Losing Afghanistan: The worst place in the world to be a widow

To be a widow in Afghanistan is to barely exist. It is not accepted – culturally – for a woman to live alone. 16x9

Fifteen-year-old Lima is sitting in the corner of a small room silently listening as her mother talks to me about life as a widow: the hardship of trying to raise five children alone in Afghanistan.

Her mother, Zeba, wears a widow’s black headscarf, which she tugs over her face, covering more and more of herself as she speaks, until only her dark eyes are visible.

Her husband, Lima’s father, was “disappeared” eight years ago while working for a foreign contractor. They assume he was murdered, but there has never been confirmation. He’d left to escort a convoy, his usual duty, Zeba tells me, but he did not come back.

READ MORE: Losing Afghanistan: A close-up look at the plight of women caught in a cycle of violence

“When he escorted convoys before,” she told me in Dari, “he would typically be gone 10 to 20 days, and then he’d be back. But this time, he left and never came back.”

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There were rumours that the convoy was attacked and hostages were taken. A month passed. And then two. Zeba called her in-laws but they didn’t have answers and could not help. Her own father took pity on her, she says, and brought her back to his house, where he gave her a room to live in – with her children.

“Look at my life,” she says, gesturing around the small dark room, “I used to work outside the home. Now I am sick, and I have mental problems.”

She shows me a bag full of pills.

“This is my medication. I do a bit of tailoring, but I don’t earn that much. I can barely cover my expenses.”

To be a widow in Afghanistan is to barely exist. It is not accepted – culturally – for a woman to live alone. And in this country of widows – there are an estimated 2 million, the result of more than 30 years of war – there are few options because most of them are illiterate or have never worked.

According to a UN estimate, the average age of a widow here is 35.

That’s how old Zeba says she is – but she’s not 100 per cent sure. She tells me she married early – it was arranged – and she was more or less happy even though her husband was prone to bouts of violence.

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She makes tea and serves her children a piece of flatbread for breakfast before returning to work on an old sewing machine, donated by an NGO. It doesn’t work very well, she complains, but it’s all she has. She sews simple dresses, making between 150 and 200 Afghanis for each – about $2 to $3.

As her mother is bent over her machine, Lima steps forward.

“I remember my father,” she tells me in a quiet voice.

Lima (right) and her mother, Zeba. 16x9

I ask her to tell me what she remembers, and it soon becomes clear she can’t distinguish her memories from her dreams.

“He loved me a lot. He loved all of us, but he loved me best.”

“We were in our hometown (in Parwan province),” she continues, “and I just kept looking at the door every moment, expecting that he would come home. Twenty days passed, and I thought he would be home any minute. I heard him saying, ‘Wake up, my daughter, wake up.’”

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But he never came home, and her life changed forever.

“Sometimes – sometimes my heart says that he’s still alive and sometimes I think he’s dead. There – there’s a heavy pain in my heart. Sometimes I think that I can imagine that if I had father and I could sit with him, but now he’s not with us. And sometimes when I see my mother’s suffering and working hard, and I think that if my father was alive, she would not work so hard.”

It’s now up to her, she says, to break the cycle of her family’s fate.

“The only one wish I have is to study,” she says. “I want to become a physician, save my mother from all these hardships, and support her. I want to become someone whom my brothers look at and learn from.”

It’s difficult to imagine, but Lima and her brothers are lucky, for children of a widow. Lima is going to school and has a roof over her head. A whole generation of children born to Afghanistan’s war widows do not have that luxury.

Better to be hungry than be killed

Nazanin is seven, but she looks no older than five. She’s a tiny girl-child, wide-eyed but wise beyond her years. She clings to her grandmother in the tiny mud hut they share with her older brother.

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WATCH: Sat Nandlall photographed some of the Afghan families who have been dislocated by Taliban violence in their home provinces

I meet her grandmother, Bibi Awa, at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp on the outskirts of the city.

She says she’s 60, but she looks much older. The lines drawn across her face are a silent testimony to the hardship she’s endured: the death of her husband and a son – Nazanin’s father – by a coalition airstrike, she tells me.

“They have made me a beggar,” she laments in a throaty voice. “Our children are begging in the streets.”

She’s lived here for five years after fleeing the fighting in the Kajaki district of Helmand province. Her small hut is decorated brightly, with pink and gold blankets she brought from home to make her grandchildren, Nazanin and her brother, Qudrat, who is seven, feel at home. Despite the harsh conditions, she says, life is better here, because they are away from the fighting.

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“We do not find food to eat,” she says, shaking her head. “We do not find water to drink. We do not have oil to cook something. We do not have fire to warm ourselves. And we do not have honey, tea, coffee, and other things, but still we are a little bit happier because our ears are calm and we do not hear the fighting sound.”

Better to be hungry than be killed, she says.

16×9’s “Losing Afghanistan” airs Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 at 7pm.

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