View Full Version : Skull Worship and the Mafia in Afghanistan

09-30-2006, 11:59 PM

Skull Worship and the Mafia in Afghanistan

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — The U.S. Special Operations officer joked that he worshipped human skulls because his troops were motivated whenever they saw a death's head.

"I'm a skull worshipper," said Raymond V. Cordell, a Special Operations Command sergeant-major, in a taped interview at Bagram Air Base, 42 miles (67 kilometers) north of Kabul.

A human skull, given to him by fellow soldiers, is mounted in his office back at MacDill Air Force Base's Special Operations Command headquarters in Florida, he said.

"They ordered it. Apparently they got on the Internet and typed in 'skulls' and what came up under 'skulls' were medical services where you could actually buy one.

"They got together and chipped in all their money. I don't even want to know how much it cost them for just the skull. That was roughly about three years ago.

"He [the skull] wears the actual 82nd [Airborne Division] beret. It's the maroon beret which is the sign of the American paratrooper on jump status."

Sergeant-Major Cordell said human skulls inspired his troops back in the U.S. and here in Afghanistan.

"You look for things that all of a sudden draw young troops to you, something they will listen to.

"I could put an umbrella on [a plaque] there, or I could put a squirrel, but somehow I don't think it's going to get the same respect or the same attention that putting a skull on things does.

"Young soldiers just tend to relate to things like that. That's just the nature of people who join the army and do this for a living.

"As a leader, you try to hone out those things that different soldiers are attracted to.

"For me, it has always worked to be skulls.

"I came in the army on an Airborne Ranger contract [in the 1980s] and it seemed like back then, almost everything you saw — whether it be bumper stickers or with the Rangers — kind of related to a skull."

He pointed to a rough-hewn rock on a table in his office here at Bagram Air Base.

The rock was the size of a child's head and had a white skeletal face painted on it.

"That was a disciplinary rock," he said.

A long time ago, a soldier committed a mistake and was ordered to carry the heavy rock as punishment. So the soldier painted a skull's face on it, for amusement.

He later donated it to Sergeant-Major Cordell who lugs the stone wherever he is posted.

When U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai held urgent discussions at Bagram Air Base on Dec. 16, another of Sergeant-Major Cordell's skulls grinned above the two officials.

The sergeant-major headed the Public Affairs Office at Bagram Air Base and had illustrated the office's emblem with a big, cartoon skull.

The emblem's inspirational skull was hanging on the wall in the media room above the heads of Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Karzai when they met.

Several weeks ago, Sergeant-Major Cordell left Bagram and it was unclear where and his cranium-revealing icons went.

Mafia Gangs in Kabul

Mafia-style gangs, meanwhile, are extorting protection money from businessmen and others in Kabul much to the dismay of residents here.

After the 10 p.m. curfew, unidentified gunmen also settle old scores.

An American businessman said he was miserable because "howza" gangs were demanding bribes — or else.

"Kabul is divided into different zones by the 'howzas'," the American said, slumped in a chair after another difficult day of wheeling and dealing.

"The howzas were originally from the communist [1980s] era when they were set up to monitor every neighborhood. But after the communists, the howzas became criminal gangs shaking people down for protection money.

"I'm not going to pay them. If you pay one howza then you'll never be left alone because other howzas will come after you and you'll have to pay them too."

His partner, another American, was equally depressed.

Gazing through a window at Kabul's vast devastation, he muttered, "If you look out there it's graveyards all around."

A few days later, however, both Americans were more upbeat.

"We decided to put the howza on our payroll," the first American said.

"We had no choice, so we negotiated with them. Maybe it will be better this way. I just hope the other howzas don't bother us."

The War on Children

For most Afghans, life continues to be wretched despite international attention focused on this bleak, landlocked country.

Children are especially vulnerable.

"She had a little problem in her amputated leg where her stump was infected," said Rovza Faroh, a physiotherapist in one of Kabul's main hospitals.

"She is 13 years old," Ms. Faroh added, introducing one-legged Raisa who sat on a hospital bed while extending her left leg which was amputated below the knee.

Nearby, women with soldering irons and small circular saws made prosthetic limbs in the hospital's workshop.

"Raisa was injured by a landmine one-and-a-half years ago.

"We give her some exercise for muscle strengthening, to improve her ability to bear weight on her stump."

Ms. Faroh gently massaged Raisa's stump in a circular motion and asked her to lift it up and push down on it, as calisthenics.

Across town, luckier kids were working in a cramped carpet factory, weaving woolen rugs.

"Fifty people are making carpets here and most of them are children nine to 14 years old," said factory owner Ahmad Javid in an interview.

"Some of the children have economic problems, so they want to work, and some want to learn this profession.

"We have 30 looms. It takes three children three months to make one carpet three meters by two meters (nine feet by six feet)," he said.

"We are making these carpets for foreigners. We sell them in European countries.

"If you want to buy, the carpets would cost different prices according to their work."

Stroking his chin, he suggested, "Maybe 300 dollars. The wool comes from Belgium," Mr. Javid boasted.

"I like this work and I want to be a carpet salesman one day," said nine-year-old Hai Mohammad while he twisted wool thread through a loom.

"White is my favorite color. The most difficult thing about this work is sliding the thread in between the other threads," the child said.

"I get about 200,000 Afghanis [less than eight dollars] per month for this work."

Three children sat at each loom which was the size of an upright piano.

10-01-2006, 08:10 AM
Wow Beltman. You been in some kind of a dark mood lately? All this torture and other happy things. I guess it's just the state that the world is in these days. Rainy sunday morning, and after reading all of your happt posts, I just wanna go back to bed....

10-01-2006, 06:22 PM