Abdul Hakim gets the first calls just after the bombs explode and the firefights end, when all that is left are the remains of the dead.
The voices on the other end belong to Taliban commanders whom Hakim has come to know well. The first sentence is almost always the same: “We’re looking for a body.”
In the southern province that has borne more violence and death than any other since the war began, the Taliban knows Hakim as the man who can retrieve insurgents’ bodies from American and Afghan authorities and return them to their families and comrades.
In the past six years, he has done it 127 times, carrying letters of permission from both the Afghan government and the Taliban as he weaves through Kandahar in a beat-up yellow taxicab, with dead insurgents in the trunk. Black bags for those killed in firefights. Small wooden boxes for what’s left of suicide bombers.
“It doesn’t matter who the dead are or who they belong to,” Hakim said. “They deserve a proper Islamic burial.”
The U.S. military follows a regimented procedure for retrieving and repatriating its war dead, one that is exacting in detail and rich with ceremony. In this most asymmetric of wars, the Taliban has constructed a parallel process, as shadowy and unpolished as it is effective.
Taliban militants are known to fight ferociously to recover their fallen, and efforts to bury their own do not fade after insurgents leave the battlefield. When militants’ bodies are recovered by foreign troops, a choreography unfolds: Several times a month, a NATO helicopter deposits insurgents’ bodies at a mortuary next to Kandahar Airfield, where they are checked for unexploded bombs and placed in the same room as U.S. war dead. A flag-wrapped coffin for the Americans and a plywood box for the insurgents sit side by side.
The International Committee of the Red Cross then takes the remains of the insurgents, along with a file of information about them — photographs, a description of how each was killed — to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar city. In the morgue’s register, they are identified by their job title, written simply as “Talib.”
The insurgents often share space in the Mirwais morgue with their victims, also transported by the ICRC. The grim toll emerges in the morgue’s register: President Hamid Karzai’s brother, the mayor of Kandahar and dozens of civilians, police officers and insurgents have been kept in the white refrigerated trailer, imported from Denmark, over the past seven months. A pile of clothes, stripped from the dead, lies nearby.
On a single day earlier this year, according to the register, four police officers were killed in an explosion, a shopkeeper was shot dead and a district governor was assassinated. About 150 bodies come through the Mirwais morgue each month.
On the register, next to the names of the dead, family members have scrawled their signatures or, in the case of the illiterate, left blue thumbprints as a record of who took the remains for burial. But next to the names of Talibs, the same man has signed dozens of times: Abdul Hakim.
Hakim is known as a malik, a respected community representative whose autonomy from the government as well as the insurgency allows him to operate in both worlds, even as they attempt to destroy each other.
“He’s very important — he’s one guy who can do it all. He is a completely neutral facilitator,” said Julien Lerisson, the deputy head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Kandahar.
Hakim came to his job by accident. In the late 1990s, he took a volunteer course with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, the ICRC’s local counterpart. To the Taliban, Hakim’s connection meant that he might have access to the bodies of fighters recovered by foreign troops.
In 2005, a Taliban commander contacted him for the first time about a body. After Hakim managed to retrieve it, the requests kept coming. On Taliban letterhead, he is given written permission to do the job.
“I tell to all Mujahidin of this area, this person is cooperating with us on the issue of transferring our martyrs. If you have any problem with him, contact us,” the letter reads. It is signed by Jabar Agha, identified as the Taliban’s representative for Zhari district in Kandahar. It refers to Hakim as a taxi driver.
When the fighters are finally placed in shallow graves marked by jagged stones, some of the families rail about their deceased kin’s unnecessary death and poor choices. Others gather to celebrate the devotion of those they consider martyrs.
Hakim, a 65-year-old with deep creases in his forehead, a long white beard and a scar under his right eye, tries to leave before the funeral processions begin. The war has brought him personal tragedy, and he wants to keep the old anguish from resurfacing. But the families often grab him before he drives off, he said, to thank him through tears.
“When we saw my brother’s body, the bullet holes in his chest, it was terrible. But we saw his face. It was the same as always. We got to say goodbye,” said Ahmad, whose brother joined the Taliban several years ago and was killed in a firefight with Afghan police. It was Hakim who returned the body.
Hakim receives the second round of phone calls — this time, from the ICRC — days or weeks after fits of violence. The organization draws on its vast network of Afghan elders to identify unclaimed bodies in the Mirwais morgue: men killed in such remote locations or uncertain conditions that Taliban commanders and family members don’t come looking for them.
Not all of the bodies are those of insurgents — about two-thirds are those of civilians and government security officials, mostly police officers.
Hakim transports all of them: 107 government employees in the past three years and 28 civilians, in addition to the 127 insurgents. He gets a signed letter from local officials giving him permission to pick up each body; he stores copies in a black suitcase at home, so he can keep a precise count of the bodies he has transported.
Last year, he picked up the remains of 14 suicide bombers on a single day, trucking them to families across Kandahar province. Once he carried five Afghan intelligence agents from a district largely controlled by the Taliban to their agency’s headquarters. He has hauled the bodies of children and the elderly, he said, sometimes on the same day.
Across the country, men like Hakim assist civilians and Taliban commanders, even slipping into Pakistan to return the bodies of insurgents. Their efforts have had a pronounced effect in recent times: The number of unclaimed bodies in Afghanistan decreased by 50 percent last year, according to the ICRC.
But none of those crisscrossing the front lines have devoted as much time as Hakim to sorting the carnage of war.
“There’s no one who sees as much of the dead,” said Sardar Mohammed Niazmand, director of the Red Crescent in Kandahar.
Because members of the Taliban and Afghan security forces are often sent to fight in provinces far from their homes, the family of a man killed in Kandahar could be hundreds of miles away. Sometimes, it can take weeks or months for word to reach home that a man has been killed. The bodies are kept in the morgue for about two months, while men like Hakim search for the families.
Hakim makes the third round of calls himself, dialing villagers and Taliban commanders across Kandahar, after he has seen the bodies in Mirwais. “Are you looking for a short man with a black beard, around 21?” he asked his contacts recently. “Do you know of any suicide bombers who died in Zhari district late last month?” he asked others.
If they say yes, Hakim gets an undisclosed sum of money from the ICRC for his expenses and a little profit. Then he drives off in his rented taxicab to meet weeping families or hardened insurgents.
Last year, he almost gave up making those calls. Everyone expected him to.
Two of his four sons were driving to a picnic with a friend who worked with the U.S. military, he said. Taliban snipers saw the car, identified the driver as a target and started shooting. Both of Hakim’s sons were killed.
“I was helping these guys. I was doing something they needed,” he said. “I asked them, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”
Hakim never got a good answer. He picked up his sons’ bodies in the same taxi he uses to transport insurgents. He buried them. He mourned for two days. Then he started taking calls from the Taliban again. He returned to work.
“This is how I help my country,” he said, pausing to think. “And who else could do this job?”
When the director of the morgue, Wali Mohammed, saw him for the first time after the incident, he was incredulous.
“We’re not sure why he keeps doing this,” he said.
Then there are the calls Hakim hopes not to make — the ones to local mullahs, after his efforts to find the deceased’s families end in failure. When there are no relatives to bury the dead, Hakim often makes the arrangements himself.
The mullahs come to a plot of land owned by Hakim, now a graveyard for the unclaimed. They say a prayer, then chant “God is great” four times, lifting their hands to their ears.
He helps bathe the body, dresses it in a white cloth, called a kafan, and helps place it in the ground.
Hakim knows where each body is buried. He takes photos of the corpses with his cellphone camera, so if a family comes to Kandahar months or years later, he will be able to connect the right body to the right grave. The ICRC keeps a more official file of photos of unclaimed bodies, along with information about where each has been buried in the organization’s graveyard in Kandahar.
A few times a year, ICRC employees go through the file at the request of families searching for a relative. Sometimes bodies are exhumed. Sometimes belated funerals are held.
A few months ago, a man came from Paktia province, 300 miles away, to find his missing brother. Hakim showed him a grainy photo on his phone and took him to the right grave, where the two prayed together.
In the course of his travels across Kandahar, people ask him about his politics: Are you a Talib? Do you support the government?
Even his relatives want to know: What does a man who spends his days transporting the war dead think about the war?
On that topic, Hakim doesn’t say much.
“Like everyone, I want peace,” he said. “I have respect for both sides, and I want my country to be whole again. But right now there is war. People are dying, and we must deal with it.”