KABUL — On one side of a hillside cemetery overlooking the Afghan capital is the blue-domed mausoleum of King Nader Shah, a dynastic ruler who died in 1933. On the other side, up a steep path, is a fresh mound of dirt with a jagged stone at one end — the small, unmarked grave of a child.
His name was Hamid Tahir. He was 11 years old. He spent three hours a day in third grade and the rest of the time cadging food and money on a street corner. His life was hard, grimy and nearly invisible amid the urban crush of beggars, sidewalk vendors, taxis and security convoys.
He was killed in a traffic accident last month, a small death that was quickly absorbed into the daily fabric of a country overwhelmed by war and poverty. Last year alone, 3,800 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence, including 927 children. More than 110 out of every 1,000 babies did not live to see their first birthday — the highest infant mortality rate in the world.
Hamid, too, was a war casualty. His parents were poor farmers who fled rural fighting between mujahideen and Soviet troops in the 1980s. His father lost a leg to a roadside bombing in Kabul years later; his mother cleaned houses and raised nine children. In a crowded city, filled with jobless people and threatened by insurgents, he helped his family survive by using his wits.
He was a fixture at a traffic circle in Wazir Akbar Khan, a wealthy neighborhood full of embassies and offices behind security barriers, including mine. Every day from midmorning until long after dark, he was there, perched outside a supermarket and scanning the street for customers while keeping an eye on his little brother Fareed.
Everyone on the circle knew him. They said that he was always playing among the gaggle of hawkers and beggars but that he acted older than his age. “He was mischievous, but when you listened to him, it was not like a child talking,” said a phone-card seller named Mehrabuddin.
He was also a fixture in my life. Every time I went to the market, Hamid spotted me, rushed over and flashed a winning smile. “Madam, chocolate,” he would implore in English. Often I emerged with candy bars for him and Fareed, 7, but sometimes I did not. He would smile anyway, grab my sleeve and steer me through traffic until I reached my gate and the guards shooed him away.
“Tomorrow, chocolate,” he would say with firm optimism.
It was a small, familiar ritual and a brief respite in my deadline-driven routine. As the war moved into its 18th spring, there were few Westerners in the capital and little social life for those who remained. Most of my friends lived in secure compounds and rarely left. One of my few small pleasures was trading chocolate bars for the reward of seeing a boy’s face light up.
On Wednesday night, after I had been away in the United States for several weeks, I stopped by the market. Fareed was there alone, sitting on the curb. I wondered where Hamid had gone, but I put two candy bars in my pocket as I came out. My driver Asad was standing on the sidewalk with Fareed, looking stricken.
“He said his big brother is dead,” Asad told me.
I am accustomed to witnessing wartime deaths, but this was different — a startling loss that did not amount to news but deserved to be mourned. The next morning, we tracked down his family and found them living in a maze of mud alleys.
There were 27 people in the cramped, mud-walled house, including Hamid’s parents and eight siblings. His father wept disconsolately. His mother buried her face in her shawl, repeating his name. Children of all ages crowded around us, staring.
Hamid’s brother Sardar, 17, who sells phone cards at the same circle, explained what had happened. He said they had been walking home one night several weeks ago. Hamid was crossing a busy street when a taxi, going too fast, sideswiped him. His jacket caught in the car mirror. He was pulled down and dragged half a block under one car wheel. He died in a hospital without regaining consciousness.
The family showed us photographs from his funeral, his swollen face wrapped in white cloth. They also brought out a portrait of him as a small child, bright-eyed and smiling. “Of all my sons, I was the most proud of him,” said his father, Mohammed, 48. “He was clever and he worked hard. He promised he would grow up and buy us some land so we could never be evicted.”
We asked if we could visit his grave, and his parents came with us, clambering up paths between hundreds of indistinguishable earth mounds. His father paused to point out Nader Shah’s tomb across a ridge. When we reached Hamid’s spot, his mother sank to the ground, smoothing the earth.
Later, we drove back to the circle with Fareed, who also witnessed the car accident and now leaves for home before dark. He waits for shoppers who give him milk or bread, and he is trying to copy Hamid’s sales pitch.
As we left, Fareed hesitated, then came a few steps toward us. “Chocolate, madam?” he said.