Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The deaths untold

I never met Jamila, but I feel like I knew her intimately. She was the embodiment of the many victims of abuse I had met in Afghanistan, and the primary key to their suffering was being born the wrong sex in a country that disdains women.

An expat living in Afghanistan will rack up stacks of anecdotes of sexism, misogyny and vicious acts of hate against women. One friend told me that an Afghan colleague in her European governmental aid organization felt that if a woman in his family committed a dishonor, it was his duty to kill her. Girls are traded to settle murder disputes among men – the killer’s family gives a daughter or sister in marriage to the family of the male murder victim, after which society believes justice has been served. It is a society that does not want to sever a hand for a hand, because they have seen revenge killings that continue for generations, so by marrying off a girl, they can mix blood to end the bloodshed. The girl, meanwhile, is beaten, left to sleep in a cage, or killed, for in her veins runs the same blood as the murderer’s. The family sees in her face the eyes of a killer, but her death is never avenged. It is seen as the cost of settling the dispute.

I once attended a large meeting in eastern Afghanistan with dozens of bearded tribal elders, in hope that they would introduce me to a girl who had been traded for murder. The elders assured me that a girl in such a situation is treated with utmost respect – telling me that after all, Afghan women, once married into a family, are given a seat of honor. I told them I was pleased to hear that women were treated well, even though they were used to settle blood crimes, but when I asked to meet these women, the elders demurred. Their schedules were packed; it wasn’t convenient that day.

There may come a brief moment when an expat suspends criticism after Afghan male friends offer assurances, as my own colleagues did to me, that in fact, Afghanistan has great respect for women and holds them upon a pedestal, which is why the men so fiercely protect them, why the women “do not have to work” and “can stay at home” – as if these are privileges bestowed upon a superior race. But then we shake our heads, denying these untruths, for we witness and we come to know that Afghan women are treated like chattel, bartered or sold like beasts of burden.

I interviewed so many women in Afghanistan – victims of child marriage, forced prostitution and rape. I wrote about infant and maternal mortality rates that make Afghanistan one of the worst places in the world to be a mother and a baby. But never had I heard the story of one woman who had suffered every single one of these problems. That was Jamila.

I don’t know her full story, but after a few years of hearing the stories of countless women, I can come up with some basic assumptions: She was likely forced into an arranged marriage at a very young age, as most Afghan girls are – that way the husband-to-be could be sure that he was marrying a virgin.

Rights workers told me that Jamila was then forced by her mother-in-law into prostitution. In fact, in many cases of prostitution in Afghanistan, the relatives and even the husbands are the pimps. One women’s rights advocate told me of a prepubescent girl who was living in her sheltered for battered women: The girl had been married off to a young boy, and then pimped out by her father-in-law, who ran a child prostitution ring. A 2005 report by the German aid group Ora International said that 39 percent of the sex workers interviewed found clients through their relatives – including 17 percent through their mothers and 15 percent through their husbands.

Jamila finally made the very difficult decision to run away from her abusive home, landing in a women’s shelter in Kabul, which told me her story. However, it was too late for Jamila was already pregnant. She lived in the shelter, came to full term and then some, and at a week after her due date, she started bleeding. She was taken to one of Kabul’s main maternity hospitals, but her cervix did not dilate, so the doctors decided to perform a cesarean. They botched it and killed the baby. It was a Sunday in March.

I arrived in Afghanistan a few days later, and while meeting with several different women’s rights advocates, I met with friends who were rushing to save Jamila’s life. She, too, had been butchered, and had fallen unconscious. Her organs were failing. We called all the doctors we knew to get her transferred to another hospital. Later that night, a few days after her baby had died, she followed. She was 18.

The hospital performed an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Government officials investigated. She and her baby became statistics, filed away in anonymous charts and reports.

There was no funeral, and other than the NGO that gave her refuge, no one cared. I write this so that you could meet Jamila, that she could be remembered.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Where foreigners who die in Afghanistan are buried

The British Cemetery, seen here in center of this photo at the bottom of the hill, is a grassy walled plot adjacent to a Muslim cemetery (the green-roofed structures and green flags on the slopes of the hill).

The entrance is located on a dusty side street in central Kabul. This is the caretaker's son.

It is a peaceful, silent retreat, where I could walk freely without being stared at or suffering cat calls.

The oldest graves date to the 19th century. In quotes below are excerpts from some of the signs.

"The British Cemetery in Kabul is believed to contain the graves of more than 150 British soldiers, casualties of the 1st British-Afghan War (1839-40), the occupation of Kabul (1840-42) and the 2nd British-Afghan War (1879-81). Over the years, the grave markers of these soldiers have gradually disappeared to the point that in 2001, when British troops once more returned to the city as part of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), only ten remained. These, as you can see, were rescued and have now been collected together and set into the southern wall."

About Lt. Charles John Rumball Hearsey, age 23: "On 11 December 1879 he took part in a brave but ultimately futile cavalry charge when 220 British and Native cavalry attacked 10,000 Afghan tribesment who were advancing on Kabul. He was shot in the heart."

There lie citizens of many nations -- soldiers, missionaries and hippies who died in Afghanistan during the various wars that have plagued this country and in times of peace.

Born 1934. Died 1982.

Soviet, 1923-1946.

Un des français enterrés içi.
Died in 1978, just two months shy of her 65th birthday.

Born in Prague, 1882.
Died in Kabul, 1942.

On the stone of William Joseph Jahrmarkt, who died on 1-30-72, during the hippie heyday of Afghanistan: "BILLY BATMAN LOVES Joan Jade Hassan Caldoania & Digger."

I found an interesting excerpt on Jahrmarket at this web site.

Your thinkings in front of eyes

Afghan indeed: Tea and kebab.

Bathtub on the sidewalk.

The best slogan for a sign shop:
"Your thinkings in front of eyes"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Soccer, kind of

I took my first walk up swimming pool hill, with an Olympic-sized pool that dates to the Soviet era (ca.1980s). Reportedly, the Taliban once used it as an execution site, but it's now used as a soccer field, complete with burqa-clad cheering moms sitting on the edge of the pool.

The kids use empty plastic soda bottles instead of soccer balls, and when the bottle goes out of bounds (ie, into the deep end of the pool), they run down the slope to retrieve it, set it upright and then kick it in.

Perhaps there's a need for more soccer balls. However, kicking balls is a delicate matter in Afghanistan: In 2007, the U.S. military handed out soccer balls that was decorated with flags from around the world, including Saudi Arabia, whose flag has written on it the Koranic declaration of faith, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." The Afghans protested, taking offense that the Westerners wanted them to insult Allah and Islam by kicking the holy phrase around on the ground. U.S. forces later apologized: The "distribution of soccer balls was done in the spirit of goodwill, something that we hoped would bring Afghan children some enjoyment," said Sgt. Dean Welch, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. "We regret any disturbance that was caused in this case. If we hurt one person, that is one too many."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blending in with the locals

An Afghan-American friend was renting a white Toyota Corolla station wagon. Behind the wheel, he looks real local, and to look local means less risk of being seen by the dangerous evil enemy. On every road in Afghanistan, at every corner, at every stoplight, one is surrounded by Toyota Corolla station wagons and sedans. The Corolla is the national taxi, and most international organizations in Kabul probably have at least a few staffers who drive Corollas. It’s also the car bomber’s vehicle of choice.

My friend, who sports a big beard like most Afghan man (to not have a beard is to be a woman or a boy), says he blends in so much that Afghans try to wave him down. He jokes about picking up a few fares to make pocket money, and maybe he’ll buy his own Corolla, “trick it out” with a “Mashallah” sticker – praise be to Allah. A lot of cars are decked out with decals of Bollywood starlets like Aishwarya Rai. Yeah, we cruise along, heading to a weekend soiree, convinced that we ride as if invisible, blending in. No one will notice us.

As we approach our friend’s well-guarded fortress, we see a light at the house flashing off and on. We think, aw yeah, party straight ahead… and then a monster SUV slides out of its parking space and pulls out to block the road about 30 meters in front of us. The doors open and four beefy Western security dudes pile out, automatic rifles drawn, pointing straight at us. One guy, holding a handgun, signals with his palm outstretched before him to stop. I stare incredulously, wondering how Western guys can come in such large sizes.

My mind races. The Blackwater shooting spree in Iraq… the cars that drove too fast near U.S. and Nato military convoys and were gunned down by nervous soldiers… all those U.S. and Nato military press releases about suspicious vehicles and civilian casualties… the incidents flood my head, and I hold up my hands to the windshield in surrender. I’m wearing the grey boiled wool hobo gloves that my Brooklynite designer friend made and a Patagonia cap, and I wonder if the beefy mercenaries can see that I’m a woman? Can they see both my hands up and the hip fingerless gloves? “Uh, stop, uh, we gotta stop, uh, that means stop,” the idiotic words spill out of my mouth.

My friend presses the brakes, and with his left hand, slowly rolls down the window… at which point Amadou Diallo with his wallet, not a gun! flashes alive among all those memory archives. Forty-one bullets fired, courtesy of the NYPD, nineteen of which make contact with the suspicious black man. Poor Amadou. I'm terrified of excessive force and impunity. I'm scared that if I die, no one will notice. I'm just another Asian, and there are so many billions of them in the world. But no, "I'm American," I tell Afghans as they eye me suspiciously when I tell them where I'm from. "Like Obama," I say, and they shrug, knowing that it's true. We come in so many shapes and colors, but do the security dudes know that there are Afghan-Americans among the international community in Kabul, too?

Keep your hands up at the windshield, I order myself, but then can they see past my hands that I’m a woman? But I’ve got dainty fingers. But shoot, why did I cut my hair so short? But I always wanted to look ambiguous like androgynous Pat so that I could walk Kabul’s streets free of the Afghan man's oppressive glares and catcalls. The curse of being a woman in Afghanistan, but how I wanted so much to look like a woman in that passenger seat.

My friend bravely leans his head out the window – surely the gunmen see beyond his beard, his electric blue eyeglasses and a knit cap like a Sabrett hot dog vendor wears in the winter. “We’re here for the party, man,” he says. Was his drawl thick enough? Did the scary security dudes catch the American accent? I can barely breathe.

“Sorry,” one of the dudes says, and they point their weapons back at the ground. They tell us they received reports of a suspicious white vehicle on the tail of the VIP foreign embassy convoy that had just arrived at the party. Get the sirens roaring. Red alert: Suspicious white Corolla station wagon approaching. Bearded Afghan driving. Did you see the two passengers? The suicide bomber goes it alone.

The scary security dudes let us drive past and park the blending-in car, the one that looks like almost every car in Afghanistan. We slowly get out of the car – no fast moves, don’t make the gunmen nervous – and make a beeline for our friends, the music and drinks. Never did tipple taste so sweet.

Trying not to look shifty, but worried that my effort makes me look shifty, I turn around to glance at the dudes with the guns – my friend tells me they’re Blackwater – and though a voice in my head rages, my lips are too scared of their itchy trigger fingers to scream:
Jeez Louise. Get a grip.

Meeting up with old friends

This is dear little Basmina, a former street beggar, in a picture I took in December 2008. I had originally written about her on May 14, 2008 ("The Sweet Here and Now"), after she had been hit by a jerk of a driver. Her femur was broken, and worried that her family wasn't there to look after her, I went to the hospital to hold her hand and tell health care workers to be gentler as they grabbed her hands and feet to move her from stretcher to x-ray table and back. I was worried that she wouldn't walk normally again, but after meeting her in December and having her take a few strides before my incredulous eyes, I realized that some Afghan doctors are capable of healing after all. However, I'll revisit this topic later with a grim story that paints a better picture of the reality people face in Afghan hospitals.

I originally met these two munchkins last year in Pul-e Charkhi prison while writing a story about children who live with their mothers in prison. These boys' mother had been jailed for adultery. She has finished her jail term, so the kids and mom are now free, but mom is still seeking a proper divorce so that she can re-marry. The husband-to-be is her nephew: The boy on the right was fathered by her current husband, and the boy on the left, by her nephew.

Lastly, I'd like to revisit my little buddy Edie (the one that looks like a guinea pig, not the guy), whom I found in a pile of trash in December (See "Pup in the dumps"). She was yet a newborn and could barely walk or open her eyes.

And here's Edie four months later, a very sweet and clever girl, during a Friday stroll around Kabul. Most Afghans are scared of dogs and will cross the street to avoid her. They're also baffled as to why anyone would go to the trouble of walking a dog on a leash...
as if we love her.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Spring in Kabul

Cloud over Kabul, view from Intercontinental Hotel.

Foot traffic on a bridge near Ferozhgah bazaar,
and a glimpse of the Timur Shah mausoleum,
which dates to early 19th century.
It was restored with help of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
between 2002 and 2005.

Peacocks on Shar-e Naw --
the kebab and ice cream parlor street.