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October 12, 2001
At the Northern Alliance checkpoint, half a mile from the front, I was busy talking to a 16-year-old soldier and didn't notice the owl until it fluttered against the tether that held it to Earth.
Looking closer I saw its left wing hung limply, with a splotch of blood near the shoulder joint.
"We shot it," the young man explained, holding up his AK-47 with a discernable measure of pride. He used the Afghani word for owl; booma.
It was a beautiful creature, obviously young, with feathered ears that reminded me of the horned owls I admired back home, posing on the branches of the live oaks.
The soldier jerked at the cord tied to one of the owl's legs; it stroked at the air with its one good wing and clacked its beak in anger. I bit down the impulse to yank the cord from the boy's hand _ you learn self-control in places where immature people hold deadly weapons. Besides, he would never have understood my anger.
Its feathers were swept with brown and white, soft as eider down. They belonged to the winds, not to the dirty ground at the feet of this boy soldier.
I don't know the species, but I'll never forget the bird's eyes. Huge and alert, but tinged with pain. His head swivelled around and those eyes met mine; they said to me, "What new torture do you have to offer?"
When I returned from the front a few hours later, the owl was still alive.
I offered to buy him from the surprised soldiers, but they handed me the cord and said, basically, "Help yourself."
"But watch out," they added. "He can rip you open." When his talons clamped around my wrist, he proved them right. I still have the little white scars.
For some reason I felt the need to explain this action to the soldiers. I asked our translator to tell them I wanted to try and save him. He looked at me incredulously.
"Go on, tell them," I urged him. With a shrug he repeated what I asked him to say. They blinked at him, then at me, then erupted in laughter.
Such was the response all the way back to our camp. I rode in the back of the pickup truck, with the owl held in my lap, wrapped in a cloth, and whenever we answered their curious looks, they laughed.
"But we shoot them," they would say. "We shoot the boomas. Why would you want to save it?"
"Because all life is precious," I would respond. "Doesn't the Q'uran say so?" And they would shrug, and say, "Yes," and laugh again.
I realized, when you've killed and seen your friend killed, and maybe your brother, or father, then the life of a bird, no matter how beautiful, doesn't matter very much.
One of them took the time to explain why they kill owls. The soldiers like to shoot game birds while they sit on the ground _ it's easier that way. And it has nothing to do with sport: The birds are good food.
But the owls fly overhead and drop stones where the birds are, causing them to fly up. (The owls will only take their prey on the wing, not on the ground.) That spoils the soldier's dinner, so they shoot the boomas instead.
To these men, the value of life comes down to this: The owls make it harder to get dinner; therefore the owls are a nuisance. It's not a matter of aesthetics. It's a matter of food.
On the long ride to Khoja Bahauddin I made a decision: If the owl lived through the night I would try to save it; if it was suffering I'd put it out of its misery.
At 4 a.m. that morning, I heard a noise in my tent where the owl was kept in a cardboard box, and when I peered in, I saw him looking around, alert, and curious, and even a little bit feisty. He made the decision for me.
That next day I spent three hours, a veterinary amateur, cleaning the wound and splinting the broken wing bone. I didn't know if it would ever fly again, but it obviously wanted to live. Maybe it would become a camp mascot, I thought. Maybe I'd make it a gift to the local government.
For a moment I actually allowed myself to think he was going to pull through. To my surprise, the owl took a drink of water when offered and ate a bite of raw liver. I thought that was a wonderfully good sign.
So when I returned from working on a story later that night and found him lying limp in the bottom of the box, I could only hope that I hadn't prolonged its suffering.
It seemed a symbol somehow of the long way this country has to go before the simple pleasure of watching a magnificent bird riding the air is not perceived as a threat, but as a gift.
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