Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Afghan bomb kills scholar from Mass (May 08)

Boston Globe
Afghan bomb kills scholar from Mass.
Ex-Medway resident was aiding Army's work

By James Vaznis, Globe Staff | May 10, 2008

A 31-year-old former Medway resident, who was a specialist in the politics and culture of Afghanistan, was killed by a roadside bomb in a remote region of that country along with two US soldiers on Wednesday.

Michael Bhatia, a Brown University graduate and a doctoral candidate at Oxford University in England, had been in Afghanistan since November, helping the Army's 82d Airborne Division to understand the country's tribal customs. He is among a handful of academics who have partnered with the US military in so-called human terrain teams to establish peace in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"He's as much of a hero as any soldier out there," said Steve Fondacaro, program manager for the military's Human Terrain project. "He willingly left a comfortable environment, where he could have continued to be the great scholar he was . . . Michael Bhatia is responsible for hundreds of people being alive today."

Bhatia was considered among his peers to be a scholar's scholar - always on the hunt for that last interview or piece of information that would solve a long-standing dispute in a war-torn area. His family said he made at least eight trips to Afghanistan since his 1995 graduation from Medway High School, and colleagues said he also had been to the volatile areas of the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, along with East Timor and Kosovo.

During that time, he co-authored two books, including "Afghanistan, Arms and Conflict: Armed Groups, Disarmament and Security in a Post-War Society," which was released last month. In conducting hundreds of interviews with Afghan fighters and other Afghans, Bhatia captured the essence of who they were and the conflicts that entrapped them, in several series of photographs.

Yet with all his success - which also included being a Marshall Scholar and recipient of at least two prestigious fellowships - Bhatia remained humble, said his sister Tricia.

"He was never one to brag about what he was doing," said Tricia, of Medway. "He wanted to talk about you. . . . He had a way of making everyone feel special. He was the glue that brought people together."

She and her parents, Manik and Linda, are heartbroken over his death.

"They took him away too soon," she said. "He had such a passion for life."

The attack took place as a convoy of four military vehicles traveled on a dirt road in a remote region in hopes of brokering peace among two tribes, Fondacaro said. The Humvee, in which Bhatia and four others rode, headed the convoy. The improvised explosive device killed Bhatia and two US soldiers immediately, while critically injuring two other soldiers, Fondacaro said.

A Department of Defense spokesman declined to confirm the details of the attack, including the deaths, citing a military policy of not releasing information until 72 hours after an event.

His death, which became a topic of several blogs in the last two days, shocked colleagues and friends. Up until a year ago, Bhatia was a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown.

"He was exuberant, enthusiastic, and full of life, which makes his death all the more difficult to fathom," said James Der Derian, director of the Global Security program at the institute, in a phone interview. "The research he did was exceptional. A lot of people would go to do survey work . . . but he had this unique ability to really listen and see, and that came out in his research and photographs."

Tad Heuer, a roommate at Brown, said Bhatia loved going to war-torn areas.

"I think he really wanted to know how these conflicts began and how to make them stop," Heuer said. "He really saw Afghanistan as a place in the world that hadn't received the attention it should have."

Bhatia's sister said his interest in Afghanistan evolved from a childhood fascination with Russian history. "Everybody knew he was exceptional at an early age," she said. "It's heartbreaking to think that the life he had in front of him is gone."

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