Afghanistan war leaves a generation of widows
As evening takes over Kabul, daylight fading to gray, 3-year-old Benyamin senses that his father should be coming home from work about now.
But it’s been months since a bombing killed his “Aba,” Sabawoon Kakar, and eight other Afghan journalists. Benyamin cries and nags his mother, Mashal Sadat Kakar: Where is Aba? When is Aba coming home?
How do you explain death to a 3-year-old? Kakar, her baby, Sarfarz, in her arms, tries to distract him with toys. But when Benyamin keeps crying, she takes him to the balcony and points to the brightest star shining through Kabul’s polluted sky.
“Aba is there,” she says. The war in Afghanistan is disproportionately killing young men, and it is leaving behind a generation defined by that loss. Children like Benyamin will have only early memories of their fathers, and the deaths will shape their lives even as true recollections fade. Babies like Sarfarz will have even less, with death taking fathers they will never know.
Carrying it all are the tens of thousands of widows the war has created since 2001. Like Kakar, they are left to raise families in a country with a dearth of economic opportunity and plagued by a war that kills 50 people a day.
And more, the women are made painfully aware that their society sees them as possessions. A new widow often must rely completely on her husband’s family, which is likely to demand that she marry the next available brother or cousin. The women usually have little say, though some try to resist.
Over months this year, as Afghanistan’s long war took an even deadlier turn, we followed several young women making the cruel transition to widow- hood.
Overnight, their lives became a struggle that deprived them of even the chance to mourn. For a couple of them, including Kakar, their grief was punctuated by the pain of childbirth, bringing babies into a world consumed by despair. Reminders of their lost loves became their anchors in a newly unstable world.
Rahila Shams was also widowed – at age 22, six months pregnant with her second daughter. Her husband, Ali Dost Shams, a district governor, was killed in a Taliban raid in April. When her daughter was born, the family named her Shamsia, after the father she will never meet.
“I lost my love, my friend, and the father of my two daughters. Everyone says, ‘Stay strong,’ but no one says how,” Shams said. “I feel everything is finished. But I’m trying to stay strong because I promised him that I’d look after our daughters.”
LOVE AND LOSS
Each of the women said she had found love in marriage, even if it took time in a culture where arranged matches remain the rule.
Rahila was in the ninth grade in Malistan District, southwest of Kabul, when Ali Shams, a distant relative, saw her at a wedding and sent his family to ask for her hand. She was half his age but found him handsome, she said, and he had been well on track for a government career.
“There wasn’t any beauty salon in our village,” Shams recalled. “It was a simple wedding party – I think about 1,000 people – simple and lovely.”
The couple moved to Kabul, where she enrolled in nursing school. Ali Shams became a district governor in Ghazni province and was away from home for long periods. They had their first child, Sofia, four years into the marriage, which quickly was forged into a partnership. But Shams now cannot help feeling that much of it was preparing her for the inevitability of a life on her own.
For Sabawoon and Mashal Kakar, their marriage was a love match from the start.
The two met while taking evening law classes. Both were young professionals with day jobs: Mashal worked for an aid organization, and Sabawoon as a radio journalist. Sabawoon had moved to Kabul from Helmand province, the battlefield area where his family still lives. Their relationship blossomed over a year spent chatting on the phone and sneaking out of their offices for quiet lunch dates.
After their families made their engagement official, the couple combined their savings – she was making more than he was – to buy an apartment. They decorated it piece by piece before they married.
“We invited only 300 people to the wedding,” she said. “It was enough for both of us. He was a good man and loved me a lot, and I love him, too – forever and for the rest of my life.”
Their son Benyamin added joy to the fulfilling life they were building together.
Kakar was at her desk at work the morning of April 30 when she got a message alerting her to an explosion in the Shashdarak neighborhood, where Ali Kakar’s office was.
“When I called him, he picked up his phone and said, ‘Mashal jan, I am dying,’” Kakar said. “I didn’t know what to tell him. I said, ‘Stay strong, I am coming.’ ”
Eight months pregnant, she arrived at the hospital, where he died of his wounds.
STRUGGLE FOR HOPE
In the months after their husbands were killed, the young widows were not only grappling with grief and their children’s confusion, but also dreading the inevitability of being passed along within their husbands’ families.
Kakar’s in-laws called her and asked her to join them in Helmand – for a break, they said. She politely turned them down. They grew more blunt, she said, arguing it was not good for a young woman and her two children to be in Kabul on their own.
“I told them I’m an educated woman and I can handle my life,” Kakar said.
She went back to work. But all along she had an eye on an exit. The everyday vulnerability of being a young, single woman in Afghanistan furthered her resolve to leave the country.
Sofia Shams, 2, plays at her spot in the house beneath photos of her father, who was killed by the Taliban earlier on her birthday, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 26.
Just months after her husband was killed, Rahila Shams was expecting another child and lay in the early stages of labor with their daughter, Sofia, center, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 3.