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J. Malcolm Garcia

J. Malcolm Garcia is a regular contributor to VQR and the author of The Kharagee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul. His essays from VQR have been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading and Best American Travel Writing.

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Breathing In

Spring 2011 | Essays

That funk.

No one had to explain to Tim Wymore or LeRoy Torres or any of the other troops and contractors why they couldn't breathe.

The burn pit on Balad Airbase in Iraq had a life of its own. Black smoke and orange flames shot heavenward twenty-four seven. Big as five football fields. Ten acres easy. Lit up the whole night sky. When the seasons changed and the winds died and the air didn't move, the smoke just hung, a stagnant mass over the whole base.

 

Breathing In

Spring 2011 | Essays

That funk.

No one had to explain to Tim Wymore or LeRoy Torres or any of the other troops and contractors why they couldn't breathe.

The burn pit on Balad Airbase in Iraq had a life of its own. Black smoke and orange flames shot heavenward twenty-four seven. Big as five football fields. Ten acres easy. Lit up the whole night sky. When the seasons changed and the winds died and the air didn't move, the smoke just hung, a stagnant mass over the whole base.

 

Here Everything is Poison

Fall 2010 | Reporting

Cold winds carry lead-filled dust from a nearby slagheap, a hundred million tonnes of toxic tailings, and scatter it on clothes hanging from laundry lines, on open buckets of drinking water, on the dirt children play in, and on the feral dogs running down alleys in this former French army barracks housing about 250 displaced Roma men, women, and children.

You Cannot Tell by the Expressions on Our Faces What We Are Feeling

July 6, 2010 | Reporting
A Pakistani security guard sits on a bench next to a fiberglass statue of Ronald McDonald.
A security guard outside the McDonald's in Islamabad. (Copyright Hassan Sulehri)

Islamabad, January–February 2010

The Western diplomat cuts two lines of cocaine on his iPhone and snorts them with a 100 rupee bill.

“Pure Colombian,” he says. “Don’t be shy.”

I shake my head.

“A bit of jet lag I expect?” he says glancing about my room and inquiring about my fourteen-hour flight from the States.

“Some, yes,” I say.

We first met in Afghanistan in 2003. He was a source. We got to know each other and became friends in the way I become friends with people I use for information; constant contact bred familiarity. We remained in touch after he was assigned to Islamabad. I e-mailed him as I prepared for this trip and he agreed to meet me in my guesthouse.

“Tell me, how many bomb attacks in the last year?“ he says tapping the butt of a cigarette against the arm of his chair. “Basically every day somewhere here, somewhere there, two a day at least. They are well trained, they know where to hit. It’s different than Iraq but just as tragic.”

He licks the coke off his iPhone and drops it in his coat pocket.

“Bush was prepared to fight forever and send military in perpetuity. Symbolically, Obama wants this to end by 2012. The civilized world looks at its watches. These guys don’t have watches but they have a hell of a lot of time. Fighting is in their blood. They use a sweet name, Islam, to give their fighting a purpose and to portray the feelings of a society.”

Since I was last here, he explains, the people have become very cautious. Not so long ago they would walk to a park and enjoy a day outside with their children. In the evening, houses filled with visiting family. Now, empty streets reveal a city on edge. Fear prevails. Afghan refugees have become targets of harassment for bringing “their” war to Pakistan. Overcrowded jails make ideal recruiting grounds as fundamentalist inmates mingle with common criminals.

 

Most Dangerous, Most Unmerciful

On the eve of Afghanistan’s historic election, nothing seemed apt to change. A bombed-out car at sunset in Kabul. (Rafal Gerszak / Aurora Photos) You know how it is. You can’t run off to every bombing even with a presidential [...]

Police tape, marked DANGEROUS, cordons off a murder scene in Juárez, Mexico.

Call of the Narcocorrido

Fall 2009 | Reporting

In the PM newsroom, two men listen to the strains of a narcocorrido drifting from a police scanner. The vague shrill discord of accordions and a brass band echoes in the glass office until a burst of distortion shatters the ill-begotten melody and imposes a staticky silence. They know in the expanding quiet that someone will die tonight.

We Are Not Just Refugees

Ryan Ozawa / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 The sad looking man with the forced smile works the counter at Church’s Chicken. He takes orders, sweats in the numbing glare of heat lamps. His dark, lined face strains. He has an engineering degree from [...]

All the Country Will Be Shaking

Watch the suit run, the boys chasing him. War orphans, some of them, others carrying their younger siblings, polio afflicted, across their shoulders, hands outstretched. “Money, mister,” they beg. Clutching his jacket, his shirt, they a [...]

That Is All Of Me

We sit on a floor heaped with red carpets and pillows in a room four times the size of Mohammad’s jail cell at Guantánamo. “Are you fine?” he asks. Mohammad opens two windows and a breeze draws through the room. I wipe dust from my face [...]

The White Train

Cut grass blows into the face of a cartonero as he looks out the door of a White Train. Buenos Aires, June 2007 The White Train carries us. We racket from side to side on warped steel tracks, our nostrils burning with the odor of aged [...]

African Promise: Chad, August-September 2006

The throbbing music emanating from Le Carnivore Restaurant behind our hotel grows tinnier with each tortured beat, the voices rising to ever higher levels of screeching, and although Darren and I feel exhausted from the twenty-four-hour flight from B [...]

Descent into Haiti

Spring 2006 | Reporting

April 2005   We descend into Cité Soleil. Mattresses smolder on the trash-strewn roads in this sprawling seaside slum of Port-au-Prince. Gray smoke blows off islands of refuse and the charred remains of burned cars, and the twisted, immolate [...]

Curfew: Afghanistan, 2002

Spring 2004 | Essays

Cursing, I slam down the receiver and run out of the house, shout for Bro. He stands by his car still parked on the street. Arms folded, he turns to me, a stocky young man with black hair and a heavy mustache. He wears a leather jacket and jeans. He used to lift weights and box. Despite a potbelly he could kick my ass.