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Shamsulla rolled his aching body to the left, hoping against hope that he could move off the sharp, rocky projection that was pressing into his bladder. His knees and elbows felt as if every layer of skin had deserted him, leaving only his protruding bones to suffer.
He lifted his head slightly, drawing in a small bit of cooler air to relieve the heat and stench under his camouflage cover. For five hours, he had lain nearly motionless under the piece of camel's hide that stretched over him, its blotchy, brown color blending in perfectly with the rocks and dust of the hillside. Although the hide had been carefully scraped to remove every remnant of flesh, the oily residue that remained within made it unmistakable that the previous occupant of the hide had been an aging camel.
Shamsulla had personally checked the hiding holes of each of his three dozen mujahedin to ensure that their concealment was perfect. Each man was assigned a place behind or between rock projections, then covered with an animal hide or a pattu--a brown and gray blanket. Shamsulla had then scattered small amounts of crushed stone and dust over the covers until the shapes had merged completely with the barren landscape. His men were invisible to even the most careful scrutiny with binoculars. Shamsulla was confident none of his men would move and destroy his plan. He had handpicked the most dependable battle veterans for this operation.
The fighters had taken their positions at first light after walking four nights through the rugged hills east of Qandahar. Shamsulla had meticulously chosen this position weeks earlier. He hadscouted for a week before picking a place along the highway ten miles north of the city where the road ran through one of the countless passes and gorges. The ambush point was bounded on the east side by a high rock face and on the west by a flat, dusty plain.
At nineteen, Shamsulla was regarded by some of the mujahedin as too young to lead a fighting force of guerrillas. The men who waited in ambush with him knew differently. Shamsulla had been fighting the Russians and the Afghan army since he was twelve years old. Where older men were cautious, Shamsulla was bold. His men called him kiftan, meaning "captain," and they boasted that their leader had true tureh--unlimited courage--in his blood. They were fond of saying that Shamsulla had cold water in his veins instead of blood, a tribute to his calm, unflappable leadership in battle.
Shamsulla constantly put other leaders to shame, striking much closer to Russian enclaves than any other guerrilla leader and with a sense of daring that had earned him the nickname, Mohammed's Sword.
Not all of Shamsulla's men were among the rocks. One was lying flat on the bed of a burned-out truck that sat at the edge of the roadway. The big, German-made machine had been destroyed years ago by a guerrilla force and its charred skeleton left to slowly disintegrate.
Shamsulla had placed his most trusted lieutenant, Ahmad, in the truck with two lightweight, Chinese-made antitank rockets. The devices were so small a person would guess them to be ineffective, but at close range they could penetrate the thickest armor. The task of firing the rockets at close range required steady nerves, and Ahmad had such nerves. True enough, Ahmad was an enigma.
Away from the battlefield, he was given to unpredictable behavior, such as wandering alone through the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He didn't associate much with other adult males, but preferred to organize silly games for the children in the refugee camp, often playing the role of a blind idiot who rages against the children tormenting him with sticks. He would sometimes weep during prayer.
Shamsulla's confidence in his lieutenant was not shaken by these matters. He knew that Ahmad carried an enormous burden of grief since the Soviets had destroyed his village. When Ahmad returned home from a two-month campaign, he could not find a single living person. He identified his family mostly from rotted bits of clothing on decaying bodies hastily pushed into shallow graves by a band of fighters who had passed through the village.
While most men sought refuge from the horrors of battle, with Ahmad it was the reverse. He sought refuge from the horrors in his mind by throwing himself into battle. It was the only time he found relief from his inner pain. When he was given the chance to kill Russians, Ahmad's behavioral quirks vanished. He was both cunning and fearless, and Shamsulla trusted him with the most difficult and dangerous assignments.
The guerrilla leader moved his body back to the right, still seeking the soft spot in the rock that wasn't there. He had to urinate very badly, adding to his suffering. His own human weakness infuriated him. No matter how often he emptied his bladder before a battle, it always refilled immediately and plagued him. It was a worse problem than the heat and foul air under the camel hide and the sand flies that had detected his warmth and were making a breakfast of his flesh and blood.
He squinted and gazed down the highway once more, trying to locate any discernible images through the heat waves of the late-morning sun. He could see only a brilliant glare and a scorching wall that looked like a translucent veil suspended from the sky. He was being slowly cooked under the hide and knew that his men were suffering the same torture. His water bag was propped up on a rock near his face, and he occasionally nudged the wooden spout to his mouth to suck in a bit of the warm liquid. He wanted to drink it all, but resisted the urge, not knowing how long he would have to remain in his hiding place. He might have to stay until nightfall if the convoy he expected did not appear. To run out of water would be a reckless act, unworthy of a chieftain.
His sweating hands loosely held the Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle that he had carried for the past two years. He had come by it easily enough--a deserter from the Afghan army had simply handed it over to him when Shamsulla's unit had met the man walking toward Pakistan. The soldier had politely declined the invitation to join this guerrilla unit. He was a Tadzhik and would not have felt comfortable fighting alongside a band of Pakhtun freedom fighters. Not even the Russian invasion could heal ancient rivalries. However, the man had surrendered the weapon without much argument and had once again trudged off toward the border.
Shamsulla quickly developed great trust in the rifle he had liberated. Its parts were loosely fitted together, not tightly assembled like those of the American M-16. While dirt might jam an M-16 by getting into a close-fitting spot, the AK-47 was a rattling "slop gun" that kept on working despite dust or mud among its moving parts. Shamsulla hoped he would have more AK-47s at the end of this day. Fifteen of his men were armed with older French, German and American rifles dating back to World War II. Two men still carried handmade, single-shot rifles that belonged in an eighteenth-century museum. Such weapons were totally ineffective for ambush tactics. An ambush had to be short and vicious, employing overwhelming firepower in the first few seconds.
He considered urinating in his pants and accepting the derision his men might heap upon him. He made a mental promise that if the convoy did not appear within thirty minutes, he would do it.
The guerrilla leader tried to think of ways to pass the tune. Time can be a terrible enemy of the human mind, for unlike the body, the mind cannot be idle. A man simply has to think of something. He tried to imagine if other warriors had lain in ambush where he now lay. Shamsulla knew a bit of history, but not much. His minimal education had taken place inside a dark, foreboding hut where he and five other boys had received basic instruction in religion. His sisters had received even less education at the hands of a stern matron, who had warned them against temptations of the flesh.
Shamsulla knew that many invaders had passed along this route. Alexander the Great had supposedly built a small monument--a small compliment to himself--to mark his passing, although no one knew where it was. The Huns had marauded through the valleys until the fierce Afghan tribesmen made it too costly for them. The British had tried to subdue the rugged people of the rocks and had failed miserably. The Russians were having some success, but not without cost. They relied upon their air power, showing great reluctance to engage the Afghans in close combat in the mountains towering above the fertile valleys below. Shamsulla knew perfectly well that the Soviet objective was to turn the entire country into a wasteland wedged between the U.S.S.R. and the frightening Islamic tide to the south. The Soviets wanted nothing to grow, nothing to live and nothing to spread disaffection among the Muslims within their borders.
Shamsulla's village had suffered the fate of thousands of villages. The houses were bombed flat, the fields sown with mines dropped from the air so that they could not be farmed. The mines were small, painted light brown and very hard to see. At first the farmers tried to stay, working the fields at night to avoid being attacked by helicopter gunships. But at night they could not see the mines, and both men and animals were blown to pieces trying to plant and harvest. Shamsulla's father and uncle had both died tending their fields.
There had been no choice but to leave. Carrying what possessions they could, he and his mother and sisters had joined the other villagers and made the long trek to Pakistan and into one of the depressing, ever-growing camps that sprawled along the border.
At the age of twelve, Shamsulla's childhood was over and his manhood had begun. He could not remember ever owning a toy.
His thoughts were interrupted by the noise of a helicopter passing overhead. He could not see it, but his trained ears told him it was a Hind--a Russian attack helicopter--on patrol. He hoped his men were motionless, because Russian crews shot at anything that looked even slightly suspicious.
As the sound of the helicopter faded away, he heard a different noise. He knew instantly it was the right one.
Lifting his head very slowly, he looked down the road and focused on the dark objects slowly coming out of the glare, raising small plumes of dust along the edge of the highway. He began to count the shapes as they appeared.
His spies in the Afghan army had told him there would be six vehicles, and his eyes needed to confirm their reports. His lips formed what might have been called a tiny smile if, indeed, Shamsulla ever smiled. Although many Afghans had deserted the Soviet-controlled Afghan army, others stayed in order to provide a more important service to the freedom fighters--information. The Russians knew that half the Afghans in the army were actively supporting the guerrillas, but there was nothing they could do about it. They needed the Afghan army to maintain the pretense that they were assisting a legitimate government to fight an American-sponsored revolt.
Shamsulla knew almost everything his enemy was planning right down to the last detail.
This small convoy was to resupply the Russian garrison at Qandahar with munitions, particularly rockets for their helicopter gunships. The Russian pilots and gunners had been less than frugal recently and had expended rockets at a feckless rate. The air fleet was dangerously low on supply and Shamsulla hoped to keep it that way.
The line of vehicles seemed to approach with infuriating slowness, as if they were on a leisurely outing. Shamsulla guessed that the convoy commander was trying to reduce the amount of dust he and his men must eat by driving slowly, confident that they were well beyond the striking range of any guerrilla force. As Shamsulla slowly moved his automatic rifle into firing position, he could almost feel his enemy's complacency.
The plan had been rehearsed over and over again. It would be Ahmad who would spring the trap shut. Ahmad was closest to the enemy and would be able to make a last-minute decision about whether to attack or allow the convoy to pass. There could be no surprises. If something was amiss, such as the presence of tanks within the column, they would cancel the attack. The guerrillas would then have to wait for darkness before they could fade into the hills. Disappointment was no stranger, but Mohammed's Sword did not recklessly waste his men's lives in hopeless attacks.
Shamsulla looked over the sights of his rifle and studied the vehicles carefully as they came into view. Despite the dust clouds, he could see the first three clearly. Luckily, the lead vehicle was just an armored car, not a tank. Small and lightly armed, it was little more than a scout car.
The second was a troop carrier with firing ports on the sides. There most likely were infantry inside, perhaps eight or nine men.
Shamsulla raised his head a fraction higher, and with an expert eye studied the third vehicle. It was a heavy truck, with the oversize tires that the Soviet army favored. The giant wheels enabled the vehicle to keep traction in waist-deep mud, a necessary element of design the Soviets had learned in their war against the Germans.
The guerrilla leader could scarcely make out the remaining three vehicles, but they all appeared to be trucks, their boxes covered with canvas.
Russian or Afghan soldiers? Shamsulla didn't much care. The advantage of fighting the Afghan army was that they fought badly and were easily defeated. The advantage of lighting the Soviet army was that killing them was more pleasurable. Either way, it promised to be a rewarding day.
The lead vehicle slowed as it approached the burned-out truck, then stopped. Shamsulla's body tensed as he saw the small turret containing the machine gun turn toward the truck and pause. Had Ahmad done something to give away his position? The man who had painstakingly planned this attack for weeks was now concerned that a single moment of carelessness had spoiled everything. A guerrilla attack was unlike ordinary battles. It either succeeded wonderfully or failed miserably--there was seldom any middle ground. Shamsulla knew this attack could just as easily result in the annihilation of his forces as it could the Soviet convoy.
The convoy sat motionless, the low rumble of idling engines puncturing the dust and haze. Everything seemed to have gone into suspended animation.
Then, with a lurch, the lead vehicle began rolling once more. The Russian commander's head could be seen peering out of a hatch, his dust-covered face shielded by plastic goggles. Shamsulla breathed a little easier, guessing that the convoy commander was satisfied that the wreck beside the road represented no danger. Sometimes the Russians shot up such vehicles just as a precaution.
The sound of changing gears was clearly audible as the armored car gained speed and passed the rusted hulk. The convoy commander impulsively gave the derelict a last-second glance over his shoulder. He returned his attention to the road before him, then suddenly turned his entire body around in the hatch! He had detected movement out of the corner of his eye and swung around to identify what it was. It was his last view of this world.
Kneeling on the bed of the truck, behind what remained of the cab, squatted a man holding a short, dark tube on his shoulder, sighting along the top of it. He was thirty feet from the armored car and there was no mistaking the device he was holding.
The Russian officer shouted something into the mouthpiece of his helmet, and the car swung sharply to the left. It was a futile, evasive action.
Shamsulla saw the black tube belch fire from both ends. A dark object appeared through the orange and yellow flames at the front end of the rocket launcher then struck the rear of the armored car. It exploded with a dull, muffled thump that understated the actual damage that the projectile caused. The rocket did not completely explode upon impact, but produced a burning core as it melted the vehicle's outer skin. After it burned through, the rocket exploded inside the vehicle, spraying molten pieces of metal into the bodies of the hapless occupants.
Shamsulla grasped his AK-47 and leaped from under the cover of his camel's hide, exuberant to be freed from its smothering presence and in the open air once more. He sprinted down the hill toward the road, squeezing off a short burst of bullets as he ran. To his right, a dozen men were also on the run, guns firing. From above, his best marksmen were turning the truck windshields into powdered glass, killing the drivers. They did not fire indiscriminately, for Shamsulla had carefully limited each man to eighty bullets. Ammunition was never to be wasted.
On the road below, Ahmad got up from the bed of the truck. The explosion that rocked the armored car had also knocked him on his rear. He heard a loud rushing noise in his ears, then felt a sharp pain across his forehead. He shook off the temporary concussion suffered from the explosion and grasped the second rocket from the truck bed. Leaning on the cab for support, the guerrilla fighter fired the second rocket at the troop carrier, skillfully aiming at a spot just below the cupola mounted on the front. Another ball of fire--another hit. Shamsulla got a good view of the deadly missile as it tore through the carrier's steel. He could hear men's anguished screams as the inside of the vehicle was filled with white-hot shrapnel.
Fry, you sheep-screwing bastards, he cursed silently as he jumped like a mountain goat from boulder to boulder on his way to the road's edge.
The guerrilla leader chose the armored car as his target, the AK-47 ready should any head appear. He fervently wanted a target of opportunity, and found it.
The driver was struggling to escape the burning vehicle by pulling himself out through a hatch near the left front of the vehicle. Shamsulla ended his efforts with a short burst from his Kalashnikov, which removed the upper third of the man's head.
Without pausing, he climbed to the top of the vehicle and fired a burst through every open hatch he could find. Nothing moved. He observed, with much pleasure, the outline of at least two bodies on the vehicle floor amid burning fuel. He jumped clear just as the ammunition began to explode.
Shamsulla ran toward the rear of the second vehicle, nearly colliding with Ahmad as he came around the corner of the burning troop carrier. The smaller warrior looked slightly absurd--his face was blackened and his clothes had large holes burned through them. Some were still smoking.
"You cannot fire the rockets so close!" Shamsulla shouted at his lieutenant. Ahmad demonstrated no regrets over his reckless behavior--he shook his fist mightily in the direction of the burning car.
"Inshallah--God willing--I will get closer next time! I don't ever want to miss."
"If you get closer, you can beat them over the head with it," Shamsulla replied as he poked his rifle through an open firing port in the side of the vehicle and sprayed the inside until the magazine was empty. He quickly replaced it with a full one.
There was no return fire, only the crackling sound of tiny flames licking through seams opened in the vehicle by the exploding fuel tank. The two men moved on.
There had been little resistance. The small convoy had been manned by only a small number of soldiers, and most had been killed in the first onslaught. The heaviest defense had come from the tail end of the convoy, and two mujahedin had been wounded before the Afghan soldiers in the truck were silenced. Their bodies had fallen in a heap behind the vehicle, arms and legs intertwined like twisted tree roots.
Shamsulla's men were busy pulling back the canvas tops and searching the vehicles for weapons and ammunition. To their delight, they found both.
"Aha!" a satisfied fighter cried aloud as he discovered that the first truck was nearly overburdened with wooden crates. The crates contained helicopter-fired rockets, the type that had killed and maimed so many Afghan warriors in past clashes. They were of no use to the guerrillas, but keeping them from Soviet hands was a grand achievement.
"Brothers! Get everything useful out of those trucks, then set them on fire!" Shamsulla shouted to his men, who seemed to be moving too slowly. Sometimes the mujahedin wanted to celebrate their victories on the spot instead of doing so in the safety of their hiding spots. Shamsulla had to keep his men hopping, for they tended to lose sight of the fact that the Soviets had airplanes.
Another voice cried out at the discovery of something important. Shamsulla and Ahmad trotted to the last truck to see what treasure had been found. There they discovered two grinning fighters holding a shaking, crying Afghan army sergeant by the armpits, trying to stand him on his feet. It was a failing effort because the man's legs had turned to jelly. He was waving both arms and pleading for mercy.
"What shall we do with this mongrel?" one of the guerrillas asked, holding a long, curved knife under the man's chin.
Shamsulla did not have time to reply before another fighter stuck his head out of the rear of the truck and called to him.
"Kiftan, you must see this," the man said grimly. Then he glared at the trembling prisoner in a manner that promised a terrible death.
Alerted, Shamsulla handed his rifle to Ahmad and, grasping the metal rungs at the rear of the truck, hauled himself up to where he could see inside. At first his eyes were puzzled by the odd-shaped mounds and lumps scattered about. They looked like laundry bags thrown in heaps. Blotches of dark red stained the mounds.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw hands and realized that the "bags" were bodies. They seemed small for soldiers.
The man inside the truck reached down and yanked one of the mounds upward, exposing it to full view. Shamsulla recoiled momentarily in shock, his hands gripping the metal rungs so tightly his knuckles turned white. His jaw suddenly tensed; a sharp pain seared across his chest. The object held aloft was a dead Afghan child, her limp body punctured by half a dozen bullets--mujahedin bullets most likely. The wounds were fresh, and blood still oozed from some of them. Her face was frozen in an expression of total terror. It was a picture that burned indelibly into Shamsulla's memory. The child's potential rescuers had unknowingly become her executioners. Her red and black embroidered dress told him the child was, or had been, a Turkoman.
He scarcely felt the road beneath his feet as he jumped from the truck. His vision was slightly blurred, and his ears were ringing with a strange, haunting noise as he walked slowly toward the trembling Afghan soldier. His men were fascinated by the peculiar expression on his face. They had never seen anything like it before. But they were at a disadvantage--they had not seen the contents of the truck.
Without speaking, Shamsulla struck the soldier directly on the nose, his powerful fist smashing into the bridge, turning it into a red pancake. As the man's head snapped back, Shamsulla's boot crashed into his groin with a ferocity that caused the man to fly from the grasp of his guards. The victim fell to the roadway in a ball, trying to use his hands and arms to protect himself from further injury. It was futile.
The guerrilla leader kicked him in the side, scarcely hearing the sound of ribs cracking. The next kick was to the side of the head, producing an equally resounding crack. The warriors were alarmed. They had seen their leader execute men. They had been witness to his embracing others and accepting them into his band. They had never seen him abuse a prisoner. It was not his way.
"Kiftan," one man said softly as he stepped forward and placed a restraining hand on Shamsulla's arm, "do you want to ask him anything before you kill him?"
The steady voice, the carefully chosen words, brought Shamsulla back to the reality of the moment.
He seized the groaning man by his hair and yanked him into a kneeling position. The soldier could see out of only one eye, but he caught a glimpse of the knife Shamsulla held just below his injured eye, the razor-sharp point drawing a trickle of blood from the socket.
"Why are those children in that truck?" Shamsulla demanded, shaking the man's head and nearly pulling his hair out by the roots.
"We were taking them to Qandahar," the man quickly blurted.
"I don't know. I wasn't told."
Shamsulla pulled the knife back a short distance, then slashed the man's face with it, opening a huge gash from the forehead to the right ear. The soldier emitted a single scream, then grasped his tormentor's wrists with both of his trembling hands. The flowing blood streamed over his good eye, nearly blinding him.
"Please, Kiftan," he begged, "I had nothing to do with it. I was simply told to ride in the truck."
"You had nothing to do with what?" the guerrilla leader asked, once again pressing the knife against the man's cheek. "The truth, pig, or I am going to cut out both your eyes and leave you to wander blind the rest of your life."
"I had nothing to do with what happened at their village. The Russians did it."
"Tell me about it."
"They..." The man hesitated, the words unwilling to pass over his tongue. Shamsulla slashed the bottom of the man's left ear away with his knife. The words then flowed in a torrent.
"They surrounded the village. Nearly everyone was killed. They captured these children in a small cave just beyond the village."
"Where were they taking them?"
"To the Soviet Union. I heard a Russian officer say they take children to the Soviet Union to be brainwashed. They are to be trained to work for the Soviets. An orphanage! They go to a special orphanage. Kiftan--spare me! As Allah is my witness, I was going to desert. Believe me, I was. The first chance I got, I was going to desert. I never shot at you or your men today. I am a simple man. I never killed anyone."
Shamsulla relaxed his grip momentarily and the soldier's hopes were raised that his life would be spared. A tiny, nervous grin spread over his lips as he looked around at the stern faces in the circle of men. The guerrillas had heard that the Russians were stealing Afghan children to be sent to their indoctrination centers for brainwashing. The Soviets thought they could train thousands of future Afghan leaders totally loyal to the U.S.S.R. Until today, this had been just a rumor. Now it was a harsh fact. Another harsh fact was that these fighters had unwittingly killed a dozen children. The sorrow and fury burned in their guts.
"Were the children alive when they were placed in that truck?" one man suddenly asked.
"Yes," the soldier eagerly answered. "They were well. Your bullets killed them."
"Then how did you survive?" Ahmad suddenly demanded, glowering over the soldier in a near rage. A murmur went through the ring of men, for they all wanted to know the answer.
"I ... hid. When the shooting started, I hid," the man replied.
"Hid? Hid where?" Shamsulla asked, pressing the knife into the cheek and again drawing blood.
The soldier's voice failed him once more. His lips moved, but his voice no longer functioned. He began to wail and moan like an uncontrollable, low siren. Shamsulla and his fighters instantly had the answer to the question.
"You hid under the children's bodies," he said softly.
"No!" the man retorted instantly.
"Then where did you hide?"
"Behind the truck. I hid behind the truck. I was going to run, but there were so many bullets."
"Kiftan, I found him hiding in the truck!" a guerrilla shouted angrily. "Under the body of the child I showed you."
Shamsulla's eyes narrowed into tiny slits as he lifted the soldier's head slightly higher, bending it backward until the chin was as high as it would go. With one quick movement, a skill his father had taught him when slaughtering goats, he drew his knife across the man's throat, nearly severing the head.
He flung the body sideways to avoid getting too much blood on his clothes. He stared down at it a moment, then wiped the blade clean on the man's pants. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought of the children who played what games they could invent in the squalid refugee camp in Pakistan. The tiny form in the red and black dress could just as easily have been one of his sisters.
"Kiftan!" a man called out excitedly. "One child is alive!"
The voice came from the bed of the truck, and the cluster of men moved quickly to the rear of the vehicle.
Standing on the bed of the truck, amid the corpses, a fighter stood with a broad grin, much like a proud new father, holding a confused and frightened child in his arms. In his grasp was a boy about four years of age, his dirty face streaked with tears. The child clung to the man, his small hands locked around his neck. The fighter was saying something in a soft voice to try to comfort the child, but it was unlikely the boy understood the dialect. A small cheer went up from the men. Hardened as they were, this small miracle touched their hearts and lifted some of the guilt from their souls.
"Kiftan, we stay here too long," Ahmad suddenly cautioned. Shamsulla agreed.
"Take the child to the safety of the hills," he ordered. Then he turned and in a gruff voice ordered his men to finish stripping the trucks.
"Why are you standing around?" he bellowed. "Do you think the Russians have all gone back to Moscow?"
The men leaped into action, clambering up on the truck beds and throwing down items of value that could be carried away. Two men expertly detached the machine gun from the troop carrier and added four boxes of ammunition to a stack of booty along the side of the road. Dead bodies were stripped of weapons, ammunition and much prized boots.
Ahmad's warning was prophetic. The guerrillas had scarcely finished looting the first truck when two Soviet helicopters appeared over the crest of a nearby hill, flying low and fast.
"Leave the rest!" Shamsulla shouted, grasping the weapons and ammunition at his feet. "Take cover!"
The guerrillas ran from the road in a ragged line into the craggy terrain adjoining the paved surface. Shamsulla sprinted like an Olympic athlete, trying not to drop his hard-earned loot. He headed for the place where he had hidden all morning, for the rock formations might provide some protection from view.
The helicopters churned through the air over the burning vehicles, the pilots and crews studying what lay below and making a quick analysis. Soviet airmen would not hesitate to kill some of their own men if they could also catch substantial numbers of enemy in their sights.
The mujahedin panted as they clambered up the slope of the hill. Some prudently abandoned the extra weapons and ammunition boxes they had seized. Such items could be picked up later. The objective now was simple survival.
The Hinds made a wide loop along the edge of the hills, flying in close formation. Shamsulla climbed as fast as he could, looking for any crevice that could hide a man.
Another forty seconds elapsed as the Hinds passed over a low ridge and disappeared from view. A brief moment later they reappeared, bearing down on the convoy, flying in single file.
Shamsulla dropped behind a large boulder and thrust his head between two smaller rocks. He placed his arms over his head, knowing that this would provide him no special protection. The ostrichlike action was more reflexive than logical.
The lead machine unleashed two rockets from a distance of a quarter mile, their smoking streams marking the path they followed--a path that led them straight toward a cluster of guerrillas still scaling the rocky slope. With a blinding flash and a roar of explosives against stone, the rockets detonated, spewing metal and broken granite into a spray that devoured everything within fifty feet. A half dozen Afghan fighters went down, their bodies absorbing dozens of wounds from the deadly swath.
As the lead machine roared overhead, a door gunner let fly a long burst toward the spot where Shamsulla lay. The blast went too far to the right, the bullets bouncing harmlessly off the protruding boulders, but encouraging the guerrilla leader to press his face tighter against the stone.
The second helicopter carried out a similar attack with equal devastation, its rockets and machine guns blowing another five men to eternity. What had begun so well was turning into a disaster for the mujahedin.
Shamsulla cursed himself for such poor judgment. He knew it was a short flight from Qandahar to their position and that the Soviets could react quickly to any assault. He had mentally allowed only eighteen minutes for the attack on the convoy, and they had overstayed that time by nearly fifty percent. His distraction was now costing him most of his fighting unit.
As the sound of the helicopters faded for the moment, he was up and running once more. Sweat was flowing from every pore in his body and his lungs burned, but when a man is running for his life, there is no such thing as overexertion. He felt totally exposed on the barren slope, as if he were the only living thing in the world being hunted by every bird of prey.
If only I had something to shoot at them, he thought as he jumped behind a large, square-shaped boulder. Missiles. Why can't we get some of the Stinger missiles that have begun to make their way to the battlefield?
The deadly Hinds made another pass. This time they did not fire rockets, but unleashed long burst from their machine guns.
Shamsulla felt a slight ray of hope as he passed a deep cut in the rocks, deep enough to shelter half of a man's mass. He doubled back and squeezed his body into the hole until the rocky edges came up to his armpits. Angrily and with a certain resignation that he would not live much longer, he removed the nearly spent magazine from his AK-47 and inserted a full one. The next time the helicopters passed over, he would answer back.
"Brothers!" he shouted as the whirling birds disappeared once again over a far ridge. "Empty your magazines at them next time. They must pay something for this day."
He had no idea how many men were alive and heard him. It was of no importance. He knew his moment to die was at hand and surprisingly felt unafraid. His mind quickly reverted to all that he had been taught--that a fighter who died in battle had nothing to fear because he would immediately pass into heaven and sit at the banquet table with Dost Mohammed and Saladin, the greatest Muslim warriors in all history. As he raised the automatic rifle, a sense of defiance swept over him, and he began singing aloud an ancient chant he had learned from his father:
Each red leaf in the meadow
Reminds me of those killed for the homeland....
Resolved to face his executioners head-on, Shamsulla slowly rose out of the crevice and stood glaring into the sun. He held his rifle across his chest, the barrel pointed toward the far ridge.
"Kiftan, are you mad? Take cover!" Ahmad pleaded as he suddenly appeared at Shamsulla's elbow.
"It is no use, Ahmad. We have no cover, no chance. I prefer to end it this way, facing my enemy."
The fingers that gripped his arm slowly relaxed as his lieutenant realized the veracity of his words. Calmly, Ahmad strode a few steps and sat upon a large rock. He shifted his buttocks around a few times to try to obtain minimal comfort, then cradled his aging, American M-1 rifle in a tight firing position.
"Maybe I'll get lucky," he said. "Maybe one shot right through the windscreen. That would be nice, to see one of those things smash into the rocks in a great ball of fire. What do you say, Kiftan? Wouldn't that be a lovely sight?"
The two men waited one minute, then two. Nothing appeared. Elsewhere in the rocks, Shamsulla could see some of his men climbing higher, still searching for better hiding places. Another minute passed.
"Where have they gone?" Ahmad pondered aloud. Shamsulla offered no answer. There was no reason for the Soviets to break off such a successful attack when they knew the guerrillas had nothing effective to fire back at them. Although some of the larger units of mujahedin had obtained the American-made Stinger missiles, it would be a long time before they would trickle down to a small force such as Shamsulla's. The Soviets could kill them with impunity.
"They will come," he finally said with resignation, still holding his AK-47 at the ready.
Another minute passed and there was only silence in the air.
"Kiftan, perhaps they ran low on fuel. Let's climb to higher ground where we can shoot down at them," Ahmad urged.
But, as Shamsulla had suspected, the Russians had not abandoned an easy prey. Both men heard the sound of an engine approaching from the east. They knew it wasn't a helicopter, but the more subtle drone of a single-engine airplane.
"Reconnaissance plane," Ahmad muttered. "Jets will follow. They think we are really big stuff to call for jets. Let's climb."
The two men began clambering over the large rocky protrusions in the hillside, trying to keep a watchful eye on the small plane coming slowly toward them at a much higher altitude than the helicopters had flown. They guessed it was an Antonov--a spotter plane--that acted as eyes for the MiGs that would soon come bearing down on them with much heavier ordnance than the helicopters carried. Shamsulla wondered why the Russians were calling so much firepower to fight such a small force.
The plane made two lazy circles overhead but still no jets appeared. The Soviet hesitation made no sense to Shamsulla, but he was glad for the respite. Another five minutes of climbing and he might easily find a small cave or hollow to hide in.
"Perhaps they are waiting for troops," Ahmad grunted as he pulled himself up a steep section of slope between two huge boulders. "Maybe they will land troops on the top of the hill and shoot down at us."
"Ahmad, you're full of too many maybes," Shamsulla shot back. "Shut up and climb. Climb for your life, old man."
The uncertainty over the Russian strategy came to an end then. The small plane was suddenly joined by a larger one, driven by two prop engines. It wasted no time but bore down on them in a slow, graceful dive. As they watched, it fired two rockets, which trailed white smoke behind them.
Instinctively, Shamsulla sought cover and scampered behind a pile of large rocks. As he flung himself down, he felt something soft beneath his hands. He recoiled a moment and looked to see what it was. He was looking directly into the eyes of a terrified child.
A quick glance at the color of the child's garment told him that it was the infant rescued from the truck. His tiny form was pinned beneath the body of the warrior who had carried him from the truck into the rocks. The guerrilla was dead, the wounds in his back testimony of his determination to shield the child with his own body.
Shamsulla accepted the same responsibility. He lay on the dead man's body and gently thrust the boy's head under his chest. The child made a small whimper but accepted the hiding place without resistance. Pinned beneath the weight of a dead man and a man who would soon be dead, he was in danger of being smothered, but it was a chance Shamsulla had to take if the child had any hope of survival.
A few feet away Ahmad watched the rockets stream toward him. They seemed to be flying unusually slowly, as if something had reduced their speed by half. The experienced fighter knew there was something peculiar about them. He forgot about shooting at the airplane and watched the missiles with a combination of suspicion and fascination.
Approximately five hundred feet above the ground, the rockets suddenly split apart, emitting a gentle boom. Instantly, dozens of smaller particles were propelled in all directions, moving away from the detonation like an unfolding fan.
Ahmad watched as these smaller weapons tumbled end over end toward him. Then, less than three hundred feet above his head, they, too blew apart. The warrior instinctively ducked his head, expecting a shower of metal to come down on him, but nothing happened.
The insides of the small rockets began to form clouds that rapidly expanded in size. With each passing second, the clouds seemed to double and then double again, producing a blotchy pattern of dozens of clouds across the horizon that looked like yellow smoke against the blue sky. The clouds expanded until they met one another and blended into a solid mass that formed a giant umbrella over the heads of the mujahedin. It was both beautiful and frightening, as elaborate as the most expensive fireworks.
Shamsulla looked up, wondering why there had been no crash of explosives against the rocks or bullets to perforate his rough clothes. He, too, saw the strange mist that was settling downward.
"What is it?" he called out.
"I don't know, Kiftan," Ahmad replied from his hiding place. "It could be tear gas. They might be trying to drive us into the open."
Shamsulla thought Ahmad was most certainly right. The Soviets did sometimes use a powerful tear gas, heavier than air, to drive the Afghans from their caves. The mujahedin had no gas masks or any other defenses against it.
Then, unbelievably, it began to rain.
Shamsulla stared in disbelief at the big droplets that splashed against the boulders near him, their dark wetness standing out vividly against the dusty, brown surface of the rocks. He felt two drops hit his head and one hit his hand.
"Aha! They're pissing on us!" Ahmad laughed. Then he stood and squeezed off a single, futile burst from his rifle toward the retreating airplane. Shamsulla looked down at the liquid on the back of his hand and then up at Ahmad. He was about to say something when he suddenly felt dizzy and nauseated. A loud ringing began in his ears. He opened his mouth to speak, but felt so weak he could not make the effort. Through the tears streaming from his eyes, he could see that Ahmad had dropped his rifle and lay across a large boulder, his face twisted in agony and his body quivering in a frenzied dance of death. Blood flowed from the man's nose and saliva drooled from the corner of his mouth.
Shamsulla tried to stand, but his legs would not respond. He fell heavily upon the back of the dead guerrilla, his arms flung outward. His ears no longer functioned or he might have heard the cries of the child, who was in pain from the crushing of so much human weight.
The muscles in his legs and thighs began to spasm and his heartbeat went into a frenzy of irregular pounding. His vision was blurred, but he could barely make out the form of the airplane starting a second pass over their positions, releasing the same type of rockets toward a large rock formation several hundred yards away.
The last symptom Mohammed's Sword suffered before his painful death was the rupture of his bladder. Urine and blood streamed from his penis, soaking the clothes of the dead man beneath him, clothes that were pressed firmly against the child's face. The relief Shamsulla had wanted had come only in death. He did not live long enough to see the second cluster of missiles detonate and create another gas cloud. Nor did he see one of them fail to explode. It fell tumbling, end over end, until it smashed into the hillside, bounced several times and came to rest, wedged between two massive stones.
An eerie quiet fell over the valley. There was suddenly no life, no sound. The airplane had departed, leaving only the yellow clouds, which were now starting to dissipate. No insects or carrion eaters gathered, sensing somehow that this was a poisoned valley.
Ten silent minutes passed, then the quiet was again broken by the sounds of flying machines. Once more, it was the distinctive whirling of helicopter blades that approached from the east. Two M-18 Hip helicopters came slowly over the top of the ridge and made a gradual circle as the pilots studied the terrain below. The still bodies of some Afghan guerrillas were barely visible through the yellow clouds.
The machines made a full circle, then returned, flying close to the ground this time at a very slow speed. They settled in for a landing, and as the dust blew away from the touchdown spot, men climbed out both sides of the helicopters and moved slowly toward the hillside. They were wearing silver-colored coveralls and special helmets that completely covered their heads and they carried large metal boxes. An observer would have thought they had just landed on the surface of the moon.
The men worked their way up the hillside, moving slowly so they would not catch or tear their protective clothing on sharp rocks. It was a hard climb and their progress was slow.
When the first man finally reached the body of a dead Afghan fighter, he paused and set a small box on a flat rock. Slowly, wearing thickly padded gloves, he opened the box and removed a number of tools and instruments. With the aid of a second man, he stripped the dead guerrilla of his clothing, then began cutting into the corpse with a large, scalpel-sharp knife. He took no special care, for this was not surgery. This was not a proper autopsy. It was a slaughterhouse.
Clumsily, the knife wielder cut out the deceased's whole heart, kidneys and liver, and pieces of his lungs. Then, using a short-handled ax, he cleaved the top of the guerrilla's head and lifted out fragments of brain. Each organ was placed into a compartment of the metal box, the blood oozing out over the sides as the matter was tightly compressed. The lid was sealed with snaps on three sides.
Elsewhere on the hillside, the same procedure was being repeated with a few variations. Large needles withdrew samples of blood that were stored in glass vials.
In time, a "collector" stood over Shamsulla's body. The man was extremely hot and tired in his suit, and the inside of his glass visor was starting to steam up. Perhaps that was the reason he did not see that underneath the dead man was another dead man. And, beneath them both was a living child, sick and half-conscious. The child's face was plastered with clothes soaked with blood and urine, and he was totally hidden under layers of human flesh. The child caught only a brief glimpse of a man in a strange suit. He could not move and even if he could have, he dared not. He felt movement as the man did something to one corpse above the child's pained limbs. Then, he heard a voice in a language he did not understand, and through a tiny space saw a second man towering above him. The speaker wore no special suit, just a brown uniform. That he was angry was obvious from his voice as he barked orders at the soldier hacking away at the cadaver. The metal box was slammed shut and the two men moved out of sight, the gruff voice still ringing across the hillside. Then the child lost consciousness.
Their grisly work done, the soldiers entered the helicopters and flew back to their base to deposit their gory specimens, then try to wash away with large amounts of vodka the grisly specter of their day's work.
The sun rose and set twice more over the valley. The yellow haze was gone, the birds and flies feasted on the rotting flesh that dotted the hillside. It was the noisy birds that caught the attention of a small group of drivers transporting fruit between Kabul and Qandahar. They discovered the carnage, but left it. The ground was too hard for them to bury the dead, and they had no desire to place the sun-blackened corpses inside their trucks. They entrusted the souls of the dead to Allah and the bodies to the birds and beetles. The men shook their heads in disgust at the obvious mutilation that had taken place. To kill a man in battle was one thing, but this defilement was beneath even the Russians.
They were about to depart when one of the men heard a weak, whining sound. Holding his nose to keep out the stench, he approached the place from where he thought the noise had come. He wrapped a length of cloth around one leg and rolled over a dead body only to find another. He repeated the process, and when the second corpse was shifted he was amazed to discover a dehydrated, nearly lifeless child in the stony crevice where he had lain, mercifully protected from the sun and the birds that would have pecked out his eyes.
"It is a miracle," one elderly man said as he took the child in his arms and put drops of water from his water bottle into the boy's mouth with a wet cloth.
"Leave him," another man argued. "He is foreign and will die anyway."
The older man ignored the comment, carried the boy down the hillside and placed him in the back of his truck, making a small bed of rough burlap bags. He took the child to his home in Qandahar where his kindly wife tried to nurse the boy back to health. Nothing seemed to give him strength and he continued to waste away. In his few lucid moments, the child talked excitedly and seemed terrified by everyone around him. After much searching, they found a woman who spoke the child's dialect and were able to hear his story. It was a distorted, unbelievable tale of fighting, explosions, strange machines, yellow clouds, men in strange suits and one man who walked through the clouds without a special suit.
The saddened villagers concluded that the boy's mind had been deranged by the ordeal. They resigned themselves to the likelihood that he would never recover. One night he sat up, coughed up black blood, cried out something they could not understand, then died. The couple buried him in a paupers' field just beyond the edge of the city. There was gossip in the marketplace about what the boy had said, and while most people agreed that the child had suffered a terrible delusion, the rumors did not entirely go away. The story of the yellow rain spread from back street to back street and to other villages. There was also much gossip that nothing grew over the boy's grave, not even the simple wildflowers or weeds that dotted the rest of the graveyard.
It was shortly past noon when a man stepped up to a small kiosk near Kutuzovsky Prospekt in Moscow and purchased a copy of Isvestia. Slender and darkly handsome, he exchanged brief glances with the vendor, who folded the paper and handed it to him. The upper corner was bent back slightly.
With the paper folded under his arm, the man crossed the street and walked in a leisurely manner into a small park. Just beyond a pond where some small children were trying to entice birds to accept pieces of dried bread, he sat on a cement-and-wood bench and pretended to read the paper. A few minutes later, a woman sat down on the other end of the short bench and began rearranging some items in a mesh shopping bag. In her late fifties, she was no different in appearance from thousands of Moscow women who spent a good part of each day trying to find a bargain, or to find any goods at all.
"They've arrested Petr," she said softly, glancing around while still fumbling in her bag.
The man suddenly stiffened, as if hit by a solid blow to the solar plexus. "When?" he gasped.
"This morning. They took him from his office."
They stopped conversing as the woman laid some of her purchases on the bench, then began repacking them in the bag. The man placed his newspaper next to her items, trying to think of what to say, what to do.
"This is all he was able to get for you," the woman said. "They will have me by tonight."
"Marina, they don't necessarily know about you," he tried to reassure her.
"You know the KGB better than that. Petr will tell them everything. I can't warn the others. Nor does it matter, where would they go? We did what we could. I hope it will all mean something," she said. It was then that the man realized how badly her hand was shaking.
The woman repacked her bag and walked away. Only the most intent observer would have realized that she had picked up the man's newspaper and left her own in its place.
He waited five minutes, then picked up the paper and walked casually out of the park. Losing Petr was an unbelievable bit of rotten luck. Recruiting him was John Grath's biggest coup since he had been assigned to Moscow four years ago. Petr had provided information of immense value about nearly every military project the Soviets were conducting. He held an extraordinary job, in the Soviet equivalent of the General Accounting office. This quiet, diminutive man audited the books. Despite the intense secrecy about military spending, someone had to examine the records to see where the money was going, and that person was Petr Toropov.
Grath walked to his car and headed back toward the embassy. He tried to think if there was something he had done. Had he slipped up somewhere, costing his mole his life? His mood darkened as he realized that he was finished in Moscow, for the Soviets would most assuredly have him expelled. There was little to do but pack his things and go home. He lit a cigarette at an intersection and waited for a Moscow policeman to try to sort out the tangled traffic.
"Dammit! Dammit!" he suddenly blurted out, hitting the steering wheel with his palm. Petr had happened onto a project so secret that the military had at first denied it existed. Only after repeated inquiries did they agree that some accounting was appropriate. The information Petr discovered and began feeding out was more terrifying than anything Grath had ever read or imagined. Yet it was so scanty. Petr never tried anything clumsy such as photographing documents. He memorized everything possible, then rewrote it later. In the newspaper on the car seat was his last report.
Two hours later, the information had been encrypted and flashed to Washington. It was stamped Top Secret--Urgent, sealed in an envelope and carried by armed courier to the Pentagon office of G2--Special Projects. There an intelligence officer read and reread the information.
"Oh, my God," was all he could say.