Noori, 33, removes the soldiers from identical wooden coffins draped in Afghanistan’s flag and performs his duty, preparing each for burial in the Islamic tradition. He washes off blood and dirt, sprinkles perfume and covers each in a white sheet, or kafan. That’s how their families will see them when they make it home.
What Noori sees first is much more bracing — a relentless procession of bodies just off the battlefield. He takes anti-anxiety medication to help him sleep. He doesn’t tell his family anything about his job at one of the Afghan military’s busiest medical centers, Kandahar Regional Military Hospital.
In Washington, questions about the future of Afghanistan are often phrased in terms of the Taliban’s strength and the Afghan army’s fighting ability. Noori’s perch on the war doesn’t provide clear answers to those impossibly large questions. But it has made him a front-line witness to the massive human cost associated with what’s formally articulated as a “military transition.”
As his country’s army inherits the warfrom the United States and NATO, there are far more of those bodies than ever before. More than 400 Afghan soldiers and police officers are now killed in Afghanistan every month, a number so high that the Afghan Defense Ministry says it decided last month, in a bid to preserve morale, to stop releasing casualty counts. Many of those deaths occur in the violent south, where Noori works.
On that subject, Noori takes a long view. “The army will keep fighting, and men will keep dying, until there is peace,” he said.
‘It’s religious work’
Noori was once employed by the group responsible for the death and destruction he sees on a daily basis. For several years, beginning when he was 19, he worked for the Taliban.
In Kandahar, the province where the Taliban was born, the only job he could find was sweeping the floors of the then-Islamist government’s main hospital. It was nearly two years before Sept. 11, 2001.
When war came to Afghanistan and the Taliban regime was toppled, Noori swept the same floors for the new Afghan government. Because he was a low-level worker, his previous allegiance was forgiven. Soon, he was watching government fatalities trickle in.
The man then in charge of washing bodies needed assistance. It wasn’t an alluring job, but it was an important one, Noori thought.
“It’s religious work,” he recalls thinking to himself.
He volunteered. Since then, Noori, typically clad in medical scrubs and an Afghan army windbreaker, has handled corpses nearly every day for the past decade.
“I’ve seen more death than anyone,” he said. “The bodies keep coming.”