“Malem Khan” by Tresor “Tré” Bunker

This piece has been written by the author from the perspective of an Afghan interpreter with whom he worked.

It was approximately 4 PM and Jasper had just finished the confidential portion of the briefing for the following day’s operation.  He met with me in front of the Operations Center, and told me to be back the following morning by 5 AM.  I wasn’t allowed to be in the OpCen.  Only American interpreters were allowed in there; we local interpreters were only used in the field or whenever they needed someone to go to the markets to purchase supplies.  As I finished with Jasper, Hank walked up and handed me an envelope with my pay and a bag of candy for my son—I had forgotten it was payday.  Hank looked really funny without his massive, red beard.  These weirdos shave their beards whenever they leave the country.  Hank had just returned from the U.S.—he went home because his wife had just given birth to his first child.  And, because we were all very close to one another, especially Hank and me, I made fun of him for it and we all laughed.  That would be the last time we laughed together.

As I left the compound, I realized, today – like all other paydays – is the day the Taliban stops me on the way home to collect a tax from me.  They send someone different every time, so I never know whom to expect.  But I was used to it, as were most Afghans who worked for Americans.  I lived one village over from where the team was located.  I could have stayed on the compound with the other interpreters, but I had a wife and a son, and I needed to get back to them before dinner.  But as I drove home, I was not stopped by a Talib, and so I figured they had forgotten.

On my way home, I stopped and bought my wife a dress, just as Hank had suggested.  He said I would get laid if I bought her something nice.  Hank was a man-whore before he met his wife, so I guess he knew what he was talking about.  When my wife saw the dress, she just had to put it on immediately and damn did she look good—I was definitely getting laid that night.  But then, there was a knock at the door.  When I opened it, my heart dropped, as I was staring at four AK-47 barrels.  And, just then, something large hit me in the face and everything went black.

When I came to, I was strapped to a chair and my face was in pain.  I tried to blink but my eyelids hurt—they had glued my eyelids open.  My wife was cowering in the corner and my son was bent over a chair with one of the Talib’s hands on his back, pinning him down.  They asked me where the team I worked for was going the next day and what route they were taking.  I pleaded with them and told them I didn’t know, because I was not allowed in the briefings.  They punched and kicked my son because they thought I was lying.  They threatened to cut my son’s head off, if I continued to lie to them, but I truly did not know.  If I guessed and I was wrong, they’d be back again.  There was no way out of this.  All I could hope was that they’d believe me.  But it was no use.  These animals were hungry for death and right before my eyes, they beheaded my son.  I screamed and wrestled with the rope and the chair, as I was forced to bear witness to what was happening to my child, but the rope was so tight I couldn’t break free to stop them.  Within seconds, my son’s head rolled towards the front door.  If I had been able to free myself, they all would’ve been dead in a heartbeat.  They tossed my little boy’s body to the side like a ragdoll and my wife took his place.  They bent her over the chair and then proceeded to lift her dress over her head.  They again asked me to tell them the truth and when I didn’t, all four proceeded to rape my wife before beheading her.  I had rope burns all over my arms and neck from fighting to free myself.  I begged and screamed for someone but no one came; the neighbors were probably too afraid.

The Taliban left me there, still bound to that chair.  They didn’t put a hand on me, other than to restrain me.  They left me sitting there with my eyes wide open.  I had cried until there were no more tears.  I had screamed so much that I lost my voice—my throat hurt a lot.  When the sun came up, a man opened my door but did not stay long.  He ran away as though he had just encountered a ghost.  Some time passed after that man opened my door and ran away, and then I heard them.  “Malem! Yo Malem, you in there?”  But I didn’t reply.  I just stared at my son and wife’s remains.  They kicked the door down, and I watched them come in.  Immediately, some of them walked out.  I heard one of them say, “What the fuck?”  Another one said, “This is some devil shit, brother.”  Wendell, the Team Sergeant, walked up and asked, “Malem, who did this?”  Right then, Hank emerged and yelled at Wendell, “Dafuq bro!  You gonna untie him or what?”  They argued about whether to untie me or not, because they had no idea what my mental state was.  Wendell eventually let Hank untie me and then Hank said, “Talk to me, brother.”  I told them what happened and from the look in their eyes, these boys were ready to kill for me, but I had nothing to give them.  I had no names, just faces seared into my brain.  Jasper had volunteered for a Mortuary Affairs mission before, and knew how to properly prepare the remains of a Muslim for burial.  Jasper and some other team members enlisted some local men from the village to come arrange my son’s remains for burial, but I yelled at them with a hoarse voice to get out of my house.  They were all cowards.  Jasper wrapped my son in a white shroud and placed his head with the remains.  He also brought in women from the village to help wrap up my wife, as he knew and respected the fact that he couldn’t touch the remains of a Muslim woman, even though I had given him permission to prepare my son’s remains.

I looked at all those men standing inside my house ready to do violence on my behalf, but deep down I hated them.  I hated them for employing me.  If I had never worked for them, my son and my wife would still be alive.  I lost everything.  Now, I had no family; my parents were also murdered by the Taliban.  There was nothing left to say to the team.  I said goodbye to my family inside my head, never touching them and walked out of the house.  Outside, Victoria, one of the CSTs (Cultural Studies Team) was standing there with tears in her eyes.  I had a similar relationship with Victoria as I had with Hank: close.  She hugged me, but I didn’t hug back.  I looked behind me and saw the team staring at me.  They wanted to help, but this was something I had to do alone.  As I walked away, I heard, “Let him go, brother.”  I wasn’t sure who was coming after me, but no one stopped me as walked into the desert.  That was the last I saw of them.

Trésor “Tré” Bunker served 9 1/2 years in the United States Marine Corps.  Tré has multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He served with 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company and 1st Raider Battalion!  Tré grew up in Dallas, Georgia but moved to California after his discharge to pursue a degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.  He currently resides in Berkeley and is pursuing a Masters degree in Global Studies at UC Berkeley.