Kabul: A pack of mangy dogs are barking from a rocky precipice above. They can smell death on the dusty hillside in Kabul’s southern outskirts.
But then most of the hills rising out of the Afghan capital’s vast basin are scattered with mounds of earth and slabs of rough-hewn stone.
They serve as a reminder of the fact that life can be cheap here.
Khwaja Naqib Ahmad knows that as well as anyone.
He’s just collected four bodies from the government DNA office, where they’ve been held for several weeks.
Loosely wrapped in white sheets stained black with blood from the wounds sustained in their violent last moments, they’d been piled into the back of a nondescript white van – “donated by Pakistan”, a sign on the side read.
It was hot and dry for early spring, but one of the grave-diggers wore a pin-striped suit while he and the others dug four narrow, waist-deep graves side by side.
The earth was damp and brown beneath Afghanistan’s powdery surface.
The smell was putrid – like a decaying animal carcass on the side of road, but far worse.
With no more than disposable surgical masks, Ahmad‘s drive through Kabul’s notorious morning traffic must have been horrendous.
The thought of how his cargo came to be in his possession wears on him too.
He rarely discusses his work with friends or family – burying the unwanted, the paupers and the terrorists of Kabul.
He has buried dozens of Taliban but is never told from which attack his corpses come.
Given what is known, however, we agreed it was likely they were the four who had been killed in the attack on the Independent Election Commission headquarters a week before the April 5 presidential election.
Ahmad isn’t given their names or any identifying information that might lead to the discovery of their whereabouts and allow sympathisers to set up a shrine to their martyrdom.
Still, he awaits each burial with dread.
A policeman walks over from his guard post on a nearby ridge. An argument with huffy hand gestures ensues.
The indignant young man in uniform says that the graves are too shallow and – pointing up the hill – that the dogs will come when night falls.
A compromise is apparently agreed upon – digging each half a foot longer, but no deeper.
Ahmad takes pride in his work and doesn’t differentiate between those he buries, treating each with an unexpected reverence.
After the bodies are lowered by the sheet-ends into their graves, slabs of stone are placed over the openings before smaller rocks are gathered to plug the gaps.
The freshly turned earth is then piled to a mound on top and adorned with numbered head and footstones.
While the workmen make final adjustments, Ahmad stands at the foot of each mound, bows his head and murmurs a prayer.
The four down their shovels and sit in a semi-circle looking over the graves and a cloudy, turquoise lake in the distance beneath the Kabul haze.
They wipe the sweat from their foreheads and pour steaming green tea from a thermos.
The dogs watched from the crags above.