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Across Borders and Battle Lines, Four Mothers Affected by War

Ama Gullah, the mother of an Afghan National Army soldier killed two years ago in Qalat, Kandahar.
Ama Gullah, the mother of an Afghan National Army soldier killed two years ago in Qalat, Kandahar.
Charles DameronHaseeba Shaheed

There isn’t too much that binds together Ama Gullah, 45, a grandmother from the city of Kandahar, and Dr. Becky Whetstone, a marriage counselor and therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas.

But they are two of the tens of thousands of mothers strewn across four continents whose sons and daughters have become casualties of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan - a war that, according to some estimates, has claimed the lives of some 50,000 combatants, along with thousands of civilians.

The emotional trauma of the death of a child does not vary much across battle lines.

In recent interviews with four mothers of the dead from different sides of the war, there was little talk of politics or ideology.

These women’s thoughts linger on difficult, unanswered questions, and on the new burdens of family: taking care of widowed daughters-in-law and raising newly fatherless grandchildren. Most of them just want the conflict to stop.

'I fear for the future of the children'

In the Loy Wilaye neighborhood of Kandahar, Ama Gullah, 45, frets over the fate of her grandchildren.

"I’m alive now, but if I’m not alive tomorrow, what will happen to them?" Gullah asks.

Ama Gullah has good reason to worry.  She's the head of a household that was left without any breadwinners upon the death of her son Baqi, an Afghan National Army soldier killed by Taliban insurgents two years ago during a Ramadan firefight in Qalat, the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Zabul Province.

Her son left behind a widow and three children, a bevy of new mouths for Ama Gullah to feed without her son’s salary of around $170 per month.  For Ama Gullah, the immediate tragedy of her son’s death was quickly eclipsed by the strain of worry that pervades her day-to-day life.

"It is really painful, terrible," Gullah says. "It means a lot of pressure. My son’s wife and three children live with me now, and I must support them. I fear for the future of the children.”

Ama Gullah’s grandchildren are among the lucky ones: many of Afghanistan's approximately two million widows are rejected by their husbands' families, leaving these women and their children with precious few means of support.

Still, Ama Gullah and her daughter-in-law struggle to make ends meet.  The Afghan government cannot afford to offer pension payments or death benefits to the survivors of fallen soldiers, leaving Ama Gullah and her family to rely instead on charity from relatives and Ama Gullah's scant earnings from occasional part-time work.

'He was an innocent, and he was killed'

Over the Hindu Kush Mountains, in neighboring Pakistan, the surviving wife and five children of a murdered son fill a mother with the same worries.  But for Bibi Khan, the bitter legacy of her son’s death is only amplified by the belief that his killing could have been prevented.

"He was an innocent, and he was killed," Khan says.

Her son, Bachar Khan, was a member of Pakistan’s famed Frontier Corps, a Pashtun paramilitary force organized by British colonial officials in 1907 to patrol Pakistan’s volatile border with Afghanistan.

In recent years, the Frontier Corps has been a key component of the Pakistani government’s on-again, off-again fight against Taliban fighters streaming back and forth across the border.

In January, Khan and several other Frontier Corps soldiers were kidnapped and executed by Taliban insurgents in Pakistan who took public responsibility for the killings.

Bibi Khan talks of the agony that seized her family after her son’s disappearance.  "We couldn’t reach him," she says. "Everything was in God’s hands. At first, we had no idea he had been killed, and we were notified after the fact.”

She’s angry over what she sees as the Pakistani government's failure to ensure her son’s safety and to take appropriate steps to save his life after the kidnapping.

"The government didn’t do anything!" Khan says. "Why didn’t they strike at [the kidnappers]? My son’s weapons were taken from him. The kidnappers took their weapons and bound their hands and feet.

"Without weapons, what could they do? They couldn’t do anything. I wish my son could have killed five of them. They are infidels.”

'I don’t want other mothers' hearts broken'

Elsewhere in Pakistan, the mother of a slain Pakistani Taliban fighter, Saifullah, recounts the agony of her own son’s demise.

"My son was a good person, proselytizing, doing good things," she says. "He was not a criminal. If he were a criminal, we would think of him as a criminal."

In early 2011, Saifullah was arrested by Pakistani police as a suspected Taliban insurgent.

A religious young man by all accounts, Saifullah had left his home in northwest Pakistan for months, telling his mother that he was doing missionary work in Kashmir.

After his arrest, Saifullah’s mother - who has asked RFE/RL not to use her name - says much of the village came to her home to assure her that her son would soon be released.  But there was no reunion between mother and son.  Eight months later, she received a phone call from an officer at the local police station with an update on Saifullah’s condition.

Saifullah had died while in police custody. The authorities informed her that her son’s corpse, which was heavily bruised and showed evidence of sustained beating, was laid out and ready to be picked up in a street adjacent to the station.

"I was shouting and running through the streets and then my daughter came," she says. "I threw off my shawl. I don’t know what happened. His wife and I were out of our minds. We were blind."

Remembering Saifullah as a handsome young man, his mother describes with anguish the grisly condition in which his body was returned.

"He was my healthy and handsome son," she says. "They took him away as a healthy man. But he was brought back looking like a skewer.”

As with his counterparts in the Afghan National Army and Pakistan's Frontier Corps, Saifullah left behind a wife and five children, now living with Saifullah's family.

Indeed, from beyond the grave, he bequeathed one final legacy: on the same night that Saifullah’s mother learned of her son's death, Saifullah’s wife gave birth to their last child.  Now Saifullah's mother just wants an end to the conflict that ended her son’s life.

"I wish to God that there would be peace everywhere," she says. "My heart is broken. I don't want other mothers' hearts broken. I don’t want them to be sad. I want every Muslim to be in good health, and I want everything to be stable like it was several years ago.”

'My son had to learn this on his own'

Half a world away, Becky Whetstone remembers waiting in an airport last fall for a flight to Little Rock, Arkansas, when her phone rang. It was her daughter. "There are two Marines at the front door," she said.

"I just dropped my suitcases and fell against the wall," Whetstone says. "My knees buckled. I knew it was terrible news."

Becky Whetstone (left) with her son, US Marine Lance Corporal Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt, who died in October 2011.
Becky Whetstone (left) with her son, US Marine Lance Corporal Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt, who died in October 2011.
Whetstone’s son, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt, died on October 6, 2011.  He had arrived in Afghanistan on a second tour of duty just 30 days before. Schmidt was a member of a Marine sniper unit operating in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province when he was killed during combat operations near the village of Lwar Julji.

"I had talked to Benjamin’s father on the phone and I just begged him to tell me what had happened," Whetstone says. "He told me that my son had been killed that day while in combat and that he was shot in the head and killed instantly."

What the Marine Corps didn't tell Whetstone or the rest of Schmidt’s family at the time was what Schmidt’s brothers-in-arms already knew: Schmidt had been shot in the head not by Taliban insurgents, but by fellow U.S. Marines, the tragic victim of a friendly-fire accident.

Although the military later apologized to the family for the incident, the initial information about Schmidt's death came from Michael Phillips, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was with Schmidt’s Marine battalion when he was killed.

Phillips contacted Whetstone two and a half weeks after the incident to ask how she felt about her son's death by friendly fire.  Whetstone was deeply upset about the Marine Corps' failure to promptly tell her family what it knew about her son’s death.

"It infuriated me," Whetstone says. "The only information I had at all about my son's death came from Michael Phillips’ article."

She says that her son’s death came after a long process of reexamination and reflection on the purpose and utility of war.

"After personally experiencing it, he concluded that dying and being maimed in that way was not worth it," Whetstone adds. "He did not believe in the cause of the Afghanistan war by the time he was killed, or that war was ever the answer."

The resolution Whetstone has drawn from her son's death is a commitment to the advancement of peace.

"I personally have never understood why war is necessary," Whetstone notes. "Now my son had to learn this on his own, through his own experience.  To me, the only thing that matters now is to end this type of madness, and find other ways to resolve issues. I really believe that peace is the only way.”

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