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In Search of Bewaha


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By Anne Holmes

While I was waiting for my Afghan visa in Delhi, a friend of mine mentioned in passing something about a widow’s village in Herat province in western Afghanistan. As soon as I arrived in Kabul I began asking around if anyone knew where it was. It took me nearly two weeks to finally find someone who knew about it, and a couple days to coax my fixer in Herat to arrange a trip there. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Just hiring a car and showing up in Andraskar district with my camera would have been asking for trouble, even if my fixer, Imam, is one of the most charming and persuasive men about town.

After spending half an hour playing up to various police officers at headquarters in Herat, we were quickly ushered into the chief’s office. Imam made a small speech, the chief looked at me sternly: “How important is it that you get to Bewaha?” “It’s important,” I replied, bowing my head. “Come tomorrow at 9 a.m. and I will arrange something for you.” And then he dismissed us.

Imam took me to the women’s market and helped me to buy a long black veil that I sewed into a proper chador. “You don’t understand Afghan culture,” he said, handing me a pile of cloth. “If you go with just a simple headscarf, they will….” and his voice trailed off with the conclusion.

We arranged to meet with our driver the next morning at my hotel. When we arrived at police headquarters, we learned that a series of murders in a neighboring district the night before had led the chief away from his desk. Imam made some calls and said that we had to drive to Andraskar to meet with their police chief, and there they would arrange for a security convoy to escort us to the village.

Andraskar district is not the safest area of Herat province. It’s not exactly Taliban territory, but drug smuggling is the job of the hour, and poverty has driven thieves to kidnap people for ransom in the past. “We are cash in these parts,” said Imam. A comforting thought as we made our way along the winding, empty road that carved its way through the mountainous landscape.

I sat in the back of our van with Sattar, a journalist from Herat city who decided to join us for the story. We waited at the gates of the city of Andraskar for word that we could go on to our destination, as the Commander finished up a meeting with the town’s men in the mosque. “The people in this area are not good. It’s very dangerous,” Sattar said. “What do you mean?” I gasped. “Not to worry. Everything is fine. We will have help.” Just then Imam appeared and made a sign for me to come. Fully disguised as a local Herati woman in my chador, I drew the veil across my face and made my way through a crowd of men, up the stairs and into the Commander’s house.

The customary chai and sweets were laid before us, and Imam and I began conducting our courtesy interview with the Chief of Police and the District Commander. Neither one of us was actually interested in what they had to say. It was clear they were just trying to get some good publicity on Imam’s media station, Radio Killid. The Commander started by telling us that four months ago the man who formerly held his position was murdered, and the area was full of Taliban and drug smugglers, but that since he had taken office, Andraskar had become peaceful. I couldn’t help but wonder why we needed a security convoy to visit a village full of widows if the area was safe, safe, safe, but, I kept that to myself.

The two men got up and left. Now the Mullah wanted to extend his thanks to me for coming from so far away to see his people. He told Imam that he was very impressed, and wanted to know why I had come dressed in traditional clothing. “Tell him that I did not want to insult his people,” I said to Imam. “I think you may have some bad idea about Islam from the image you get in your country,” said the Mullah. “I think if you read and learn about our religious tradition, you may find you like what you see.” “Tell him that I am aware that the western media likes to portray Muslims as bad people because it is to their advantage to have an enemy in this part of the world. But this is not my aim.” Then Imam turned to me and said, “The Mullah says that if you learn about Islam you might become one of our sisters and we would be your brothers. He is inviting you to join our religion.” “Thank you,” I said.

There was one thing I wanted to say but didn’t, and that was this: not that I think the Mullah’s proselytic invitation was particular to Islam, by any stretch of the imagination, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could regard each other as brothers and sisters irrespective of religion?

I was starting to get nervous, not because the Mullah was trying to convert me, rather, I have heard how these stories turn sour. I didn’t want to hang around too long and let word of my presence spread throughout the valley. That’s how it all begins. Someone picks up the phone and alerts someone else in a neighboring village that some money could be made, and here is the route they will take, and so on. I shared my concern with Imam, and although he did not translate this, within one minute we were getting back in our vehicle and being taken to the village with a military vehicle leading the way.

As we drove off, Imam turned his head back just enough so that I could see the majestic curves of his profile. Beaming with amusement, he threw his head back, roaring with contagious laughter. “The Mullah liked you eh. He was trying to get you to come to Islam. I think if he would succeed the Mullah would dance all night!”

I was touched, in a way, by the Mullah’s offering, as Imam seemed to be suggesting that the Mullah thought I was a particularly good candidate. “Always, when you make an effort to respect people’s customs, you get a good reception,” said Imam. He was referring to my chador, and although I found it a bit constricting around the neck, I rather liked the effect it had on men. Instead of getting crowds of people staring and smiling at me awkwardly as I moved about the country, men immediately averted their eyes and cleared the way for me to walk. Surely they assumed that I was a local, but this speaks mountains about the regard Muslims have for women who abide by tradition.

I have almost exclusively been surrounded by Afghan men since I arrived here. Not once have I felt any form of discrimination, not once have I experienced what I might have imagined to be a radical sexism. Quite the contrary, and many of the men I have worked with stressed the fact that true Islam clearly states that men and women should both receive equal rights and education. Lack of education, poverty, and years of conflict have driven some to extremes.

We pulled off the main road, drove up to the entrance of the village and got out of the car. I turned back and spotted a lone figure, a woman in a floral print chador, veil drawn across her face, standing like a statue on a small hill, observing us, her dress flapping in the wind. I slowly drew closer to her and took a photo. The police made an announcement on a loud speaker, that the village elders should gather all their men for a meeting. Silence. She did not move. I took a few more steps toward her to get a better shot, but she shouted something and ran away.

Slowly, the men came out of their homes and gathered around our vehicles in askance. Children peered from behind walls and out windows with furrowed brows and wide eyes. The men asked us to come into the elder’s home, and what followed, moved me beyond words. All the men came into one tiny room, formed a circle, and began to explain their case, complaining that the government had abandoned them, that they had nothing, that their men could not make ends meet, that their children were sick, that their water was bad, their people skinny and hungry, their relatives dead. Sattar gave each the opportunity to speak into his microphone, and one by one the eldest men stood up, staff in hand: Plato, Socrates, Kings of the desert beseeching us for help.

Bewaha means widow’s village in Dari. 250 inhabitants live in this tiny enclave in Herat province. Most of the women were widowed because their husbands were killed in the shady business of smuggling opium, hashish, and heroin to Iran, mostly during the Taliban period. Many of them lost all their sons as well in the countless years of conflict. There are no jobs nearby, and those who can work must travel to Herat city daily, an 85-kilometer journey, which costs nearly the amount one person can earn in a day. “Basically, I work for free,” said one young man. In the last three years, it is estimated that 30 children have died in Bewaha. Water is scarce and unsanitary, and resources are virtually nonexistent in the vast desert valley that is their homeland.

The men led me to their women and gave me permission to photograph them. Again, Sattar held up his microphone and listened as they lamented, fingers held up, showing in number, the death of their sons and husbands. Children moved about smiling and giggling at the foreigner with the camera. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and my translator was nowhere to be found, but something in the pitch of their voices struck a tragic chord.

I got up to move into the next room. The children parted the way and there, before me sat a haunting figure: a gaunt woman, her face the map of time, her eyes a pool of sorrow. I watched her in awe as she pleaded in Dari, smacking her palms against the floor and gazing into the great abyss. “How old is she?” I asked. “She is 83,” said Imam. An amazing feat in a country where the average life expectancy is 43.7 years. “She is blind?” “Yes.”

I asked to see the rest of the village. The men took me to their well and showed me how dirty it was. I took their photos. I knew they would be beautiful, and I knew that our presence there was giving them hope. But millions of people live like this in Afghanistan, and our dropping in on them from out of the sky will probably not do much of anything to change their lives. This is their reality. We are their witness, for an instant. But what will happen tomorrow? What will happen next week, next month? My friend Nasser once said to me, “Do you know what our life expectancy is here in Afghanistan? I am 30 years old. At best I will live another decade. We come into this life not to live, but rather, just to be alive.” And then he laughed.

The ride back to Herat city was quiet. Imam noted that I had become “sensitive.” Sattar asked me if I had ever seen such poverty before. “Yes. In India many people have nothing. They don’t even have homes. They live on the side of the road, or out of makeshift cardboard shelters. They wash themselves in public, they die and are let to die in the streets. I have seen this. ‘That is life,’ says my Indian friend, Sanjit. But the people of India have not lived through decades of war. The people of India have a future to look toward, an exploding economy, a nuclear power structure to ensure their security, and coveted resources for trade.”

Afghans have a remarkable hope alive in them despite the grim past and the current war which continues to ravage their country. Life goes on, people smile; they tell their stories, and if they complain, they do it with nobility and dignity. In the magic light of the desert, the distant sounds of music seem to accompany them; the music of their heritage, of flutes and caravans, of banquets and teacups clanging under the moonlit sky. The wind whispers their tales, and their eyes belie the tragic beauty of their suffering.

© Anne Holmes

© Anne Holmes


7 Responses to “In Search of Bewaha”

  1. sean says:

    you are a great journalist!! amazing stuff

  2. Hughes says:

    Great reporting, thanks for sharing.

  3. thank you; your’e an amazing woman !! i believe in U

  4. admin says:

    Kai…je suis en train de chercher le bon magazine. Aurais-tu des propositions?

  5. Kai says:

    Why not have this article be published somewhere to make a difference? It is what journalism should help do. I know you don’t have much time and other stories to cover already… who knows…

  6. dena says:

    ann, that was an amazing story, sad to say that there seems to be no shortage of hopeless situations to document

  7. Rimga says:

    Anne, this was a beautiful piece. Reading it touched me.

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