A Dog Died in Bala Murghab (by Linda Christanty)

Posted in Fiction by Linda Christanty on 11/10/2011

A small dog lies on the street. The soldier has shot him with an automatic rifle. I almost lose grasp of my camera. I am really shocked.

I had just seen him running here and there, sniffing the sand, and looking around as if perplexed.

I have not even photographed him. Not long after the shot, I hear a child’s scream, clearly coming from that house, from the grainy brown building only 20 meters from where I stood holding my camera.

In panic, a young boy around six years old races toward the dying dog. A woman wearing the familiar Afghan light blue burqa, that I assume to be his mother, anxiously calls his name, which sounds like “Aref.” But the boy does not care at all and keeps running. The dark blue shirt on his body makes his pale white skin even paler. The woman is frantically chasing her son, who has passed right by me. Aref is struck by unspeakable pain. Unlike his dog who instantly became paralyzed, he screams hysterically. No one else runs after him but the woman. Mother and son bring their own fears. No one consoles them, since everyone chooses to console themselves.

Some people around me quickly turn their bodies away from the scene, or they pretend not to have witnessed it. They are accustomed to it and choose to be blind and deaf in these all to common war-like moments. If you ask them what they saw, one or two people who dare to speak would reply together, “We saw nothing, except for the bright blue sky. We heard nothing, except for the bray of a donkey.”

Before the soldier shot the dog, I was taking a few pictures, aiming at each target with my camera. I photographed children, women and mothers who were standing by the doors of their houses or wandering on the streets. There are many children in this place. I saw a little girl, perhaps around five, carrying her baby brother on her back. I did not see an adult woman near her. She was walking with difficulty and bending her back to hold the burden, then she stopped and observed me with a curious gaze. I also took pictures of a little girl in a red dress who walked through a narrow alley, between the grainy brown buildings. She was alone. Her brownish black hair looked messy. There was a white spot on each of her rosy cheeks. Her feet, bare without sandals or shoes, were covered with dust. She did not seem to have anyone in this world. My camera captured her many times and she did not care. She kept walking with dreamy eyes.

Sometimes I silently asked, what would happen to these children later, 10 or 15 years from now. From the portraits of children in various places here you would know how powerful your enemies are, or who would be your enemies in the future.

In a village, children were looking cynically even when I aimed my camera at them. In another, a girl peeked from behind the door of her house while pointing a toy car toward us like a gun, while her brother greeted us in front of that green iron door with a gesture of an enemy who would tease and say, “Hey, come and try to catch me,” though he laughed.

Yet, in some villages, children smiled and waved at me. I would send their pictures to you later, both the sour-faced and the friendly ones. These portraits would eternalize what would surely vanish. The innocent faces of boys would one day transform into the faces of bearded men, and the thicker and longer their beards, the more respect they would gain. The girls would slowly become a memory. They would grow into women who obliged to serve their men under the burqa cover, whether they like it or not.

The soldier stands at the end of the street, not far from the dying dog, and he acts as if he did not do anything that disturbed one’s soul and ended another. He acts as if the dog had been there long before he came, like the mountains, the landscape of sand, the field of grass, the hot weather, the strong wind of winter and snow in this place, those that had been a part of your life because you were born and growing up in this country, those that should have always existed and you no longer consider important.

The soldier’s age is probably 19. I turn my face away when he suddenly throws his glance at me, precisely toward the running boy, because we are in the same direction, in the same position of his shooting line. And I do not understand why I need to be surprised to see a soldier shooting a dog. Is not a dog just an animal, a brainless creature whose brown fur looks even dirty and unkempt? A bullet has killed a creature not even involved in this war. I will not report this to the highest commander at the central base, because I am not under his authority. Perhaps I will inform this dog shooting to my captain, who always responds to my complaints with the same answer: I am sorry you have to see something like this. But, as I think it over, perhaps I should not write any more letters to him, except for official reports. The more I complain, the tougher my situation will be. I could be sent home any time and that means I will not be able to pay for my mother’s treatment, Mark’s tuition and the rent. Perhaps the soldier, too, has a sick mother or father; perhaps he has no option for the future other than being trapped in this place, like me and the little boy who just lost his dog.

Just the day before, these same soldiers saved me when our convoy passed through an enemy zone. I was in a bulletproof car when a battle was happening around me. My heart was beating fast. My throat was dry. It was my first experience being caught in a gunfight as one of the few civilians working here. I was responsible to observe a turbine construction and could not go anywhere without being closely guarded. I slept, eat and worked with armed men, who pave the way for the construction by “cleaning” each of my work places before I arrive. If you ask where the enemies who call themselves “students” are and what they look like, I cannot answer. Their attacks are so sudden. They are good at hiding. You hear a shot or a mortar explosion, but you will not see anyone who shoots or throws. You will only see the landscape of sand and the field of grass, and the mountains afar off.

The “students” prohibit girls from going to school and they also rape young women. In one village, I saw a girl of fourteen who did not want to live. Her face melted, like melting chocolate. One of the “students” threw mercury onto Shirin’s face because she insisted to go to school. Our enemies call themselves “students,” but they forbid people to learn and become educated. They used to cooperate with us by combating the tanks of enemies from the North. But there is no such thing as free allies. Some people here clearly say that they do not want us, but neither do they want the “students” to rule. It means they refuse both the modern world and the stone-age. What kind of world is that? Maybe the world in between, the world where the printing machine had just been discovered and people still traveled on a coal-powered steam train. It is still a backwards world, in my opinion.

When the sound of gunshot stopped, we had lost three soldiers in our combined convoy. As we reached the safety of the base, I felt really exhausted and immediately took a shower. Then I had dinner. I keep gaining weight, since I no longer play basketball. You would say my belly grows twice in size. Like an expanding building, it was two floors then, later it would be three or four.

The dog-shooting soldier is the same age as Mark, my brother. Mark is now living in the dorm, not in an apartment anymore. You must have seen our picture that I sent on Thanksgiving. The father of his girlfriend, Elena, took a picture of us in his house. There is a set of drums behind us, if you look at the picture closely. Elena’s father loves playing music. In his house, in addition to drums, there is an acoustic guitar, a saxophone, a harmonica, and a piano. That night I sang, with Elena’s father accompanying me with his guitar. My voice was not too bad. I sang Tom Waits’ song, Romeo is Bleeding. And today I saw a dog’s blood.

The small dog’s body seemed to curl up on a plate of tomato sauce. Suddenly I feel reluctant to take photographs. Other soldiers around me do not care. Some took a glimpse at the dead dog, then they went back inspecting houses or watching their surrounding.

So this is the handsome boy who owns the poor dog. If only it were not here, I would have seized his body and held him, trying to comfort him to ease the pain, like what I used to do with you when you were sad or worried. Maybe I would buy him a toy or a new dog, maybe a friendly and tame Golden Retriever. I would make him an appropriate burial for the dead dog, with a grave that has his name written on it. I would let him cry there until he is satisfied and say goodbye to his dog. But in Bala Murghab there is no proper grave for beloved dogs that die; no dolls on the sand as a sign of love from those left behind; no dog-shaped granite statue and beautiful words sculpted for the dead and the remembered.

The boy almost reaches the dog’s body when the soldier grabs him and does not allow him to touch what he wants. Before his pale little hand touches the corpse of his beloved dog, I see the soldier quickly grab the body and throws it as far as he could, onto the other side of the street. The dog’s blood spills on the land, and splattered in the air. Drops of blood land on the face of an old men passing by. He is surprised, then he takes a few steps back and I am sure the end of his robe is splattered with the dead dog’s blood. I see him getting into the house hastily.

Aref cries out loud. His body trembles. The woman I assumed to be his mother is now by his side, holding him, then taking him away from the pool of dog’s blood. Aref keeps crying. The woman keeps consoling him and she does not dare to look at me when they pass me again. She quickly leads the way for his crying son.

I do not take their photograph. Suddenly I lose the appetite to take pictures. In five days I will return to the Italian Army headquarters. Once in a while I could drink wine in their barrack, to cope with boredom a little bit. But in the American Army headquarters, there is no one single can of beer. General McChrystal prohibits all US troops from drinking alcohols.

And I cannot write too often to you, Honey. There isn’t always internet access to write. We take turns using one computer. My phone signal isn’t always strong, so I can rarely call you.

I sleep on a bunk bed. Sometimes eleven people could sleep in one barrack. Farting sounds are heard every night. The smell makes you lose your wits instantly. The stink makes me want to do something foul: I imagine hanging a bag of donkey shit right on the noses of those who sleep, so they would dream swimming in the dung and talk in their sleep all night.

In four months I will take my leave. I want to see a comedy and eat popcorn. Can you also take a leave and return home and we would gather with old friends? You didn’t come home last Thanksgiving…

Without realizing it, I take a deep breath. I am a little tired. The air feels extremely hot, though cold wind blows. Aref and his mother are no longer seen. No one dares to touch the dead dog’s body over there. The soldier who killed it suddenly sends me a signal. He wants to be photographed.***


*Bala Murghab is a village in Badghis province, Afghanistan

(Translated into English by Intan Paramadita)   

Linda Christanty is an author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.

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