In one girl's story, a test of women's rights in Afghanistan

In one girl's story, a test of women's rights in Afghanistan
Baghlan:  I went to find Sahar Gul.

Hers was not the kind of story I expected to find in my first week as a reporter in this war-ravaged country, where attacks and counterattacks by the insurgents and the United States-led alliance seem the more common narrative.

Afghan government officials say that Sahar Gul is 15, and that her husband's family in Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan tortured her and kept in a dirty basement bathroom with limited food and water for five months for refusing to go into prostitution.

Her suffering seemed a part of a nation where advances in human rights appear meager. And now as the alliance prepares to withdraw and the Taliban encroaches, the whole country seems to be holding its breath to see what happens next. For now, it was enough to know what would happen to this one little girl.

Sahar Gul, I learned, had been taken to a government hospital in central Kabul, only a mile or so from the New York Times bureau.

My translator and I drove out past the main military hospital, which was the target of a suicide bombing last May. Soldiers, blast walls and rolls of barbed wire now defend it like a garrison.

Further on, we passed two checkpoints where more guards with guns peered cold-eyed into our car. Even hospitals are targets for the Taliban's new insurgency in Afghanistan.

The Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, known locally as WAK, is a four-story white building with balconies in a sunny compound. It bears a large portrait of its namesake, the Afghan hero of the First Anglo-Afghan War who, as my Afghan translator gleefully reminded me, killed the senior British envoy, Sir William Hay Macnaghten.

Inside, the hospital corridors were clean but frayed and crowded - the product of a society whose resources have been drained by decades of conflict. Near the door, two men lay on beds, one with his leg in a cast, another not dead but with a blanket over his head. Beside them, patients and their families waited on rows of blue plastic seats. An old woman held up a drip leading into her arm. Trollies bearing big kettles of rice were wheeled by. Pink or blue Croc shoes seemed to be the favored footwear of the doctors.

Mirwais Ayoubi, a tall, thick-set man who is the hospital director's secretary, shook his head at us.

"No one can see Sahar Gul," he said. "Too many people have come to see her. She has psychological problems. She is hitting herself. "

I told him that we didn't want to talk to Sahar Gul if it would upset her. We just wanted to tell her story, and we had a signed permission letter from the Public Health Ministry.

Mr. Ayoubi disappeared into the director's office behind a big, frosted-glass wall, through which the afternoon sun was shining. But when he returned, he furrowed his brow and said the same thing. "You can't see Sahar Gul."

Outside, I talked to people who were milling around. Sahar Gul's story was just one among many. A student, Noor Habib, 22, with a scarf over his head to protect against the cold, was waiting to go inside to visit his brother who had hepatitis. Another brother, he told us, was a soldier in the Afghan army, but he had been killed in the fighting against insurgents.

The hospital was "so-so," he said. "The doctors sometimes are good and let you visit the patients, but the food is not good. Beans, milk, egg, rice."

Behind us, three cars and a police jeep lined up the concrete ramp to the door to deliver more huddled-over patients. Another man, Safiullah Ahmadi, 32, was crouching near a barbed wire fence close to the hospital mosque. His mother was inside with an appendix problem, he said. He was unemployed. He told me that while the government hospital was free, you always ended up paying something, a mark-up, especially for the drugs they prescribed. "They ask you to go to a special drug store they know, and you have to pay a little more," he said.

When I arrived back at the Times's bureau, I found that the Associated Press had also visited the hospital - and had more luck interviewing Sahar Gul.

When I was reporting for the business desk, being doggedly persistent - and even pushy - to get access to a protected source was a feature of normal life. But I am new to reporting in Afghanistan, and I have found myself treading lightly around a culture to which I'm not yet accustomed. But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past 'no.' Her story was too important.

The next day, Sunday, we returned to Wazir Akbhar Khan. And this time, I wouldn't be turned away.

Sayad Hassan, a white-bearded man who was in charge of the nurses, led us up the tiled stairwell to Sahar Gul's room.

I found a small girl, cringing beneath a comforter. Her face was cut and scratched, her left eye bruised and half closed. Her forearm was withered and thin. Her hair was a dark tangle beneath a brown headscarf.

An old woman, who said she was her aunt, held a carton of mango juice as the girl turned her head on the pillow and drank through a straw. A second woman there said she was from the government's human rights commission.

I knelt down beside her bed and asked how she was feeling. Her voice was soft and meandering.

"I would like bread," she said.

Her doctor, Feriba Omarzada, a plump woman in a white coat and headscarf, came into the room.

"She only eats bread now," Dr. Omarzada said. "That is all they fed her."

Sahar Gul rubbed her eye repeatedly. She still seemed dazed, barely comprehending that I was there.

"She has some headaches," the doctor said. "She had stress but her fever is O.K." She spoke to the girl: "Put your legs straight. Move your legs. They should see you can do these things."

X-ray pictures lay on the side table and two bouquets of flowers from well-wishers. There were plans to take the girl to India for treatment, but her doctor said she was well enough to now stay in Kabul.

Sahar Gul, from Badakhshan Province in the far northwest, left home when her brother was married and his wife did not want her in their house. They found her a husband, Ghulam Sakhi, now 30, a soldier who had served in the Afghan Army in Helmand Province. She was married off for 246,000 Afghanis, or about $5,000, the doctor and the two other women in the room told me.

She moved to Baghlan, a journey across two provinces on poor roads that can take one or two days. Government officials had said she was 14 then, and by now was 15, but no one really knew her actual age, it seemed.

"She is not that old," Doctor Omarzada said. "I have washed her and I think she is only 13 now. I see she is not even a woman."

In Baghlan, her new family tried to force her into prostitution. She ran away, but a neighbor caught her. Her husband and his family locked her in a dingy basement bathroom, beat her,and worse, the women in the room and the doctor told me.

Her uncle came to visit but they said she was not at home. But when he came another time, another neighbor said they were hiding her. The uncle called the police and they broke down the basement door, according to officials.

Sahar Gul held out her blackened fingertip where a nail was missing.

"My husband took away my nail," she said in a low whisper.

Her father-in-law pulled out chunks of skin from her chest and other parts of her body with pliers and burned her hair with a hot poker, said the doctor, lifting back the girl's hair from her ear to show her injuries.

"Do you know where your husband is?" I asked.

Sahar Gul, just one victim in this war-torn country, put her finger in her mouth and distractedly rubbed her gum. She couldn't say.

The extent and length of her ordeal has become big news in the country. Even President Hamid Karzai has taken up her case. Last Sunday, he spoke out about the girl's plight in a statement, saying that the case had to be pursued and that the people responsible should be arrested.

As of this writing, officials say that the police have arrested her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and father-in-law. They are still searching for her husband, who has fled.

The quick arrests may be a small sign that the Afghan government is starting to take women's rights seriously, though others say the government was only prompted into action by embarrassing news media reports. But no one knows what will now happen to Sahar Gul.

"She has psychological problems," Doctor Omarzada said. "The government will decide."
Story First Published: January 11, 2012 12:11 IST

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