By Christina Prejean
What do human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, justice, freedom of religion and freedom of speech have in common? They are all nonexistent in Afghanistan. In my six months here, I’ve witnessed the aftermath of the Taliban rule, which forced Islam on people, murdered women for going to school or not wearing a burqa, and stoned people for speaking their mind.
San Diego Union Tribune, May 13, 2011: According to the CIA World Factbook, only 12.6 percent of women over the age of 15 can read and write. This is compared to 43.1 percent for the male population. It is not because the women here don’t want to be literate but because education was forbidden for them for nearly a decade. They were shot or stoned and severely persecuted for going to school, and even today, although the Taliban is no longer in rule, there are many Taliban sympathizers who try to control what women can and cannot do. (Photo: http://bpc-world.co.uk/2011/03/bbc-charity-committed-to-promoting-uk-government-propaganda-in-afghanistan/)
Six months living in Afghanistan has made me see and hear about things I could have never imagined. Yes, I’ve seen poverty before. I’ve traveled to and lived in poverty-stricken areas in Latin America, but this country is beyond that. Afghanistan not only is subject to abject poverty, but the government and culture also severely control the lives of human beings and limit them in ways that blow my mind. There are movie theaters here, but only for men. A woman has no business there, and should be at home serving her husband, according to the rules of this society. There are jobs, but owners openly advertise that they do not hire women, people of other races or non-Muslims.
I’m talking about today, in the year 2011.
According to the CIA World Factbook, only 12.6 percent of women over the age of 15 can read and write. This is compared to 43.1 percent for the male population. It is not because the women here don’t want to be literate but because education was forbidden for them for nearly a decade. They were shot or stoned and severely persecuted for going to school, and even today, although the Taliban is no longer in rule, there are many Taliban sympathizers who try to control what women can and cannot do.
In these past few weeks, I’ve been to two refugee camps. People living in dirt caves, ripped tents, with barefoot, naked babies crying, have been sights I will never forget. One day, while delivering blankets, food and clothing to the people of one of the refugee camps, which was located in a former mine field, I was pulled into the home of one woman, who began talking to me in Dari, crying, shaking and showing me scabs and marks on both her body and her baby’s. Not knowing what she was saying, I called Sweeda, who is fluent in English and Dari, who translated for me over the phone.
The woman was only 20 and had two children. Her husband was in Pakistan and she was eight months pregnant. The scab on her face was some form of leprosy because she was not born in a hospital and given proper shots at birth. Her two children had it as well, as she gave birth to them on the dirt floor of her home we were standing in. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she said she knew that her third baby would not be born in a hospital either. Soon, more women came. Sweeda stayed on the phone to translate.
They all had similar stories. One woman lifted up her shirt and showed me a scar on her stomach. They brought me papers, which Sweeda explained were hospital papers diagnosing their children with sicknesses and diseases. But the women did not have the money to buy medicine for them. They said they were so happy to see me and that I had come to hear them, as no other woman had ever been there before to listen and try to help. They wouldn’t dare to speak to a male, let alone share these stories. Still, I felt helpless, with my limited Dari and no healing medicine.
“Moving out, we’ve already been here over an hour,” I heard in my earpiece over the radio. I did not want to leave. I wanted to take them with me, to a hospital, to somewhere safe. But I couldn’t. After hugs and the traditional Afghan three-kiss goodbyes, I walked back to the vehicle, deeply saddened.
When I got back to the base, I called Sweeda and we agreed to try to get those women a place in the bazaar, to sell handcrafted goods and start making money on their own for their children.
The next morning, April 18, I went with a group to a second refugee camp. After a few minutes of handing out bags of food and clothing, American soldiers standing near me announced they just received a call that a suicide bomber blew up the Ministry of Defense and we were not to return to our base until further notice. My heart sank. I’ve been to the ministry several times on the job, and have driven by it countless times. It’s just a short walk from my base, and is considered a safe area. “If that’s not safe anymore, what is?” I thought.
We went from the refugee camp straight to another American base, a safe haven as our base was still not cleared for us to enter. Almost five hours passed before we received clearance. On the drive back, we passed by the Kabul Olympic Stadium. Although I had driven by it frequently, on this day it looked strangely familiar. Then it hit me that this was the same Olympic Stadium I had seen on TV years ago. The news had shown a woman in a blue burqa, a mother of seven, shot dead in the back of her head by a Taliban soldier. It was November 1999. Thousands watched, many cheered. She was accused of killing her husband, who she said had sexually, physically and psychologically abused her and her children for years. Divorce was not an option. She could no longer take it.
The Taliban used this stadium as a place to hang, whip, shoot, amputate, behead, beat and stone to death “criminals.” The victims were brought here as punishment for playing soccer instead of praying at a mosque, leaving abusive husbands, watching forbidden movies such as “Titanic,” not wearing a burqa or other acts.
Public cruelty does not occur in the stadium anymore, but it still exists in Afghanistan. A sailor who works for me told me that a few weeks ago, after being asked by an Afghan police officer if he were married, and replying that he was divorced, he was questioned as to why. He said it was because his wife no longer wanted to be married. The Afghan police then asked him why he had not killed her yet.
This kind of conduct still occurs today. Human rights are violated and nothing is being done.
Prejean, a graduate of Vista High School, is a first lieutenant in the Air Force, stationed in Afghanistan. This is the sixth of an occasional series of letters to readers back home.