I’d say she was about 10-years-old, but that’d be a guess: she didn’t know her actual age. Memona was a brave little girl, larger than life. She showed very little fear, her tiny heart hardened in the war torn Afghan village that was her home.
I was point man (in front) on the patrol the day I first met Memona. It was a solemn day, the desert heat was pushing thermometers into the 50s (120 °F), and summer was well under way. A few days prior, we had lost a member of our team to an IED (improvised explosive device) a few days earlier, and the typical cautious by jovial chatter of the patrol was silenced to only necessary tactical communications.
Memona was in the middle of a small desert road, her younger brother to her side.
“Halta wodariga” I called to her – stay where you are. She stopped, lifted her shirt, and slowly turned in a full circle, showing that she had no explosives strapped to her body. Then, she turned to her brother and helped the confused little boy do the same.
I halted the patrol to the disgruntled members murmuring complaints. I signalled with my hand where I wanted soldiers on lookout, “Cut it out and post security!”
I approached the youngsters with caution, and for good reason. The area we were patrolling in Southern Afghanistan was riddled with covert suicide training camps that were turning small children into weapons of war. The Taliban was forcing them to wear suicide vests and detonating them when they approached Canadian patrols.
I knelt down and removed my ballistic eye protection so she could see my eyes. I asked the little girl her name.
“Memona” she said.
She looked at me and let loose in rapid Pashto, motioning to the grape fields on our right hand side. The interpreter was translating as best he could. It seemed all these fields belonged to her father, who was injured. She was minding the grapes with her brother for the last month or so. But it was dangerous for her and her brother because previous military units had placed razor wire all through the grape lanes to prevent an unwanted assault on the small compound on the other side of the field. She wanted the wire gone.
I tried to take her hand so she could lead me to where she was talking about. She slapped it away and, in broken English, told me to follow her, “you come” she said. I did. Sure enough, the fields were laid with razor wire and the grapes were now growing in between the sharp barbs. I figured it was mostly open ground in the months before we arrived which is probably why the ground was laid with wire as a preventative measure. With recent irrigation from the Arghandab River, however, the grapes were in full growth and the wire was getting covered in green, posing a risk for anyone trying to harvest the field. Nevertheless, I wanted to review the patrol logs from the previous rotation before I agreed to anything. There might be a reason this was placed here.
I told the interpreter to tell her I would look into it and asked where she lived. She pointed to a small mud house across the field. She began to cry realizing I was not going to help today. She muttered under her breath.
“She says she thought you might be different than the other soldiers, she says you’re not,” the interpreter told me. I offered her and her brother some candy from my pack. Memona pulled her little brother away, but not before he managed to snatch a Werther’s Original from my palm.
We continued the patrol that day and eventually made it back to camp. I pulled the 4 am to 6 am shift for watch that night. Just before 6 am, three shadows began approaching our camp on the little desert. It was dark, but I could clearly see a limping adult leaning on a child, and a small figure taking up the rear. It was Memona, literally carrying her father to our camp, and her brother carrying a small bag of bread. I called down for someone to take over my shift. I woke the interpreter, put on my body armour, grabbed my pistol, and went to see what was going on.
She was persistent, I’ll give her that. She wanted to know if I had, “looked into it.” I had not. She then wanted us to help her father. I could see a bloodied and filthy rag covering the man’s left foot. I called for someone to wake the medic attached to our patrol. I gave Memona and her brother some of my breakfast rations. They were elated and settled down to dig into the packages which had basic nutritional food, and some small treats.
While the children ate, I asked her father what had happened. He told me and the interpreter that he had been in the village a few months prior when one of the IEDs had exploded. A piece of shrapnel had entered his foot, which was now badly infected after a month of no treatment. He explained the grape fields were his, that his wife passed a few years ago from medical issues, and he was alone with the children while trying to maintain the fields as a source of income.
He complained that the razor wire was injuring his children – and that’s when Memona interrupted.
“Yes, see, right here, right here!”
She lifted her dress exposing a small scar in the back of her leg. She grabbed her brother, “and look, look!” He had a small laceration under his shirt sleeve on his arm. I nodded.
The medic had made his way over and had unwrapped the bloodied bandage on the foot of Memona’s father. It was bad. His heel was heavily infected, and it was rotting away the inside of his foot. Red lines were appearing on his leg and streaking toward his toes. He needed a hospital. Unfortunately, the nearest village hospital had been closed four months prior due to increased fighting in the area. We had no authorizations for civilian medivac because Canada did not have its own helicopters in Afghanistan at this time. The medic agreed to do a field wound cleaning, pack the wound, and provide a broad spectrum anti-biotic. It would take a couple of hours, and be painful. I’ll give the old man that: he was tough. He never cringed one bit.
While the medic worked and the children ate, I found the patrol logs and looked for an entry regarding the wire in the grape fields. The field was identified as a potential enemy approach and delay strategies were employed (i.e. lacing the area with razor wire). I figured we could place some sensors in the area instead and remove the wire. I went back to see how they were making out. The medic had removed a large amount of rotting flesh from the infected foot and cleaned the wound. I told Memona that I would have the razor wire removed today.
She cried, “thank you, thank you, thank you” she said in Pashto. Her brother tugged her sleeve and whispered in her ear. He wanted another Werther’s Original, “the gold candy.”
We cleaned the razor wire out of the fields that day. Memona could be seen for weeks after, every morning at 5am, picking gapes and filling baskets for the market, her brother diligently helping. Her father came for routine medical treatment and was eventually transported to Kabul hospital. We had to stop a vehicle in the desert and pay the driver to find him and transport him. The driver did as I asked. He could have taken the money and drove away but I suppose we were good for business. I paid him again when he brought her father back.
Memona visited our camp every week and eventually our relationship grew. We ate together often in the evenings. As months passed she became routinely absent from her grape fields. I later found out she was attending a suicide training camp by force. Our team was successful in intervening in that training facility and 11 children were removed. When I left Afghanistan, Memona was alive and well. Although I will never know what became of her, I hope that I was the different soldier she was looking for.
I will always be conflicted about my time, and my role, in a war zone. But I like to think that I was more peace keeper than soldier; that I made a difference. If it was only a difference to that one little girl, who supported her family by working in razor-wire laden grape fields because she had no other choice, that is enough for me. And it has left me knowing that, no matter where I am, I will always stand up for children and families.