The Afghan guard who stops suicide bombers
There is trouble outside Camp Phoenix. The American base on the dusty outskirts of Kabul has called for English translators. The problem is, the Americans have now hired their translator, and a crowd of Afghan job hunters at the camp gate is getting unruly.Skip to next paragraph
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The US soldiers are nervous. One yells obscenities and waves his gun. The crowd cowers but doesn't budge. Then, another soldier steps forward, armed only with a thick wooden staff, wrapped in peeling red tape.
The name tag on his broad chest says "Rambo," and though he wears US Army fatigues, he speaks in perfect Dari, ordering the crowd to leave. It reluctantly disperses.
This is a normal day for Rambo, an Afghan who has stood guard here for more than four years, pledging his life to the American soldiers that rid his land of the Taliban. But on Jan. 16, Rambo's gatekeeping made him a bona fide hero.
On that day, Rambo wrenched open the driver's side door of a moving car and wrestled a suicide bomber into submission before he could detonate his explosives. President Bush lauded him in a nationally televised speech several weeks ago, and before that, slightly exaggerated accounts of his feat circled through cyberspace, pleading for America to offer him citizenship or at least a medal.
On this gray day, amid the intermittent raindrops of a coming storm, Rambo seems somewhat weary of the story, asking a lieutenant whether he really needs to tell it again. So far as he is concerned, his only job is to protect those American soldiers at the gate. It is why he has taken only four days off in more than four years, even working Fridays, though that is the Muslim day of rest.
But the lieutenant kindly requests Rambo's patience. To Rambo, that is an order. "If you want me to do it, I will do it," he tells her with martial deference.
In fairness, his story is not just about the day he stopped a suicide bomber, when the steel of his resolve to protect American troops became so apparent to all who did not know him. To those who do, who gave him the "Rambo" nickname, the name tag, and the stick, his devotion was already evident.
At every corner of Camp Phoenix, Rambo stops to salute American officers. Soldiers heading out on patrol call out his name as if he were a fraternity brother. He is unquestionably one of them, because he is so willing to make the same sacrifice that they, too, have been called upon to make.
Yet he is also unquestionably Afghan, and never more so than when he smothered his countryman and would-be martyr at the front gate. To Rambo, whose name has been withheld for his protection, what happened that day was a matter of pride – a personal pride that burns deeper than love of country, or family, or faith.
"I made a promise to every American soldier," he says in grave tones. "Even if there is only one American soldier, I will be here to protect him."
Amid Camp Phoenix's soil-filled blast walls and bristling guard towers, designed to keep soldiers separate from the unsettled Afghanistan beyond, Rambo is a living lesson in the character of his country, where friends pledge their lives to defend you and enemies never rest until you have been destroyed.
On a clear, chilly Tuesday in mid- January, those two perceptions of the American presence here collided.
Having spoken for five loving minutes about his well-worn red stick and its many uses in crowd control, the black-bearded Rambo is at last primed to talk about his legendary feat, his dark eyes bright with enthusiasm. He sits on a cold, wooden picnic bench in the Camp Phoenix compound, immune to the freezing rain, his rough and blackened hands working frantically to depict the scene.
When the driver of an off-white sedan did not brake as he approached the gate, Rambo sensed danger. He ran to the door, flung it open, and saw two buttons by the gearshift, each with a wire running to a gas tank that filled the entire back seat.