High barricades and blast-proof walls are a common sight in Kabul, and it is impossible to travel through the Afghan capital without encountering a barrage of police and private security checkpoints. There is an overwhelming sense of unease every time you stop at each one, but these are just some of the precautions taken for security reasons in what has been described by many experts and political analysts as one of the most dangerous places in the world.
In the north of the city, resting at the foothills of one of numerous mountains that encircle Kabul, is a building that is noticeable even from a distance. Its walls are more than four metres high, topped with barbed wire and its only gate is manned by five armed police officers 24 hours a day.
But unlike the other buildings in the area, the security here is designed not to keep people out, but to keep the inmates in. Known locally as Badam Bagh, or the Almond Garden in English, this is the city’s only jail specifically designed for women, many of whom are mothers raising their babies behind bars.
The building was created in 2008 thanks to help from the Italian government. But before it was built the women were incarcerated with men in Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-e-Charki prison, which now houses some 6,000 men. It achieved notoriety for a spate of incidents of abuse and violence. The authorities decided to separate the sexes after reports of abuse within the cells began to emerge.
The three-storey Badam Bagh houses 196 women. Nooria, 19, is one of them. She’s been here for four months. Like most of the Afghans in Kabul, she’s not from the capital, but from a small village in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. She’s accused of committing a moral crime, like most of the prisoners here.
In keeping with Afghanistan’s traditionally conservative society, Nooria’s marriage to her first cousin was arranged. She says she was compelled to go through with it about a year ago. The only problem is that Nooria was – and it is clear by the look in her eyes that she still is – in love with another man. Three months into her marriage, she found out she was pregnant. Certain that the father of her baby was her lover Hussain and not her husband, she was unable to come clean or continue living in her village, so she decided to flee with Hussain to Kabul.
No jobs, no money, no hope
“When we came here, we knew practically no one,” Nooria says. “It was the first time we had left our villages. We had no jobs, no money and not much hope. After trying for several days, I managed to persuade Hussain to let me call my uncle in Kabul and he reluctantly agreed. That evening we went to his house, and the police were there waiting for us.” Her uncle had tipped off the police because he said she had brought shame to the family.
After spending close to 40 days in custody, Nooria says her trial was swift, over in less than an hour. Her charge? She had run away from home. With the drop of a gauntlet, she was sentenced to four years in prison. As for Hussain, he received eight years in Pul-e-Charki prison, or so she heard from his mother who comes to visit once a month. To be more precise, Hussain’s mother comes to visit her grandson and bring him nappies and milk.
As Nooria tells her story, she cradles her one-month-old son, Amir, in her arms. He was born a prisoner. With few welfare programmes in Afghanistan, many women have no choice but to bring their children with them to prison. As we talk, Amir remains fast asleep, tranquil and unaware.
About 50 other young children like him are here through no fault of their own and are forced to share their mothers’ fate. Boys are allowed to stay up to the age of five and girls until seven. After that, they are sent to one of the state-run orphanages. Often mothers will never see their children again.
As I talk to Nooria in the presence of the senior police official asked to monitor Friday’s visit, the noise of children outside the room, who are staring at us through the windows and trying to get in, is all too clear. But my attention is drawn to another woman. She is clearly the oldest woman there. She looks like a typical elderly Afghan woman, small and frail. She, too, is accompanied by a child, and it is clear by the look on her face that she has quite a story to tell.
Bibi Shirin (which means Sweet Old Lady) is 72 and has been in Badam Bagh for three years along with her grandson, Firaidoon, who is now four. Average life expectancy in the country is only 48, which probably explains the name she has earned. As well as being the eldest inmate, she has quite a history. Her daughter-in-law was found dead in a case that made national headlines and prosecutors charged Bibi Shirin with her murder. She was sentenced to ten years in jail.
That was almost four years ago, but to this day she claims she is innocent. Prosecutors said Bibi Shirin attacked her daughter-in-law because she was sick and tired of her disobedience and repeatedly accused her of cheating. “I did the only thing I could to prove I was innocent,” she says as she struggles to hold back her tears. “I swore that I didn’t do it. But even then this government didn’t believe me. It’s useless.” Her grandson is troubled by her tears and puts his hand on Bibi Shirin’s face in an attempt to console her. But it is of little use.
Criminals or victims of injustice?
Most of the women in the prison claim they are innocent and are the victims of injustice. Afghanistan’s justice system has made international headlines several times over the years. In November 2012, the EU suspended $25 million (Dh91 million) in aid for the justice system due to rampant mismanagement, corruption and what has been referred to as the lack of “justice for all”.
Bibi Shirin claims she only spoke to her legal representative once, whereas Nooria says she wasn’t offered any legal counsel at all. But moral crimes, which include everything from running away from home, refusing to marry, marrying against their family’s wishes and adultery are usually the easiest for the courts to deal with as they do not require incriminating evidence or witnesses, explains Nader Nadery, a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“In many cases women run away because they can’t bear the domestic violence and then they are picked up and taken into custody for a long time. But running away is not defined in any penal code.” Still, women are charged with the crime.
On the other side of Kabul, in a heavily guarded ring of steel around the city centre, Fouzia Habibi sits in her office. She’s the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan. Women’s rights is one of the reasons the West was so quick to rush in after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. With international troops set to withdraw in 2014, it is one of the key issues international donors want to see addressed if they are to continue their aid and assistance. “The main issue is that women in Afghanistan do not know their rights. They are unaware of the laws of the land,” Fouzia says.
She knows that most women prisoners in the country claim they are innocent. “We’re concentrating on ensuring we get the message out to women that the law is there to protect them; that they have rights and responsibilities. We’ve started campaigns on TV, radio and in workshops across the country to try and engage women and educate them.”
But this is no ordinary country. An estimated 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas. Electricity is non-existent in most parts of the country unless you have the money to pay for it, or have a generator. The biggest obstacle, however, is the fact that the government’s capabilities are limited.
Political power is centralised in the major cities. In the rest of the country it usually exists only in the form of a few poorly trained police officers or local officials who travel in heavily armed convoys. Many Afghans have not bought into the idea of a national identity, and are growing ever more disenchanted with a government they see as corrupt and unrepresentative. In these parts of Afghanistan, tribal laws persist and the central government knows that it is imprudent to get involved in people’s personal affairs in these areas.
In January more than 30 people, most of them young children, died in Charahi Qambar, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, mainly due to the freezing cold temperatures. And that is just one camp in the capital. The situation in the rest of the country is reportedly worse. Temperatures in the long, harsh winter can fall to –25°C in parts of Afghanistan.
Despite the challenges, Fouzia is quick to point out that ten years ago, the condition of people, especially women, in Afghanistan was worse. “Fewer girls were in education and they had a far more peripheral role in social affairs. That’s why I am confident that their situation will be improved even further in the next ten years… inshallah.”
Back in Badam Bagh, it’s lunch time. The women queue up for their food, laughing and chatting. Many are accompanied by their children. Two big pots are laid by the front door, and as the lids are removed, the cold air from outside creates huge wafts of steam above them. One pot is filled with palau, plain Afghan rice, and the other with yakhni, steamed pieces of lamb. The women here get three meals a day. That is a rarity for most of Afghanistan’s population.
But it’s not just the ample food that is notable. As Lieutenant General Amir Mohammad Jamshid, the Director of Afghanistan’s Prisons and Correctional Facilities, says, “We have programmes to keep the women occupied and help with their rehabilitation and integration into society. We provide sewing and handicraft classes, cookery classes, a library, a nursery for the children and education for those who are illiterate.”
‘Like a bird in a cage’
Badam Bagh is not an ordinary prison and it’s made even more extraordinary given the country it is in. Women enjoy a relative sense of freedom within its walls. They are able to laugh and socialise together. But perhaps the conditions are too comfortable? Lieutenant General Jamshid doesn’t think so. “It’s like a bird being in a cage. You can feed it and care for it as much as physically possible. But in the end, it would always prefer to be free and in the wild. That is the essence of freedom.”
As I leave Badam Bagh, I notice four young children chasing each other in the snow. It appears they are playing the simplest game known to children, tag. It is a sobering sight, watching the kids behaving exactly as they are supposed to, oblivious to the huge metal fences that restrict their playing area. It is then that I realise one of life’s greatest truisms: kids will always be kids. Even the kids of Badam Bagh.
Nawied Jabarkhyl is a journalist for Radio 1 and 2 and is a freelance writer firstname.lastname@example.org