This is the story of Shafiqa Ahmed Hussein who I met in the village of Sacheck, Afghanistan at Imam Sajjad Clinic on May 27, 2010. A demure woman of 22 years, Shafiqa told me the following heart-wrenching story of her father's massacre by the Taliban. Here is the story in her own words:
I am Shafiqa Ahmed Hussein, a midwife at CAI-sponsored Imam Sajjad Clinic in Sachek, Afghanistan. It is about an 18-hour trip of difficult driving from Kabul. For those not familiar with this Afghani village, it is likely one of the most remote areas in the world. It is home to about 9,500 very poor farmers and sheep herders who can only relax for 5 months out of the year; the rest of the time they are in a race for survival of the fittest in severe and bitterly cold snow and ice.
In 2001, I was a happy teenager: the daughter of a small shop owner – Ahmed – who managed to provide our family with a lifestyle better than most in the village of YawKawlang, which is about a 2-hour drive from Sacheck. At age 12, I was as cheerful and innocent as any child that age would be. I went to school with my sisters Najeeba, 15, and Aziza, 9; Mother Hallema stayed at home with my youngest sister Latifa, 4, and my brother Momin, 2, who were too young for school.
On January 1, 2001, it was a blistery, bitterly cold day. I was at home helping Mum with breakfast while Dad opened the grocery store we owned; school was on winter break. At about 10 that morning, as my older sister and I cleaned the house and prepared for our next meal, Dad came running in, anxiety and fear written all over his ice cold face. We must leave immediately, all of us, he yelled. The Taliban have entered YawKawlang and are arresting people. We will go up to the mountains for a few days. Pack all you can, especially food. We must leave now! Most people have already left – hurry up!
All of us were paralyzed with fear. We could not believe or understand what Dad was going on about, and he was uncharacteristically upset and irritated. He frantically began filling empty boxes with clothes, flour, sugar, and cans of cooking oil. The frenzied look on Dad's face jerked Mum into action, and then all of us as well. We packed as much as we could carry and some more; Mum wanted to pack the whole house! But Dad, usually a calm and easygoing man who easily gave in to her occasional whims, was very firm and ordered Mum to leave everything except warm clothes and food, which made Mum weep. We wore our coats over our home clothes and, with wheelbarrows full of boxes, clumsily trekked up through piles of snow and ice into the mountains that surround our village.
We stayed in the mountains for about a week, some days with sympathetic animal headers and other days in caves. It was bitingly cold, and I remember that all of us huddled together for warmth and for security, in case our cave was visited by wild wolves. I also remember the days spent in utter boredom and fear, as well as in absolute, miserable, bone-chilling cold. After about a week, we ran out of food and Dad decided to go back to town to get more and to assess the situation. All of us, especially Mum, were not willing to let him leave. But Dad – again, uncharacteristically roughly – told us to be quiet and left the next morning, even before I woke up. We never saw him again, alive or dead.
Dad still had not returned a few days later – I don't remember how many, but they were the most difficult days of my life when I cried tears of blood. Mum was an emotional wreck and my other sisters were helpless to do anything for her. Latifa and Momin took cues from Mum and cried along with her. When it was evident something very bad must have happened to Dad, and afraid that we would die of hunger if food was not imminently available, I decided that we would all go back to YawKawlang. We returned to a dead and devastated village. The Taliban had massacred 351 men and children, ranging from age 7 to 80 in front of our Jamia Masjid on the day we had escaped.
Shafiqa breaks down and weeps long and bitterly at this point. I and my interpreter look away and I ask Basheer, who is videotaping the interview, to stop. There are only so many emotions a human can bear; not a single person in the clinic room is dry-eyed at this point. Shafiqa apologizes and continues after regaining her composure:
We later learned that Dad was arrested and sent to a military commander who sentenced him to death for practicing a faith not recognized by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He, along with many others, was tied with his hands behind his back using a belt or shalwaar string he wore, and then murdered in cold blood with a single bullet shot through the back of his head.
There is a bout of bitter weeping again, and we break for a short while once more before Shafiqa continues:
Later on, a sole survivor of the massacre whom we knew informed us about Dad's murder and about his possible burial 5 days after the killings, when the band of killers departed YawKawlang. A woman went looking for her father and discovered him in a pile of bodies. She brought all of the bodies to the main mosque and the martyrs were given a mass burial because the bodies had begun to decompose already, even in the bitter cold of January. We have yet to determine with absolute certainty whether Dad is among others in the mass grave, but we have no other choice than to assume that is the case.
My tears of blood did not end there: when we finally went home, we found it razed to the ground with all our belongings inside destroyed. My Dad was murdered in cold blood. My Mum, already an old woman at age 23, was a widow with 5 children to support. Our house was burnt and destroyed.
Time, however, is the best healer of wounds. Although fate had slapped us hard, we regrouped and survived. My Mum is still devastated of course, but she is resigned to her fate. Najeeba is married; Aziza, Lateefa and Momin all go to school and, Alhamdulillah, I support them all. Although we were not allowed to study under Taliban rule, I still managed to complete my high school education. After that, I studied nursing during the day and worked at a local hospital in the afternoon, getting important firsthand experience. That has made it possible for me to work in the important role of midwife here, at Imam Sajjad Clinic in Sacheck.
I must add that Comfort Aid International is the only NGO – or any other type of organization, for that matter – that has made it possible for a human being to have a chance at surviving here. For example, I had to walk quite a distance today to a home where a full-term pregnant woman had vaginal bleeding. I gave her a serum immediately and she stabilized. This woman would have definitely lost her baby had it not been for the medication. The clinic is a lifeline for many, many desperate people who would have simply died but for our medical services.
The pregnant woman gives birth later that day to a healthy baby girl, and both baby and mother are doing well up to the time I leave Sacheck. I visit Shafiqa's house afterwards, see the remaining shell of her burnt home, and feel immense sadness for this extraordinary young woman and all she has been through. Remember: this is Afghanistan where women do not work outside the home to support their families. Shafiqa has broken all taboos in conservative, rural Afghanistan by her sheer will for survival. Her entire family depends on her salary for their continued existence. At age 22, when most Afghan girls are married and have children, it will be hard for Shafiqa to find a life partner – working outside the home does not help, either. But I am sure Shafiqa will survive; she has not shed tears of blood for no reason.
CAI would like to rebuild Shafiqa's home; it will cost about USD 5,000. If you are interested in helping, please visit www.comfortaid.org and click on the donate link; make sure your write "Shafiqa Home Fund" as the description.