Eight years after the ‘Operation Red Wings’ in the rugged mountains of Kunar province in which three U.S. Navy SEALs were killed and one survived, we go back to that forlorn village to meet the family who helped Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor, to crawl back to life and freedom
In the summer of 2005, a team of Navy SEALs embarked on a difficult mission to neutralize a Taliban leader Ahmad Shah inside his hideout in the mountains of northeastern Kunar province, closer to Pakistani border. The team decided to abandon their mission after being discovered by a few Afghan goat herders. But before they could cover the difficult mountainous terrain to safety, the insurgents opened indiscriminate fire at them. Three Navy SEALs were killed on the spot while the fourth one, Marcus Luttrell, managed to escape in a badly wounded state. Some locals helped him and treated him in that condition.
More than eight years later, the harrowing incident is again in the news, thanks to Lone Survivor, the cinematic adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch. The action thriller, which has already created stir across the world, is releasing tomorrow, January 10.
Afghan Zariza went back to that sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside mountains to look for the family who helped the only survivor of that deadly military operation crawl back to life and freedom. No hustle and bustle, no movement of traffic, no market and no roads. The villagers stare at you with distrust and suspicion, which is partly annoying and partly justifiable. The old scars and wounds, it appears, have not fully healed yet. They tread cautiously, respond to queries warily, and refuse to divulge details about anything related to America and Taliban. The area has been a traditional stronghold of Taliban and people here remain loyal to the guerilla forces.
After running helter-skelter for hours, we come to know the person we are looking for has moved out of the village. He now lives with his family in Asadabad, the capital city of Kunar which is 30 km from Qalacha village. Qalacha is a small, nondescript village in Dara i Pech district, also known as Manogay district. It grabbed the international headlines 8 years ago after that deadly operation.
We head to Asadabad city, capital of Kunar province, nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains, 13 km northwest of Pakistan and 80 km northeast of Jalalabad. After some hard slogging in a big city located at the confluence of Pech River and Kunar River, we manage to find his house. A young man of 26, sporting neat peran tumbaan, traditional Afghan dress, opens the door and greets us with courteous Pashtu expression. He introduces himself as, Gul Mohammad, the son of Mohammad Gulab, the man we are looking for.
“Sangayay,” (how are you) he asks. My colleague replies: “Khayuu,” (we are fine). Quite unexpectedly, he does not grill us with more questions and invites us inside his small house.
Gulab, he says, is in the U.S. since October. “He often travels there on the invitation of the U.S. soldier he had saved eight years ago,” says Gul. His first visit to the United States was less than three years after that incident when Luttrell was writing his book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. Gulab has a special mention in the book that went on to become a New York Times bestseller.
More than eight years later, the harrowing incident is again in the news, thanks to Lone Survivor, the cinematic adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, releasing on January 10
After some interesting chitchat and light banter with his son Gul Mohammad over a cup of sugar-free green tea, a serious conversation picks up. Gul vividly recalls that horrifying episode that turned their world upside-down.
In June 2005, US Navy SEALs came in helicopter to Dara i Pech district of Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan. Calling it Operation Red Wings, the four-member reconnaissance unit had their task cut out: to hunt down the local Taliban commander Ahmad Shah. Despite meticulous planning, the mission went kaput and three members of the unit were gunned down in an ambush.
Some goat herders passing through the mountainous area spotted them, which threw the team of Navy SEALs led Navy Lt. Michael Murphy into a tizzy and forced them to retreat to a defensive position. The change of plan and miscommunication with base led to a deadly ambush, in which all the unit members except Luttrell were killed.
The lone survivor hid himself in a crevice and crawled almost seven miles before he was spotted by Mohammad Gulab, father of Gul Mohammad. Gulab, a Pashtun, who risked his own life to save the U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell. The officer was paralyzed from the waist down, and his body was riddled with gunshots and shrapnel wounds. Gulab, like a true Samaritan, looked after the wounded U.S. soldier for five long days, before Luttrell penned down a note mentioning his location. The note was ferried by one villager to a nearby U.S. military camp, after which a rescue team arrived and took Luttrell.
“It was 8’o clock in the morning when my father saw him, pleading for help,” says Gul. Moved by his plight, Gulab offered him shelter in his small house. He immediately called up his friend who was working with Afghan Red Cross as medic. Unmindful of the repercussions it could have had, the medic went out of his way to treat the wounded U.S. soldier. “It was my duty to treat the patient and it does not matter whether he was an American or an Afghan,” says the medic, who goes by his first name Sarwar. Despite threats from Taliban to hand over the wounded soldier, they did not cave in. “Taliban sent many letters asking to hand over the soldier, but for Pashtuns, it is important to serve a wounded person, irrespective of who he is,” he says.
His words are echoed by Malik Shina, a village elder. “Pashtuns have a rich tradition of hospitality and protection; that man had asked help from a Pashtun family so there was no question of backstabbing him,” says the 80 year old man. He said everyone in the village took their gun and supported Gulab to protect the wounded soldier. “We are not afraid of the Taliban. They still threaten us, but we don’t care because this person came to a Pashtun home and we had to protect him.”
“It was a harrowing experience for my father and our family,” says Gul. “The three U.S. soldiers had been killed and Luttrell was badly wounded, barely able to stand on his feet. The wounded soldier had crawled to the house of Mohammad Gulab with his gun. “My father felt obliged to help him, because it is a Pashtun tradition to help anyone who comes to your house for sanctuary, be it your friend or your enemy.”
Gulab was interrogated by the U.S. military officers before they came to know he was the savior. A local journalist, Rohullah Anwari, who was perhaps the only reporter tracking the news that time, was caught by the angry U.S. soldiers when they came to pick Luttrell from the house of Gulab. He spent 10 days detained and questioned. “I was interviewing the wounded soldier in the house of Gulab when they came and bundled me in a gypsy,” recollects Anwari.
As a reward for their magnanimity, Gulab’s family used to get 2,000 USD every month from Luttrell, however, it stopped coming after three years. “After three years, my father left for U.S. to help Luttrell with the book he was writing on the whole incident, and then he came back to Afghanistan,” Says Gul.
“But, we faced many threats from Taliban for saving the wounded U.S. soldier, which forced us to move from that area to Asadabad city, the center of Kunar province,” says Gul. They family continues to live there and own a house too.
The lone survivor hid himself in a crevice and crawled almost seven miles before he was spotted by Mohammad Gulab, father of Gul Mohammad. Gulab, a Pashtun, who risked his own life to save the U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell
Though most of the people in their own village supported them, they had to face vicious public backlash from other areas. “It was not easy to deal with the anger and outrage after that incident, as many locals labeled us American stooges,” says Gul. “Most of the people here are fiercely against America and they believe American aggression is responsible for all the problems we are facing today.”
Luttrell, who was awarded the Navy Cross in that 2005 ‘Operation Red Wings’, recovered from his injuries and was sent to Iraq. The leader of his team, Mike Murphy, whose remains were found during a search and rescue operation on July 4, 2005, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz, also killed in the operation, got the Navy Cross too, making them the most decorated SEAL team in the history.
As a sequel to unsuccessful Operation Red Wings, a fierce offensive was launched throughout Kunar province in August 2005, called Operation Whalers. For 11 straight days and nights, U.S. marines engaged the Taliban guerillas in a fiercest military fight. The dreaded Taliban leader Ahmad Shah was critically wounded in the ambush.
Eight years later, the province continues to be the stronghold of Taliban, and a sword of Damocles continues to loom over people living here.
With Zabuillah Ghazi, Afghan Zariza Correspondent in Kunar
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