Widow Shah Jan sits in an icy room with mud walls in a snowfield on the edge of Kabul. She wipes her tears with the edge of her grimy sweater as she recalls the day in August 1999 when the Taliban set fire to her home in the vineyards of the Shomali Plain and kidnapped her best friend, Nafiza. “The Taliban burst in with their guns and torches,” says Shah Jan. “None of us even had time to put on our veils.”
With the women stripped of their burkas, it was a simple task for the Taliban invaders to cull the young beauties. Nafiza was one of them. Green-eyed, with raven-black hair that grazed her waist, Nafiza had rushed to help Shah Jan get her three kids out of the burning house. A Taliban fighter spotted the woman with the emerald eyes. She was his prize. With the butt of his AK-47 rifle, he slammed Nafiza into the dust and dragged her, crying and pleading, to the highway. There, Arabs and Pakistanis of al-Qaeda joined the Taliban to sort out the young women from the other villagers. One girl preferred suicide to slavery; she threw herself down a well. Nafiza and women from surrounding villages, numbering in the hundreds, were herded into trucks and buses. They were never seen again.
Only now, two months after the Taliban’s fall, are the dirtiest secrets of their persecution of Afghan women coming to light. The Taliban often argued that the brutal restrictions they placed on women were actually a way of revering and protecting the opposite sex. The behavior of the Taliban during the six years they expanded their rule in Afghanistan made a mockery of that claim. The United Nations and relief agencies picked up warning signals of these abuses from women refugees fleeing the conquering Taliban. Now it is clear from the testimony of witnesses and officials of the new government that the ruling clerics systematically abducted women from the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other ethnic minorities they defeated. Stolen women were a reward for victorious battle. And in the cities of Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad and Khost, women victims tell of being forced to wed Taliban soldiers and Pakistani and Arab fighters of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, who later abandoned them. These marriages were tantamount to legalized rape. “They sold these girls,” says Ahmad Jan, the Kabul police chief. “The girls were dishonored and then discarded.”
In the mud-fortress villages above the Shomali vineyards, more than 600 women vanished in the 1999 Taliban offensive. Yet these abductions are considered such a great dishonor that the victims’ families almost never mention them. Says Qadria Yasdon Parast, leader of Freedom Messengers, a Kabul women’s rights group: “If you ask about the missing, they’ll say, ‘Our daughter’s dead,’ or that she’s off married in Pakistan.” Many of the women probably did end up in Pakistan–but were sold to brothels or kept as virtual slaves inside homes, say officials from relief agencies. None have come back. Even if they could escape, these women would probably calculate that their families would no longer welcome them.
The trail of the missing Shomali women leads to Jalalabad, not far from the Pakistan border. There, according to eyewitnesses, the women were penned up inside Sar Shahi camp in the desert. The more desirable among them were selected and taken away. Some were trucked to Peshawar with the apparent complicity of Pakistani border guards. Others were taken to Khost, where bin Laden had several training camps. The al-Qaeda Arabs had a hard time finding voluntary brides among the Afghan women, but they did have money. One Arab in Khost spent $10,000 on a teenage Afghan beauty, says Ahmad Jan, but abandoned her a week later, when the U.S. air strikes began.
Orders to abduct women came from the Taliban leaders, say the Kabul police, but not all commanders obeyed. In the Shomali Plain, Taliban commander Nuruludah says, he saw women being forced onto trucks by Pakistani members of al-Qaeda, so he gathered 10 men, ambushed the trucks and released the women. In Jalalabad too, a few local Taliban eventually stormed the camp and freed the women who remained there. These were the heroic exceptions. For others, apparently, the profound degradation of women seemed perfectly tolerable.