KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan war takes about five dozen lives a day.
Sometimes, the bodies have just one bullet hole. Other times, after intense explosions, there is no body left at all. In between, families receive pieces of flesh and bones in a sealed coffin — something to help them find closure.
Every once in a while, the dead turn up alive.
Last Monday, on the edges of a crowded Kabul cemetery, friends dug a grave for Ahmad Tameem, 22, a police officer, as about 200 mourners took cover from the snow under a tent. Officer Tameem’s relatives shouldered his sealed coffin up a winding, muddy lane for a brief final audience with his mother, then lowered him to rest near his father’s grave.
At home, loved ones prepared for the rituals of moving on. Someone opened the door of a cage to set Officer Tameem’s two pet parrots free. Large, grainy pictures of him were printed with “Martyr Ahmad Tameem” in red ink. Notices for a memorial service were sent out.
Mohammed Qaseem, Officer Tameem’s cousin, was buying groceries for a meal after the memorial service when he received a call.
“Tameem is alive,” one of Mr. Tameem’s brothers said.
Mr. Qaseem thought it a cruel joke.
“I just got a call from the intelligence agency hospital,” the brother continued. “He has become conscious, and he borrowed the doctor’s phone to call me.”
Mr. Qaseem rushed to the hospital. There was his cousin, badly burned and breathing with the help of a ventilator as he went in and out of consciousness. But he was not dead.
Mr. Qaseem called home.
“Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you, and please don’t scream,” Mr. Qaseem instructed one of Officer Tameem’s sisters. He was worried that someone might drop dead from a happy shock.
“Tameem is alive,” Mr. Qaseem told her. “We found him at the hospital.”
There was a moment of silence. And then she screamed. On his end of the line, Mr. Qaseem was briefly forgotten. He could hear only screams of joy. One of the sisters fainted.
“Maybe it was the prayer of those parrots who were freed from the cage,” Ghulam Naqshband, an older neighbor, said with a smile.
Officer Tameem was on duty in Kabul on Jan. 27 when a Taliban bomber drove an ambulance past two checkpoints on a busy street and detonated explosives. More than 100 people were killed and at least 200 wounded.
Speaking from his hospital bed as a nurse attended to his neck wound, Officer Tameem said he does not remember the moment of the blast. When he regained consciousness, he said his first thought was to make sure his mother did not hear about his wounds — not knowing his family had already given him a burial.
“I had asked them not to tell my mother about my situation, so she doesn’t die. I am her youngest son,” Officer Tameem said.
Lately, the explosions have become so devastating that bodies are often hard to identify.
After each attack in Kabul, the bodies arrive at the city’s forensic medicine department. Families go there to identify and collect the remains. Often, there is not enough to identify — just a torso, or limbs. The department does not have the capabilities for DNA testing.
Some unclaimed bodies remain at the morgue for weeks, or months. Then, quietly, municipal workers pick them up for a burial.
The explosion was so large that Mohammed Roeen, another cousin of Officer Tameem, said he could see the smoke from their rooftop across town. Once it became clear that it had happened near the officer’s duty station, the search began. Officer Tameem’s phone was switched off. Relatives went from the site of the attack to every city hospital.
They found no trace of him.
Mr. Roeen said they managed to reach the company commander. “He said: ‘Look, he was standing here. This is the container. This is where the car bomb detonated. How can we expect him to be alive?’ ”
After two days of searching, they returned to the morgue. The bodies that remained were in bad shape. Mr. Qaseem said they settled on a torso that was skinny and young — like Officer Tameem’s. The forensic staff members did some blood tests and said it was him. They said they would wash and prepare him in a coffin for pickup the next morning. The government gave the family a death payment of about $2,000.
Then, Mr. Qaseem turned to the more difficult task: breaking the news to Officer Tameem’s mother and sisters. One of the officer’s sisters had set aside about $20 of her savings, saying she would give it as alms to the poor if she heard good news.
“We prepared and convinced his mother that this was God’s will, that the women should not open the coffin,” Mr. Qaseem said.
When the coffin was placed in the yard, the women wailed and threw themselves at it. Quickly, the men lifted the coffin again and made their way to the cemetery. No one really knows whom they buried.
As Officer Tameem’s family and friends celebrate his second life, another family is still searching.
After the call of good news, Officer Tameem’s mother and sisters went to the hospital. But they had to wait outside for about two hours because the Afghan president was visiting the wounded.
When his mother got in, many in the room were trying to keep it brief so that the emotions would not overwhelm Officer Tameem.
“They were both crying,” Mr. Qaseem said. “Tameem had tears, and he was able to move his hand.”
Her son given a second life, the mother has left for their village, in Kapisa Province. Four others from their village were killed in the ambulance bombing. She wanted to mourn with their families.
Mr. Naqshband, the neighbor, said that distant relatives who had not been informed of the twist still arrive at the house to pay their respects.
“Even today, I was just standing here and a woman came asking for directions: ‘Where is the house of martyr Tameem?’ ” Mr. Naqshband said. “I said: ‘He is alive. Don’t you go into their house saying martyr.’ ”
Officer Tameem is on the mend, though his wounds are concerning. When healed, he wants to return to the force. “I want to go back to my work, God willing,” he said. “I have given an oath that I will serve.”
Around the city, word has gotten out about the officer’s survival. Mr. Qaseem said hospital workers ask visitors if they are there to see “the dead policeman who became alive.”
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