It’s very easy to retrofit the following story into the more Arab Muslim parts of the Empty Quarter. There is no great Islamic insurgency in the Imperial Empty Quarter, as of 993, but that can be changed at the whim of the Referee.
The father in the story could make an interesting passenger, patron, or even a PC.
We have come to Afghanistan because Tony wants to see the country where his 22-year-old son was killed by a Taliban sniper on 9 February, 2011. He wants to pay his own tribute to the fallen boy and his comrades of 3 Para.
Not many fathers would do this.
After Conrad was killed, Tony remembered his son’s deep affection for the dog. “Two weeks after he died we got in touch with Nozwad to get Peg back from the most dangerous place on Earth.”
Now the Afghan stray is a consoling presence for Tony and Sandi Lewis at their home in Claverdon, Warwickshire.
Tony Lewis is a reasonable man. He listens and watches before offering his own opinions. There is a gentleness about him that makes him an easy travelling companion.
He believes his son fought for the right cause. But his patriotism is not blind. As we move around Kabul he experiences a see-saw of emotion – from hope to deep worry.
The father, Tony, may well be a reasonable and gentle man – but he’s also willing to step into a hostile part of the world, to find the answers he seeks. Gutsy.
We drive to a market, past the numerous checkpoints manned by edgy soldiers and policemen. The Taliban are here in the city. They strike at Nato convoys, at roadblocks. They have attacked restaurants and shot Westerners in the street. At the Serena Hotel where we are staying, they struck last March and killed nine people in the dining room, including a mother and her three children. Her pleas for mercy for the children were ignored.
It’s bad to even read about: but worse to see with your own eyes. The situation isn’t anywhere like this in the Empty Quarter of 993 (even with the pirates)… but back in the 700s, it was ugly.
Later that day we visit the main market in the company of Khoshhal Taib, a BBC Pashto service reporter who has lived in Kabul for four decades. He has seen the rise of the Communists, the Soviet invasion and war, the civil war that followed, the rise of the Taliban and their fall, and now the fragile democracy beset by insurgency.
A good model for an NPC “old-timer”.
“Nobody is safe in Afghanistan,” he says. The market is bustling. Crowds are perusing racks of clothes and multi-coloured bolts of cotton. Street children approach with hands outstretched seeking alms. A man is roasting corn on a charcoal fire. “In a minute here you can have a suicide attack,” explains Khoshal, “but five minutes after that everything will go back to normal, people will go on with their lives.”
Life in wartime.
For Tony one of the essential moments of the trip is a visit to the animal charity Nowzad. As we walk past the huge concrete blast walls that protect the shelter, the sound of dogs barking grows louder. Just inside is a huge poster of Conrad with his dog Peg on patrol in Helmand, next to a sign for the Conrad Lewis Clinic – for the veterinary surgery named in his memory.
A land where dog shelters need massive concrete blast walls.
A man in his 50s – the same age group as Tony – is cleaning a set of graves. Abdul Gafar explained that his 12-year-old brother was killed in the civil war. Soon afterwards his grief-stricken father died. “He could not live after what happened,” Abdul explains. Tony listens and offers his sympathy. Then he tells Abdul that he, too, has lost a child to the wars of Afghanistan. As Tony’s words are translated I notice that Abdul is looking at him with an expression of great intensity. Then he speaks: “The fact that I am Muslim and you are not, the fact that you are from the West and I am from here, it does not matter… I can feel for you.”
Sometimes, even hard, non-negotiable differences can be bridged. Sometimes.
He cannot stifle his feelings. With voice breaking he says, “Oh son, who’d have thought.” We walk away and give him time to be alone. Afterwards I ask Tony what he remembers best about Conrad. “He didn’t waste a minute of his life,” he says. The words are both a stirring tribute and a haunting epitaph for a lost son.
Words worth reflecting on.