Boston Globe

Widows, unaided, turn vocal in despair

By Lynda Gorov, Globe Staff, 12/11/2001

KABUL, Afghanistan - In a land where women live as second-class citizens, Afghan widows do not even register as worthy of mistreatment.

More than 500 widows and their children are segregated into three cramped housing blocks at the former Soviet embassy compound in Kabul, now overrun with war refugees. They are hungry, they are cold, and they are on their own.

Their status as widows has made them some of the most vulnerable women in Afghanistan, and also some of the most vocal. In an already paternalistic society that turned even more oppressive under the Taliban, they have nothing left to lose.

Too poor to replace their tattered burkas, the widows don't bother with the head-to-toe coverings anymore. Too isolated to concern themselves with Afghan etiquette, they don't shy from strangers. When Amidullah, the 58-year-old village chief who is also a medical doctor, tells them he will speak for them, they keep right on talking.

''We need pillows, we need blankets, we need food, my son has no shoes; who can care about a burka?'' said Mangul, 30, a widow with only a tattered floral print cloth to drape over her head. ''If we had them we would wear them, or maybe we wouldn't. Who can even think about it?''

What the widows think about instead is survival. Some go to the local bazaars to beg or send their sons and daughters instead. Others hunt the compound for anything resembling fuel: twigs, discarded plastic wrappers, paper scraps. Without husbands to cater to, they spend hours sitting on the floors of their unlit, unheated rooms. They know the odds of remarriage are almost nil, since Afghan men are reluctant to wed a woman with children.

''I have eight children, this box is my house, I am completely hungry,'' said Shiringull, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name and is unsure of her age. ''Tell me, tell me: What can I do?''

No one knows how many women have been widowed in Afghanistan, but no one doubts their number is enormous. Two decades of war left hundreds of thousands of men dead. Many of them were married to more than one woman, as Islamic law allows a man to take as many as four wives.

The years of suffering in Afghanistan are rolled into the experiences of widows such as Shiringull, whose husband was killed by a Taliban-launched rocket four years ago. Most in the Kabul compound were farmers' wives from the fertile Shomali Valley, northeast of Kabul, who were driven from their homes by drought and war. Their husbands were killed in battle against one enemy or another, or as bystanders.

According to Chief Amidullah, the Taliban first herded their entire community - men, women, widows and children - from their own region to southeastern Jalalabad. Soon afterward, refugee aid agencies seeking better treatment for them hauled the group by truck convoy to the compound the Soviets abandoned when they were driven out of Afghanistan a decade ago.

The widows have lived on the margins ever since. For three years now, they have had to fend for themselves in a small city within Afghanistan's capital city.

The compound, once a sparkling testament to the Soviet Union, today is a tangle of collapsed concrete, broken bricks, and mud made soft by the elements. As many as 2,500 people, all of them ethnic Pashtuns or Tajiks who once farmed the land, are crammed into a space meant for a third as many. Dust and dirt cover everything - clothing, food containers, children's faces. The people are painfully thin. So are the plastic mats many sleep on.

''At 4 a.m. we get up and take absolution; we pray that today will be better,'' said Saidah, 35, a mother of seven who shares a room with eight families - 35 people. ''Then we go get water from the [aid agency] truck. We send our children to scrounge for something to warm up the room. If we have food to cook, and oil to cook it with, we cook. And then ... nothing. We have nothing and nothing to do.''

Saidah didn't describe a typical day at the compound with anything resembling the public meekness associated with Afghan women. Like the two dozen other widows gathered around her, she spoke with a fury seen here as bordering on heresy for women. She had sold her only cooking pot for cash that morning, and the memory made her voice rise while the men stood nearby.

The widows' frustration manifested itself in a massive display of defiance the other day. Armed representatives of Russia tried to take back the compound. The occupants responded as one with sticks and stones. They were not leaving, they shouted, and they didn't. It is unclear whether the Russians will let them stay or make another push to retake the property.

''The Russians killed my husband and destroyed my house,'' said Shokare, 50, who has eight children and shares a room with a similarly sized family. ''Now they want to throw us out of here. We will not allow it.''

The refugees said they have no intention of becoming rootless again, even if it means staying in a place they consider unfit to occupy. Food would help. Widow after widow complained that the humanitarian aid they had been receiving had ceased without explanation at the end of November.

Fayyaz Shah, head of the World Food Program office in Kabul, said the refugees should start receiving bags of wheat and other food again soon. Since 1999, the UN agency has distributed more than 400 tons of a corn-soy blend, sugar, split peas, rice, raisins, and other foodstuffs inside the former Soviet compound. Before Afghanistan became a target of the antiterrorism campaign, local bakeries provided fresh bread as well.

''If they stay, we have to help them, but I hope they don't stay for the food,'' said Shah, who is working to put together a repatriation package that would include food, seeds for planting, and essential household items such as blankets. ''Personally, I think it's time they started thinking of returning to their place of origin, which is one of the safest areas in Afghanistan now.''

But Amidullah, the village chief, said his villagers have nothing to return to in the Shomali Valley. In many cases, their homes have been burned. Their extended families are dead or dispersed. The Taliban even destroyed the irrigation system that valley wheat and grape farmers relied on, he said.

No one in the compound mentions Afghanistan's new interim government. Instead, they demand international assistance.

Still, many of the widows said they can't imagine leaving the compound. ''All of our men are dead and it is only the women now,'' said Aniz Ghul, adding that she had only a single turnip to feed herself and her eight children the other day. ''But we are here.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/11/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.