Afghanistan: land of widows

About the author
Caroline Moorehead is a biographer and journalist. She wrote a fortnightly openDemocracy column telling stories of refugees and asylum-seekers between May 2002 and December 2003.

Anja, Fatima, and Salima come from the same village in the highlands of the Hindu Kush, not far from Bamiyan and its shattered Buddhist statues. They have known each other for a long time. Anja, who is Fatima’s mother-in-law, is in her early 60s, while the two younger women are barely in their 30s. All three look considerably older. Fatima’s face is deeply lined; Salima is very thin and listless.

All the women are widows, their husbands killed at different times in the fighting between the mujahideen and the Taliban, when the Taliban came to their valley and laid waste to their homes and fields. Together with nine children under the age of 15, they share two rooms in the old centre of Kabul, in an area of bombed and derelict houses. Around them refugees from other parts of the country, and returnees from exile abroad, perch in squalor and destitution. The smell of faeces and rubbish is overpowering.

Anja and Fatima share one room with Fatima’s two young daughters. On one wall, high up in the style of Afghan pictures, hangs a single photograph of a young, scholarly-looking man, in spectacles and city clothes. Though there is very little light, the picture stands out, for there is nothing else in the room, beyond a neat pile of mats and quilts in one corner, and two burqas hanging on a peg.

“That is my son,” says Anja. “He was called Hussein. When the Taliban attacked the mujahideen in our village, he was caught in the crossfire. There was a bullet in his neck and another in his kidneys. He had been in Iran as a refugee, but we were all here in Kabul, because we couldn’t afford to get to Iran, and he had gone back to the village to see what the situation was. We hadn’t seen him for many months”.

The new poor

Anja, Fatima and Salima are neither technically refugees nor returnees. They are internally-displaced people (IDPs in the official language of humanitarian work), made homeless by the years of civil war. Now, as widows with no living male relations to help them, they are among the most destitute people in the new Afghanistan. They were too poor to make the journey into exile during the civil war, and are thus not eligible now for the benefits that have gone and continue to go to the refugees who were able to make it across Afghanistan’s borders into Iran and Pakistan during the Soviet (1979-1989), mujahideen (1989-1996) and Taliban (1996-2001) years.

They are also too poor to go home to their valley, where (as women alone with small children) they do not feel able to reclaim the lands that were once theirs. In any case, their houses have been destroyed in the fighting, their fields have long since been claimed by others, and they are rightly sceptical that they would receive any of the international help promised by foreign donors to people going home.

Salima’s husband, Mustafa, was the first to die. In 1998, when the Taliban attacked their village, the family was preparing to flee to safety with other villagers when a stray bullet caught him as he was carrying a first load of belongings out of their house. “There was no hospital to take him to,” says Salima. “I simply held him in my arms and he died. We just sat there staring at him, because we couldn’t believe it: one moment he was alive, and then he was dead.”

The other villagers left after the attack; Salima and her seven children stayed behind to bury Mustafa, and thus were forced to make the journey to safety alone. “We were the last to leave. The village was deserted. It took us a week to get to Kabul, sleeping out in the mountains. I had to carry my youngest child on my back. We left behind us a good and happy life. We were all farmers, and we grew potatoes, barley, beans, wheat, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes. We had apple and apricot trees. We managed well. The children were at school.”

When Salima and her children arrived in Kabul, she found work doing washing for the more prosperous families, and began spinning and sewing quilts, skills she had used for the family at home. She found a room in the same building as Anja and Fatima. “Kabul was very empty then, and there was no landlord. We simply moved in, cleaned it up a bit and lived here. But when the Americans came and the landlord came back, he told us that we would have to pay $10 a month for each room; now I wonder every month how to pay the rent.”

Salima’s rent buys her a single room, some five metres square, which she shares with her seven children. It has a cement floor, a wooden ceiling and a window with glass. This looks out over a now derelict courtyard, which must once have been airy and pleasant but is now little more than rubble. Here they have the use of an open latrine and a small extra area used as a kitchen.

Salima’s eldest son, who is 14, sells soap and shampoo in the bazaar, but in recent months demands by police for bribes has reduced his profit to nothing. Apart from the little Salima makes from her sewing, the family has no income. I asked her what they eat. ”For breakfast and lunch, we have bread, and sometimes a little tea. For dinner, I cook potatoes and sometimes the cheapest rice. Sometimes I have to buy the food already cooked because it is very hard to find fuel. The children search for pieces of paper or cardboard, or old shoes, to use as fuel”.At night, a very small kerosene lamp gives them a few hours of light.

The children are healthy, say the three women, and some of them at least are now going to school. The women themselves do not look well. Anja has constant toothache in her few remaining teeth, and Fatima suffers from recurrent bouts of untreated malaria. They think constantly about returning to their village, where they were once prosperous and safe, but fear that they would never now manage to make enough to stay alive.

“Our houses are no longer standing,” they stay. “Even the rafters have gone, stolen for firewood during Taliban times. Without men, we cannot reclaim our fields. At least in Kabul we make a little money sewing.” Anja and Fatima cry when they talk about Hussein, saying that he would have looked after them, and that they had pinned all their hopes on him. “If he had lived”, they say, “we would have gone home. We would have been all right.”

While the Taliban were still in power, Fatima travelled back to the village, to see if she could find Hussein’s grave. But she found that they were still fighting in the neighbourhood and had to begin the return journey to Kabul without seeing where he was buried. She has not been back since.

Land of the displaced

Afghanistan has become a country of displacement, of refugees who have returned after long periods of exile abroad. Many drift from one end of the land to the other, in search of safety or food. It is estimated that half the population no longer lives in the place they once saw as home. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), other UN agencies and other foreign non-governmental organisations are active locally in great numbers, investing money and human resources into the country. But although these agencies are trying to offer the internally displaced the same help they provide for returnees from abroad, the situation of the IDPs is growing ever more desperate.

A recent mission to Afghanistan put their numbers at something over 300,000, but most informed observers believe that the figure is far higher. As I was leaving the house of the three widows, I asked the Afghan woman who had taken me there whether she felt that they faced greater hardships than the families who had had the resources to become ‘true’ refugees during the years of fighting, in exile in other countries.

“Without doubt,” she replied. ”There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of women just like Anja and Fatima and Salima, in cities all over the country. They have lost everything – husbands, lands, homes. They are entitled to nothing and they have nothing. What little money they manage to earn all goes into food for the children. It is hard to see how they will survive.”