Copyright oggbashan July 2010
I was hot, tired and appalled by the stories I had just filed as a reporter. I had been sent to Kabul, Afghanistan to find stories about women still being abused under the current NATO backed regime.
Although I had interviewed many women, all of whom wanted complete anonymity, almost all admitted that life had been much worse before the Allied invasion that had removed the Taleban.
Their stories were still bad yet all had a ‘but’…
My room on the highest floor of the hotel had a balcony with a white plastic chaise longue. After a cool shower I spread a crisp ironed sheet over the hot plastic and, completely nude and still dripping, stretched out to improve my full body tan under the sun which would set in a couple of hours. The early evening breeze was still hot and dusty. If the shower was still working I would need another to wash the film of dust I would accumulate.
My mind was still reviewing the terrible accounts the women had given. They were whirring around in a mixture of fascination and horror. How would I have reacted if I had been treated so badly? In my own country the men would have been charged with serious criminal offences.
In Afghanistan a woman’s evidence was still valued at half that of a man’s and all the judges were male. Unless the male cruelty had been witnessed by a man who was willing to testify, the woman had no possibility of winning a complaint against even her husband.
I almost wished that I was back in our bed with my estranged husband, in a cool climate where we could make love without soaking the sheets with our sweat. My hotel was supposed to be air-conditioned but it only worked fitfully when the electrical power was available. That was a few hours a day at best.
I thought about Doug. Was he right that I shouldn’t go to the dangerous places? He hadn’t minded losing me to places in Europe, or Australia, but we had argued, and separated three years ago when I took assignments in Iraq and Iran. This trip to Afghanistan had been the final straw and we had begun divorce proceedings. I knew he was seeing someone new and I was thinking about looking for a new partner. I still regretted Doug but I had to move on.
I must have fallen asleep lazing in the sun. I came to with the sound of male voices in my room. Why? I’d locked the door carefully. I thought I would cover my nudity with the sheet.
I couldn’t move. The sheet was tightly wound around my body. I looked down. There were many white straps around my body. My legs and arms were lashed to my sides. I tried to open my mouth. I couldn’t. I could turn my head slightly. Reflected in the glass of the balcony door I saw that my mouth had been taped shut with white duct tape. My head was swathed in white covering all of my head except my eyes, nose and the tape over my mouth.
Some of the straps around me were holding me to the chaise longue.
I heard the slap of sandals as someone came across the room to the balcony door. He was dressed as a local Afghan tribesman.
“You are awake? Good. You will be taken from here.”
He made a sign to people I couldn’t see. Three men, similarly dressed as tribesmen, moved to the balcony. The four of them picked up the chaise longue with me on it and carried it into my hotel room. One closed the balcony door and then the curtains.
“I am Kemal, or that is what I am called. My real name doesn’t matter. Now, Mrs Smith, or is it Ms Smith? That does matter you know…”
Kemal spoke to one of the others in a language I didn’t recognise. One word I did know — “passport”. It was soon found in my shoulder bag and passed to the first man. He flipped through it.
“Mrs,” he emphasised the “Mrs”, “you have offended against our customs. For that you will be punished. It will be done with all the formal legal proceedings that our unfortunate country can produce but not here. Prepare her!”
Some Escort Bayan of the straps around me were removed and I was roughly stood upright. My legs were so tightly wrapped and bound that one of the men had to prop me up. Another threw a long black gown over my head and yanked it down to cover me from neck to beyond my feet, splaying on the ground. He pulled a burqa over my head and shoulders, positioning the lace eye grid where my eyes would be but there was another layer of cloth sewn inside, covering the grid. I was helplessly bound, gagged silent, blindfolded and completely anonymous inside that burqa.
“Sit!” Kemal ordered. The man holding me shuffled me backwards until I felt something against the back of my legs. It felt like a chair. It was. A wheelchair. I was pushed into it. My burqa was raised at the back and my head was pushed between head blocks. A brown hand fitted a blue strap across my forehead and another across my taped mouth. More a straps held my chest and waist firmly against the chair’s back. The burqa was lowered and I was blindfolded again. My bonds were presumably concealed.
I felt the hem of the long gown being raised. More straps went around my lower legs and ankles and lashed them to the chair before the gown was lowered again.
I heard the room door open. I was pushed towards the lift. I could hear people in the corridor but I couldn’t shout for help. My best effort was a strangled grunt, drowned by the loud conversation of the men around me. I couldn’t nod or shake my head. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. All I could do was wiggle my fingers or toes but they were sheathed under layers of cloth.
We went down in the lift, through the foyer and turned left, the way to the car park. I was pushed up a ramp, presumably into a vehicle adapted for wheelchairs. I heard clicks as my wheelchair was clamped into position before the doors slammed and the vehicle started.
I tried to follow the vehicle’s route in my head. First left, then right. Stop at presumably some traffic lights. Right. Left. Straight across several junctions, right, right again.
It went on for at least half an hour by which time I had lost count of the twists and turns. The road surface, never good, was getting worse and I was being jolted around.
Eventually we stopped. Someone got out. I heard the rumble of sliding doors or gates. We drove a few yards, stopped, and the engine was switched off. I was sweating inside the layers of sheet, robe and burqa but also I was afraid. What did they want with me? Would I survive?
The burqa was roughly pulled off. I was sitting in a large room facing a dais on which sat five elderly men looking severe. The one in the centre spoke a short sentence in Pashto. He had spoken too quickly and vehemently for me to understand. The straps clamping my head were removed.
Kemal sat beside me. He spoke quietly in my ear.
“This is a court room. You are about to be tried for adultery. Do you plead guilty?”
I tried to speak but my mouth was still taped shut. I shook my head as far as the blocks either side of it allowed.
Kemal spoke to the judges in Pashto. I understood him to say that I pleaded ‘Not Guilty’. At least he had conveyed my answer correctly. If he hadn’t, what recourse had I?
One by one the four men who had abducted me, including Kemal, stood up, bowed to the judges and spoke briefly. They all claimed to have witnessed me in an act of adultery with two foreigners simultaneously. I wanted to protest, to plead my innocence. I shook my head after every man had spoken.
The main judge spoke to me slowly and clearly in accented English.
“Mrs Smith, your denials are worthless. I do not need to hear your voice. Your testimony in this court is valued at half that of a man, and as you are an infidel barbarian, probably even less than half. Four men have given testimony that you have committed Bayan Escort adultery. That is eight votes to your one. It is unfortunate that the men were not taken with you but no matter. You will be punished according to the laws of Iran…”
Iran? But I was in Afghanistan! I shook my head again.
“…This court does not recognise the laws of the corrupt regime here. Iran, our neighbour, has sensible laws that recognise our customs so this court uses them.
Your guilt has been proven by reputable testimony. We judges have only to decide the appropriate punishment. We will confer.”
The judges went into a huddle around the main judge’s chair. There was obviously some disagreement between them. After a few minutes four of them had agreed. The fifth appeared reluctant by finally nodded his agreement.
He spoke to Kemal, instructing him to push me toward the judges.
“Mrs Smith, we have decided your punishment. One of us suggested that we should use the barbarian punishments once employed by your country. The majority disagreed. Just because his ancestor was blown to pieces at the mouth of a British cannon is no justification for doing that to you. You will receive the traditional punishment for adultery.
You will be wrapped in a shroud, buried in earth up to your shoulders, and then stoned to death. If you could free yourself, you could be pardoned, but you can’t free yourself now, can you? You won’t be able to free yourself when earth is piled around you.”
I shook my head violently and tears began to flow. What had I done to deserve this? I hadn’t committed adultery. I might have thought about, particularly with Raoul, the reporter from a French newspaper who had the next hotel room to mine, but I hadn’t done it. Why had the four men lied?
Kemal gave me the answer almost as if he read my thoughts. He whispered in my ear.
“We haven’t told the judges, but your real offence is the article you wrote about abuse of our women. Your email to your editor was intercepted and irritated the authorities. Your editor will never see it.”
The email to my editor had been stopped? But had the others? I knew that communications from Afghanistan were erratic and subject to interference, so I had sent my email from several email addresses using different computers, and copied this one to Doug. That had been an attempt to prove to him that my work in Afghanistan was worthwhile.
“Mrs Smith?” The judge addressed me again.
“It seems convenient to us that you should be executed immediately. You are already securely wrapped in a shroud. There is a suitable pit created by a misguided suicide bomber close by. It will serve for your execution and also for your burial. Go with God.”
He stood up. The other judges stood up. All five nodded to me and left the room. Kemal turned the wheelchair and started to push it towards the door. The burqa was wrapped around my head as we left the room.
After about a hundred yards of increasingly bumpy ground the wheelchair stopped and its brakes were applied. I heard the sounds of shovels digging. The burqa was removed again. In the darkness I could see the shape of the excavation.
Hands fumbled at the straps holding me to the wheelchair. My still bound body was carried down into the hole and I was slid into a deep hole. The sides were collapsing even as I was lowered into it. Kemal propped me upright as the other three witnesses against me shovelled hard. The earth rose around me. The edge of the pit was at least six feet above my head.
Then, to my horror, they stopped at the level of my waist and began stamping hard to compress the earth. My legs and stomach felt as if they were being squeezed. They shovelled more earth until it was at the level of my armpits. They stamped again. The air in my lungs was being forced out. I could only breathe shallowly in fast panting.
Kemal Escort knelt down beside me.
“The sentence was death by stoning. For that we should have thirty men but we only have four. I have decided that we will forget the stoning and, instead, bury you alive. This hole has to be filled. We have done enough by hand. Now we will finish with a borrowed JCB. Goodbye. That means ‘Go with God’.”
The four men climbed out of the pit and I heard the sound of a diesel engine. Earth began to pour over the edge, creeping closer and closer towards me. As it reached my chin I began to shake my head desperately…
…”Wake up, Anne!”
A hand was shaking my shoulder. How was that possible? My shoulder was under six inches of earth. The hand shook my shoulder again.
I opened my eyes to look into Raoul’s.
I could speak! I wasn’t gagged. I moistened my dry lips, swallowed and tried again.
“What’s happened? Where am I?”
“You’re in your hotel room, wrapped in a sheet.
Where did you think you were?”
That would take a long time to explain.
“Could I have a drink, please? Cold water?”
Raoul went to the mini-fridge and brought me a bottle of water. He opened it and held it to my mouth. I brought my hand up to grasp it. As I did so, the sheet slipped away, exposing a breast.
Raoul looked down.
“Nice,” he said. “So is the rest of you.”
“Of course. Who do you think wrapped you in this sheet and brought you inside? You were tossing and turning and babbling nonsense. I think you’ve got heatstroke. It was unwise to go to sleep while sunbathing — nude.”
During the next hour Raoul behaved impeccably as a nurse. He washed me under a cold shower, fed me water, showered me again, gave me Ibuprofen, loosely wrapped me in another clean sheet brought from his room, and made sure I was cooled down and thinking straight.
I explained what my nightmare had been.
“It is true that stoning still happens in this country, Anne, but not here in the capital, and in a very few rural places where the elders are reactionary. IF you had committed adultery, here, in this hotel, and been caught — you would probably have been expelled from the country, discreetly.”
“And those stories you sent to your editor?”
“Many of them, not all, but many, are fabricated by opponents of the current regime to attack its credibility. I’ve heard some of them before, with exactly the same details but from different women. They are taught how to present them. I’m sorry, Anne, but you fell for an old trick — people telling journalists what they want to hear.”
“Damn indeed. I think your editor will spike your story. Sorry.”
“Thank you for looking after me. But how did you get into my room?”
“The first time? I climbed from my balcony to yours. I could see that you were unwell. At least I could see that when I’d looked closely at your nude body. You were tossing and turning but with your arms and legs pressed tightly together. That was weird. So weird that I thought I should do something — so I did. When I went to get another sheet I used your room key and mine.”
“Did anyone see you?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“Because if they had, we might be expelled — discreetly, you said.”
“But we haven’t committed…”
Later on, we did. We weren’t caught. I enjoyed it but Raoul was apparently happily married. He said that Frenchwomen didn’t object to discreet mistresses but I wasn’t so sure.
I checked. Raoul was right. The male atrocity stories I had collected were identical, word for word except for name changes to those apparently committed under the Taleban. I left Afghanistan and returned to covering stories in less dangerous places.
I never admitted that my husband, Doug, had been right but after a few months we resumed life as husband and wife.
Making love to Doug was comforting, safe, secure and enjoyable but just a few times I remembered committing nude adultery with an energetic Frenchman.