War is that contortion of life in which we make any act of kindness a risk. In 2007, I met Muhammad Gulab, an Afghan who made a merciful choice to save a wounded soldier, and who lived in daily fear of being killed for it. . . .
Muhammad Gulab stands before an 8,000-foot mountain ridge he dares not cross. Gulab’s home lies over the ridge in Afghanistan’s Shuraik Valley. There, he earned the enmity of pro-Taliban guerrillas for saving the life of a U.S. soldier. He has fled to the provincial capital, where he says he still is threatened by the Taliban and gets no help from the U.S. military. (By James Rupert)
Newsday, 6 May 2007
BY JAMES RUPERT — Staff Correspondent
ASADABAD, Afghanistan – When Afghan shepherd Muhammad Gulab left his mountain home one morning in June 2005 to check on a strange noise his family had heard in the woods, he found a frightened, wounded American soldier pointing his rifle at him.
“His pants were torn almost off,” his legs black with dirt, dried blood and bruises, Gulab recalled in an interview. “I saw from his eyes that he was almost collapsing.
“I lifted my shirt to show him that I had no weapon,” Gulab said through an interpreter, “and I beckoned for him to come to me.” The American lowered his weapon and limped forward.
Gulab knew that in rescuing the American, Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, he was risking his own life. The day before, he had heard the gunfire and shouting of pro-Taliban guerrillas who had battled a team of U.S. Navy SEAL commandos. Killed in that battle were three Navy SEALs – Matt Axelson, Danny Dietz and Michael Murphy. Luttrell was the sole American survivor of the fight.
On that day, Luttrell stepped forward to Gulab, put his arms around him and handed over his rifle, Gulab said. With that, Luttrell entrusted his life not only to the shepherd but also to the ancient and ironclad moral code of the Pashtun people. Their code of honor, called pashtunwali, is written in no constitution or legislation, but in the mountains and deserts of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are the Pashtuns’ homeland, it carries the force of law.
Born out of centuries of Pashtun tribal wars and clan feuds, pashtunwali demands of a man both unflinching violence when his honor is thought to have been stained, and selfless humanitarianism when anyone – stranger or enemy – requests protection from a foe.
“He came to me for help. If I did not help a guest, it would have been a great shame for me,” Gulab said – a shame that might have led to his expulsion from his community.
As Gulab walked the wounded Luttrell to his home, he was spotted by the guerrillas who had fought the SEALs. “They called to me to give him to them,” Gulab said. “But they know that I belong to a powerful clan, and they didn’t dare to attack.”
An attack on Gulab or the man he had taken under his care would have obligated Gulab’s extended family – a powerful clan called the Masaud – to fight the guerrillas.
At his house, Gulab tried to make Luttrell comfortable. “I gave him some of my clothes, but he was too tall for them . . . We laid him in a bed and my brother cleaned his wounds. We cooked some goat for him, but at first he wouldn’t eat.”
As word spread that Gulab’s family was now responsible for the safety of an American, “my brothers and nephews and cousins began arriving” with guns, Gulab said.
Other armed men came, too – Shuraik valley residents with connections to the guerrillas, whose commander the SEALs had been tracking when they were ambushed. Over four days, the commander, Ahmed Shah, “sent a lot of intermediaries to tell me to hand over the soldier,” Gulab said. “They said, ‘We’ll give you 5 million [Pakistani] rupees [about $80,000] and any house you want in Peshawar,’ ” a city in neighboring Pakistan.
The promise of a home in Pakistan would have been the best attempt the guerrillas could make at getting Gulab to break his obligation, but it didn’t work. Had he accepted the offer, Gulab might well have been expelled from the valley by the Masaud.
Protecting the SEAL
When the intermediaries came to deliver the guerrillas’ demands, Gulab invited them into his house’s main room, but sat protectively between them and the bed where Luttrell lay. Seeing the armed men, the SEAL “asked me, ‘Taliban?’ ” Gulab recalled.
“I couldn’t explain anything to him, so I just said, ‘Yes, Taliban.’ He was afraid.”
The Masaud clan met to decide their response. “We told them we would not hand him over while even one of us remained alive,” Gulab said.
The guerrillas’ tone hardened. “They sent us a message saying, ‘Prepare for war. We will attack your house tonight.’ “
The family moved Gulab’s wife and children to his father-in-law’s home nearby. Then Gulab and some relatives walked Luttrell to a hiding place in the woods while others prepared to fight off an attack that never came.
That night, the American “was very afraid,” Gulab said. “He thought maybe we were taking him up the mountain to kill him. I stayed with him that night, lying next to him. He patted my side.”
Meanwhile, Gulab’s family sent word to U.S. forces based across an 8,500-foot mountain from the Shuraik Valley, at Asadabad. “We got some paper and I told the soldier to write a note,” Gulab said. “We sewed it inside the hem of my brother-in-law’s shirt. I sent him to the Americans to tell them that we had their soldier and the Taliban were going to attack us.”
Four days after Gulab found the American, U.S. troops arrived to rescue him. They loaded Luttrell and Gulab into a helicopter for a flight to an American base at Jalalabad.
Later, as the SEAL was being readied for medical evacuation to the United States, he summoned Gulab and a translator. “He said he knew the Taliban would kill me if I returned home,” Gulab said, and offered to pay him $200,000 to re-start his life.
“I told him I didn’t expect any money,” Gulab said.
Little help for his trouble
Nearly two years later, Gulab’s act of mercy has cost him the life he knew as a woodsman in his mountainside village of simple mud and timber homes. Gulab, 33, has fled his home in the village, Sabray, moving his wife and six children to the thin safety of the government-held town of Asadabad. Still, he says, the Islamic militant guerrillas pass on threats to kill him.
Gulab and others in Afghanistan’s Kunar province say neither Luttrell nor the U.S. military has done much to help him. That, they say, may discourage other Afghans from following his example in defending U.S. soldiers.
Soon after the rescue of the SEAL, the U.S. military gave Gulab a construction laborer’s job at its Asadabad base, paying him $280 a month. He moved his family to a rented house in the town.
Then, last April, American soldiers at the base arrested him. “They put handcuffs on me and a sack and earmuffs on my head,” Gulab said. For five days, “they accused me of meeting Taliban and people from Pakistan. I felt ashamed. I couldn’t eat anything. I haven’t told any of my own people [family] about this; it is a great shame to me.”
Gulab’s arrest followed a Newsweek story about his rescue of Luttrell and interrogators questioned him about his having met a Pakistan-based correspondent for the magazine, he said. U.S. forces released him without explanation, he said.
The arrest was acknowledged by the top U.S. officer at Asadabad, Navy Cmdr. Ryan Scholl, in response to queries from Newsday. The U.S. Special Operations Command in the Middle East said it was checking on the incident but had no immediate comment.
Far from supporting the Taliban, Gulab said, he is still threatened by them. “People come down [from the Shuraik Valley] and tell me that the Taliban have warned them that I will be killed whenever they get the chance,” he said.
If he has kept his enemies, he feels he has lost his friends. “Before, I used to go to their [the Americans’] rooms freely and talk with them,” Gulab said. But since the arrest, “they don’t allow me on the base.”
Every two weeks, Gulab is permitted to go to the base’s gate to collect his salary for a job from which he said he is now barred. “Nowadays, my situation is very fragile,” he said. “My security from the Taliban is not good . . . They can easily reach to Asadabad and find me.”
If Gulab is mistrusted by the Americans, he is admired by many locals as a good Pashtun who did the right thing for his own honor, said Ruhollah Anwari, a prominent Afghan journalist in Asadabad.
“I am not sorry that I helped him,” Gulab said of Luttrell. While he said he did not save the American with the expectation of a reward, he said he hopes the U.S. will help him out of his predicament. “If they help me, they will get the reputation that they help their friends,” he said. “In general, I am very sad,” adding that he has had no contact with the SEAL he saved. “I think he has forgotten me.”
© Newsday, 2007.