Mother’s Day in Afghanistan

Photo by Jodi Cobb

Photo by Jodi Cobb

For a man it is a dream to have a young teenage bride, a wife who is fresh like an apple, a girl whom he can play with, plan her dreams, her future, and her destiny as if she were a toy. But what is it like for the girl? The man who buys a young girl holds her future and destiny in his hands. She must do as he says. It is worse than slavery. – N, Afghan Women’s Writing Project 

One of the things I miss most in Afghanistan is being away from family on holidays, but some of my most memorable times there were on holidays. On Mother’s Day, 2010 I am at Bagram Air Base (BAF) waiting to go out on a mission to a battered woman’s shelter in Kohistan in Kapisa Province. There is a complication with the communication system between the MRAPS in the convoy so we are delayed about an hour. The team leader suggests we go grab some lunch while they fix the problem.

I go over and get in line at one of the dining halls to wait for the doors to open. I haven’t have any breakfast and I am really hungry, almost faint from low blood sugar. Low blood sugar levels can make you very irritable and I am getting more and more agitated as I listen to two large civilan men in line ahead of me. Every other word is the F-word, which I don’t like to hear. Normally I don’t say anything because sometimes obscenities are the way people deal with the stress of being in a war zone, but today it is getting on my nerves and after a particularly long string of “f—s”, I tap the man in front of me on his shoulder. He turns his beefy, tall frame around and looks at me with questioning eyes.

“It’s Mother’s Day,” I say, giving him a stern look.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says, ”I didn’t see you standing there.”

I just nod and go back to waiting. I am not only hungry but the sun is boiling hot and the heat is making me even more irritable. I hear some more “F” bombs behind me and I turn to see two young soldiers in conversation.

I say to one of them, “It’s Mother’s Day. Would your mother be proud to hear you talk that way in front of a woman?”

He looks a little stunned and says, “What did I say?”

I am scathing in my reply, then I just say “Oh, nevermind!” and I stomp off angrily.

When I get back to my convoy I am relating what happened to one of our guys. He looks at me, climbs inside a MRAP and comes back with a packet of grape jelly from an MRE. “Kathy, I think you need to eat this.”

After another 30 minutes our communications are fixed and we are ready to roll. We exit the base and start out on our long, bumpy ride to Kohistan. Along the way we pass by adobe homes that are right out of the Bible. I spot a man riding a camel in the distance and for an instant it is easy to imagine I am living 1000 years in the past, but a look around at the soldiers riding with me in a 1-million dollar armored vehicle dispel that fantasy.

We drive into Kohistan in the hot afternoon. Everything seems to be covered in a thin layer of red dust. We pass by men with pancaked-shaped hats called pakols and scarfs wrapped around their necks who stare at us curiously, a few with ill-concealed hate in their eyes. Children scamper along beside us laughing and asking for treats. We pull through the gate of the women’s compound that has a high wall surrounding it. After climbing down from the MRAP I stretch my cramped legs and look curiously about. I see a neat compound with a small vegetable garden and several buildings.

A regal looking woman wearing a turquoise blue salwar kameze and matching scarf wound round her head comes out to meet us. She introduces herself as Mrs. Kohistani, the center’s director. Except for our interpreter Dr. Najibullah, no men will be entering the shelter. She explains that many of the women have been abused and may be very shy about talking to strangers.

We make our way inside and I see some young girls and small children. I am thinking the mother’s must be in another room and I look around expecting Mrs. Kohistani to guide us to another area.

She is just standing there looking at us and it suddenly hits me. These young girls are the mothers. I am sick at heart as I look at these girls whose eyes are filled with fear, many holding infants in their arms and a few with a small child hiding in their skirts. The oldest one cannot be over 18. One 11-year old is visibly pregnant. We have brought some children’s books and we ask the mother’s if we may give them to the children. As we distribute them I take a moment with each mother to ask about her children. I show them pictures of my grandchildren. They are polite but there is a pervasive atmosphere of fear that I believe has nothing to do with our visit. The women cannot stay here forever and when they leave they know they at best will be beaten and they very likely will be disfigured or even killed.

As we leave the mothers we meet in Mrs. Kohistani’s office to talk about what we can do through our Female Enrichment Program to help the center. We talk about poultry and beekeeping projects that enable women to earn a living and to have food sources. As we finish our talk we linger over tea and Mrs. Kohistani relates to us that the day before two young sisters had come to the shelter to escape their abusive husbands. She had arranged for them to go into hiding in Pakistan. During the night, the families of the girl’s husband went to their mother’s home thinking the wives would be there. When they discovered they weren’t they killed their mother and disemboweled their 12 year-old sister. I am overwhelmed with emotion.

As we put our body armor back on in preparation to return to the base I am praying silently that these women will be able to find sanctuary that will remove them from the brutality to which they have been subjected. On the long journey the jocular banter we had exchanged over the radios on the journey there is missing. My earphones are silent as we all contemplate the horror we have seen today at the women’s shelter. As we near the base the soldier who gave me the grape jelly looked over at me and said, “Happy Mother’s Day, Miss Kathy”.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

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