The route from the district governor’s home to his office is a one-hour drive that includes a long stretch on a highway with a vast desert on each side of the road. A bodyguard of the governor, an agile man with a moustache in his late 20s said there had been at least three ambushes on this road in the past several months. The most intense one lasted for four hours and came during the poppy eradication campaign in the spring. The rubble along the road were the remains of the walls from which the Taliban had launched those ambushes.
We were all crammed in a white Toyota Corolla wagon along with the governor, who was squeezed in the front seat. He had lost patience with a police escort sent to accompany him back to his office and had ordered everyone into the Toyota. He was starting for the district capital without the cops, telling his son who was staying behind in their house to send the police after him as soon as they arrived. “When I fist started as the governor of Greshk,” says Saleem Khan Rody, 52. “I traveled in a tank. A month into it, I couldn’t do it anymore, If the governor travels in a tank, what kind of morale does that give the citizens?”
Rody’s district is of immense strategic importance. It is part of Helmand province—part of the Taliban heartland—and runs along the highway that connects the capital Kabul to the country’s third largest city, Herat, in the west, even as it cuts through the second largest city, Kandahar, where Mullah Omar founded the extreme fundamentalist movement.
Soon, the police escort caught up with Rody’s Toyota and led the way. Wind ballooned the uniform of the soldier manning the machine-gun mounted on the police pick-up truck. The desert gave way to greenery and the houses increased on each side of the highway as we approached the Greshk bazaar. Crossing the bridge over the Helmand River, the police escort turned on its siren; the officers shouted for carts and drivers to clear the way. It was then that we heard the massive thumping sound behind us—four seconds after we had passed the IED planted for the governor. After at first ducking in my seat, I turned around to see billowing smoke and dust behind us.
The police escort stopped immediately. The doors of the pick-up flung open and soldiers hurried towards the smoke. The driver of our Toyota was confused and stepped on the gas to speed away. Rody yelled at him, saying, “Where are you going? Stop the car.” We all got out. Thumbing his prayer beads, Rody walked towards the sight of the explosion. It was not the first time he had been targeted for assassination.
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Six months ago, in the exact same area of near the bazaar, Rody and his convoy had stopped on the way to say the evening prayer. Rody’s Corolla had been sandwiched between two police escort vehicles, but a suicide bomber managed to fling himself on Rody’s car. The entire front of the vehicle burned, the suicide bomber’s leg sticking to the automobile. Miraculously, only the driver was slightly injured. Rody was unscathed, except for a ringing in his ears that lasted several days.
The Taliban have reason to want Rody gone. During his tenure, the security situation for people in the district has improved—even as his own life has come under constant threat. Major reconstruction projects have been launched, including a $75 million Asian Development Bank investment in a power plant. Rody has experience in the province, having held many other posts in Helmand. His biography is one of combat and resilience. In the 1980s, he had been a police officer in Kabul when he joined the guerrilla resistance to the Soviet regime. When the Moscow-backed government fell, Rody migrated to Pakistan where he owned restaurants in Quetta. He returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. ousted the Taliban and installed Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.
When we finally arrived at Rody’s office, his phone began to ring constantly and people started flowing in, thanking God for his safety. The news had traveled quickly. Rody himself attributed his many escapes –particularly the two in the Bazaar- to the protection of the shrine that overlooks that exact spot as well as his work with the poor over the years.Others chimed in, saying it was probably his fear of god and his public service that led to his salvation. In the midst of it all, his young media advisor swore he had a dream the night before that the governor faced a threat, so he quietly gave alms in the morning before leaving for district capital.
The police, of course, were looking at less supernatural factors. IEDs of increasing sophistication are a major weapon in the Taliban artillery. “They have been very creative in using IEDs,” says General Nabi Elham, Helmand provincial police chief. “They call their recent creation the ‘Television Mine’ – it shoots from a distance.” The IED intended for the governor was a different kind; it flung the projectiles from the side rather than from underneath. This variation has made it easier to plant—the assailant no longer has to dig up the road, just place it in the soft dirt by the side.
In the commotion that followed the explosion in the bazaar, one of the governor’s soldiers began shouting at a lanky young man, perhaps 19 or 20 years old, dressed in brown tunic. When the man continued walking into the crowd, the soldier chased him, grabbing him by the shirt. Apparently, the soldier had picked up a shawl at the site of the explosion that matched the young man’s clothes. In the south, as in most of Afghanistan, men often wear matching shawls with their clothes, cut from the same fabric.
Slapping and kicking the young man as he pleaded his innocence, the soldiers tied his hands behind his back with the shawl and put him the back our Toyota wagon. We sped off towards the governor’s office, soldiers poking their heads out of the windows, shouting and cussing at thecrowd to open the way. Two days later, I inquired after the suspect. He hadbeen released after his alibis were apparently corroborated. The kicks, slaps and gun-butts he received were souvenirs of this brutal war.
As for the governor, the drama at the bazaar was merely the second highlight of a complicated day—one that turned out to be another omen in Afghanistan’s turmoil. Rody’s day had begun with festivity as he celebrated his daughter’s marriage in his house. The air rang with six celebratory AK-47 rounds as the groom kissed Rody’s hands and the wedding party, clapping to the beat of a makeshift drum, set off on a two-hour journey to a village near Kandahar, the hometown of the governor’s new son-in-law. The governor then went on his way, survived the IED attack and continued on to his job. The day after would not be as fortuitous. Two families were traveling the same road Rody’s daughter and son-in-law took to their new home when an IED blew up their cars. Twelve people were killed. It was the kind of souvenir that Afghanistan has had too much of.
Reporting for this story was partially funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.