Tam Hussein: The American

Christopher Anderson, Kunduz, Afghanistan, 2001. Source: magnumphotos.com

“What do you reckon that is?” Abu Imad said, tapping the scope. He looked at me, rubbing his bushy beard thoughtfully. He wanted me to make the two-meter journey to take a look.

“I’m all right here to be honest,” I said, looking at Abu Imad’s powerful frame. In my experience, God creates two types who stay on for the long haul. Either the rugby player variety or the wiry knife wielding sort, used to taking down bigger opponents. Abu Imad belonged to the former.

“Come,” he insisted, “come.”

I didn’t really feel like giving him my opinion. I didn’t want to entertain the mad shit bouncing around his head. What’s it going to be? Either some mountain goat or a hardy plant that has somehow emerged out of this cruel valley where we’d been stuck for years. What new excitement could this brother show me? We hadn’t progressed against the enemy, not because we were weak but because the commanders were arguing sometimes over strategy, sometimes over tactics, most of the time over honour and on rare occasions about God. In spite of them, we held this crag. We were mountain lions in courage and mountain goats in stubbornness.

“Come,” he pleaded, “check it.”

Nope. It would just lead to him putting his finger on the trigger and the whole desolate valley would be ringing out. So I said it again, “I’m all right here to be honest with you.”

I wasn’t lying. The night was cold. The blanket I was wrapped in was just about taking the edge off its bite. The little miserable heat from the kerosene stove was about to go out, my hands were wrapped round a cup of tea and I had four hours till someone would relieve me. “I’m fine here, praise be to God.”

“No, seriously, what are those things? Come here, bredrin.”

“I’m not feelin’ it,” I insisted, getting annoyed.

“I swear to God, man is going to throw the blanket off this rock and you’ll freeze till dawn.”

I still sat there. But then I saw that look found only in hunting animals when they pick up something. They block everything out apart from the object. Abu Imad’s whole being was intent on that thing in the red dot reticule in his optic device. I could see him toying with the safety, I could see that finger dancing around the trigger.

“Wait!” I said, knowing that the thirst for blood is a terrible, terrible desire. Sometimes you cannot resist it. “Don’t you even think about it!”

Abu Imad looked as if he had woken up. He grinned at me childishly. Now that grin would have been endearing ten years ago. It’s probably charming to women, but on the wrong side of thirty it had the opposite effect.

Abu Imad had done this just the other day. Abu Walid, a knife wielding pirate of a fighter, had given us an earful as a result. It was embarrassing to hear his gravelly voice. We weren’t new to this thing. Even he felt embarrassed to scold us like a headmaster. He was right though. I just didn’t get it; I wanted to give Abu Imad a good kicking. I kept reminding myself of his virtues, the man had risked his life for us plenty, saved me from some nasty scrapes but still, what was going through his mind?

I remember Abu Walid looking pitifully at the lifeless body that had just started to smell. Abu Imad was a poor marksman and had shot him through the stomach. The American must have experienced excruciating pain. Abu Imad didn’t even tell us till it was too late. The soldier had expired by the time we went down to the desolate spot. The corpse lay there amongst the shards of rock that punctured the landscape like wolves’ teeth biting into flesh. It was a lonely place to die. Abu Walid looked at the piercing blue eyes that reflected the clear sky, beautiful in its tranquility. Things seemed simpler up there.

The soldier was well formed and handsome as unshaved men go. His torso was muscular. His right arm was bent at the elbow and on his forearm sat a tattoo of a naked woman. She sat suggestively under the words PHILLY written just above his clenched fist. Our emir gently bent down and covered her up, unrolling the dead man’s sleeve. It was strange how lightly the American was dressed. There had been no thought behind it, like it was rushed. He only carried a side arm, a knife and a day sack. The other arm had a curious bite on it which smelled like shit and rotten meat. Abu Walid turned his face away as soon as he got a whiff of it. Must have been some rabid dog or something. It couldn’t have been a black bear or a snow leopard. He would have been mauled. Apart from that single wound, the man was in fine health. A bit of a stubble, smooth sunburned forehead, a true American soldier from the movies.

“Why did you do it?” Abu Walid frowned. After all these years, whenever he got upset, he reverted back to his old profession, a stern school master.

The effect on the questioned was one of embarrassment. Abu Imad looked down to the ground.

“He was alone,” Abu Walid continued. “He could have been a deserter. We could have ransomed him, we could have found out things. Why didn’t you radio?”

“We can still ransom his body,” said Abu Imad in Arabic.

That got Abu Walid vexed.

“Calm down,” said Abu Imad. “He’s just an American, it’s not such a big thing, the more dead the better. If he was our prisoner he’d eat up our resources.” He looked to the others for a bit of support, especially Abu Muslim who had the most experience fighting Americans. But even Abu Muslim looked upset. He had this elemental scowl full of loss, blood, sweat, love, hate, yearning and faith.

“We don’t revel in taking people’s lives,” said Abu Walid angrily. “Why exactly are you here? If you just want to kill people, go and do that somewhere else.”

“No,” said Abu Imad, blushing. “It’s not like that.”

“Or if you are here for booty,” continued Abu Walid, “get it somewhere else.”

Abu Imad stayed silent and lowered his head. Abu Walid did a body search on the American, he didn’t care for all the equipment. Abu Imad would take care of that for sure. The soldier had a good set of boots for starters. He found his dog tag and gently took it off. He always did that. During those moments the wiry man in the tank crew overalls and Afghanka jacket turned into a lotus flower emerging out of a dark, muddy pond. Abu Walid was a father and I knew he would let Marcus’ father know that his son had died a soldier’s death. Abu Walid would use his channels to pass it on to the Americans. In fairness, the Americans did the same. Then he started to look for something else. He really patted him down. Eventually he found it. It was a letter in English. He handed it to me and I translated it.

They had been ambushed and overwhelmed by an enemy the likes of which they had never seen before. They needed reinforcements – fast.

After the message, Abu Walid was even more upset with Abu Imad. He closed the soldier’s eyes. He looked ashamed in front of the dead man. He ordered Abu Imad to bury him and mark the site with a stone.

“I’m sure,” said Abu Walid, “we will pay for this.”

We left Abu Imad to sulk. I made sure he did his tasks properly and gave him an earful.

This is why I didn’t want a repeat of that incident. I threw off the blanket and made my way to the Dragunov to look into the scope. I saw his point. The swarm was about 11 km away, trudging slowly towards the pass under cover of darkness. Abu Imad was itching to have a go but they wouldn’t be in range for a while unless they suddenly increased their pace. I came off and went for the binoculars. Abu Imad looked at me, concerned. I knew why: turning on the night vision would give away our location. But curiosity got the better of us. Besides, they didn’t move like any enemy that I had seen before. So I chanced it and took a good peak.

“Well?” said Abu Imad after a few moments.

“I don’t know to be honest,” I replied.

“That’s a first,” Abu Imad said, surprised at my response. “I think we should call Abu Walid.”

I didn’t usually agree with him, but on this occasion I did. He got on the silky and spoke in that rough Arabic accent that was steeped in Iraq, requesting that Abu Walid respond. He didn’t need to repeat himself, for Abu Walid replied promptly.

The emir came up to the vantage point like an agile mountain leopard. The air was cold and the night was slowly turning blue. You could see the rugged contours of the mountains and the road that everyone had to pass through, friend or foe. Of late, apart from the odd goat herder who’d give us a kid out of his innate generosity to guests, no van or lorry had passed.

Abu Walid was clear-eyed. I don’t think he had rested like the others. He wore a black woolly hat over his curly hair. His beard was as fragrant as ever. He always made sure it was, even during the toughest of times.

“May I?” he asked.

Abu Imad deferentially moved over. He had forgotten about the incident a few days past. Our commander peered through the scope, surveying everything. What was he to make of faces whose eyes shone in the darkness like cat’s eyes?

“They don’t blink,” he said, amazed, and kept on staring. “How many?”

“Hard to tell,” I said, “maybe three hundred.”

“In formation?”

“No, they are moving slowly.”

“Are they civilians?” he asked.

“They don’t look like civilians to me.”

“May I borrow your binoculars, brother,” he asked.

I handed them over. He stood staring for a long time.

“What are those things? There’s four of them on a dead carcass that has been there for weeks,” he said.

“Are they human?” Abu Walid said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“There is something of the beast in them.”

“I don’t know what they are,” I said.

“There’s only one way to find out,” said Abu Imad, about to go for the Dragunov.

“Wait,” I said, “you’re out of range. You might startle them and we don’t know how they’ll behave.” I looked to Abu Walid who was still staring through the binoculars, studying them.

“Get the American,” he said.

Abu Imad jumped down and eagerly brought out the American sniper rifle that was kept lovingly where I sat.

It took a while to set up. Our target was one at the back. Abu Imad hit him right in the skull. Should have died immediately. Should have stopped him in his tracks, but it kept stumbling on for a while till it slumped over for lack of direction. Abu Imad looked on incredulously. The others looked at the slumped-over victim slightly startled, but just carried on with what they were doing.

“They must be zombies or something,” he said.

“You been watching too many Hollywood movies,” I said.

“It’s either that or they’re Jinns,” said Abu Imad. He started to recite the surahs from the Quran that protect from the satanic forces of this world.

By the time they were within 800 metres, Abu Imad started firing two rounds a minute, but then he’s never been that accurate, that was always his problem. Never had any patience. That was how we got ourselves in this mess in the first place. A long time ago, when Iraq was happening, he pulled up on his mountain bike and told me we had to do something.

“What?” I asked, unsure of what he meant.

“Man needs to hold it up for the man dem, bredrin,” he replied. “Come!” Abu Imad looked bored in those red shorts, hairy calves and baseball cap.

“Man don’t even pray though,” I had said.

“Don’t worry, both are an obligation,” he said. “Come.”

I did start to pray. I also learned how to live with fear on account of doing a whole lot of fighting, a whole lot of killing for God knows what reason. God forgive us for our mistakes. In the end, we found our way here.

So patience was never one of Abu Imad’s virtues. He preferred to fire off rounds. And now, he was just doing it because he hadn’t done anything but wait. He was always like that, he’d marry then divorce, marry then divorce. I used to warn fathers against him. But he was handsome, and in hard times a handsome strong man with a gun, hair down to his shoulders and a broad smile can win any girl’s heart. So he’d disappear for a few weeks and return divorced. He was still like that now, even more so as he got older. Pricks don’t change their nature with age.

I took over and we increased our accuracy to about seventy percent. The creatures seemed to have been caught in an ambush and didn’t know where they were drawing fire. They were like a bunch of women in a market when a car bomb strikes. They fell so easily that at one point I felt maybe they were civilians. Their high-pitched screams sounded like soldiers trapped inside a BMP struck by an RPG and unable to get out. Maybe that’s how it all began with the American soldier. Maybe the soldiers just opened up on them and now all that these creatures wanted was revenge. I couldn’t develop my chain of thought; all eight of us were giving those things a good licking. I could even see Abu Imad and Cenk smiling as they fired. It’s hard to police the monster in the soul once it’s out. Sometimes it just feels too good.

“Enough,” said Abu Walid, peering through his binoculars. When Abu Imad continued firing Abu Walid shouted, “Thats enough! Conserve your ammunition. God knows how many more there are.”

He was right. It had been two weeks since we heard from the commanders and God only knew when we’d get more ammo.

We prayed the dawn prayer behind Abu Walid, ate rich tea biscuits dunked in sweet tea, watching the pinkish summits gleaming in the rising sun. To Abu Imad they were serrated wolves’ teeth, to me they were tent pegs that held the earth still, and to Abu Walid they were the thrones of Angels. Then, we went to take a look at our handiwork.

Abu Walid left Cenk and Jan Mohammed to cover us from our crag, just in case. Me and Abu Imad took the rear, Khaldun and Abu Waqqas took the flanks, whilst Abu Walid followed Abu Muslim, a huge Chechen brother who took point. Abu Muslim’s confidence gave us certitude, even though he looked wild with his unkempt blonde reddish hair and beard over loose fatigues. Everything about him looked ragged, apart from his belt which framed it all perfectly. Only his weapons were expensive and, like his forefathers, he had a knife even though he didn’t need one. The man’s mother must have been the mountains.

When we got to the bodies, we held our hands to our noses. The bodies were already decomposing. Some of the creatures wore Shalwar Kamizes, others wore ripped trousers and shirts, some even wore combat khakis. They looked like men and women that had emerged from a cemetery. I looked at one head that had separated itself from its body. It lay there lifeless until we walked past and it revived. For a moment its one eye stared wide awake at us and its mouth started to snap. We flinched except Abu Imad.

“Man this thing is meant to be dead!” Abu Imad said and kicked the head like he was taking a free kick in Stamford Bridge. “GOOOOAAAAL – and it’s Zidane,” Abu Imad mock celebrated.

Abu Walid glared at him. I poked roughly between Abu Imad’s shoulders. And he soon returned to reality. We walked past several strewn limbs that still wriggled like the tails of a geckoes.

“This must be the army of Gog and Magog,” said Abu Imad, convinced, almost exultant. “Like the Prophet said, they have finally crossed the barrier and there is nothing to stop them – except us.”

“God knows best,” replied Abu Walid. He hadn’t forgotten that the Prophet said: no one can stop the tribe of Gog and Magog that will be unleashed at the End of Time. All that will remain will be heroic deeds solely for His pleasure. As we say in Beirut, there are many ways to die but death is one and the same.

We might have been dead men, but we felt alive. That whole day, like a grizzled pirate crew, we prepared for them. For two weeks we had been waiting to be relieved. We had sent Abu Yahya to the commander but he hadn’t returned. There had been much uncertainty and endless speculation. There had been radio silence apart from a brief interruption when we thought we heard shooting on the frequency. At first, Abu Walid had tried to get in contact every hour. But now he used it only when it was absolutely necessary, in case the enemy was listening.

We each did a four-hour shift keeping watch, while the others slept in the cave uneasily. Abu Walid did an inventory and quietly discussed the issue with Abu Muslim. After ‘Asr he sat there, reciting Quran and twisting his beads, stroking his grey beard, deep in thought. After the Maghreb prayer, as the sun set on our crag, which for so many years had served as my home from home, he gathered the men around the fire. After praising and magnifying God and His Messenger he said:

“Brothers, I wanted to ask you all what you though about these creatures. God knows what they are, who sent them and why. Maybe the Americans have devised a new weapon, maybe they are sent by God or maybe this is the End of Time. It is only right that whatever decision I take must be with you in mind.”

We didn’t say anything, and he searched our faces to divine our inner thoughts.

“It is not cowardice if we retreat,” he said. “You men are experienced enough to know when a tactical retreat is called for. My question is, should we retreat or remain? I don’t know if we should hold this pass.”

He looked at us again. “Advise me.”

“I don’t think we should retreat,” said Abu Imad, as if he had been accused of cowardice. “I think we should take down as many of these infidels as we can. I have never run from a fight and I don’t intend to do it this time. I’m not frightened of these devils. We have fought devils, haven’t we? What’s the difference between them and the Americans?” He looked at the men sitting round the fire. Their eyes were frightened but his bravado gave them succour.

“Shush man!” I said.

“No, let him speak,” said Abu Walid, “let him speak.”

“If they are American-made,” continued Abu Imad, “then we will be wasting their assets.”

There was nothing I or Abu Muslim could say to dissuade the younger brothers, they went with the thinking of Abu Imad and so the meeting went his way.

“Right!” Abu Imad said, “then it’s decided.” He got up and checked his Stechkin pistol was secure in the holster across his chest, adjusted the curved Yemeni dagger of his tribe around his waist. “I’ll take first watch.”

I walked up to Abu Walid and told him there was still time to reverse the decision. I could get the men to change their minds.

“I’ve put my armour on,” Abu Walid said, as if determined to follow through. “Don’t worry, brother.”

He slung his Kalash with his modified night scope round his shoulders and nodded to the other brothers to follow as it was time to take the first watch of the night.

“Get some sleep,” he told us. “It’s going to be a long night.”

He went out of the entrance and started going up the roughly hewn stairway that led to the vantage point. We had carved it out over the years. Might as well get comfortable.

Jan Mohammed spotted the second wave around the same time as the night before. This time, though, we were all ready for them. The first wave had trudged forward, this one behaved differently. Two or three crept forward cautiously and seemed to almost sniff at their dead comrades, the way dogs do, as if they were trying to understand what had happened. Then they gave out loud piercing screams at different intervals, like some sort of primitive morse code. Another followed, sniffed again at his fallen comrade, and then these slow moving creatures started to move at a speed you wouldn’t expect them to move at. They spread out, they hopped and tumbled and started not for the pass but towards us.

At first Abu Walid discouraged us from using the PKC mounted guns, he wanted to conserve ammunition as much as he could. He encouraged us to use the Makhanazmas and Dragunovs, but they were moving too fast, they were incredibly agile. In the end, to the great delight of Abu Imad, he let the PKC rip and the regular fire of the machine gun mowed the creatures down however much they hopped, twisted and screamed. A few made it to the bottom of our cave and had started to climb up the walls, but we dispatched them with little effort.

“Didn’t we show them?” said Abu Imad, elated. “Didn’t we show the Americans?”

“Yes,” said Abu Walid perceptively, “but they are learning.”

We spent the whole next day preparing for the night to come. It was tiring but we were in good spirits. We had scored a great victory against the empire that had orphaned our sons, invaded our lands, raped our women and stolen our resources. Here we were teaching these invaders how it’s done.

But the next night they didn’t come at us as we expected. Cenk saw two come and sniff at some of their comrades and then return to where they’d come from. We did not see them all night. There were no high-pitched Morse code-like screams. Silence. But they were there alright. Their foul odour permeated in the air. We felt they were so close that they were listening in on our conversation.

We only realised they had changed tactics when Abu Waqqas and Khaldun didn’t return by mid-afternoon. They had been sent out to scout and stock up on water in the morning. The two were experienced, they had fought on many fronts all over the Muslim world. They didn’t just disappear like that. We knew they had been taken. We found their muddy boots in our cave. Now only two brothers could rest whilst the rest of us kept a lookout.

“We should go after them,” Abu Imad said. “They may still be alive.”

“I think,” said Abu Muslim, “there is little chance of that.”

“How do you know?” Abu Imad said.

“I don’t think these creatures take prisoners,” replied Abu Muslim. “They are martyrs, God willing.”

“What sort of infidels,” asked Abu Imad, “are we dealing with here?”

“I don’t think they are infidels,” I said.

“If they are not infidels”, asked Abu Imad, “what are they?”

“God knows”, I replied, “some sort of scourge that feeds on the souls of men.”

“Is there anything that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said about these creatures?”

“Not that I have heard,” said Abu Muslim, “unless they be Gog and Magog or Jinns.”

That night, we heard a sort of jittery, high-pitched laughter as if there were hyenas surrounding our cave and pill box. The smell of rotting meat enveloped us. Following the loss of our two brothers they appeared enriched, seemed wiser, more knowing as if they’d figured out how to come at us. We felt it. Sometimes we saw their bright cat eyes in the night and then there were none. We thought we heard them behind us. We became increasingly undisciplined with our fire and more careless with our ammunition. None of us could sleep. We drank Red Bulls and Cenk kept us going by making us strong Turkish coffee whilst we kept watch. I could see that the usual calm that God bestowed on us whenever we fought the enemy wasn’t quite there. Few of us could crack those jokes. I looked at Abu Imad and his eyes were wide open. He was pale.

“What!” he’d say when he caught my worried stare, “what! I’m tired, what do you expect, bredrin?”

But he wasn’t tired. He was uncertain. I reckon that Fear itself had got one over him and he was fighting it off.

In the morning, when all those polytheists were worshipping the ascent of the sun, the host, for this is what we began to call them, sent us two messengers. They wore fatigues that were familiar. Their faces, though gaunt and pulled back with tufts from their beards missing, looked familiar. One had lost an arm. Yet, as they trudged towards us, they seemed to be laughing.

“It’s the boys, it’s Khaldun!” Abu Imad said joyfully over the radio. He was close to Khaldun because Khaldun never ribbed him for anything. “Praise be to God,”  he kept  saying, “praise be to God. They have returned them to us!”

Abu Imad was about to rush out and help them but Jan Mohammed held him back. As soon as they saw Abu Imad, they bounded on all fours and leapt towards him as if they were grey hounds at the races. We opened fire but they kept coming. No human could have survived the amount of lead we were putting their way. We stopped them but nothing of them remained. All was quiet.

“Get some rest,” said Abu Walid grimly. “We need to dig some trenches around our perimeter.”

We were too tired to think we had just wasted two of our closest companions. Two pious comrades. Only Abu Walid kept watch, till I got up and relieved him a few hours later.

Just before noon when Abu Walid, me and Abu Muslim were sitting down chatting amongst ourselves, Abu Imad who had been watching us intently asked, “Aren’t they supposed to have been martyred?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean Abu Waqqas and Khaldun, aren’t they supposed to be martyred? They are meant to be smiling, this isn’t meant to happen to them. We buried brothers with their clothes on because they were martyrs. This doesn’t feel like martyrdom to me.”

“They are martyrs, God willing,” said Abu Walid.

“If they were martyrs why were they like that?”

“Snap out of it,” said Abu Muslim, “those Americans, they experiment and create monsters. It’s probably a disease. They used to inject their own soldiers with syphilis. Don’t worry. They are martyrs, God willing.”

“What do you reckon they are?” said Abu Imad, turning to me nervously. “Come on, bro, no use being silent now! You always have something to say.”

“Maybe,” I said, “it’s a punishment from God – like locusts or jellyfish.”

“Jellyfish?” Abu Imad said, surprised, “why do you complicate things?”

“It’s just an epidemic, no conspiracy nothing. Epidemic, that’s all there is to it. It’s just a disease like AIDS, the plague and all others before them. They turn into jellyfish and consume everything until there is nothing left.”

“That’s just the human race,” said Abu Walid, ruminating.

“Well, well,” said Abu Imad, “man gets an ‘A’ GCSE science and man becomes an oceanologits as well.”

“Oceanologist,” I corrected. I didn’t know anything more than what I picked up in Beirut and on TV when I was a kid. Whenever things got hot on the Green and I was getting into too many scrapes, mother, God have mercy on her, would send me to Beirut. I could let off steam during the summer months, behave myself or my uncles gave me a good licking. In all honesty, God forgive me, the girls in Beirut were just off the scale in comparison to the ones on Green. The girls on Green had teenage pregnancy written all over their faces and my mother knew it. They’d bring shame to the family. At least, with a Beiruti girl you could approach their parents if things progressed. Sometimes, when Beirut got a bit hot and oppressive, you could grab a bus to Jubail and visit uncle Sami. Uncle Sami was great. He had a small restaurant right by the harbour and served freshly caught fish. Sometimes Uncle Sami would take out his boat and catch the fish himself, that’s how fresh they were; a bit of lemon juice, chips, mayonnaise – and nothing else. But when the jellyfish came that was it. Sometimes there’d be hundreds of them just floating there. They consumed everything. They clogged everything up, you could even get stung by them on the beach when they were dead. Uncle couldn’t prove it, but he swore the catch was less.

“There’s no anchovies, there’s nothing!” He would complain. “They’re damn locusts, a punishment from God!”

Aunty would still him. But when the catch was bad for weeks and people stopped visiting, even she would say. “Maybe your uncle’s right.” And she’d start praying again.

“No, no,” said Abu Muslim, rejecting my explanation. “Trust me, it’s the Americans and the Jews. I’ve been fighting them for years, this is their handiwork alright.”

“I just don’t see them doing this,” I said.

“Why not!” said Abu Muslim, offended. “These people have no morals, they blow up whole cities. Why wouldn’t they do such a thing? The means justifies the end. It’s them, believe me – it’s them.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “I just think these creatures are out of control, completely. Americans like control, they can’t control this thing. That’s why I don’t think it’s them.”

“It’s them alright, it is them,” repeated Abu Muslim. To some people fighting Americans had become a religious creed, an act of worship equal to praying.

“It must be,” added Abu Imad. “God wouldn’t do such a thing against us.”

“Why not?” I asked. “We’ve done a whole lot of killing in His name and it probably wasn’t right. We believed that the means justified the end. We found a fatwa that allowed torture if needs be. We reintroduced things which we shouldn’t have.”

“What is it they want?” Abu Imad began to wallow in it, he sounded panicked, scared even. “Has it all been for nothing?”

“Shut up, all of you!” Abu Walid said.

He snapped us out of it. He set us to work, to dig trenches and booby trap them with trip wires. He didn’t allow us to think about it too much. By the time we finished, I don’t care who you were, you needed to be some amazing Spec Op to enter our perimeter. We didn’t even have time for praying Maghreb before we could smell that rotten odour surrounding us.

They weren’t shy about their intentions. They leapt towards the booby traps caring little for their own self-preservation. The Mon 50s just burst and you heard their laughter as they fell on the ground, immobilised. A high-pitched sound screamed out and then the others followed, trampling over their comrades. There were hundreds of them coming for us. We fought all night and just about managed to repel them.

The next day we left one of us to guard the entrance whilst we snored. In the evening  we grew concerned about the level of ammo. We were discussing this issue when Abu Muslim got bit. One of those things jumped out of nowhere and bit him on his left hand. He calmly blasted his pistol and the damned creature fell to the ground wriggling and laughing. We couldn’t stop the bleeding, though, due to the relentless attack that followed. So he had to treat himself.

It was only in the morning that we could give Abu Muslim proper attention. He seemed fine and in good spirits, but his hand had a gangrenous smell to it: rotting flesh and shit.

“How does it look?” said Abu Muslim, sounding uncharacteristically cheerful.

“Looks like it’s spreading,” I said, turning his hand against the light trying not to sound too worried.

“Can we stop it?” he asked.

“Hope so.”

“Is he turning?” Abu Imad said, looking disturbed. “He is, isn’t he? He is?”

“Calm down,” I said, putting my hand on my Beretta. “Calm down. What do you mean ‘turning’?”

“He’s turning into one of them!” shouted Abu Imad. “Maybe all of this is nonsense. We need to kill him before he turns!”

Abu Muslim looked frightened. First time I’d seen that.

Abu Walid got up from the kerosene heater and gave Abu Imad the biggest backhander I had ever seen him give. It wasn’t one based on anger, it was the sort of slap you saw in the old black and white movies, where the actor gives the girl one so she’ll snap out of it.

“No one’s doing any killing here,” he said, looking at Abu Muslim. reassuring his old comrade. “He’s our brother, he’s my brother. We don’t know what this thing is. Good and bad, all of it, is from Him. So no one’s going to do any killing on my watch. Now we are going to get some rest and then we will decide what we are going to do later.” He went up to the vantage point and left Abu Imad there to watch the cave’s entrance.

We woke up two hours later and Abu Imad had gone. Abu Walid didn’t seem too upset about it.

“Had he waited he could have left with you,” he said sadly. “Now he has to bear the sin of desertion.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be,” he replied, “we’re better off without him.”

A good platoon commander always knows when it’s time to retreat. So he ordered us to get going. We looked at Abu Muslim and realised that he was in no state to move.

“Look,” I said, “we will stay together to the end.”

“No,” said Abu Walid. “I will stay with Abu Muslim and see this disease out.”

“You take the rest and make your way.”


“You’ll find your way, go and collect our wives and kids and give them my love.”

“Has it all been a waste?”

“No,” he said, hugging me, “you don’t have much time before darkness comes. Go. I’ll see you there.”

“Where do I go?”

“I will find you.”

We packed hastily. Cenk, Jan Mohammed and I hugged Abu Muslim as if for the last time. We carried him to the vantage point and cuffed him, leaving Abu Walid well stocked with ammunition. We made our way praying to God that we were all on the right path.