recommend that anyone under the maturity level of the average fifteen-year-old not read further. I will pull no punches in describing the actions of the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif. There will also be racism, religious hatred, and harsh language.
With that said, I hope those of you with strong stomachs enjoy things. Thoughts and Pashtu/Farsi words and phrases are italicized. Now, lads, get ready to rock and roll.)
"We left them out for the dogs, you know.
"Door to door we went, calling for the men and the boys. We'd shoot them right there in front of their families. Let them see. Let them remember who they were, where they belonged… Sometimes, we broke down their doors and went inside their homes. And… I'd… I'd sweep the barrel of my machine gun around the room and fire and fire until the smoke blinded me… You don't know the meaning of the word "liberating" until you've done that, stood in a roomful of targets let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing that you're doing God's work. It's breathtaking.
"…Door-to-door. We only rested for food and prayer… We left the bodies in the streets, and if their families tried to sneak out to drag them back into their homes, we'd shoot them too. We left them out for days. We left them for the dogs. Dog meat for dogs."
They were not familiar with that land at the time, those bearded, robed men from the south and the southeast of Afghanistan. It was not so different from their home provinces, however—mountainous and arid, it was blazing hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.
More importantly, it was their land, although the people that lived there did not yet recognize it. Mazar-e-Sharif's population might have been twenty percent Pathan at best, but that was irrelevant. It was in their country, their Afghanistan—and it was time that reality reflected this undeniable, shining truth.
"Bring me my machinegun."
It had taken time and practice for Assef to learn his father-tongue. It felt nicer, however, in a way that was difficult to describe. Farsi was a beautiful language to be sure, but stripped of all heritage and nuance by use and overuse by the lesser ethnic groups of Afghanistan, it was surely a shell of what it once had been. Whereas Pashtu remained noble, pure—something worth speaking. There was an uncivilized pleasure in the way the somewhat rough words rolled off his tongue—and that hadn't changed, no matter how much he spoke it or how often. Pashtu was his language, just as the land under his feet was his Afghanistan.
There was little vegetation here—and there was lots of Sun. Too much Sun for eyes made for the clouds and rain of northern Europe. He wore aviator-style sunglasses, framed in gold—Assef had only picked them up recently off a truck from Peshawar, after appropriating all other useful supplies and goods from its unarmed driver. They rested high on his nose, so that the broad, thick lenses covered as much of his vision as possible—they were adequate.
There were not many men under his command, but he had fought through worse shitholes than Mazar-e-Sharif with them. There was Javid, of course, loyal and personable, with long, curly hair and dark skin—he looked a bit like the Afghan hound Assef had briefly owned back in Kabul. Then, there were Faisal, Samad, Rashid, and Hassan—brothers, or cousins; he could never remember exactly, but it didn't matter. They were all roughly the same age—he couldn't remember the exact quantity either—and they were all cool-headed under pressure and deadly shots.
Then there was Mahmoud.
Like Assef, Mahmoud's eyes were blue, and their similarities didn't end there. Like Assef, Mahmoud towered over most everyone he met at a cool 6'5", and, like Assef, Mahmoud was never shy about using his imposing physical nature to get what he wanted. He was a tan-skinned Pathan, and wore dark blue clothing and a white and gray turban.
And he was a good killer. A good killer, although a little undisciplined, but Assef couldn't blame him for that. Pumping extra rounds into dead bodies, preceding ambushes and other sudden assaults with cries of Allah u akbar!... these things were all part of the game. Assef knew when to be serious and when to have fun—sometimes, it seemed that Mahmoud didn't.
But that didn't matter. Not right now.
It was early in the afternoon; reinforcements wouldn't come until later. Assef had just received a garbled message on the radio relayed from Kandahar, ordering him to hold his fire until the rest of the Taliban arrived—but no one could prove that. No one had heard the message but him, after all, and even then, there was a small howitzer attached to the back of his truck.
Assef held out his hand. A moment later, he only needed to toss a thin, leather strap over his shoulders to be fully armed and ready for battle. There were grenades on the belt he'd worn around his trousers and vest, and extra magazines for his pistol in several of his pockets. He wore a knife, too, of course, at the small of his back—and his most prized possession of them all was just next to his heart.
There was no need to carry extra ammunition for his machinegun. At least six hundred belted rounds were wrapped messily around the forend. How the gun managed to feed and fire from such a setup Assef didn't know, but his weapon had never failed him yet. That thought made him smile, for a moment, before raising the hot, somewhat rusty receiver of his weapon to his lips and giving it a brief kiss.
He looked back at his target—Mazar-e-Sharif. It was there, in the distance, across several miles of blazing desert and no water and no life and no nothing—but it was there. Nothing of substance remained left to stop the true rulers of Afghanistan from asserting their dominance, with Assef at the vanguard—he wasn't going to wait any longer.
"Masha'Allah," Assef murmured. "We're here, now; no one will see that we saved some rounds from Faryab. We've waited long enough for this, and these bastards will have to learn to lick the feet of their betters soon enough." He was sneering, now; he always did before the shells and bullets began to fly. "It's time for them to get a taste of what they'll get when the rest of our forces get here."
Assef turned. He hadn't known that Mahmoud had been standing there, just next to him, staring at the same distant, solemn scene. Had he been overheard—more importantly, had Mahmoud overheard the message on the radio as well? If so, then Assef was in trouble. The only thing the Taliban leadership really demanded was obedience, and if Assef was found to intend to break a direct order…
Mahmoud simply smiled, however, in a way almost as terrifying as Assef's own grimace was. He turned toward the other blue-eyed man, and held his Kalashnikov in his hands hopefully.
"Let's have some fun, Assef," he said. "Before everyone else gets here… Mazar-e-Sharif is just ours. Let's have some fun…"
For a moment, Assef tried to stare Mahmoud down. It was difficult, since they were of almost identical stature—so, in the end, he gave up and simply assumed that he and he alone had heard the ceasefire order. He nodded—and smiled back, a twisted, vicious smirk—and then he began to bark out orders like a machine.
"Faisal, Samad; get out the ammunition. Javid, Rashid, Hassan; you prepare the howitzer. Mahmoud, you're with me." Assef made his way to the second of the two trucks they'd arrived in and rummaged around in the back bench, for a moment, before coming up with two pairs of binoculars. He tossed one to the other tall Pathan and raised his own to his eyes. "Find good targets… hospitals, schools, or their dirty, kuffar mosques. Insha'Allah, soon, we'll have the ammunition to lay waste to their homes as well."
Their work was fast and silent and efficient. This was why they were the first Taliban to get to Mazar—everyone else was still on the road, or eating, or back in Faryab, squabbling over stolen gold and land and women. Most Taliban commanders were simply thugs who had gotten lucky enough to catch the eye of the higher-ups, the religious leadership—but not Assef. He was a true soldier, a true mujahid. He was professional and he was fast and, generally, he was brutal.
"Assef—I have a mosque."
An excellent way to start the day off. Assef made his way to Mahmoud, to track the other man's vision—as he did, he glanced back and saw that they were almost ready to open fire.
Assef looked to the town again. And, indeed, there was the unmistakable silhouette of a minaret, there, just against a group of dusty houses. Was it within range?... Assef did some quick estimation and decided that it was worth gunning for from where they were. He wouldn't be tempted into moving closer—the last thing he wanted was to get too close and face down militiamen on motorcycles, no matter how kuffar or untrained they were. There were only six of them, after all, and they weren't well-stocked on ammunition—never mind that the beleaguered souls that remained in Mazar-e-Sharif knew that Taliban hold on the rest of the country was strong. They were surrounded and alone.
Now that he thought of it, Assef wasn't clear on the details of how his brothers had been ousted from the northern city—only recently had he come into that part of Afghanistan. Until then, he and his subordinates had been very busy in the west and northwest of their country, making sure that Turkmen and Iranian drug smugglers knew enough to stay out of the way and let the true leaders of Afghanistan realize their potential.
But Assef knew that Mazar-e-Sharif wasn't a weak city. It was a fruit that had only just ripened for the picking—only just. And he and the rest of the Taliban would have to be careful, or they might lose their chance at having a taste of its sweet, soft flesh forever.
"Agha, we're ready to fire."
He wasn't sure who said that. They all sounded alike to him, and it wasn't out of a lack of respect for their individuality that he rarely thought of them as different people. They were, all of them, his loyal soldiers—even Mahmoud. They were a team—they were a single unit when they acted, and that was as simple as it was.
Assef turned. The howitzer was ready and the first of a dozen shells had been loaded—all that was left to do was to aim and then watch as Mazar-e-Sharif got its first, long overdue taste of Hell.
He smiled, then. It was not a happy expression—it was one of pure, black, complete malice.
The buildings were still, dusty, tan, old, and silent. Most them really ought not to have been standing—they'd been built decades before and were only propped up by endless additions and improvements and care, and none of them would ever pass any sort of building ordnances in the Western world. It was just as well that they were located in Afghanistan—that was one of the few parts of the world that still allowed dangerous structures to be erected and maintained.
The streets were clear. Everyone knew that the Taliban were coming. Mothers had ushered their children inside days before, and even the most stalwart fathers had quit work the previous day to stock up on food, supplies, and in some cases weapons and ammunition—though there was really no point by then. The various mujahideen commanders and other militias that had previously driven the Taliban out of the city were long gone. Half of them were dead and half of them were hiding and the elites that commanded them were either licking their wounds in Uzbekistan or else wooing their Taliban overlords after switching sides.
All that was left to do was to wait for the Taliban to come … or, if they were there in low enough numbers, band together and defend the city.
No one was hopeful and foolish enough to believe that that was going to happen. Everyone was bracing for the storm, although none of them expected it to hit when, and where, it did.
"Did it hit? Agha, did it hit? Tell me that it hit!"
"Shut up, Javid, I'm trying to see—Masha'Allah! Masha'Allah! It hit! Javid, the minaret is down—Allah-u-akbar! Take that, you filthy dogs! Allah-u-akbar!"
There was a feeling in his gut, hot and rising and deeply, vitally alive. It had perked up when the shot had been fired, and now it was rampaging about his insides in deep, dark bloodlust as the distant stone structure exploded and collapsed in a rain of dust and shrapnel.
It was a great sight, a beautiful sight. Assef took his binoculars off and passed them around, grinning deeply, even as he looked at the distant cloud with his naked eyes. To mark the world in such a manner, from such a distance… he loved to discharge his power in this manner.
But what really put the icing on the cake was the screaming. They could all hear it, even from where they were, even after firing thousands of rounds in combat without hearing protection. It was fresh and high-pitched and terrified—and it was beautiful.
The rest of the squad was still celebrating by the time Assef had decided that just destroying the minaret wasn't enough. He wanted the entire structure down, and so he turned to his fellows. "Hey—bas, bas, we have work to do. Reload and prepare to fire again… this time, aim a little bit close, just a little… and we'll see if we can smash this pagan statue, just like the Prophet—saal Allahu alayhi wasalaam—did himself, so long ago."
The next shot was on target. So was the next, and so was the next one after that—and then, that old, Shia mosque could take no more. With an audible groan, like some ancient, dying beast, it collapsed into a mass of broken stone and dust and shattered memories. Assef and his squad could see the action from where they were, and it made them all tingle in their extremities, more than the most potent hashish ever could.
"A beautiful start, boys," Assef said. A gust of wind kicked up, then, and so to protect himself from the dust and sand that was blown across the open terrain, the leading Talib wrapped the extra cloth from his longi around his face. The rest of the squad did the same, but there would be no need to speak loudly. They knew what he wanted them to do almost before he did.
"Reload and get ready to fire again; Mahmoud, come on, let's find another target—"
"Agha, we're out of shells."
Assef turned on his heel to the one who had spoken—Javid—and glared. "Just four rounds… that's all we had?"
"Caa, Agha. We couldn't save any more—we were bone dry going into Faryab, do you remember?"
"Caa, caa, you're right," Assef said, irritated. He turned back to the city, though—and then he began to pace. Goddamnit, where were the rest of the Taliban? They'd called for reinforcements hours ago, repeatedly, on the way to Mazar-e-Sharif itself. Did their commanders know no competence, or was it the footsoldiers themselves who had become cowardly and weak?
"Agha, the radio."
Assef turned, then—were they getting orders? Intel? He had to know—but Mahmoud had heard the garbled squawking first. The dark Pathan ignored his exclaimed order to stop, picked the black unit out of the lead truck and then placed it to his ear.
"It's Kandahar," he mouthed—and that knowledge stopped Assef's hand in its tracks, just as it had made its way to the weight in his front vest pocket.
The conversation Mahmoud was engaged in was brief, but it must have been something positively… delectable. His lips—cracked and dry, like the land below them—pulled back into a twisted smile as he listened, occasionally barking out words of acknowledgement. By this time, all of Assef's men had surrounded him in a semi-circle, staring at him intently, but he remained unintimidated—and when he was done with the radio he simply turned it off and tossed it back into the Jeep.
He didn't immediately turn to face his fellows again. Rather, he simply laughed—they didn't hear it, but they saw his broad, toughened shoulders shake. Assef could see it best of all, thanks to his sunglasses—by then protecting his eyes from the sand as much as the Sun—and he knew, then, that they'd received their orders. All that was left to do was to execute them.
There was no need to coordinate the attack. The forces that were arriving from the south, the east, the west, all around were all friendly, and they were all converging on a target that would not—that could not fight back. Assef had ordered his men to hold, though, at least until the rest of the Taliban were in proximity of the city.
He had been the one to spot the dust rising on the horizon. By the time the rest of the group had noticed it, Assef had counted ten, then twenty, then thirty vehicles filled with Taliban—and he had known that there was no reason to wait anymore.
Now they were in their own vehicles and moving fast.
Javid drove for Assef and Mahmoud; Faisal, Samad, Rashid, and Hassan were in the other truck and hot on their tail. Their distance to the city decreased, rapidly, but Assef forced himself to stay calm—at least for the moment. The mujahideen that had been in charge of Mazar-e-Sharif would have presumably left with all their guns and gear, but who knew what the kuffar bastards might do—he wouldn't assume that the city was thoroughly defenseless.
The truck's windshield was cracked, in some places, and dusty all over—but Assef was used to it. He peered out, hawkishly, resting the butt of his machinegun on his thigh. Now and then, they would hit a bump in the dirt or a particularly large rock and the truck would jump, but there were no accidental discharges. Everyone was disciplined, well armed, and damned deadly—and that was why Assef was glad that they were the first in the city. They all deserved what they were going to get, a thousand times over.
"If there are any pretty girls, I want them all." Mahmoud said that, from directly behind Assef. "I want them all, Assef—make sure that everyone knows that. All the pretty girls are mine first."
Assef's only reply was a sneer. That wasn't how the squad operated—whoever got to something first owned it, and that was all, no exceptions—except for him. "Mahmoud, if you want the pretty girls, you'll have to save them by yourself. We're looking for the men and the boys, but if the girls get in the way, we're killing them, too. You can have your fun later, if you save one—I don't care—but there will only be killing until the Sun is set. Understand?"
Mahmoud did not reply—or perhaps he did, and Assef willed himself not to hear the muttered swearwords. Who cared if Mahmoud had a filthy mouth, after all? As long as he was competent and obedient, Assef could forgive little things like that from time to time.
The city limits were just two hundred yards away by then. It seemed that they'd have to get through a small farming shantytown to get to the real inside of the city first—that was fine by Assef. He could use an appetizer for the full-course meal that was to come in the heart of Mazar, and so he pulled the bolt of his weapon back just far enough that his finger could make contact with the brass casing in its chamber—and then let go, driving the round home with a metallic snap.
Then, he picked up his radio and contacted the other truck.
"The moment we're in the slum, get out and get moving. Keep each other covered, but go fast—I want their wells poisoned and their livestock killed. Set fire to their fields and houses, but save your ammunition. We'll have our real fun in the city itself—understand?"
"Balay, Agha," replied Hassan, in Farsi rather than Pashtu. "The Russians poisoned my village's wells when I was a child… it'll be nice to have that kind of a weapon on my side for a change."
Assef simply smirked and set the radio down. Now, they were fifty yards away and closing fast—this was precisely the time and place for an ambush, and so Assef lowered his window and, with difficulty, maneuvered his weapon so that it was out of the vehicle and supported in one arm.
He fired a few shots then, not aiming at anything in particular. It was nothing more than a warning and a threat display, to deter any men with guns and big plans—and it worked, apparently, because they got to within twenty yards of the shantytown without being attacked.
Now, it was time to get boots on the ground.
"Alright, Javid—bas. Let's get going."
That was all it took. Javid hit the brakes and in a second the truck skidded to a stop—and then, all three Pathans were out of the vehicle with their weapons at their hips. It was game time—Assef felt his every sense extend in scope and range as adrenaline began to flood his system. He took two steps toward the village and then paused, looking around carefully—but there was nothing and no one, and certainly no signs of an incoming attack. All there was were the tin and mud houses, and the fields, and the cattle, and the dirt, and the carnage soon to come—all there was was the hunger in Assef, demanding, loudly, to be sated.
"Spread out, but not too much," Assef called. "Mahmoud, don't get too far ahead—and check your flanks. Speak Pashtu only—I don't want them knowing what's going on."
The four brothers formed up behind Assef, and Javid was at his side. The rough phalanx position they fell into was effective and safe for them all—they'd found this out in the difficult urban fighting in Kabul. It would almost be overkill here, when their only objective was to get revenge—but Assef didn't want to foster sloppiness or complacence.
They started to move. The first thing Assef came to was a well, just behind a wall that had only needed a rough kick to bring down. It was probably a communal utility—taking it out would make life difficult for dozens of people or more. And so Assef glanced back, to Hassan, and pointed at the well—already, the younger Pathan was grinning and opening a box of poison.
Ahead, it looked like Mahmoud was moving, fast. His almost overlarge form darted back and forth through the houses and fields, and he was in no danger at all. No one could get the jump on Mahmoud, and if someone took a shot at him from out of the range of his weapon—a shortened Kalashnikov—then he could just take cover and wait for everyone else to catch up and return fire.
Assef kept moving. He made his way through a field, fumbling for something in his pocket—and when he and the rest of the group were in the clear again, he slung his weapon over one shoulder and snapped his fingers.
Javid handed him a bottle of petrol with a handkerchief stopping it up. Assef lit the Molotov cocktail, and threw it—a second later, there was the crash of breaking glass before the almost-ripe crop of wheat began to burn.
They stepped back and admired their handiwork, just for a moment. The flames grew and spread, and the wind was still strong, albeit sporadic—it was likely that no more work would be needed for all of the fields around Mazar to be razed to the ground. Already, smoke, thick and black and caustic was twisting into the atmosphere—thank God for their longis, which doubled as protective face masks.
Assef hadn't seen any people yet, but he knew that they couldn't be far. He could hear motion and speech, some hundred yards into the city—perhaps a father was evacuating his crying family, and Assef couldn't blame him. What had been done was nothing compared to what would be done, in just a few, tantalizing moments.
The tall Talib turned and faced his comrades. By now, he was breathing hard and fast in excitement, and in the reflective aviator sunglasses that covered his eyes, his friends saw the fire they'd just set—and almost emotion saw raw and pure that it almost scared them.
"Let's get going, boys. This time, don't bother with a formation… just find everything of value, and destroy it… and find everyone, and kill them."
The farms had been decimated. Assef's men had destroyed all of the fields, and shot up at least five dozen cows and goats—it hadn't been very hard to do that, since the livestock had been penned, as if waiting for them to arrive. They'd considered tossing an extra petrol bomb into a chicken coop, but Rashid had suggested saving them for eating at the end of the day.
Now, they were in the city itself.
The buildings around them were two stories tall, no more. The skyscrapers and multistory apartments that defined cities in the Western world simply didn't exist in Afghanistan, not even in Kabul—here in Mazar, marvels of engineering like that were beyond imagination. The only materials for fabricating buildings that anyone knew of were mud, and brick, and cement, and sweat—that was all.
Wind and dust and panic had dyed everything for a few blocks a bleak shade of light brown. Conditions weren't ideal, but Assef didn't care—he had all the time in the world. The rest of the Taliban were still miles off, and at the rate they were going, there wouldn't be a damn thing in the city left for them when they did arrive. But the city, thus far, had been empty—Assef and his boys had kicked down at least five doors and shouted for the men and the boys, but no one had been there.
They'd all scurried away, it seemed—like cockroaches.
But Assef didn't blame them, and he wasn't upset. Not everyone in Mazar-e-Sharif could have gone, and they were still in the poorest part of the city. The people that lived there had no reason to stay where they were—the moment they'd heard that the Taliban were coming, days or weeks ago, they must have picked up and left without looking back, leaving their wealthier kin where they were—tied to the land and the city itself.
There wouldn't be any peasant killing, but in Assef's opinion, poor kuffar weren't worth the bullets it took to remove them from life.
That was why they were all running, then, with Mahmoud at the vanguard. Only cursory glances were spared at the shantytown houses all around them—their gazes were mostly fixed on the middle class part of the city just ahead. In fact, Assef realized, they were approaching the area where they'd leveled the mosque—and he knew that there had been people there. He'd heard them. And when the first bullet was fired, the screaming would begin—and the rest of the city would suddenly become alive and breathing and running and vulnerable, and Assef would kill them all.
There was a flash a movement to the right. Assef turned on his heel, raised his weapon—and then he fired.
His burst was brief, but two bullets were all that were needed to stop the boy in his tracks and then bring him down. A spray of blood exploded into the air behind Assef's target, and by the time he'd confirmed his kill, the boy's mother was already crying and begging from behind a nearby door. Assef would have shot her, too, but Faisal beat him to the punch—and then, the screaming really did start.
Assef's face split into a wide, horrible grin as he began to pick targets. There were hundreds of them within range, if not thousands—most of them were hiding in their houses but here and there, a brave, stupid few would try to run to better cover. But the dried mud and bricks that built Mazar-e-Sharif were not strong enough to restrain the bite of a Kalashnikov's bullet, much less the faster, heavier shot that Assef's PK machinegun fired. Every time there was movement, there was shooting—and every time there was shooting, there was killing.
Faisal and Samad seemed to have encountered a difficult bunch, some yards away from Assef. They were struggling to peel a young boy—aged nine or so—from its crying, begging mother. In the end, they used the butts of their weapons to beat her back—and then they her son to the ground and shot him in the back of the head. To the other side, Samad, Javid, and Rashid had lost their patience with a family of eight or so stinking, dirty Hazaras—now, the whole lot of them would die.
Assef was content where he was, standing in the middle of the road with a weapon across his chest, listening to the sounds of killing all around him. He would have appreciated a cigar or hashish, just then, but such luxuries were a rarity, particularly on the battlefield, but it was just as well that he had all of his wits about him. He wanted to remember that day, tenderly, for the rest of his life.
He started to walk. Now and then, he'd look to the side, feeling the length of cloth that trailed down the side of his face from his longi shift as he did. He peered through his sunglasses and into the cut-out windows of the city and saw many terrified faces looking back at him.
Now and then, when he saw big ideas or defiance, he'd fire a few shots. That was all it ever took to defeat the fighting spirit of kuffar, Russian, Hazara, and Uzbek alike.
"Faisal, Samad—take my place, boys. Keep us covered. Javid! You're with me."
Three rapid shouts of "Caa, Agha!" later, and it was Assef's turn to do the killing. Once Javid was close enough to help him out of things went unexpectedly bad, he walked up to the next house—and rang the doorbell.
"Knock knock: room service!" Assef called. He grinned, darkly, and glanced at Javid—the shorter Pathan was stifling laughter as well. "Come along, you stinking kuffar—I have a present for you, and all you have to pay is your men and boys. Let me in, Goddamnit." Now, Assef was angry—his patience was at an end.
"No? Then, we do this the hard way."
Those inside the house heard nothing, for a moment. Then, there was a bone-jarring crash as Assef kicked down the door.
The screaming was shrill and loud, though he hadn't fired a shot yet. It seemed for a moment that the family had only daughters—it seemed that hundreds of the little whores were running about all around him—but then, Assef saw a lad.
He was aged five or six, and small and light enough for the Talib to grab him by the lapels and throw him into Javid's arms. That got a reaction from the boy's father—he immediately stood up from what he'd been doing, cowering in the corner and trying to protect his wife and some of his daughter's with his body.
"Let him go, Agha sahib, I beg of you—he's my only son, Agha, I—"
Assef raised his foot and lashed out as hard as he could. The man shut up at that, and fell to the ground with a gash on his cheek. His wife and daughters, cowards and traitors that they were, cried, yes—but they did not raise a finger against Assef again.
The Pathan just adjusted his sunglasses, and then grabbed a handful of the man's robes to drag him outside. Once they were a few feet into the road, he grunted at Javid who shoved the boy to his knees, next to his father.
"La ilaha il-Allah, Muhammadun rasulu Allah."
Assef killed them both, one after the other. He did it so that the women inside could see, and could feel the spray of blood on their faces—and their faces, oh, they were priceless. Stunned and shocked and saddened, the lot of them, as if Assef had killed something inside each of them.
He would have turned, then, and left to go on to the next house—but one of the small ones squirmed out of her mother's grasp and ran forward, screaming "Baba-jan, Baba-jan!"
She couldn't have been older than three. But Assef shot her too, with enough bullets to tear her diminutive chest apart—each shot's wound cavity was small, but together, they temporarily displaced enough flesh to nearly cut her in half. She fell to the ground, far beyond dead. One of the few parts of her body that hadn't been coated with blood—her head—bounced against the street, twice, before coming to rest. Terror and pain hadn't quite replaced the shock and sadness on her face.
More of the women would have run forward, but Assef sneered up at them and aimed his machinegun—still smoking from the bullets he'd used to kill the youngest among them. They stayed back, tears streaming down their faces, and Assef knew that they'd try to take the bodies inside, sooner or later, but that was just too bad for them.
After a few more displays like that, they tended to simply giving up their men without a fight. By then, Assef really couldn't blame them—after all, what point was there in resisting the will of God?
Already, he must have killed a hundred people that day. Each successive death had brought with it a sense of euphoria, of enlightenment, that was a thousand times more potent than the strongest hashish or opium. Assef was in his zone, then and there, with gunshots drumming around him repeatedly, assaulting his hearing as much as the screams of the dying and the living alike—he felt powerful, righteous, untouchable, like he could do no wrong.
He checked his ammunition. There were perhaps two hundred rounds left… a fair amount, but Assef would not go on after fifty. He wouldn't be tempted into overconfidence or stupidity, no matter how gutless the residents of Mazar-e-Sharif seemed.
Mahmoud was still far ahead of the rest of him, but Assef couldn't bring himself to care. If Mahmoud wanted to take stupid risks like that, that was his business—and it would be his grave and not Assef's. Besides, he was having fun where he was, at the pace he was going—he'd fallen into a nice pattern of stopping in front of each house and calling out a few key phrases, and then reacting a few seconds later based on the summary actions that were taken.
Sometimes he'd go in their houses and hurry things along with a kick or a slap or a shot or a threat. More often, he was content to stay outside of their stinking hovels and wait for them to come to him.
By then, it was clear that the rest of the Taliban had entered the city. For once, Assef wasn't annoyed by their impotence and sloth—he was plenty happy to get the party started without them. He and his boys alone could have plenty of fun without the rest of them.
He made his way toward the next house—and for a minute, he really thought about treating it the same way he'd done to the rest. He had planned on walking to the front door and shouting for the men and the boys—but through a grated window he saw at least five or six male faces looking back at him and decided that it simply wasn't worth the time.
Assef reached to his belt. A moment later, he had a grenade in his hand—he primed it and let it fly, and shut his ears with both hands.
The explosion was loud, so close, and it shattered windows and probably ear drums for many yards in all directions. Shrapnel made matchsticks out of the front door and when Assef glanced inside out of simple curiosity, he saw that the bodies hadn't fared much better. The trauma of the concussion and tiny metal pieces combined had turned several of them into mush—several more were simply too mangled to be identified by anyone, ever.
Assef felt something rise in him, deep down in his stomach, and for a moment, he wondered if he was going to be sick. Pausing, for a moment, he looked at the sky—and saw what it was. What it must have been.
"Rashid, Samad, Faisal, Hassan, Mahmoud—wrap it up, boys. We're running low on ammo, and it's time for Salat." Assef said that in Pashtu without a care in the world—the kuffar didn't understand his noble tongue; they had no way of knowing that if they had ever had a prayer of overpowering his Taliban squad it was right then.
For half a minute, Assef waited in the street. Javid had never left his side, and it wasn't long before Rashid, Samad, Faisal, and Hassan had rejoined him. But screaming and gunfire, roughly a block away, told the blonde Pathan that Mahmoud was off doing his own thing yet again.
His eye twitched, and he considered leaving Mahmoud there and then. If he wanted to be on his own so Goddamned much, then, Masha'Allah, let him figure out that he was alone and had missed prayers and out of ammo all on his own—and then let him get back out of the city, if he could manage it. If he died in the process, then that would truly be pathetic—a big strong Pathan like himself, taken down by a bunch of Hazara and Uzbek scum because he didn't realize that he was out of rounds.
Assef's eye twitched again. And then, swearing that this would be the last time he ever did something like this—he started to jog.
"Clear the area, boys—I'll be back soon. Don't let any of them out of their homes for any reason—if they try anything, shoot them."
"Goddamnit, Mahmoud, listen when you're fucking called. I swear to God, if you ever do this again—"
There was another long burst of gunfire, but at least now Assef knew what house his wayward squad member was in. He sneered and almost spat—but for the moment, he held his temper. Mahmoud would get his in just a few seconds.
By the time he was in front of the house, Assef could hear sobbing. Sobbing, and struggling, and the deep, feral grunting of an animal desire being satisfied.
Assef kicked the door open. Walked inside. At first, he was not angered by what he saw—exasperated, maybe, but not angered.
"Mahmoud, I told you—only killing until the Sun is set. Didn't you hear me calling?"
Mahmoud only seemed to realize that he ought to stop what he was doing several seconds after Assef had started speaking. He slapped his unwilling partner, twice—and then got off her, leisurely doing up his trousers. He was disheveled and grinning and some of his robes were dirtied with blood—it almost made Assef spit again to see a Talib in such a condition.
"Sorry, Assef. I guess I got a little carried away."
He might have apologized verbally, but he was not sorry—not in the slightest, not even after Assef spent a full ten seconds trying to stare him down. Fuming, the blonde Pathan turned on his heel and was about to leave—when the face of one of the bodies Mahmoud had shot faced him.
Behind his sunglasses, his eyes widened.
"What do you want now, Assef?"
"Are you sure these are kuffar?"
"Caa, Assef, caa," Mahmoud said impatiently. "What else would they be, if they lived in a Dar al-Harb like Mazar-e-Sharif?"
Assef turned on the other Talib with such intensity in his gaze that for a moment, yes, Mahmoud actually did freeze. He turned past the other man, then, and addressed the girl that Mahmoud had just crushed to the ground with his body weight.
"You, child," the blond-haired man said, in a tone that was not unfriendly, "tell me… what is your race?"
She didn't answer him. She didn't even seem to hear him—she was too busy struggling to pull what shreds of her clothes remained to cover as much of her as possible, crying softly to herself. She knew that the Taliban wouldn't hear her. They never heard the tears of their enemies, or those who simply stood in their path.
Assef winced. He glared at Mahmoud—don't you dare move a muscle—and then briskly walked toward the girl. Then, he knelt down and took his sunglasses off. The sight of his eyes, blue and intense and close, rarely failed to transfix and amaze, and the child was no exception. She gasped and stared, for a long moment, and almost reached out with a trembling hand to see if eyes really came in a color so vibrant. She had seen green eyes, from time to time, but never blue—never a blue so pale and vibrant and precious.
"Calm down, my child," Assef said gently. He smiled at her, and even placed a hand on his chest and bowed his head in a sign of respect. "Now tell me—you don't look like a Hazara or Uzbek. You have the face of an Aryan, my child. Tell me… what is your race?"
It was true that his eyes were shocking—beautiful—but he was still big and scary and armed. She looked down and rubbed her eyes for a moment, and then spoke in a voice so small and fragile that it might have broken at any time.
"I'm a Pathana," the girl said, softly. She had been speaking Farsi until then—but now, she switched to Pashtu. And she spoke it with the fluency and effortlessness that only came from using it daily, regularly—at home. "My parents are from Kandahar… I lived there for three years myself, and I was to be married to a nice Kandahari boy. It looks like that's not going to happen now." She began to sob again—and only stopped when she was shocked by the feeling of Assef's hand on her shoulder.
"Hey—don't do that," she said, cross, despite everything. "It's haram for you to touch me, brother." She shoved his arm away and immediately Assef apologized, secretly regarding her very highly indeed. Truly, she was Aryan to the core.
Assef put his sunglasses back on. Stood up. "Please find some clothes, holy sister," he said, averting his eyes from her face, though she couldn't see it. "Then, join my men outside, and don't worry—they won't touch a hair on your head."
He watched her nod and scamper up the stairs to the second floor of her house, presumably where her room and possessions were. He walked past Mahmoud, face downcast, and then bellowed out the front door of the house to his fellows.
"There is a sister coming to you from this house in just a moment. Do not harm her or ask any questions, and treat her with utmost respect. Understand?"
There was the briefest, confused pause. Then: "Caa, Agha!"
Assef waited next to the doorframe for the girl to pass him by. He raised a hand to his chest again, and watched her for long enough to ensure that his men knew that she was the one—and then he turned back to Mahmoud.
The dark-skinned Pathan stood there with his feet apart and his gaze downward. He'd picked up his weapon, and held it by the forend in his left hand—the expression on his face was one of anger, not guilt.
"I swear to God, Assef, I didn't know."
"You saw their faces, Assef—no kuffar look like that."
"I swear to God. No Pathan family worth saving lives in a kuffar shithole like this."
Assef laughed at that. "I'm from Kabul, Mahmoud. And you were born in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Neither of us have the right to hate people for where they live."
Now, Mahmoud turned to face the leading Talib. In his eyes, as blue and fair as Assef's, burned anger, hot and alive and growing.
"Fuck off, Assef. It was an accident—it could have happened to any of us."
The dark Pathan walked forward, trying to move directly past Assef to leave the house. But Assef was too fast—he stepped to the side and held up his hand. For a moment, the two Taliban stood there, just like that, face to face, eye to eye, mard a mard—then, Mahmoud looked away. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, face hard and tightening up by the second.
"Assef… I'm sorry, alright? If I'd known that these weren't kuffar, I wouldn't have done it. You know that. Now let me pass—"
"That doesn't change a thing, Mahmoud. You killed your own blood," Assef growled. "Do you understand that, you mangy son of a jackal? You killed your own blood." Assef spat at that, directly onto Mahmoud's face. He stepped back at that, but didn't react.
Assef just sneered at the other Talib for a long, long moment. His machinegun felt heavy in his hands, and for a moment, he was tempted—no. No, Mahmoud wasn't worth the bullets. He'd have to do this like he'd done it since he had been a child.
"Take your weapons off."
"You heard me, you bastard donkey—take your weapons off."
Assef held his weapon at the ready in case Mahmoud came to a decision that he didn't like. But after a long moment of glaring at the floor, and shaking with anger, embarrassment and fear, the other Pathan complied. His Kalashnikov hit the ground. Then, so did a pistol, a knife, and a hand grenade. Then, to show that he was well and truly disarmed, Mahmoud took off his entire weapons belt—now, he didn't even have extra ammunition.
"Take your vest off."
Assef continued to hold his machinegun at his hip, ready to gun down Mahmoud at any time. But the other Pathan complied again and now stood in the simple dress of any Afghan tribesman—just scaled up a few times.
"Take your longi off."
Assef fired a shot, then, just next to Mahmoud's chest. The bullet blew past him close enough that it nearly nicked his arm—Mahmoud could feel the displaced air strike him with the force of a hammer and jumped into the air, heart racing.
"Take your longi off," Assef snarled.
Now, Mahmoud complied. He tried to pull it off directly, but it was tied around his head too tightly—so he undid the tuft of cloth that held it together and unwound it, several times, before it simply fell into a pile of material at his feet.
He looked rather silly by then, and he felt naked. He was without his weapons and his longi; no longer did the starched fold that stood up like the tail of a peacock mark him as a Pathan that had shown his bravery in combat. His fists were clenched at his side as he gave his head a shake, so that unruly curls of deep brown hair unfurled down to his chin.
"Hey—what are you doing?"
Assef didn't answer. He let his actions speak for themselves—he was taking off his weapons, too. He unslung his machinegun and set it on the floor, along with his weapons belt and all that it carried. Then, he did the same with his vest (though for a moment it seemed that he kept something from one pocket hidden in his hand).
He took off his sunglasses. And then he took off his turban too, placing it respectfully in once pace on top of his firearm.
The two blue-eyed men looked at one another for a long moment. And then Mahmoud saw what Assef had kept from his vest—it was something metal. Was it golden? No, it was copper, or brass, and Assef was putting it on his hand and flexing his fingers. Mahmoud didn't understand what it was—he looked up at Assef's face for explanation and simply saw the other Pathan crack his neck, twice, before starting to walk forward.
"Masha'Allah. I should have known that no half-Russian could ever be a good Pathan."
Mahmoud's eyes widened—they were far too blue and vibrant to be the possession of one who was solely of Afghan heritage. So Assef knew his secret. How had he found out—
He never saw the first punch coming. Assef was too fast and he had done this before, a thousand times—it didn't matter that Mahmoud had grown up to violence and depravity. Assef was stronger and more experienced—he never really had a chance.
Assef hit him again and again and again. His violence and ferocity increased with each blow. His hair went wild about his face, but he didn't let it distract him. He simply focused on his work, driving his hand into Mahmoud's face repeatedly.
Within two blows, Mahmoud was on his knees. Within five, he would have been on the ground but Assef grabbed his hair in his left hand and kept punching.
Mahmoud raised his hands in defense. He tried to block, tried to parry, but Assef had control of the fight and wouldn't give that up. Once, Mahmoud managed to grab Assef's punching hand in both of his—he begged and pleaded and demanded for the pain to stop, but Assef just kicked him in the groin and kept punching.
Teeth flew through the air. Blood was already flowing freely down Mahmoud's face—and his mouth no longer had any real coherence to it. It simply hung there, open, a gaping piece of bloodied flesh.
Assef drew his hand back far, and threw the entire weight into his next blow. There was a loud, organic crack and Mahmoud began to scream—his jaw was broken.
For a moment, the blonde Pathan let his enemy go. From his knees, Mahmoud almost sank to the floor—but he caught himself on his palms and simply sat there on all fours, heaving like a beast of burden rather than a man.
In the meantime, Assef went to get a chair. He intended to smash it to pieces over the other Pathan's back, but when he turned around, a great force struck him in the midsection.
Mahmoud had gotten to his feet, but he was unable to mount an attack of any sort of finesse whatsoever. His face was bleeding and screaming at him in pain—all he could do was launch himself forward into a long, low tackle the moment he saw Assef turn toward him. His shoulder caught the other Talib in the chest, and despite his agony, he managed to lift Assef off the ground and keep running—before slamming the blond Pathan into the nearest wall. Assef's head lurched back in pain, but he simply snarled and recovered quickly.
His first retaliation was an elbow to the back of Mahmoud's head. Once that loosened the other man's grip, Assef was free to grab him by the hair and yank, hard, to create a little space between the two of them. Although half of Mahmoud's locks were nearly pulled out by the vicious tug, the move worked—and again Assef was on the offensive.
Rather hitting Mahmoud in the face again, he decided to go for a different target. And so Assef's fist slammed down on the dark-skinned Pathan's back, just next to his spine—and a second later Mahmoud was on all fours again, drooling blood and moaning incoherently. Assef had bruised his kidney, if not ruptured it altogether.
Assef was breathing hard and his heart was hammering at the walls of his chest, but he didn't quit. The fight was almost over—but getting sloppy now could ruin everything. He sneered down at his former squadmate—and kicked him in the side of the leg, finally dropping him to the ground.
Mahmoud passed out shortly after that. It was hard to say exactly when he stopped moaning—it might have been when Assef broke a rib, or maybe it was when Assef dug the sharpest part of his weapon into Mahmoud's ear. Either way, within moments, Mahmoud was bleeding, broken, battered on the floor. He was still breathing, weakly, but a final shot to the solar plexus made it likely that he'd choke on his own blood sooner rather than later.
The fight was finished. Assef was victorious, but he had known that he would be from the moment he'd thrown the first punch.
He walked out of the house with his effects back in place. He also carried Mahmoud's weapon and ammunition—even one rifle among the kuffar was a threat that Assef didn't want to create. There wasn't a bruise or cut on him and he walked as he always did, proudly, with his head held high.
The Taliban under his control didn't question him when he returned. They didn't even seem curious. Hassan simply held his hand out for Mahmoud's weapon and received it, strapping it across his back, safe and out of the way.
They started to move.
Rashid and Samad trailed the rest of the group by twenty yards. They were with the girl, and would die and kill without hesitation to defend her—after all, she was a child of Afghanistan and therefore worth her weight in gold.
The quickest way out of the city, back to the front lines was through another, more urbanized slum. They'd be late for prayer if they took any other path, and that was one thing Assef would not accept. There was danger in the close quarters; where houses melted into one another and streets diminished into labyrinths in seconds, ambushes could take out entire groups of people at once. Assef knew that and he knew it well, because he'd done it to the Russians and the Communists and the mujahideen before.
There had been fighting in the rest of the city until then, but now it seemed that the rest of the Taliban had pulled out. Assef's lips peeled back for a moment and he spat again, right into a nearby window—God damn Mahmoud. He was going to put them all at risk, it seemed. But the only thing to do then was to run faster.
A shot rang out. Assef looked around instantly—it wasn't the report of a Kalashnikov, he knew that sound well enough to recognize it in his sleep. And then his eyes locked on Faisal, just as he took a bloodied hand away from his chest… and began to fall.
Assef was about to give orders, then—he didn't know what—but there was the glint of brass, there, right there, in the corner of his vision. He sidestepped—and came face to face with the man that had shot Faisal.
He was holding his rifle still and working hard on chambering another round. It seemed that he had a full magazine and intended to use it all to defend his family, the filthy, one-eyed kuffar thing—he had to have been retarded. His own stupidity would be his undoing, and that of his family as well.
Assef opened fire.
In the tight room, so small and cramped that he had to duck to walk around, the gunfire was loud, but he held down the trigger. The flash of the string of automatic fire left a throbbing flower in his vision that didn't vanish, even when he closed his eyes beneath his sunglasses, but in the end, it was the smoke that blinded him. Twisting plumes of airborne dust hit the ceiling and dispersed, moving in all directions, especially toward Assef's face—and in the end, that's what stopped him from shooting more.
The gunman was dead. So was his wife and the frail child she carried. Bullets had ripped through their bodies and gone on to tumble through the corrugated metal and mud walls of their house, overpenetrating several times over—there was screaming and sobbing in adjacent residences, and Assef knew that he must have killed more than he'd seen just then.
For a moment, he simply stood where he was, and enjoyed the moment—the smell of smoke, of hot brass, of blood—it was beautiful to him, in a way that no one that hadn't killed as he had could ever hope to know. It was intoxicating—like a drug.
The bolt of his machinegun was locked back, and he wouldn't snap it forward until he had a fresh belt of ammunition. He drew his pistol and left the house, coughing, a little, and bumping his turban against the too-low roof. He was about to tell his men to move on, but Rashid and Samad were shouting something from outside of the slums—and a moment later, two Taliban trucks were on the scene.
"Rashid, Samad, what are you—oh, Assef! Are you there?"
"Caa, caa, who is it?" The blue-eyed Talib stepped forward, making his way out of the slums—and came face to face with an old friend.
"Daoud Nawaz. Salaam aleikum."
"Wa aleikum asalaam, Assef-jan."
The driver of the first truck got out. A moment later, the two Taliban kissed cheeks and then stepped back, grinning, still holding one another by the elbows.
"I never expected to see you so far north, Agha. What are you doing here?"
"You know how it is, Daoud. I served in Bamiyan, then in Faryab, and then I couldn't stop—so, here I am." Assef grinned for a nother moment, before his face became serious. "It's almost time for prayers, and I've got an injured man and a sister that needs to be taken to safety. Do you have room in your trucks?"
"Caa, caa, caa, Afgha. For you, always." Daoud got back into the driver's seat of the lead vehicle and shared a few words with the occupants, and the several men piled into the back. A moment later, the space was clear and Assef was carrying Faisal from the slums to the truck on his own back.
Rashid, Samad, and Hassan were all teary-eyed and clenching their weapons tight, alert and angry at the perimeter of the formation. Just let any kuffar try something now, they thought—already their brother had been injured; the next attack would bring retribution so terrible the kuffar would think that it was the end of the world.
But there was no more violence. Groaning and half-conscious, Faisal was gently loaded into the back of the pickup along with the sister Assef had saved. After that, there wasn't any room for anyone else… the rest of them would just have to walk.
In his mind, Assef asked for forgiveness from God. He would be doing his prayers a little late, it seemed… he'd make it up soon, he promised himself, once he had food in his belly and a chance to think—he'd kill a hundred more kuffar before he left Mazar.
"Oh, Assef," Daoud addressed him. He turned—and caught a fresh belt of ammunition for his machinegun.
After grinning in thanks, Assef loaded his weapon and began to walk on one side of the pickups—Daoud's men took the other flank.
They moved slowly, passing through a marketplace and several neighborhoods. Their motion didn't make much noise, but they were being noticed, somehow—Assef could hear terrified whispers and silenced screams all around him. Yet, now and then, a kuffar face would pop up—only to get blown away by whoever saw it first.
They never ended engagements with one shot, though. Once someone fired, it was taken as a command to open up ruthlessly and indiscriminately, spraying hot lead at everything that moved or didn't move. At one point, Assef and his boys shot the front of house so much that it failed, structurally, collapsing and sending a torrent of smashed brick and dust in all directions.
In the end, Assef made it out of Mazar-e-Sharif with no more injuries of any sort. He was in a sort of out-of-body experience, by then—it was as if he'd stepped back from his actions so that he could note down every little detail for future recollection and enjoyment. Some of the best memories of his life were made that day—the least of which was why he'd never have to worry about Mahmoud again.
Once Assef and his boys made it back to the rest of the Taliban, they took off their weapons. Faced Mecca. Prayed...
They broke for a meal. Assef noted, with pride, that the Pathana he'd saved served him, first, with her face lowered, before handing out the food to the rest of the men.
Assef ate. They, he adjusted his sunglasses, recovered his machinegun—and went back to killing.
"You don't know the meaning of the word "liberating" until you've done that, stood in a roomful of targets let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing that you're doing God's work. It's breathtaking."
He smiled. Kissed a bead on his rosary.
"Breathtaking, Amir. Breathtaking…"
(That's it—my take on a real-life even that happened not at all long ago. Things like this are admittedly not why the US started combat operations in Afghanistan, but I think it's important to remember, at least from time to time, who we're fighting. Six to eight thousand civilians were killed after the Taliban recaptured Mazar-e-Sharif; hundreds more were raped and those that were displaced probably number in the dozens of thousands. The scene regarding Mahmoud's "regret" about killing a Pathan family is based off an article that you can easily find online, detailing a Talib's reaction to finding out that two of the families he killed were not Hazara, but Pathan—he worried that he might be "excluded from Heaven" and seemed not to be at all concerned about massacring twenty eight Hazara households.
Anyway, I hope not to make this piece too political at this point. The above is just to keep everything in perspective.
Please send me your comments and critiques. This is the Lion Sheikh of fanfiction… see you next chapter.)