Tatjana Ljubić and Joseph Stedul
I stayed with an American soldier in a control tower in the military base in Kandahar.
We talked. I explained to him that I was writing a book about Afghan women. We exchanged a number of stories. During the conversation, his eyes browsed around the landscape which was in front of us. In one moment there was silence. He lit a cigarette and then raised his hand, pointing at something in the distance.
Photographer Lana Slezic documented the life of Afghan women: forced marriage, abuse, maltreatment and suicide.
- Look there.
It took me a few moments to see them.
- A man and his wife are walking in the field there. Do you see them?
Two dots, green and brown slowly take the form of people.
- I see them!
He told me to watch them for a while. I listened.
They were walking along the field, the man in front, the wife a few steps behind him. Behind them were a bunch of sheep were following them. They were probably taking them to graze somewhere. They moved slowly, synchronizing their steps, at a moment melting into the scenery. Suddenly, the man turns around and without reason or explanation, starts hitting his wife with his fists until she falls down. She remained on the floor motionless, without resistance in the dirt. After a minute, as long as he let her lie there, the husband helped her up, supported her with his arm, and continued to walk, this time a bit slower.
It looked like a real, silent, horror film. I looked at the soldier in disbelief.
- It happens all the time – he told me, and threw his cigarette down, putting it out with the tip of his boot.
Instead of a few weeks, she stayed in Afghanistan for two years
Lana Slezic is a Croatian of Canadian descent... She turned freelance, and soon got an assignment for a magazine to do a report on the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Instead of a few weeks, she stayed there for two years. For her work, she received the most prestigious world awards, including the World Press Photo and International Photography Award.
- I went to Afghanistan in March 2004, and I was with the Canadian soldiers for a few months. I was in their base, I followed them, and photographed them. In the end, I realized that I was in an unbelievable country, and that besides the army, I had not seen it. Because when you are with the army, you must do everything according to orders. You have rules, you can not move independently, you must always wear a bulletproof vest. So I did not want to go home.
The things that the media presented, was not reality
She did not know a lot about Afghanistan. She knew what the media presented: the harsh Taliban regime, the free country, the liberalization of women who no longer have to wear veils, a new constitution that guarantees equal rights for everyone… However, that was not the real picture.
Reality was totally different.
- Very little has changed. Even without the Taliban. The south provinces are the same.
Kabul is slightly more liberal. I was naïve, but I did not expect to see what I saw, and that was only the surface. After the first few missions, I could only say: O God… threy live in the dark ages, in the 15 or 16th century. Veils are deeply seeded in their culture.
When most women get married, and they get married quite young, aged 15-16, the family of the husband puts great pressure on them to cover the wife with a veil. Some women, as they said, wear it out of fear, or because they have to. Others say that they grew up with it and that it is a part of their life. Some women feel protected by the veils, because there is strong pressure on them to act a certain way. In public, on the streets, they should not talk with unknown men, or those she barely knows. This is why some of them feel that the veils are their defensive shield. Like a mask, so that nobody sees if they do something wrong.
Lana decided to stay and document their story in order to show the world the horrors the women in Afghanistan face every day. She also started to get projects from other magazines. She covered her head, from respect to other women. By entering their homes, she witnessed their beauty and honesty. However, not all women were ready to talk about this theme, they were living in the fear of their husbands and brothers. However, with the help of a translator, Lana managed to get close to many of them.
- The Afghan women that I met and talked to were full of warmth, approachable, and willing to talk about their lives. Without exceptions, wherever I went, I came across similar problems, family violence, forced marriages, despair and the wish to get away from it all. I did not have much contact with the men. When I photographed the women, in most cases, they were not present. They were mainly at work.
It can be said that the rule is, that during the day the men are always outside of the house, and the women are in it. I never left before eight in the morning, or after six at night.
Ministers are also victims of violence
The relations towards women do not differ much in various levels of society. Even women in high positions, often suffer from family violence. She met the minister for women’s affairs in the Afghan Cabinet, Dr. Habibu Sarabi. When she arrived at her office, the minister had a black eye.
- I visited her with a reporter that was doing a story. We entered her office, and I was supposed to photograph her. She has a bruise on her eye. The journalist asked her how she got the bruise, and I considered that to be a very brave question, I was surprised. She said that her baby hit her with a bottle. She would not admit anything else, but the reporter and I were convinced that her husband beat her. Violence happen on even higher levels. That what is seen in the office is totally different from that what happens at home. There is a huge amount of pressure to lie about it, to hide it, to not tell anyone, to endure it.
Because of the numerous wars that have taken the lives of many men, prostitution has become a job to survive. In such repressive surroundings, it is shocking that women do this, but out of despair, often they are left with no other choice.
- That was a shocking discovery. I could not even conceive that prostitution exists in Afghanistan. I photographed some women that did this for a living. Of course, hiding their identities.
Suicide by setting yourself on fire
As an escape from the despair in which they live, many women take their own lives. According to a survey carried out by the Afghan women's association, www.rawa.org, 60 to 80 percent of marriages were forced. More than half of Afghan women are married by the age of 16. As an escape from that sort of life, suicides are common, and setting themselves on fire, one of the most painful ways to die, is the most common. This is the story of one Afghan woman:
Fatima was twenty years old, and she had been married for some time. In marriage, and life in the family of the husband, she was constantly abused, beaten and humiliated. She could not take it anymore. She poured cooking oil on herself and lit a match. She stood before her husband, and threatened to kill herself. She thought that the threat would soften him slightly. In that moment, a strong wind blew through the house. Fatima was caught in flames. She fell to the floor, and he looked at her and said: "Die, you deserved it" and left. Somebody from his family heard Fatima's cries and put the fire out with a blanket. Fatima was taken to hospital with serious injuries. After 93 days of fighting, she survived and returned to her family, because her husband did not want to take her back.
Behind the closed doors of the Afghan women, these stories are not rare, nor the worst that can happen to them.
Afghan Health Minister: Around 700 children under the age of five die every day. Afghanistan is facing health disaster worse than the Tsunmai.
Lana remembers a girl who she met in an orphanage in Kandahar. She was one year old when her father died, the mother remarried, and the stepfather sold her to her future husband when she was only four years old, the husband being a six year old boy then. She spent seven years with her husband’s family. They constantly beat her, she was a slave to them. One day, her husband's father returned home and asked where his watch was. She did not know. He told her: "If you do not find it by tomorrow morning, I will kill you". The girl left the house that night. She was found by passers by, and taken to an orphanage. However, in Kandahar, there is only an orphanage for boys, and the hell that she went through there can be compared with those she lived through in her husband’s family. Lana tried to help her, by taking her to an orphanage for girls in Kabul. However, because the girl was not yet divorced, and she was only eleven years old, they did not let her. The story has a happy ending, the court granted her a divorce, and after a few months, the girl was relocated to Kabul.
Beating your wife means loving her
It was August 2005. I was driving from the orphanage. It was already dark. The city was quiet. The driver, a local who I did not know very well, started a conversation from the front seat. His English was surprisingly good. He asked me what I was doing in Kandahar, and I, not hesitating and without much detail, told him about the project. He asked me about what I thought about democracy in Afghanistan. I answered with a question: "Democracy will not arrive in Afghanistan soon?". "What about the women?", I asked. “Beating your wife means loving her", he said.
He was in his mid twenties
The war in Afghanistan was interesting for the media. The headlines were full of news from that country. When it was over, it left the centre of attention. The post conflict phase is often worse than that war itself.
- These photos have a message, and it is important for me that this collection of photos communicates, effects and inspires other people to learn and become informed of the horrors that the Afghan women face.
Every photo is shocking enough, but every one has a shaking story behind it, with which the women I met familiarized me.