The Dogs Are Eating Them Now by Graeme Smith

The subtitle of this book is Our War in Afghanistan and it is revealing and very sad and, of course, difficult to read. It will, however, increase your awareness of what has happened in Afghanistan. The jacket of the book explains that Graeme “Smith devoted more time to southern Afghanistan than any other Western journalist between 2005 and 2011, and his book offers a candid and critical look at the Taliban’s rising influence and the West’s continued miscalculations.”

Dogs are Eating Them NowAlso from the jacket: “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now” is a raw, uncensored account of the war in Afghanistan from a brilliant young reporter with unmatched compassion and a rare ability to cut through the noise and se the broader reality.”

In his introduction Smith does not claim qualifications to speak about the entire country and explains that the southern region “does serve as a useful case study. It’s where the war became most intense; it’s where policymakers focused much of their attention; it’s where the policy most obviously went wrong. The world needs to understand what happened and draw lessons from this debacle – and the only way of reaching those conclusions is by visceral immersion.” The latter is what Graeme Smith did.

The title is taken from something Smith experienced and, in his words, “that still bothers me”. It was a story “passed along from a reconnaissance unit prowling ahead of the front lines at night. The soldiers usually found no trace of their enemies except blood trails disappearing into the undergrowth, because the insurgents were efficient at removing their dead and observing the Muslim custom of a quick burial. But in the chaos of Operation Medusa, some of the bodies were left behind. One night a Canadian reconnaissance platoon decided to use Taliban corpses as bait, dragging them out from the leafy cover of the farmland and marking them with infrared glow sticks. The soldiers hid themselves and waited for the insurgents to collect heir dead. Hours ticked by, with the troops poised to fire – but nobody fell for the trap. The stench of death attracted wild dogs, which spent the night ripping  chunks off the bodies while the Canadians watched through their gun scopes.”

There is much in Smith’s book that refers to the AIHRC (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission) and it can be researched on the internet starting here.

Smith writes: “I keep a souvenir that reminds me of my worst days in Afghanistan. It’s a ballpoint pen, decorated with copper wire threaded into a pattern of beads. Somebody spent many hours making the cheap writing instrument into a work of art, and there’s something pathetic about the scuffed plastic and its glittering enclosure. You cannot touch this object without feeling the poverty of the craftsman. A prisoner gave me this pen during our investigation of conditions in Afghan detention facilities in the spring of 2007. That was the season when I began to seriously doubt the nobility of the war.”

In the above investigations of conditions, Smith had a breakthrough when he got inside Sarpoza prison in Kandahar. He had interviewed former detainees but many had been afraid to speak. He paid the warden three Mag-Lights  to get into the national-security wing to which he made several visits over a period of weeks. Prisoners there made souvenirs such as the pen described above. A majority of the men interviewed had been captured by Canadian troops and some were taken by US special forces or Afghan security forces. Smith was particularly interested in the nationality of detainees since he was working for a Canadian newspaper. After awhile he began to hear the stories of “beatings, whippings, starvation, choking and electrocution”. Smith was confident that when NATO countries learned that their Afghan allies were torturing prisoners they would not be pleased. His translator thought he was being naive.

On April 23rd, 2007 when Smith`s report was published, the Canadian defence minister, Gordon O’Connor, “stood up in parliament and declared that the AIHRC monitoring was enough. Smith wrote another story to inform the public that the reassurances were empty because “the AIHRC was not allowed into the Kandahar intelligence prison.”

“On April 25, Canada’s prime minister responded to questions about whether AIHRC monitoring was sufficient.  Part of his reply was as follows: “military leaders in Afghanistan are constantly in contact with their counterparts and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. So far, they have not indicated to us that they have encountered these problems.”

Check out this award winning journalist’s book if you are serious about knowing some of what’s happening and/or has happened.  Smith won an Emmy in 2009 for  video that recorded the opinions of Taliban fighters. Read more about Graeme Smith here.

You might also want to check out Melissa Fung’s Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity.

behind the beautiful forevers by Katherine Boo

The book jacket introduces this work as “a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the behind the beautiful foreversdramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities”. The subtitle of the book is “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. The copyright date is 2012 and the biographical data given for Katherine Boo is: “a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book.”

The book begins with a prologue describing a dramatic event in the life of one of the main protagonists, Abdul. It is dated July 17, 2008 and the first paragraph is:
“Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.”

Abdul was between sixteen and nineteen years of age. He was small and jumpy and saw himself as a coward. “He knew all about trash. For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.” Abdul understood the need to run but beyond that he was unable to see a course of action so he returned home and hid in his garbage that was stored in a lopsided shed adjacent to their family hut.

This storeroom – “His storeroom – 120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoons, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies.”

Eventually Abdul got himself hidden inside his piles of trash against one wall of the shed where he laid down. He would be bitten by mosquitoes and the edges of clamshell packaging would cut into the backs of his thighs but he felt safer there than anywhere else.

And so begins our journey through life in Mumbai’s slums. “Only six of the slum’s three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.)” The slum was named Annawadi and “sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road”. “Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.” It had been settled by construction workers in 1991 from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. “Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks.”

Abdul’s brother Mirchi had a friend named Rahul and Rahul’s mother, Asha, was “a kindergarten teacher with mysterious connections to local politicians and the police.” These connections sometimes got Rahul temporary work at the Intercontinental Hotel across the sewage lake from Annawadi. Such exposure convinced Mirchi that he would not ever want to be a garbage picker like his brother Abdul. Mirchi was in ninth grade at a third-rate Urdu-language private school for which his parents paid three hundred rupees a year. Mirchi’s choices were to study or help Abdul.

Asha, the kindergarten teacher, was 39 years old and aspired to the position of slumlord, a person who ran the slum according to the authorities’ interests. Her husband was an alcohlic and she had raised three children. Her daughter, Manju, did most of the actual teaching. Asha had no schooling past seventh grade and her position was obtained through the present slumlord known as the Corporator. She delivered voters(i.e. votes)to the polls and gathered participants for protests and was now being asked to solve disputes inside the slum. She thought about money all the time and was a shrewd negotiator between her fellow slum dwellers and the authorities. An entrepreneur.

“A government-sponsored women’s self-help group looked somewhat promising, now that she knew how to game it. The program was supposed to encourage financially vulnerable women to pool their savings and make low-interest loans to one another in times of need. But Asha’s self-help group preferred to lend the pooled money at high interest to poorer women who they’d excluded from the collective – the old sewer cleaner who had brought her a sari, for instance.”

Abdul’s father Karem, had tuberculosis. “The concrete plant and all the other construction brought more work to this airport boom-town. Bad lungs were a toll you paid to live near progress.”

Karem and Zehrunisa were about to “make their first deposit on a twelve-hundred-square-foot plot of land in a quiet community in Vasai, just outside the city, where Muslim recyclers predominated. If life and global markets kept going their way, they would soon be landowners, not squatters, in a place where Abdul was pretty sure no one would call him garbage.”

The above barely touches the surface of what is told and what is exposed about life in one of Mumbai’s slums early in this century. If you have read anything about Mumbai in the newspapers or on the net or elsewhere, you need to read this book. You need to meet Abdul and his friends, his parents and his neighbours including the one-leg whom Abdul will be accused of assaulting and worse. Katherine Boo will make you care about each and every one of these people. You need to know what Asha tells her daughter Manju, who is about to become a college graduate:

“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much”…Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems – poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor – were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.”

This is a beautifully sad and informative book with wonderfully real and courageous people you will be proud and honoured to meet.