Today was a first.
Saying goodbye to the women in prison in Kandahar, I felt hot tears welling up in my eyes. Glad for the cover of darkness that had fallen while we were talking with the women, I turned from the last woman dressed in vibrant purple who was still holding my hand, thanking me for coming to talk with them, as the tears coursed tracks down my cheeks.
I have yet to cry in Afghanistan. I have visited four different prisons multiple times, meeting with the women and their children that are spending years in jail for crimes they did not commit. Women who are in jail because a male family member raped them and the family had to save honor, and thus accused her of adultery.
I have met with streetchildren that walk an hour to and from schools, selling gum and maps in the streets, trying to avoid kidnappers that roam Kabul streets. I have sat with families that have needlessly lost their wives, mothers, and daughters, because they died during childbirth when they wouldn’t take them to a male doctor five minutes down the road. I heard stories of acid attacks on young girls walking to school, political leaders assassinated outside their family home, and women beaten to death trying to cast their vote.
All of the stories worth shedding a tear for.
Yet I never have.
All the stories move me, and I am truly touched by the heartache and injustice. Yet I am resolute in finding solutions to help, understanding that there are a million of these stories all over the world.
Tonight was different. We walked through the prison gate into a large courtyard to seeing children swinging on some playground equipment. Women scurried back to cover their heads. We slowly went over and asked them their names. My limited Dari was of no use, as they all spoke Pashto, and I felt frustrated by not being able to convey the basic niceties. Luckily they were okay with my male translator joining us and we soon were chatting away animatedly.
They clustered around, kids pulling at skirts or running around in the dusk. They showed me their rooms and seemed quite willing to talk opening in front of the commander. The first woman I interviewed was dressed in vibrant purple. She talked openly of the accusations against her. She was in the prison, accused of killing the son of her husband’s other wife. He blamed her, which she denies, and who is to really know what happened. She is the fifth wife of her husband. He is 65 and she is 20, they have been married for 4 years. So when she was 16 she was married off as the fifth wife of a 61 year old man. The first three wives are dead. All killed by his harsh beatings. She shyly pulled up her sleeves and showed us multiple slashed scars and said they continue all over her body from the beatings he gives with a knife.
Another woman we speak with has four daughters. She was married for ten years, then her husband moved to England for eight years and she divorced him. Now her daughters are educated, the eldest a teacher, the youngest only seven years old and he is insisting that they be sent to live with him in England. She refused, saying they were divorced, and she had raised these girls on her own for over eight years. The reason is unclear why she would be sent to jail, but sure enough there she is. Awaiting her fate for an unknown crime so that her ex husband can take her daughters away.
It goes on and on. Heartbreaking, and unfortunately typical of many of the stories I’ve heard before.
I asked my translator to please tell these women I wish them all the best and that my heart is with them. Then I clasp their hands in both of mine and thank them in Dari, knowing they will understand. One of them in a beautiful flowered scarf, presses a silvery jeweled hair barrette into my hand. She has taken it from her own hair to give to me. I smile and try to refuse, not wanting to take anything from these women, but she insists. Then the group turns me around and takes the rubber band out of my ponytail, a comb materializes, one of the women smooths my hair and clips it neatly with the silver barrette. They hand me back my simple rubberband while laughing gently and smiling.
That’s what did it. I felt the hot liquid in the back of my eyes and smile broadly as the one with the barrette kissed me on the cheek. I turned sadly to leave with the commander and turned once to wave and say goodbye again. My attempts to verbally convey my true feelings felt inadequate. At the door, the woman in purple was there. She clasped my hand tightly, speaking and not letting go. Thanking me for taking the time to visit them, for listening, and for giving them a chance to talk and share. I held her hand for as long as she let me, squeezing lightly, hoping she could feel how much I was feeling for her.