The man who spends his days surrounded by dead Afghan soldiers waits in a faded shipping container across from the morgue. But Noorulah Noori rarely waits long before he is called to work.
Inside the container is a bed, a fan and a hose for washing the bodies. He has prepared at least a thousand of them for burial over the past decade: victims of roadside bombs, gunshots, mortar rounds and disease, delivered to him in all the shapes death takes.
Noori, 33, removes the soldiers from identical wooden coffins draped in Afghanistan’s flag and performs his duty, preparing each for burial in the Islamic tradition. He washes off blood and dirt, sprinkles perfume and covers each in a white sheet, or kafan. That’s how their families will see them when they make it home.
What Noori sees first is much more bracing — a relentless procession of bodies just off the battlefield. He takes anti-anxiety medication to help him sleep. He doesn’t tell his family anything about his job at one of the Afghan military’s busiest medical centers, Kandahar Regional Military Hospital.
In Washington, questions about the future of Afghanistan are often phrased in terms of the Taliban’s strength and the Afghan army’s fighting ability. Noori’s perch on the war doesn’t provide clear answers to those impossibly large questions. But it has made him a front-line witness to the massive human cost associated with what’s formally articulated as a “military transition.”
As his country’s army inherits the warfrom the United States and NATO, there are far more of those bodies than ever before. More than 400 Afghan soldiers and police officers are now killed in Afghanistan every month, a number so high that the Afghan Defense Ministry says it decided last month, in a bid to preserve morale, to stop releasing casualty counts. Many of those deaths occur in the violent south, where Noori works.
On that subject, Noori takes a long view. “The army will keep fighting, and men will keep dying, until there is peace,” he said.
‘It’s religious work’
Noori was once employed by the group responsible for the death and destruction he sees on a daily basis. For several years, beginning when he was 19, he worked for the Taliban.
In Kandahar, the province where the Taliban was born, the only job he could find was sweeping the floors of the then-Islamist government’s main hospital. It was nearly two years before Sept. 11, 2001.
When war came to Afghanistan and the Taliban regime was toppled, Noori swept the same floors for the new Afghan government. Because he was a low-level worker, his previous allegiance was forgiven. Soon, he was watching government fatalities trickle in.
The man then in charge of washing bodies needed assistance. It wasn’t an alluring job, but it was an important one, Noori thought.
“It’s religious work,” he recalls thinking to himself.
He volunteered. Since then, Noori, typically clad in medical scrubs and an Afghan army windbreaker, has handled corpses nearly every day for the past decade.
“I’ve seen more death than anyone,” he said. “The bodies keep coming.”
He gets middle-of-the-night phone calls beckoning him to the hospital so that bodies can be washed and buried as soon as possible, according to Muslim custom. He knows exactly what a bomb or a machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade can do to a human body. Some soldiers look serene, almost untouched, and others don’t look human at all.
He knows to expect anything when he removes the lid of the coffin. Once he saw his neighbor and close friend, Hashmat. Noori mourned quietly while doing his job.
“Anyone would get angry to see a friend like that,” he said.
As more Afghan soldiers die, Noori finds himself close to some of the worst violence. His morgue is the destination for those killed in contested swaths of the south and southwest, including several of Afghanistan’s bloodiest districts.
His colleagues ask how he’s holding up, but he often shrugs them off.
“No matter what the body looks like, he does his job,” said Sgt. Mohammad Hussein, the head of the morgue. “It’s difficult.”
The truth is that Noori can’t sleep without medication. He dispassionately describes himself as “physically and mentally exhausted.” He keeps the bed in the storage container, he says, because after washing three or four bodies, he needs to lie down.
This year, just after the Taliban announced the beginning of its “spring offensive,” bodies came in one after the next. One afternoon, an ambulance arrived from Helmand province carrying three dead, all killed by separate makeshift bombs.
Noori was suddenly frenzied. He called to a group of soldiers for help lifting the bodies for washing. But the men walked away brusquely.
“They don’t have the courage to help,” he said to himself as he worked alone.