In Kabul’s largest cemetery, the weather is winter morning air. Jagged headstones fan up the mountainside with a view over a sprawling swampy lake. The Shuhada-e-Saliheen cemetery (the name means “pious martyrs”) is built near a crumbling citadel, ancient stone walls tracing the mountains’ ridge. Rusted Soviet tanks are scattered across the high ground. A ragged Afghan flag—black, red, and green—whips in the wind. Dust. During the summer, this swamp sometimes dries to field.
A van passes, carrying a flag-draped coffin. The cemetery’s roads ascending the mountain are increasingly bumpy until impassable. Then the visitors walk. Women in burqas double over with grief, their screams tucked into the mountainside, without echo. Flocks of birds circle; small children play. The call to prayer sounds from speakers on a nearby mosque. In the distance, a distorted melody of “Happy Birthday” plays from a megaphone on the cart of an ice-cream vendor. A pair of Chinooks flies overhead: the rumble, tremor, only echo from the skies that groan. Storms blow themselves out in this place: dust, snow, rain.
No one can really say how many people die in Afghanistan each year—or how many live. The last national census was in 1979. Perhaps only the earth knows, the earth or God. Or somewhere in between. Asila and Sayil, both ten, don’t know how many died today, nor how many will. A lot, they guess. They carry pails of water to sprinkle on graves for tips. The water is thought to absolve the sins of the dead. Sayil points to his house, clinging to the steep mountain. “We are from here, we aren’t scared,” he says about the bodies, the graves, death. His father dug graves until the day he died. Asila shifts between her feet, shivering, with a shy smile. She’s not scared either. She shrugs. “Tomorrow we are dying,” she says. A gravedigger leans on his shovel. “If there’s work, we’re digging. If there’s not, we’re sleeping,” he says. What more to say? he asks. Under the chilled winter sun: the dead, and in curls of dust, the wind.
The brothers only recently got into the business of death. Orders for stone used to be for construction: kitchens, bathrooms, floor tile. No one is building these days, they say. People, on the other hand, will always die. The brothers cut gravestones, carved with biographies of the deceased. Succinct life stories with an end date, carved into stone.
In May 2017, a truck bomb blew a 15-square-foot crater in Kabul’s diplomatic area during rush hour, killing more than 150 and injuring more than 400. For three days, the brothers cut, carved, and etched the gravestones of the victims. They cried at the biography of a small girl, Massooda, and put off carving her small, heavy stone. “Let us do it tomorrow,” they said, until only Massooda’s remained.
The vast majority of headstones they carve are for murders, explosions, soldiers killed in battle, or other untimely and violent deaths. “When a person gets murdered, the family is so emotional that they will give us the money for a headstone. Natural deaths are not so emotional.”
The carved calligraphic stories pile on top of one another, accreting into “the story of none of us, I mean all of us,” Idris says. He has carved the stone of a classmate, killed in a suicide attack, and thousands of policemen and soldiers. A small girl decapitated in an attack at a Kabul hospital last year. Once, as a joke, Idris carved a stone for a friend and gave it to him as a gift. This morning’s project is a wrestler, shot by his brother several days back. “His name means a person who has a lot of hope,” he says.
Next to a refrigerator with corpses in it, we stand in dried blood, Esmatullah in brown plastic sandals and bare feet. This morgue, his morgue, the morgue at Istiqlal: dirty sink, a mirror, cadaver fridge. Cracked muddy tiles radiate the lack of heat. “The hardest part is a suicide attack, when you don’t know which leg is whose, which arm is whose until the medical examiner comes. One time I had a head and I just didn’t know which body.” Thirty bodies piling on top of one another, on top of one another—of course he gets afraid, in particular of his own death. At first, he was depressed, disturbed. Now it’s just a job. “What is your title?” I ask. “I’m responsible for this room.”
The gravediggers sit in the dust, sipping green tea. “I enjoy being close to the next world,” says Saifullah. “Every day there is a suicide attack, every day people are being killed. What should we do? No one good day, no one happy day. Of course we look forward to the next world. That will be a good life for me.”
A mourning family arrives at the graveyard and asks, “Who is the gravedigger?” Saifullah stands. “I am the gravedigger,” he says.
He might dig fifteen graves in a day after a suicide attack. Yesterday he dug eleven, all for a group of family members who died in a violent family dispute. It’s not that he enjoys it, but it’s better than stealing.
“Everything belongs to what a person did in this world,” Saifullah says. If a person lived a good life, the ground will give easily for his grave. But if he has sinned, the gravediggers will hit stone and roots, packed dusty ground like rock. It might take an hour or two to dig the grave of a pious man, he says, but five to dig the hole to hold a sinner. “When death comes, it doesn’t look at whether you’re young or old, good or bad,” he says. “In the next world you have to answer for this. Everybody dies, and in our life we should be thinking about what we will say to God then. I am very scared of my own death.”
Saifullah is nineteen years old and has been digging graves since he was seven. “I was a young boy recently,” he says.