I read this utterly revolting story in Dubai International Airport, en route to the US, after I’d been awake for something like 30 hours already. The combination of sleep deprivation, post-Kabul stupor and gutting inhumanity was enough to make me literally queasy.
HERAT, Afghanistan — The two teenagers met inside an ice cream factory through darting glances before roll call, murmured hellos as supervisors looked away and, finally, a phone number folded up and tossed discreetly onto the workroom floor.
It was the beginning of an Afghan love story that flouted dominant traditions of arranged marriages and close family scrutiny, a romance between two teenagers of different ethnicities that tested a village’s tolerance for more modern whims of the heart. The results were delivered with brutal speed.
This month, a group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, yanked them into the road and began to interrogate the boy and girl. Why were they together? What right had they? An angry crowd of 300 surged around them, calling them adulterers and demanding that they be stoned to death or hanged.
When security forces swooped in and rescued the couple, the mob’s anger exploded. They overwhelmed the local police, set fire to cars and stormed a police station six miles from the center of Herat, raising questions about the strength of law in a corner of western Afghanistan and in one of the first cities that has made the formal transition to Afghan-led security.
The riot, which lasted for hours, ended with one man dead, a police station charred and the two teenagers, Halima Mohammedi and her boyfriend, Rafi Mohammed, confined to juvenile prison. Officially, their fates lie in the hands of an unsteady legal system. But they face harsher judgments of family and community.
Ms. Mohammedi’s uncle visited her in jail to say she had shamed the family, and promised that they would kill her once she was released. Her father, an illiterate laborer who works in Iran, sorrowfully concurred. He cried during two visits to the jail, saying almost nothing to his daughter. Blood, he said, was perhaps the only way out.
“What we would ask is that the government should kill both of them,” said the father, Kher Mohammed.
[…] Family members of the man killed in the riot sent word to Ms. Mohammedi that she bears the blame for his death. But they offered her an out: Marry one of their other sons, and her debt would be paid.
This example of humanity at its worst is a powerful illustration of how justice sector reform, which the international community, to its shame, never adequately resourced in Afghanistan, is a matter of life and death, blood and tears –not to mention intimately tied to security. Its failure permits monstrous crimes against the most innocent members of society. Had aid been allocated differently over the past decade, Mr. Mohammad and Ms. Mohammadi might have been placed in a shelter, where they could finish their schooling far away from their dangerous families and await the day when they would both be old enough to legally marry of their own volition.
But that is not the Afghanistan that exists today, and there’s little chance either of the teenage lovers will go on to anything resembling a bearable life, and more horrors –forced exchange marriage and a life of vicious abuse for Ms. Mohammadi, exile and poverty for Mr. Mohammad– are likely in store for them, if they survive at all.
In Afghanistan, very, very few love stories have happy endings.
A few additional points:
– Ultimately, these tragedies will disappear from Afghan life only if Afghan progressives manage to change the norms of their society from within. But that doesn’t mean outsiders are powerless to do anything. By prioritizing justice sector reform and the range of processes that entails, the international community could tangibly ease the suffering of people who fall afoul of violent, regressive traditions.
– “Incident X raises questions about the readiness of the Afghan security forces” has become Afghanistan-related journalism’s new “who, like most Afghans, goes by only one name” yet, unlike the one name silliness, it’s actually a valid point. I’ve written before about how poorly the Afghan police have responded to successive incidents of civilians rioting, from the 2005 and 2006 anti-foreigner riots in Kabul, to the attack on Marefat High School after the Shia Personal Status Law demonstrations, to the Koran burning riots in Kandahar and Mazar Sharif and this most recent riot in Herat. In all of those cases, the local police were utterly incapable or, just as disturbingly, unwilling to prevent loss of life and property destruction by mobs of unarmed or very lightly armed civilians. And if the security forces in Herat cannot prevent police stations and squad cars from being torched by a bunch of local men pissed off about an illicit teenage romance, it’s laughable to suggest that they’ll do any better when confronting heavily armed, battle hardened insurgents.