Abdul Hakim gets the first calls just after the bombs explode and the firefights end, when all that is left are the remains of the dead.
The voices on the other end belong to Taliban commanders whom Hakim has come to know well. The first sentence is almost always the same: “We’re looking for a body.”
In the southern province that has borne more violence and death than any other since the war began, the Taliban knows Hakim as the man who can retrieve insurgents’ bodies from American and Afghan authorities and return them to their families and comrades.
In the past six years, he has done it 127 times, carrying letters of permission from both the Afghan government and the Taliban as he weaves through Kandahar in a beat-up yellow taxicab, with dead insurgents in the trunk. Black bags for those killed in firefights. Small wooden boxes for what’s left of suicide bombers.
“It doesn’t matter who the dead are or who they belong to,” Hakim said. “They deserve a proper Islamic burial.”
The U.S. military follows a regimented procedure for retrieving and repatriating its war dead, one that is exacting in detail and rich with ceremony. In this most asymmetric of wars, the Taliban has constructed a parallel process, as shadowy and unpolished as it is effective.
Taliban militants are known to fight ferociously to recover their fallen, and efforts to bury their own do not fade after insurgents leave the battlefield. When militants’ bodies are recovered by foreign troops, a choreography unfolds: Several times a month, a NATO helicopter deposits insurgents’ bodies at a mortuary next to Kandahar Airfield, where they are checked for unexploded bombs and placed in the same room as U.S. war dead. A flag-wrapped coffin for the Americans and a plywood box for the insurgents sit side by side.
The International Committee of the Red Cross then takes the remains of the insurgents, along with a file of information about them — photographs, a description of how each was killed — to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar city. In the morgue’s register, they are identified by their job title, written simply as “Talib.”
The insurgents often share space in the Mirwais morgue with their victims, also transported by the ICRC. The grim toll emerges in the morgue’s register: President Hamid Karzai’s brother, the mayor of Kandahar and dozens of civilians, police officers and insurgents have been kept in the white refrigerated trailer, imported from Denmark, over the past seven months. A pile of clothes, stripped from the dead, lies nearby.
On a single day earlier this year, according to the register, four police officers were killed in an explosion, a shopkeeper was shot dead and a district governor was assassinated. About 150 bodies come through the Mirwais morgue each month.
On the register, next to the names of the dead, family members have scrawled their signatures or, in the case of the illiterate, left blue thumbprints as a record of who took the remains for burial. But next to the names of Talibs, the same man has signed dozens of times: Abdul Hakim.
Hakim is known as a malik, a respected community representative whose autonomy from the government as well as the insurgency allows him to operate in both worlds, even as they attempt to destroy each other.
“He’s very important — he’s one guy who can do it all. He is a completely neutral facilitator,” said Julien Lerisson, the deputy head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Kandahar.
‘Transferring our martyrs’
Hakim came to his job by accident. In the late 1990s, he took a volunteer course with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, the ICRC’s local counterpart. To the Taliban, Hakim’s connection meant that he might have access to the bodies of fighters recovered by foreign troops.
In 2005, a Taliban commander contacted him for the first time about a body. After Hakim managed to retrieve it, the requests kept coming. On Taliban letterhead, he is given written permission to do the job.
“I tell to all Mujahidin of this area, this person is cooperating with us on the issue of transferring our martyrs. If you have any problem with him, contact us,” the letter reads. It is signed by Jabar Agha, identified as the Taliban’s representative for Zhari district in Kandahar. It refers to Hakim as a taxi driver.
When the fighters are finally placed in shallow graves marked by jagged stones, some of the families rail about their deceased kin’s unnecessary death and poor choices. Others gather to celebrate the devotion of those they consider martyrs.
Hakim, a 65-year-old with deep creases in his forehead, a long white beard and a scar under his right eye, tries to leave before the funeral processions begin. The war has brought him personal tragedy, and he wants to keep the old anguish from resurfacing. But the families often grab him before he drives off, he said, to thank him through tears.