The Washington Post

Kabul's Lost Women
Many Abducted by Taliban Still Missing

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 19, 2001; Page A01

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Eight Taliban fighters kicked in the front door at dinnertime. They beat Shabnam's mother and grandmother, according to her relatives. Then they hustled the 9-year-old girl into a pickup truck, loot for their commanding officer.

That was August 1997. Shabnam, who would be 13 now, is still not home.

Her sister saw her once, about two years ago. She heard that Shabnam had become the property of Col. Shawali, a top Taliban security officer. So she went to his house and demanded to see her little sister. She was allowed to talk to her for five minutes, surrounded by Taliban gunmen, just long enough to see the fear in her eyes.

"Every time she sees someone who looks like Shabnam, she cries," said Islamodin, the sister's husband. Shabnam lived with the couple; her mother and grandmother were visiting at the time of the abduction.

"Her clothes are still in the house, and so are her dolls; everything reminds us of her," said Islamodin, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "When the Taliban were forced out of Kabul [last month], we should have been happy. But we could only cry because she was not with us."

Taliban soldiers abducted many women and girls, perhaps hundreds or more, during their five-year rule of Afghanistan, according to Afghan families, officials of the incoming government and humanitarian aid groups. Many are still missing, and their stories are only now beginning to emerge in the wake of the Taliban's defeat.

It is impossible to calculate the number kidnapped. Many families have never spoken out because of the stigma, especially strong in this conservative Muslim society, of having a daughter or sister sold for sex. Others fear that protesting could jeopardize the life of their missing loved ones. Islamodin and others interviewed spoke reluctantly, and they declined to be photographed or provide pictures of the kidnapped girls.

But as a new government prepares to take office Saturday, and the climate of fear created by the Taliban begins to fade, more and more families are stepping forward to tell their stories publicly for the first time.

The abductions highlight a central hypocrisy of the Taliban regime. Their official policy was to revere women as jewels to be guarded by the men in their family. To the Taliban, that meant stripping women of virtually all rights, including education, and forcing them to stay either out of sight at home or covered head to toe by a burqa in public.

One of the most frequently told stories about Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader, is how in the spring of 1994 he led a small band of followers to a warlord's base near the city of Kandahar to free two girls who had been abducted and repeatedly raped. Omar reportedly freed the girls, then hanged the warlord from the barrel of a tank to avenge his violent treatment of the girls.

But according to interviews with families and officials in Afghanistan and abroad, the Taliban was essentially a militia of illiterate young men who often abused their power in violent ways. That reportedly included claiming women and girls as sexual prizes.

Gen. Mohammed Qasim, chief military prosecutor for the Northern Alliance, the collection of forces that led the fight to overthrow the Taliban, said in an interview that he believed at least 1,000 Afghan women were abducted by the Taliban.

"This is not what the Afghan people are like," said Qasim, who will be a top justice ministry official in the new government. He promised that the new government would investigate as many cases as possible.

"It will be difficult to find many of them," he said. "We think many of these girls are no longer in Afghanistan. We think many of them may have been killed by the Taliban. But the parents want us to find them, and we will try."

Qasim said that many of the girls were used as concubines by Taliban officers, some of whom kept a dozen or more. He said many others were sold as sexual slaves to wealthy Arabs through contacts arranged by the al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. Proceeds helped keep the cash-strapped Taliban afloat, he said.

Farhat Bokhari, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York, which recently released a report on the plight of Afghan women, said in a telephone interview that "whispers" about large numbers of abductions under the Taliban have emerged recently.

Bokhari said that in interviews with Afghan women in refugee camps in Pakistan late last summer, "A few women said they had heard of more than 20 abductions; others gave estimates in the hundreds, so there's really no good accounting."

Bokhari said abductions have been underreported because of "the whole issue of dishonor." She said Afghan people would not talk about sexual abuse, because it could harm a woman's chances of marriage. And, she said, families feared for their lives if they complained to the Taliban.

Afghan women and girls have suffered greatly in the past two decades, during wars among Afghan factions, 10 years of occupation by the Soviet Union and then under the Taliban, which was accused in a State Department report last month of "egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction and forced marriage."

One Western official, who said kidnappings of young girls had been common under the Taliban, noted that the mujaheddin who fought for control of the country before the Taliban took over also frequently abducted and raped women. "The Taliban didn't invent this," he said.

Qasim, the Northern Alliance prosecutor, said there were many abuses of women during the years of factional fighting. But he said the abuses were never sanctioned by the government, as they were during the Taliban era.

Qasim said some women and girls who had been abducted were left behind by Taliban fighters when they fled Kabul on Nov. 13 as Northern Alliance forces entered the city. He said many of those women have been reunited with their families. But, he said, many more were abducted by Taliban troops on their way out of the city.

Islamodin has been spending his days lately touring the police stations and security offices of the incoming government to urge officials to investigate Shabnam's case. So far, he said, no one seems to be willing to do anything. Still, he said, attitudes are different than in the Taliban days.

"The Taliban would not listen," he said. "I went to one Taliban government official to complain and he just shouted at me. He said, 'You are from Panjshir [a Northern Alliance stronghold]. You are not a true Muslim. You are a communist. Get out.' "

Maizer Mohammed, a Kabul police commander who met with Islamodin on Friday, shook his head when asked if his officers would be able to find Shabnam. "This was so common in the time of the Taliban, especially among the Pakistani and Arab Taliban," he said, referring to foreigners, many of them members of al Qaeda, who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. "I don't think we will be able to find out where she is."

"If I am not able to get her back, I will take my revenge," Islamodin said, standing on a frigid street outside the bakery he runs with a friend. "I will find that man's close relative, and I will kill him. In other countries it is different, but this is tradition in Afghanistan. Here it is justice. And justice should be done."

Shah Suleman has been trying for more than five years to find his cousin, who was 13 when she was abducted in September 1996. He is now a police officer in Kabul, a job he said he took to help in the search.

"I have asked my chiefs to try to help, but there is nothing they can do," he said, standing in a busy Kabul market wearing the woolly green pants and shirt of the newly formed police force. He would not give his cousin's name, fearing reprisals from whoever might have her.

Suleman said his cousin was abducted in Kabul by a group of Taliban soldiers who came to the family home and dragged away two young male relatives. The soldiers returned a few hours later, saying they would kill the boys unless the family let them take Suleman's two female cousins, ages 25 and 13.

Suleman said his aunt was forced to let the girls go to save her sons. For two years there was no word from either of them.

Then a man came to the house with the 25-year-old. He said he had seen a Taliban soldier beating her in Gardez, about 80 miles south of Kabul. He said he paid the soldier -- Suleman did not know how much -- for the woman, then brought her home. He asked for the family's permission to marry her. Suleman said his cousin was so grateful to the man for freeing her that she agreed, and the family consented as well. They now live in Pakistan, Suleman said.

But there has been no word from the other girl, who would be 18 now. "Nobody has ever seen her, and we don't know where she is," Suleman said.

 

2001 The Washington Post Company