Published in The New York Times, 10/6/2017
By Rod Nordland
Kabul, Afghanistan — Afghanistan is a place where all too often a young girl’s dreams die. But not always.
So it has been with three Afghan friends, whose unrelated cases were all so awful that they are painful to talk about even now that the three are young women, years after the trauma. Each of them escaped a forced marriage as a child, is lucky to be alive, and knows it. Each of them has big dreams — despite what has happened, and because of it.
For one of them, Gul Meena, 18, dreams have already started coming true. Last month she boarded a flight from Kabul to Östersund, Sweden, via Istanbul and Stockholm, accompanied by an American lawyer. It was Gul Meena’s first time in an airplane, first time out of her country, first time that, as she put it before, “I will be free.”
Gul Meena’s first dream was to escape Afghanistan. Her next was to have a television set in her room. She said she wanted to see how her favorite Indian soap opera ends.
Her biggest dream is to become a doctor, an ambition inspired by the three months Gul Meena spent in the hospital — a time of three operations that she remembers, and several more she does not.
“I want to help other girls who suffered violence,” she said. First, though, she is hopeful that Swedish medical care will be able to cure the severe headaches that have made it hard for her to concentrate on her studies; she has reached only fifth grade and can barely read.
Gul Meena was illegally married at age 13. When she discovered that she had become the third wife of a grandfather, she ran away in horror. Her brother and uncle, intent on avenging the family’s honor, tracked her down and attacked her with an ax, smashing her head so badly that part of her brain spilled out of her skull. Somehow she survived, and was given refuge in the Women for Afghan Women shelter in Kabul.
There she made two fast friends, Sahar Gul and Mumtaz. They did not discuss their traumatic pasts with one another, but they were otherwise quite close, all survivors of violence and wrongful marriages.
On one of her visits to the shelter, their American pro bono lawyer, Kimberley Motley, brought along several picture books, easy readers for young children. Sahar Gul is also 18, or maybe 17 (ages are often just estimates in Afghanistan); she is now in the seventh grade and can read a bit, so she read the books to Gul Meena and to Mumtaz, who is now 26.
Sahar Gul took the news of her friend’s departure hard, even though she knew it was coming. “When I heard, I thought that I am a ghost,” she said last month. “I am so sad to be losing my friend. On the other side, I am so happy that she will be free, and will make a life for herself.”
Gul Meena, on her last full day in Afghanistan, was so nervous that she couldn’t steady her hands; the other girls in the shelter helped her dress. Her housemates approached her, bursting into tears.
“I’m not going to miss Afghanistan because I don’t even know how Afghanistan looks,” Gul Meena said. She entered the shelter as a child, and like the other girls there, she has not been allowed outside the compound since then, except under escort by staff — for safety, and under government-imposed restrictions on women’s shelters.
Sahar Gul’s family sold her as a child, at age 13 or even younger, to people who tried to force her into prostitution through torture; they pulled out her fingernails, drugged and raped her, and sexually assaulted her with hot pokers.
“My brother sold me like a sheep to that family,” Sahar Gul said. “I was so small when they sent me to that husband, I didn’t even know what a husband was.” After she was rescued from her two-year ordeal, doctors discovered that she had not yet begun to menstruate.
As with the other two friends, Sahar Gul’s plight drew international publicity, and Women for Afghan Women brought her to its shelter. For months, she barely spoke.
Gul Meena was the same: “Every night I couldn’t sleep, I thought that someone was coming to kill me with an ax.”
Gul Meena, a Pashto speaker, and Sahar Gul, a Dari speaker, did not know each other’s language, and knew none of the details of what had happened to the other, but they began keeping each other company for reasons neither can explain.
The shelter staff had kept mirrors away from Gul Meena, but one day she saw herself and was stunned at how badly her face had been damaged. “I didn’t even recognize myself,” she said. “I was so ugly.” Sahar Gul consoled her, telling her friend she was beautiful.
Gradually the girls came out of their shells. Sahar Gul applied herself to her studies, determined to become a lawyer. “If I am a lawyer, I can help other women, too,” she said.
Mumtaz was the last of the three to arrive at the shelter. She was the victim of an acid attack by a militia commander angry that her family had refused his offer of marriage because, among other things, she was too young.
Women for Afghan Women sent Mumtaz to India for facial reconstruction surgery; her toughness inspired the others, especially Gul Meena. They viewed her as an elder sister, and the three would laugh together for hours. Ms. Motley called them “the amazing Three Musketeers.”
Mumtaz left the shelter three years ago after a young man from her home village asked to marry her. Gul Meena and Sahar Gul said they were happy for her, but envious that she had managed to escape what for them had become a prison.
Both of the younger girls were seeking asylum abroad, but only Gul Meena had any prospect of success. She had been born in Pakistan, so could register as a refugee with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would try to resettle her abroad, a process that takes years.
During that time, both girls became fans of the Indian television drama “Madhubala,” which they watched together, taking turns with the language — it was dubbed in both Pashto and Dari.
The soap opera is about a young girl, Madhubala, who is forced into marriage with a rich man who abuses her, but she gradually wins his love.
They may like the show, but neither young woman is interested in emulating Madhubala. “I don’t want to get married again, men are all bad,” Gul Meena said. Then she caught herself, remembering that her underage marriage had not been legally valid. “I don’t want to get married, ever.”
Their friend Mumtaz and her husband — a love match — had been living in northern Kunduz Province with their baby daughter. Then, last summer, her husband was killed by confederates of Commander Naseer, the militia leader who had attacked her. A few weeks later, Mumtaz gave birth to her second daughter.
Mumtaz feared the commander would have her and the children killed as well, and begged for outside help. She had no remaining relatives except in-laws, since her own family had fled the country, and she was stranded in a Taliban-controlled area.
Once again, the women’s group’s activists managed to rescue Mumtaz. Last month, she reached the safety of the Kabul shelter for the second time, arriving just four days before Gul Meena left.
This time back in the shelter, Mumtaz did not think she would be watching any Indian soaps with the other women. “I have no patience for these things any longer,” Mumtaz said, indicating her two babies. “I’m too tired all the time, and I am not alone now.”
Though exhausted, she still has her dreams, too: little ones for herself, big ones for her daughters. “I want to study and learn to read and write and then become someone who works in an office,” Mumtaz said. “And I want my daughters to become a judge and a lawyer.”
She hopes that someday her daughters will sit in judgment of people like Commander Naseer. That is Mumtaz the Mother’s dream. Mumtaz the Widow’s dream is more visceral. “I am going to throw acid on the face of Naseer,” she said, “to teach him how bad it was, what he has done to us and what I have had to suffer.”
Gul Meena was recently resettled in the Swedish village of Duved, population 600, seven of them refugees. “I only wish Sahar Gul could be here,” she said.
She found it hard to believe that the lodging provided for her had only one bed in it. It was the first room of her own she had ever had. Ms. Motley, the lawyer, bought her a television set for it.
Fatima Faizi and Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 7, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Brought Together by Pain, Separated by Rays of Hope.