Afghanistan war leaves a gen­er­a­tion of wi­d­ows

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - News - BY MUJIB MASHAL AND FA­TIMA FAIZI

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.

KIANA HAYERI NYT

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.

KIANA HAYERI NYT

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.

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