WMC Women Under Siege

Afghanistan’s widows of the disappeared

Sabah Mohammed sat at the dining table where she worked in Fremont, Calif., her gaze distant and lost. She wondered if her husband was out there somewhere with another wife and family. Or maybe he was dead. Or maybe he was in a prison camp in Siberia.

Jamal Mohammed had disappeared on his way to work as a military general in Kabul in 1987. The couple had a 4-year-old son at the time. Sabah searched for him for a decade, visiting prisons and hospitals and asking relatives. As time passed, she checked the death lists the government issued of those who had died in the war against the mujahideen, rebels who fought against the Soviets and Afghan communists. But there was no trail to follow. His co-workers had no clues, and the Afghan government had nothing to offer her.

“I have no idea if he had enemies or why they would take him,” the widow said in a puzzled voice. “He was a good man.”

Sabah, a civil servant, took on another job as a tutor and settled into a life of solitude. She learned to fix the sink in her apartment, to paint the walls, and to be both a father and a mother to her child. She kept wondering whether she had enemies in the government and when they would come after her or her son.

She was just one of thousands of women who would live the rest of their lives with uncertainty and the pain of not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Asma Salehi, seen here with her father and brother, did not know for decades what happened to her father. His name recently appeared on a list of Afghanistan’s dead.

From 1978 to 1992, Afghanistan’s Soviet-supported communist government systematically imprisoned, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of people, mostly men and some women, who they feared were dissenters. But they didn’t inform their families as to what actually happened to them. The victims were usually arrested and never heard from again. The worst atrocities of the era occurred from 1978 to 1979, when the Afghan secret police jailed people en masse. This included professionals: technocrats, intellectuals, teachers, military officers, and university students. Many were apolitical farmers.

The wives of these men were the first known widows of Afghanistan’s endless war. (As of 2001, there were 2 million in the country, according to the United Nations.) Many widows had to depend on their in-laws to support them; some married their brothers-in-law out of tradition; a few fell into poverty and endured the stigma of being a woman on her own.

In 1989, the communist regime released a death list of 11,000 names and apologized for the crimes, but most in the diaspora never saw that list. Six million Afghans had already fled the country.

Finally, last month, the Dutch police—who have been investigating former communist Afghans residing in Holland—released a death list of nearly 5,000 Afghans killed in 1978 and 1979. They say they published the list, which they gathered from various sources, to give families closure but also to encourage eyewitnesses to expose the atrocities of the past.

Afghans reacted to the death list with sadness and anger, demanding justice for their slain family members now, after 35 years. Funerals and memorial services are being held across the world where victims’ families have settled. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the largest diaspora of Afghans in the U.S. live, young Afghans whose grandfathers and uncles were on the list have taken on the cause with a night of poetry, storytelling, and prayers on October 13.

Two weeks ago, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced two days of mourning—even though officials in his government include top former communists. Only one man, Assadullah Sarwary, the head of the secret police in the late 1970s, has been convicted and sentenced to death for war crimes. Sarwary has been in a Kabul prison for more than 20 years already. Two men have been indicted in Holland. But Afghans say dozens of former communists with blood on their hands immigrated to Europe and the United States.

Meanwhile, mass graves from the last 35 years of war continue to be uncovered with no effort from the Afghan government to identify the remains in Afghanistan. Most of the graves have been discovered during digging on reconstruction projects. Families have tried to move on, and many realize the disappeared are dead.

But the list, which was published in Afghanistan’s premier newspaper, awakened ghosts of the past. It has been a reminder of a violent history and has motivated thousands of Afghans to call for justice. And speculation as to what happened to the dead has spread across social media, leaving people like Asma Salehi to imagine the worst.

Salehi, an Afghan-American artist, saw her father’s name, Mohammed Tahir Salehi, on the list.

“It has been devastating to know I will not see him again,” she said of her father, who was a professor of theology and philosophy. “Reading about how he could have been bulldozed to death does not make it easy. I have become paralyzed since the news.”

Salehi, who lives in San Ramon, Calif., is completing a painting in honor of her father’s sacrifice, which she says is not being properly honored by his country.

“I am shocked at the atrocity of the crime by our own people,” she said. “When Jews were massacred, everyone responsible was questioned for their crime. For us, it seems two days of national mourning in Afghanistan is what Karzai could offer. I am speechless.”

She said her mother, Razia Salehi, raised her children with all the strength she could muster without a partner. She supported her three children on her teacher’s salary in Kabul, and when they fled to the U.S. 30 years ago, she worked odd jobs until she became a kindergarten teacher.

“She didn’t admit she was a widow,” Salehi said. “That way, no men would approach her. She just said her husband was lost but alive.” 

Much of her mother’s suffering has been in silence. Salehi says that like many other Afghan widows, psychological trauma has transformed into a physical ailment. Her mother complains of chronic migraines, and those migraines have increased since she found out that her husband’s name was on the list.

Among the many killed during the communist period, one religious clan, the Mojaddedis, was particularly targeted. The Mojaddedis come from a lineage of Sufis who lived in various provinces of Afghanistan before the communists threw their men, women, and children in jail and confiscated their property. The communists believed families like theirs with religious and feudal power were Afghanistan's class problem—and they had to be destroyed.

One night in 1978, there was a coordinated sweep of Mojaddedis across the country. Ninety to 100 people were arrested. The men disappeared and rumors flew about how they were taken as slave laborers to Siberia or that they were buried alive in the desert behind the prison in Kabul. The surviving prisoners, women who became widows and boys who have grown into men now, have borne the burden of the disappeared.

Qudsia Mojaddedi, a resident of Hamburg, Germany, revealed in a soft voice the nightmarish story of her imprisonment that had become a tale of communist horrors to retell in diaspora circles.  

In Kabul, the Mojaddedi family had a historic fort with impressive gardens. About 25 of them lived inside the compound. At around 9 p.m., after dinner while they were having their tea, 50 to 60 armed men in uniforms barged in and seized a dozen of the men, then came for the women, she said. Qudsia Mojaddedi, now 70, was two months' pregnant. All of them were locked up in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi fort; the women and children for six months. From the cell window, she heard people brought in buses, executed with bullets en masse, then wrapped up in blankets and thrown back into the buses and driven away.

“In the morning from my window, I saw the soldiers cleaning up the blood and laughing,” she said.

She gave birth soon after being released. Her son, Shafiq, now 34, sat next to his mother, quietly listening. Mojaddedi said Sarwary, the secret police chief imprisoned in Kabul, visited them in prison a couple of times and ordered them to leave the country if they were released. The women were not raped or tortured, she said.

“It was an unspeakable time, but I don't want revenge,” she said. “I want Sarwary to tell us what happened to our men.”

The list recently released by the Dutch includes the men of the Mojaddedi family.

Widows like Qudsia Mojaddedi are a testament to human resilience. They fled from Afghanistan under terrifying conditions, worked hard as exiles, and raised many of their children to be successful professionals. Some of them are relieved to put their loved ones to rest. But not every widow can have closure, and many of them do not consider news of death as solace.

Sabah Mohammed’s husband has not been on any lists so far, and that’s how she prefers it.

The 60-year-old is an American citizen who migrated to the U.S. 10 years ago. She’s struggling to make a living as a nanny.

“I don’t need to know,” she said. “That chapter is closed. Whatever happened to him, God knows. I don’t want to open those wounds again. If someone killed him, the criminals will be punished in the afterlife.”

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More articles by Tag: War, Military, Stigma, Asia



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