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One day last November, an Afghan man chatted with my friend Paula Loyd about the price of fuel in his village, fifty miles from Kandahar. Paula, a thirty-six-year-old anthropologist who kept her long hair tucked under her field helmet, was taking notes. When she finished her conversation with Abdul Salam, thanked him, and turned to leave, the man doused Paula with a jug of gasoline and set her on fire.
After the flames that engulfed Paula were snuffed out, Salam was quickly restrained by Don Ayala, a U.S. security contractor with Paula’s team. When Ayala learned that Paula was badly burned, he shot Salam in the head, killing him instantly.
Those are the bare facts. They need little adornment to convey the brutal tragedy that transpired that day in Afghanistan. But how to come to terms with what happened is a far more difficult matter.
Paula was immediately flown to a hospital in Texas. For two months, she fought for her life even as burns covered 60 percent of her body. Reports from her family told of good progress and a fierce will to live. So it was a shock when I learned that Paula died in early January.
I’ve thought often about this triangle of tragedy that took place in Afghanistan. Everyone knows the human cost of war is a sad and sobering thing. Then you turn the page and move on to the next newspaper headline. But when a death becomes more than a number, grief and disbelief seep deep into your marrow.
I met Paula on an autumn day during tryouts for the college crew team. She was a couple years older than me. I was a coxswain and was supposed to simultaneously boss people around and encourage them. Over the course of the year, we ran along the Charles River in Boston with the crew team, ate waffles for breakfast in the dining hall, and drove to South Carolina for spring training in a van stuffed with tall young women and a couple short ones. She wore Teva sandals and had a loping gait as she ran. I wondered if her long hair, which hung down her back in a ponytail, was ever a nuisance during our grueling runs or when she pulled her oar through the water. Paula was egalitarian, principled, and—mundane as it may sound—just really nice.
Why not write about Abdul Salam? Well, I did not know Salam, but I think if I did—if I really knew him—I would write about him and his tragedy, too. Somehow we need to understand how a person’s heart could turn so dark that he would believe setting an unarmed woman on fire would be a salve to his pain and anger.
I know about the controversy surrounding Paula’s role in Afghanistan. She was working with the Human Terrain Team, part of a new U.S. military program that employs social scientists to understand local conditions in Afghanistan. Some academics say anthropologists have no business working for the military and have denounced the Human Terrain Team as “mercenary anthropology.”
At an academic level, maybe I would have once thought the same thing. But because I knew Paula, I can see a human picture of what she was trying to do: understand a dangerous, complex situation on the ground so that lives could be saved.
Of course Paula knew the risks of being in Afghanistan. She had worked there since 2002 when she took a break from her master’s program in conflict resolution at Georgetown to go to Afghanistan with the Army Reserves and dig wells and build roads in villages.
While many of her college classmates were enjoying life in Manhattan or Boston or London, she decided to stay on in Afghanistan and take civilian jobs with the United Nations, USAID, and other agencies. At USAID, she helped deliver food and warm clothes to Afghan people struggling to survive a harsh winter in 2004.
How did Paula, a gal from Texas who grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, end up in Afghanistan? After graduating from college in 1995, she joined the Army, where she worked as a mechanic for four years in South Korea and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
It was an unusual path for a graduate of Choate and Wellesley, where law school or Wall Street or a sedate Ph.D. program is the more common route. Her decision caused some head-scratching since vegetarian Paula was, believe it or not, a peaceful person. But the Army helped pay off college loans and offered its share of adventures and challenges. Paula was pretty unconventional.
The situation in Afghanistan today is undeniably dire, and the United States has made serious mistakes and miscalculations over the past eight years. A better way forward is desperately needed there. I am willing to believe that what Paula was doing might have made at least a dent in the suffering in Afghanistan. And I know that if your government decides, for better or worse, that it absolutely must wage a war, you would want someone like Paula there. She was caring, concerned, intelligent, rational, humane, and impassioned. I’m not glorifying her. Paula deserves respect.
Paula may have been a slim blonde, but she was tough too. She said Army basic training was a breeze compared to the crew team’s spring training. I was hopeful she would recover at the hospital in Texas.
That hope disintegrated when I opened an e-mail from “Isabella,” a close friend of Paula’s in college, telling me that Paula had died. I told Isabella about the visceral reaction I had when I received the news. I happened to be in Sarnath, a Buddhist holy site in northern India, where the Dalai Lama was giving a week of teachings.
For the rest of the day, I wandered about in a stupor, vision blurred, and listened with a heavy heart as the Dalai Lama talked to 25,000 people about peace and compassion—themes that had been ground down, lifeless as dust, that day in Afghanistan.
A couple weeks after I learned that Paula had died, I called Isabella. It had been years since I had spoken to Paula and I wanted to know about her work in Afghanistan. Why did she stay on there?
“She thought it was our responsibility to rebuild that country,” Isabella replied. “She hoped her new role as a social scientist would reduce casualties.”
Isabella recalled Paula’s genuine fondness for Afghanistan, so much so that she wanted to do a Ph.D. in Afghan Studies and was learning Pashto. “She said Afghan people were nice and polite,” Isabella said. “They were regular people who loved their country. The way Paula talked about Afghanistan was not the way you hear about it in the news.”
I ventured another uneasy question to Isabella. “What do you think Paula would have thought about what Salam did?” I asked. She replied without hesitation. Paula, the consummate anthropologist and empathizer, would have understood Salam’s situation in a country wracked by conflict and tragedy.
And what about Don Ayala, the contractor who killed Salam?
Isabella paused. She remarked that in Harlem, where she grew up, street justice was meted out before the cops came. But then Isabella answered my question. “I don’t think Paula would have wanted Abdul Salam to be killed. But she would have forgiven Don Ayala. Paula had a big heart. That’s the kind of person she was.”
The blur of events that unfolded that day in Afghanistan—the splash of gasoline, the flames, the pistol, the pain—conjure up a host of difficult and dark questions about foreign policy, vengeance, injustice, war, and its aftermath. I can’t even begin to answer those questions here.
All I want to do is stop for a moment, even as the casualties—from Afghanistan, from Iraq, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, DR Congo, Sudan, and too many other places in this world—continue to roll through the news day after day, and remember a really nice girl I knew in college who was kind to people, both friends and strangers.
She worked in the college café and made honey walnut cream cheese. She majored in anthropology and Spanish and read Cervantes in the original. She had bought a house in North Carolina and was ready to head home and marry her fiancé. She still wore a retainer. She once mentioned an old flame with a Harley and quipped, “That might be fun, except it is going to mess up my hair.” She island-hopped with Isabella in the Caribbean and showed her the local Burger King where, yes, you could order a beer with your Whopper.
After an Army teammate in Afghanistan snuffed out the flames that seared her body, Paula looked at her burned hands and said, “Gee, these look bad. Do you think I will be able to finish my report?”
She requested that her ashes be scattered from the deck of her mother’s bed-and-breakfast in the Virgin Islands into the glittering, impermanent sea. Before she left for Afghanistan, she asked in her will for a fund be set up to send Afghan girls to Wellesley. Paula’s mother is trying to go to Afghanistan to fulfill that wish.
Amy Yee is a journalist based in New Delhi. She writes for The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal Asia, The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. She has stories forthcoming in The New York Times and The Economist. Her poetry has appeared in Aunt Chloe, the literary magazine of Spelman College.