The Mirror
, June 20, 2002
From Anton Antonowicz In Kabul

MILLIONS of people have watched this woman die. Yet none saw her face.

A Taliban gunman shot Zarmeena three times.
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Only a handful of people know the real story which led to 35-year-old Zarmina being executed on the penalty spot in Kabul's Olympic Stadium in Afghanistan.

The image of this mother of five children being driven to her death in a Toyota pick-up for the crime of killing her husband shocked the world.

This anonymous woman being dragged across the pitch in front of 30,000 spectators and being made to kneel before the goalposts until the tall, thin Taliban rifleman blew out her brains.

The scene was recorded with a hidden video camera and smuggled into Pakistan by the brave women of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women from Afghanistan.

Later, it marked the opening scenes of Beneath the Veil, Channel 4's award-winning documentary of life inside Afghanistan under the fanatical Taliban.

Here was the truth of life in a nation wracked by 23 years of war yet largely ignored until that day.

When the Mirror first published photographs of Zarmina's death in June last year we were inundated by calls and letters from readers.

Few knew of real life under the regime which came to power in 1996. September 11 changed all that.

But one, simple question remained unanswered. One which obsessed me from the moment I first saw that secret footage in spring last year.

Dark heart of Afghanistan

THE secret pictures of Zarmina's death on a poorly-shot video captured the stark brutality of life beneath the veil - and shocked the world.

Since the Taliban fundamentalists swept to power in 1996 there had been many stories of the indignities and abuse of rights suffered by women.

Reports such as a ban on the high heels, lest the click of footsteps excited men, seemed too bizarre.

But our leaders claimed that the Taliban had brought some stability to a country ravaged by 20 years of war. But Zarmina's execution -shown in Channel 4's video Beneath the Veil- exposed that as a hollow lie. Here was barbarism. Here was man's inhumanity to women.

When RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, smuggled a camera into Kabul's Olympic Stadium, their intention was to expose the brutality and perversions of the Taliban.

Zarmina's death was committed by those fanatics, by barely-literate people from village madrassas, or holy schools, who knew nothing but the harshest writ of Islam, interpreted to fit their appetites.

For five years RAWA fought the Taliban in secret -secret schools for girls, secret beauty parlours, a secret life for thousands of females.

And there, on a video, were the last moments of a mother going to her death -an iconic image that at last made the world pay due and proper attention.

The Mirror (UK), June 19, 2002

If the claim that Zarmina had murdered her husband was true, what was the desperation, knowing the Taliban's brutality, which ultimately led her to her death?

And what, if anything, did it tell us about the life of women under the fanatics' yoke?

These were the questions which took me to Afghanistan. To a secret rendezvous. To a filthy prison. To a cemetery. To houses where doors slammed in my face. Where men with guns threatened to kill me if I continued asking questions.

FINALLY, last Friday, a thin airmail letter arrived on my desk, post-marked April 6.

It contained three pages of green biro notes ripped from a school exercise book, confirming details which myself and colleague Tom Newton Dunn discovered during two separate Afghan assignments.

It also held a tiny photograph, the size of a thumbnail, from a police file - the face of Zarmina, the woman beneath the veil.

The letter came from a young "fixer" I hired in Kabul. It followed a meeting I had arranged with a woman police inspector who had promised that somehow she would ensure Zarmina's real story was told. Rana Sayeed works at the central police station in Kabul. It was sheer chance that we first found her on a rain-lashed day in late February standing at the entrance to the women's jail.

Rana, a mother in her late 40s, appeared different from most Afghan women. She did not wear a burka. Her manner was loud and confident.

She spoke of her training as a detective and told how she was sent to Moscow by Afghanistan's former Soviet puppet regime.

Rana said she had been a police officer for some 20 years. "Even the Taliban needed some women to apply law and order," she said, suddenly lowering and shaking her head. "Even the Taliban..."

She took us across the mud-caked compound into the charred basement of the police HQ.

The room held two desks and one old typewriter. The air was still heavy with the stench of smoke from hundreds of fires the Taliban started in Kabul before they fled.

She asked us to wait until her boss gave her clearance. When eventually the newly-appointed chief of Kabul's police told her to give us every assistance, she began.

"At last Zarmina's story can be told," she said. "It is the story of one woman. But it is also the story of Afghan women under the Taliban, under brutes who turned our country into a zoo and our women into dogs.

"I thought Zarmina would die when they brought her here. They beat her for two days with steel cables until she confessed.

"But she was a tough one. As she lay on the floor of the cell, she pointed to her one-year-old twins - the girl Silsila and the boy Jawad - and said she would fight for life, fight as the mother of these babies.

"There were other children. Zarmina had a son Hawad, who was 11, and two beautiful daughters Shaista, 14, and Najeba just 16.

"It was her love for all of them which drove her to do what she did. The tragedy is that it made life a thousand times worse for them."

Zarmina, from northern Kabul, was married at 16. It was an arranged union but blossomed into love.

She was an attractive, feisty woman. Her Pashtun husband, Alauddin Khwazak, from the village of Paghman an hour's drive away, was a policeman who also owned a small general store.

It was a marriage which flowered in the face of war and seemed at first to survive the violence in Kabul.

But almost imperceptibly, perhaps inevitably, the relationship began to fall apart. Relentless bloodshed changed everyone. And it destroyed Zarmina's husband.

The bombings, mass rapes, and murders brutalised Khwazak's mind, infecting it with an insidious poison.

A NEIGHBOUR told me: "He had been a mild man but slowly he turned into a monster. Perhaps, as a policeman, he had seen too much.

"He'd rage. He became violent. He was mad with jealousy, convinced that Zarmina was seeing other men. It was rubbish. But his head was wrapped in madness."

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in September, 1996, they effectively handed Khwazak a licence for that madness.

For these fundamentalist "students" from the south, Kabul was Satan's playground. A place where women were allowed to wear miniskirts and attend high school and university. A world of sin.

Women had no rights in Taliban Afghanistan. They existed only to obey.

They were drones to bear children, cook and satisfy men. They were lashed for their high heels, had their fingertips amputated for revealing varnish and and were stoned to death for prostitution.

Two women charged with adultery were hanged from a crane. A boy of 10 was given a gun to shoot his father's killer and a girl of seven whipped for wearing white shoes.

Girls were forbidden to attend school and summary justice wrapped in a medieval robe was the creed. Ruthless in pursuit of purity and perfect proof that no crime is too awful if justified by religious belief.

Khwazak's moods matched the new doctrine. His brother, a dour and unforgiving man, hailed the Taliban's fundamentalism and fed his sibling's fevered brain.

Rana said: "Khwazak beat his wife every night. He abused her and her elder daughters. I don't know if there was sexual abuse, but it was something Zarmina could no longer bear. So she plotted with Najeba to kill him. And finally they did it."

The murder was carried out early one summer night five years ago.

Some say Zarmina put opium in Khwazak's food. Rana says she laced his meal with sleeping pills. As he fell into a drugged sleep Zarmina woke her daughter.

Rana said: "She told me that there, at the final moment, she couldn't do it."

It was Najeba who took the 10lb mason's hammer and killed her father with one blow to the head.

Rana said: "They ran from the house screaming that robbers had broken in and attacked Khwazak. They said the men were 'shadows in the night'.

"Some believed them, others weren't so sure. Zarmina's brother-in-law was the first to accuse and called the Taliban.

"They never found the hammer, but they got their confession. That was all that mattered.

"Zarmina said she was the murderer. That she acted alone. She stuck to that story all the time she was tortured. It was only two years later when she knew me well that she admitted the truth. And I wasn't going to tell anyone."

ZARMINA was taken to the central jail and held there with her twins for nearly three years.

Sometimes her mother would come with food. But she condemned her daughter for bringing shame on all of them and said she hated her.

She told Zarmina other women in jail would kill her. Yet it was those prisoners who helped keep her and her children alive.

Rana went on: "They'd give them scraps. I gave her a few blankets. Somehow she stayed alive.

"She was a brave woman and fought desperately against her fears. She told the Taliban she was a mother and that what she'd done was for her children."

Rana said: "She asked what would happen to her children without a mother? She pleaded with them to lash her and let her go to tend her precious kids.

"She had dreams in which her husband appeared. Then she said she knew she would die."

Zarmina's elder girls and son were given to her brother-in-law, according to tradition.

He was Taliban and demanded blood law refusing to let her escape death. Then, two months before the execution, he told Zarmina's mother he had sold Najeba and Shaista into sex slavery.

"That nearly killed Zarmina," said Rana. "Everything she'd done was for her children. Now it had taken her girls to a living hell.

"The brother-in-law even made sure she knew the price, 600,000 Pakistani rupees for Najeba and 300,000 for Shaista. Sold to a man from Khost."

Khost, seven hours south east of Kabul on the Pakistani border, is a name which echoes loud.

The city was a Taliban stronghold. The place where al-Qaeda had its main training camp and the tunnels from which Osama bin Laden issued his fatwa to kill Americans and their allies.

"Zarmina beat herself, smashed her head against the jail wall," said Rana. "Of course her daughters were sold to Taliban, but who? To Afghans? To fanatics? To bin Laden? She knew she'd never see them again."

Then, on November 15, 1999, the radio announced there would be an execution in two days time.

Zarmina knew nothing of this. She had spent nearly three years in jail and knew there would be punishment. But still she convinced herself they would not kill a mother.

EVEN when the guards came for her she said she expected to face 100 lashes, but no more.

She put on three dresses - two borrowed - underneath her burka, hoping they would soften the blows.

Rana said: "I was ordered to accompany her with two women police officers.

"We climbed into the pick-up with her and prayed together. I couldn't stand it. I left before the truck entered the stadium.

'And I'll tell you that after what happened next, those two colleagues never worked again. One had a nervous breakdown. The other is plagued by nightmares to this day." As the stadium crowd settled, an announcer described what was to happen: "Zarmina, daughter of Ghulam Hasnat, is to be executed for killing her husband with a hammer."

He falsely said the murder happened "five months ago". But the truth would not have fitted the Taliban creed of swift justice.

The reality was that her execution was delayed until a premium price was haggled and paid for her virgin daughters.

The video takes over. It first shows the Toyota twice circling the pitch, the driver parading his passenger before the spectators.

Zarmina, flanked by her two female escorts, sees little. Surgeons in masks stand to one side, ready for amputations which will follow the main event.

The next clip shows the two women guards escorting Zarmina to the goal area. She is told to sit. For the first time, the crowd of men, women and children falls silent. Slowly a tall Taliban steps forward. Zarmina tries to crawl away. What is not shown is the first shot.

The executioner's hands are shaking. The cries from the crowd to spare Zarmina unnerve him. Officials refuse all pleas for clemency. They claimed there were too many in the crowd who wanted to see death.

The first shot creases Zarmina's hair telling her at last what her fate would be. Her precious children brought for the spectacle can only stand and stare.

Zarmina cries out. She says she cannot sit or kneel without falling. "Someone take my arms," she pleads.

Her last request went unanswered. The gunman aimed his Kalashnikov again. And Zarmina was dead from a single 7.62mm bullet. The executioner turned away, blood law sated. He was Zarmina's brother-in-law. The man who sold her precious girls. The man who, Rana is sure, escaped to Pakistan with so many others. A man with money in his pocket.

ZARMINA'S body was taken to the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital.

Her body lay unclaimed in the mortuary for 20 days. Her mother, Shah Sultan, refused any responsibility, telling Rana: "She brought shame. She deserved what she got. She is not even a memory to me."

Zarmina was buried in an unmarked grave 300 yards from her unforgiving mother's home.

Rana took me to the cemetery in Khair Khana, in District 11, north Kabul. She stayed in the car while I tried to find the grave.

She said it was safer that way. That locals might object to her being in the company of foreign men. The gravediggers denied any knowledge of the executed woman. One man produced a gun and told myself and photographer Phil Spencer we had no business there.

Then a young fellow, perhaps 20 and dressed in a red blazer, drew up on his bike. "I know what you are looking for," he said.

"Everyone knows about Zarmina. They don't want trouble. They don't want reminding. But they are ashamed of what happened to that woman and her girls."

People know when a wrong has been done. But there was palpable fear that Afghanistan's turmoil would once again overwhelm them.

That the Taliban were all around. That they would return and exact vengeance upon anyone who might now question their actions.

The cyclist ignored those fears. He led us through the cemetery. A stark moonscape of a place. So little colour. So much misery. So many newly dead. Just scores of the thousands who died young in an incessant war.

My guide pointed out a mound with two stones facing each other flat on. The positioning meant it was a woman's grave.

But there was nothing else to determine whose it was. Just the anger of the gunman and other armed men nearby, the embarrassed faces of the gravediggers and the cyclist pointing and saying "This is Zarmina".

He refused my offer of money, saying "It is time Zarmina's story was told." And of course there are so many of these stories to be told.

"There were so many nightmares here," Rana said as we drove to The Herat, Kabul's best restaurant. The place is little better than a greasy spoon. But Rana would not enter.

"It's OK. You go, you sit. Just ask them to bring me some food in the car." That is how it still is in Afghanistan. The Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies may be put to rout but still women's rights are hardly a footnote on the agenda.

WE speak to a beggar woman by the restaurant door. She has three children all under five. Her husband is dead.

She tells me life should be better now. She receives about 50p a day.

She says all this through her burka. A Pushtun barges through the crowd, bends over her and strikes her head. "Get lost, you whore-bitch!" he shouts. And the woman scrambles away with her children.

I ask Bashir, our "fixer", why he did that. Was he related to the woman? "No. He's just a Taliban type. Any woman is ripe for a beating. They don't need an excuse."

We ate with Rana in the car. She said: "I remember another stadium execution where the man had 10 bullets in his body. His victim's family took turns to shoot him.

"I remember a woman the Taliban accused of having a walkie-talkie. There were 16 of them beating her with cable wires until she pissed blood. All the time they made sure her head and face were covered so they should not be tempted by her looks.

"I tell you I thank God for September 11. Not for the innocent deaths. But, without that day, we'd still be treated like animals.

"The whole place was run by Pakistanis and Arabs. No one dared say anything against them.

"It was the same the day Zarmina died. Everyone knew she did not deserve to die. But nobody said anything. Nobody dared."

Now some do dare to speak. Rana and Zarmina's neighbours tell me the twins, now six, and their brother Hawad,16, have been cast adrift.

Unwanted by their fleeing uncle. Unacknowledged by their grandmother. They beg, they rag-pick at the local dumps. But nothing has been seen of Najeba and Shaista.

Five children all lost because of a mother's desperation to give them a better life. "Yes," Rana repeated, "Zarmina's story must be told."

So, with that photograph arriving on my desk last week, it has been told. It cannot be the whole truth but from what we have found and checked, it is nothing but the truth.

The story of a woman beneath veils of violence, madness and terrible sadness. A woman so many saw die. But never knew how she had lived.


Click on the link to access the article on The Mirror web site to view the following photos:

- LETTER: Written in green biro on school notepaper, it confirmed the awful story and provided a photo

- HELLISH: Zarmina's cell in Kabul's filthy women's prison. It was here that she was beaten with steel cables for two days until she confessed

- NIGHTMARE: A corridor in Kabul's women's prison

- PLEDGE: Police Inspector Rana Sayeed

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