KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Allah Mohammed, 37, helps sustain life, baking bread all day in the small oven of his corner shop in Kunduz city. Part of his bakery’s ceiling remains caved in where it was hit by a rocket during the latest Taliban siege.
In another corner of the city, Abdul Rassoul, 65, comes in after life has gone. He digs graves and then waters the trees that dot the cemetery. He also chases away addicts trying to steal a grave railing, or shepherd boys whose herds stumble on the graves — pelting them with rocks and cursing them.
Both men wake up around 3 a.m. when the rest of Kunduz’s residents are fast asleep, barring just a few.
Their everyday lives are woven into a larger pattern of hardship and resilience in the city. The bullet holes in the walls after each siege — two Taliban takeovers in just over a year — are reminders that it could easily happen again, and most likely will. So the people of Kunduz try to shrug it off as just another disruption in a long stream of them.
After their awakening in the dark, Mr. Mohammed and his two bakery workers work through two sacks of flour, about 150 pounds in total, as they begin preparing their first batch of dough.
Among the few other residents up with them then is an elderly night watchman on their block who has walked for hours among the closed shops along the way — construction materials, polished window frames, medicines. After handing his watch shift over to his son, he curls up in a corner of the bakery to sleep, warmed by a blanket and the oven’s warmth as the baking begins.
Allowing the dough time to rise, the bakers start the fire in the oven as the call for dawn prayer begins to echo in the city. At each meal, they will sell about 500 flat loaves, each for 10 afghanis, or about 15 cents.
When the Taliban overran parts of the city again in October and heavy fighting broke out, sales dropped away. Even hungry, most wouldn’t dare cross the street.
“They said the Taliban had taken the main roundabout, but I didn’t believe them,” said Ghulam Rasoul, 27, one of the bakery workers. “When the Taliban came here to buy bread, I said, ‘O.K., the city has fallen.’”
Many bakers around the city increased the price of bread then, trying to make a profit in desperate times — or because the cost of ingredients had gone up. Mr. Mohammed said he held firm, though. For the three days of fighting that he remained open before the rocket damaged the roof and forced him to close shop for a while, he said he kept the price at 15 cents.
“How could I do that? If I increase the price in difficult days, how could I look the people in the eye the day after?” Mr. Mohammed said.
The same understanding prevailed at the cemetery in those tough days, where few bodies arrived for burial while the fighting persisted. Among the handful of dead the gravedigger buried during the two-week siege were three drug addicts who had stayed on the streets and been shot. Someone took them to the cemetery on the back of a motorcycle wagon.
“We buried them for free,” said Mohammed Massoud, the gravedigger’s 15-year-old son and helper. “What can one get from an addict?”
The fighting did not change the gravedigger’s routine much. At 3 a.m., with the sound of bullets cracking in the morning calm, Mr. Rassoul would wake up his son and the two would make their way to the cemetery. They wanted to be there first, ready in case an early burial was needed. Some nights, Mr. Rassoul sleeps in the back seat of a damaged truck at the back of the cemetery, to make sure he is at work as early as possible.
On a normal day, they charge $ 20 a grave. They have dug them for all kinds of people: four members of a family who died in an avalanche; two brothers who drowned on their way to Europe; a 35-year-old Pashtun man named Gul Ahmad who died in an American military bombing.
Mr. Ahmad’s gravestone is adorned by a daring, but plagiarized, poem.
I, Gul Ahmad, will rise in my shroud
If I learn that a Pashtun has become the slave of others.
One time, they had dug a grave for an Afghan soldier killed on a southern battlefield, but the body did not arrive for 16 days. On the 14th day, they gave the grave to another family, and they dug a new one for the soldier when he finally arrived. Another time, a woman came and asked if they could unearth her husband’s body, dead for years, because she had dreamed he was alive.
“Who unearths a grave?” the young Massoud asked with astonishment. “The dead will just drag you in.”
One Tuesday morning, a little baby — just three days old — was brought to be buried. About two dozen men arrived in a small convoy. The baby’s father, a preacher, took off his shoes and socks and got down into the grave to place the tiny body, wrapped in a prayer rug.
“If somebody’s child passes away and he shows patience, God will give him a palace made of glass in paradise,” the father said in his sermon once the men were done shoveling the dirt. “It’s built of glass — you can see its inside from outside and outside from its inside. It has doors and golden beds. We don’t have the ability to comprehend it now. They call it the house of thanks — because you were thankful to God.”
As the convoy was leaving the area, Mr. Rassoul rushed to sprinkle some water over the new grave. He got a 75-cent tip.
Soon after the burial, a young man named Noor Mohammed arrived with extra-strong rat poison called Commando. Two rats had tunneled into the grave of his brother, Baz Mohammed, an Afghan Army soldier killed in battle. He called the gravedigger over and showed him the problem and then showed him the rat poison.
Mr. Rassoul objected. “You can’t throw the poison on the grave,” he explained. “You want to kill the rats. But what if a bird sits on the grave and eats the poison and dies? Who is responsible for that sin?”
Mr. Rassoul made a suggestion: Noor Mohammed should go buy a 75-cent trap and some rope, and he would take care of the rest, he told the young man.
What is the rope for, Noor Mohammed asked?
Mr. Rassoul explained what had happened the last time they failed to use a rope. A stray dog spied the trapped rat and hauled it away in its teeth, trap and all. Mr. Rassoul and his son had to chase the dog all through the cemetery, though in vain.
Mr. Mohammed’s rat trap would remain tightly roped to a railing near his brother’s grave, Mr. Rassoul promised.