Day 14: It should have been the beginning . . .
All she needed were stamps and signatures. Marie and her translator stood in the government offices in Kabul, Afghanistan, to complete the paperwork for her new literacy project. The women in her home town, the northern village of Shehktan, would learn to read.
But a spattering of gun shots exploded and an aid worker crumpled. Executed. On the streets of Kabul. Just blocks from the guesthouse. Sending shockwaves through the community.
The foreign personnel assessed their options and some, including Marie’s closest friend, Carolyn, chose to leave the country. Marie and others faced the cost and elected to press forward. But the execution of the lone aid worker was just the beginning.
When she returned home to her Afghan friends in Shehktan to begin classes, she felt eyes watching her, piercing through her scarf as she walked the streets lined in mud brick walls.
And in the end . . .
It took only 14 days for her project, her Afghan home, her community—all of it—to evaporate in an eruption of dust, grief, and loss. Betrayed by someone she trusted. Caught in a feud she knew nothing about, and having loved people on both sides, Marie struggled for the answer: How could God be present here, working here, in the soul of Afghanistan?
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About the Author
KATE MCCORD is not her real name. To protect her, and the women she talked to, all of the names in the book have been changed-including Kate's. At the panicle of a high-powered career, Kate left it all, sold everything and went to Afghanistan to start an NGO with the goal to help Afghani women. She taught herself the local language and served there for over five years. Now she wants you to know the Afghan women she has come to love.
Read an Excerpt
Farewell, Four Waters
One Aid Worker's Sudden Escape From Afghanistan
By KATE MCCORD
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2014 Kate McCord
All rights reserved.
Three hours and the office would close. Marie scribbled another name—another Afghan official with a title, a stamp, and a signature that she still needed. If she focused, Marie could get it done; her project would be approved and she could go home to Shehktan.
Her cell phone chirped. She glanced across the room at the broken window blinds, bars of light streaming through the gaps, dust floating thick and dry. She looked back at the young man, whose rapid directions she'd suddenly lost track of.
Her phone chirped again. Instinctively, she caught the small yellow nylon pouch tethered to the strap of her black backpack. Her lifeline. She pulled the flap, slipped her fingers inside, and retrieved the phone.
The young man took a breath and continued talking.
Marie lifted the display before her eyes. Carolyn? She knows I'm busy. Why is she calling? A dozen possible reasons raced through her mind. The phone rang out again.
In front of her sat a row of three mismatched desks: two laminated wood, chipped on the corners, and one scratched, gray metal. She looked at the dirty concrete-colored computer monitors with their red, white, and blue stickers, "USAID"—gifts of the American people—attached were keyboards with grease and dust-stained keys.
Her phone sounded a fourth time.
She clutched a sheaf of papers in her left hand: written instructions, recorded in uneven black script; names crossed out, rewritten, crossed out again. Some words written in Dari, their backward-looping shapes clashing against fragments of English instructions.
The phone chirped a fifth time. Carolyn. It was her coworker, housemate, and closest friend in Afghanistan. Something must be wrong. Marie waved her interruption to the young man. "One minute."
He didn't stop.
She pushed the green button and pressed the phone to her ear. "Hello."
Carolyn's voice was rushed, unnaturally high, and panicked. "Oh, thank God you answered! Thank God! You won't believe it. I'm so glad you answered."
The panic in Carolyn's voice made Marie's knees buckle, straighten, then lock.
The young man's words fused and disappeared into the background as she tried to focus on Carolyn's scattered message. "We got a text ... a foreigner ... a woman ... executed right here, on the street, in Kabul ... Did you hear? Are you all right?"
The pale blue room with the broken window blinds, mismatched desks, and USAID hardware convulsed in Marie's peripheral vision, then settled. Marie reached for the corner of the desk in front of her. Her knuckles raked the edges of a cluster of nearly empty glass tea cups. Their smooth sides seemed to contrast with the broken cadence of Carolyn's words.
"I was afraid it was you. It's not you! Are you okay? Where are you?"
Marie pushed the desk away, fixed her eyes on the split shafts of sunlight holding dust in their slanted beams. She forced calm into her voice. "I'm here."
Marie narrowed her eyes, forced her knees to unlock, and slowed her words into sentences. "I'm fine. I'm downtown."
In the mismatched desks in front of her, two young Afghan clerks in Western clothing sat on half-broken chairs. A third stood silent, finally realizing his speech had been interrupted. "I'm at the Ministry of Economy getting approval for our literacy project." Of course, she thought. She already knows that. She looked at her translator. His downcast eyes testified to his discomfort. Marie realized he could hear Carolyn's side of the conversation. They could all hear. A foreigner ... a woman ... executed ... right here... on the street ... in Kabul.
An ugly, rough-edged word. Executed.
Carolyn, calling from the Kabul guesthouse, couldn't see the three young Afghan men, Marie's translator, the row of mismatched desks, the pale blue walls, or the broken blinds. She couldn't see the sheaf of papers Marie held in her left hand or the scratched instructions in black ink that told her which office to enter next. The cell phone created a context in which these two incongruent scenes—the guesthouse and the Kabul office—clashed with such force that it created a third, surreal scene in her mind. Marie stood, phone in hand, disoriented. She felt engulfed in a sudden squall of churning dust. She caught her breath and groped for something solid, something firm.
Carolyns words still tumbled about. "Come back. Come back to the guesthouse right away."
Back to the guesthouse—now? Before finishing?
But Carolyn kept talking. "We're on lockdown. Were all on lockdown. You have to come back."
Another gust swept over her. "What?"
"The entire foreign community's on lockdown. Can you get here? You have to come."
It was protocol. Lockdown; get inside the thick mud-brick walls of your compound. Lock the gate. Hide from the men with Kalashnikovs out on the street. Marie was on the wrong side of the city, surrounded by the wrong people. Lost in a Kabul government office with three young Afghan men behind a bank of mismatched desks and her translator, Fawad. Strangers. Foreigners. No, I'm the stranger. I'm the foreigner. She pulled her voice tight, careful, and thin; then whispered, "Who was it?"
Carolyn still rushed her words. "We don't know. I'm trying to find out. I'll let you know. When can you get back here?"
Marie looked at the sheaf of papers in her left hand. The first were instructions; the rest were letters, protocols, and statements. Each one required a government stamp and signature. That's why she was in this office, why she was in Kabul. She needed the stamps and signatures to start their literacy project. She couldn't fly back to Shehktan until she got them. No, she wouldn't leave, not without the approval.
Fawad in his rural Afghan clothes, and the young men behind the desks in their almost Western-style jeans were all watching her silently. Waiting.
Carolyn interrupted Marie's thoughts. "When are you coming back?"
She looked at the broken and twisted Venetian blinds, the thick layer of khaki Kabuli soil that coated each thin, white blade, the sharp streaks of sun piercing the gaps, and the dust suspended in shafts of light. Marie knew the protocol for lockdown: go home immediately, stay home. But home was far away, in Shehktan, and Marie had work to do. "I don't know. I'll be there soon."
"Marie!" Carolyn protested.
Marie caught her own breath and held it a moment before speaking. "Carolyn, calm down. Tell me what happened."
Carolyn's words were still rushed; her voice, still too high-pitched. "They said it was three blocks from the guesthouse. Two or three men in a car. I heard the bullets. Lots of them. Soon after you left. But I didn't think ... I just thought, Oh, a firefight somewhere with the Afghan National Army and insurgents. Taliban. Not one of us. But it was one of us. Can you believe it, Marie? That never happens ... right on the street! Right here, in our neighborhood. They shot one of us right in front of the schoolchildren. That's what people are saying. That's all I know. Come back to the guesthouse. You have to. Come back now."
"Carolyn, stop. I'm at the Ministry of Economy, in the office. I'm safe here, and I have work to do. I'll call you soon."
Marie snapped her phone shut, slipped it back into its yellow nylon sheath, and watched the scene in her imagination. She shuddered. I was there. Just blocks from where I caught my taxi. I missed it. I didn't hear the bullets. I must have passed just minutes before she was killed. I must've climbed into my taxi just before it all happened. I missed it. Missed it by only minutes.
She looked at her translator's downturned face and followed the angle of his eyes. Fawad was studying the grimy, nearly empty glass teacups sitting on the corner of the desk. She looked up at the row of young Afghan men. They were still silent, all of them, watching her.
Finally, Marie spoke—her words sounded far away, foreign, words that came from a stranger, words spoken in a voice she could no longer recognize even though it was her own. "A foreign aid worker, a woman, was killed in Cart'e Seh."
The young men waited.
Cart'e Seh? Marie thought. Why do I even know that neighborhood? Its geography, its shape, its residents? How did these Dari words come from my mouth? Where did I get them? Was I really speaking them? Why am I shocked? Were in downtown Kabul. Afghanistan. Things happen. Bombs in trucks go off next to convoys full of soldiers. Mines explode under vehicles and kill women and children in nearby buses. People die. Every day, we hear news reports of people killed and maimed. Why is this different? She spoke her next sentence out loud as if to impress its truth upon her spinning thoughts. "A foreign aid worker, a woman, was killed in Cart'e Seh."
The reality settled. A solitary woman, executed at close range, intentionally killed on a Kabul street just blocks from Marie's guesthouse. Killed in an area considered safe for foreign workers. The woman's scarf, her cell phone, the aid work that she did, the welcome she had in the community, none of it mattered. She was killed, left in a pool of hot blood on a dusty Kabul street. This was a new thing. Marie shuddered.
She, too, walked those same Kabul streets. She, too, wore a cotton headscarf, long coat, and sandals. She, too, carried a cell phone. It could have been me. She stood unsteady and silent for several moments.
The three young men behind their dust and grime-covered desks watched and waited. Finally, the standing one broke the silence. "It's okay. Cart'e Seh is far away." His voice was gentle, soft.
Marie was not reassured. The rules had suddenly changed. Never before had an aid worker been so publicly executed. Yes, others had been kidnapped, and years before—during the wars—aid workers were killed, but that was a long time ago.
This was almost seven years after the fall of the Taliban. Since 9/11, aid workers had poured into Afghanistan. They brought medical care, education, training, and reconstruction. They were welcomed by Afghans throughout the country.
Marie looked at the sheaf of papers in her hand; half were printed in Dari, the other half in English. Project setup forms: a women's literacy project. The people in Shehktan had asked for this project. The women wanted to learn to read and the men had approved. Stamps. Signatures. She needed the approvals of government leaders in Kabul.
She checked the time on her cell phone. Three hours and the office will close. If I leave now, I'll have to come back after the weekend. No. I want to go home to Shehktan. Start this project.
She looked around the office. Every surface laced with fine Kabuli dust. Of the four young men, three worked for the government. Kabulis in skinny khaki and olive jeans edged with zippers and pockets in odd locations. They each wore tight fitting, polyester shirts, two with loud prints, one solid gold. All were clean shaven. One wore his hair short on the sides and back, but long in the front. His bangs fell down to his eyebrows. The other two wore their hair slicked back.
She looked at Fawad. Her translator was country, not Kabuli. He wore a crisp white shalvar kameez, a long shirt that fell down to his knees, with matching trousers that spilled over long, pointed black shoes. His neat beard, mustache, and carefully cut hair all looked out of place in this Kabul office. Marie watched him study three thick, fingerprint-covered glass cups that sat on the edge of the desk.
The still-standing clerk spoke in careful English. "We're at war. Sometimes these things happen. Of course it's terrible, but these things happen. Did you know her?"
Marie cocked her head sideways. She had no idea who'd been killed. "No."
"Then there's nothing to do." The young man shrugged. "We should continue."
* * *
Marie looked again at the stack of papers in her hand. She thought of the mullah in Shehktan, with his gray-and-white turban and gray-streaked beard. He was the first to ask for the project. "Our women must learn to read," he had said. "It's important. Without literacy, they're blind." When she asked if they wanted to learn, he had said they did. "Yes. Of course."
Marie had not believed him, so she conducted her own survey. She hired six Afghan women, each from different neighborhoods around the city, and sent them out to interview neighbors. The results were overwhelming. The women wanted to learn.
Marie had already raised the money for the project. She had approval from her NGO, the nongovernmental organization for whom she worked in Shehktan. All she needed were the Kabul stamps and signatures.
She made the decision that the young men behind their mismatched desks wanted her to make. She nodded, reread the instructions she'd already recorded, and asked the standing man to continue.
The room relaxed and returned to work.
The young man delivered the last set of instructions. When he finished, Marie thanked all three for their assistance, even though only one had helped. She placed her right hand over her heart, the appropriate gesture for a respectful greeting, and wished them safety in God.
Fawad turned and followed her out of the office into a long, empty, gray, tiled hallway with dull, light blue walls and rows of closed wooden doors. Marie walked several feet down the hallway, out of earshot from the office, then stopped.
"Do you understand our instructions?"
Fawad nodded. "Yes. The next office is over there." He pointed to a closed door on the right, about eight feet away. "Mari-jan. We should call Mr. Dave."
Dave was their boss, the director of the NGO for which both worked. "Yes, but I need to call Carolyn first."
Marie smiled. She'd used Carolyn's American name, not her Afghan name. "Nazanin."
Fawad nodded. He knew Nazanin. Carolyn, he'd never met.
Marie stepped to the side of the hallway, pulled the Velcro from her nylon pouch, and retrieved her phone. She found Carolyn's number in the list of contacts and wondered what she would say to her.
* * *
Carolyn was young, twenty-three when she first arrived in Afghanistan. Now she was just shy of twenty-five. She did her first six months in Kabul, learning the basics of Dari. When she could speak enough to get by, she moved to Shehktan and settled into Marie's house. She joined Marie in the middle of the last project, a teacher-training program that led them out to remote villages.
At first, Marie had been hesitant. Carolyn was so young, almost twenty years younger than herself and breathtakingly naive. Marie assumed she would arrive addicted to her cell phone and the Internet. She couldn't imagine how the young woman would cope with the unrelenting summer heat or the brutal winter cold of northern Afghanistan. Marie was convinced that traveling rough roads in spring-shot vehicles and walking donkey paths would be too much for the young American woman, but she was wrong. Carolyn had done well and the Afghans adored her.
Over time, Marie grew to rely on her young companion. It wasn't just the work, although Carolyn was good at that. There was more. She had become a treasured friend. They laughed together and cried together. They shared their meals, the challenges of living in-country, and the joys of getting to know people and seeing new things. They shared their own stories and the stories of the Afghan women whose histories so often broke their hearts. They prayed and worshiped together. In many ways, they'd become closer than sisters.
Now there was a guy. He'd been in the picture since the beginning, just as a distraction at first. Marie had watched the relationship develop. More than once, she'd listened to Carolyn debate the young man's attributes, wonder what she wanted, and vacillate between hope and disregard. When Marie planned her trip to collect approvals for the new project, Carolyn jumped at the opportunity for shared travel from Shehktan to Kabul. She'd left Marie to the government work and flown on to Dubai, where her young man joined her for a week of ice cream, hamburgers, and conversation.
Excerpted from Farewell, Four Waters by KATE MCCORD. Copyright © 2014 Kate McCord. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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