Afghanistan: 22 women and children to a cell - life in a notorious Afghan prison

The Guardian
Shaima left her violent husband and married a man she loved. They lived happily, but after a few years the police came after her - adultery is illegal in Afghanistan - demanding 4,000 afghanis (£42) in exchange for her freedom.
The family did not have the money, and now Shaima, whose expressionless face is adorned with delicate tattoos, is in Afghanistan's high-security Policharki prison with two children by her second relationship.
"I thought my [new] father-in-law was solving the case," she says several times in a low voice. Shaima, 30, stares at Fariba, her five-day-old daughter who sleeps in tightly wrapped swaddling clothes on her lap.

She shares a bunk-lined room with 11 other women and 10 children. Close to 80 adults live in the women's wing of Policharki, which houses about 1,300 in total. The women's few possessions hang above each bed - a child's knitted hat, a pair of socks, a small velvet bag. They eat their meals squatting on the floor next to the heater in each room. Clothes hung up to dry line the halls.

Afghanistan's biggest prison, just east of Kabul, was renowned for the torture and killing of thousands during the communist era. More recently, it has been the scene of deadly riots and prison escapes.

In contrast to Shaima's apparent meekness, fury hides beneath the sweet, smiling face of another inmate, Shafika. "I will kill my husband as soon as I get out of here," she says, her two-year-old son Wahidullah snuggled close. Shafika (not pictured) is serving time for murder, a crime she says was pinned on her by her husband.

"I would die here before going back to my in-laws, she says. "Those people have no shame." Shafika, who does not know her age, but looks to be in her early 20s, flashes henna-covered hands as she talks.

She says her first husband died about six years ago and she was then forced to marry her brother-in-law, a common practice in Afghanistan. Her new husband was a jealous man, Shafika says, and, about three years ago, he killed a man he claimed was having an affair with her. The police arrested her without even questioning her, she says.

Other women cannot or will not leave their children with relatives, so the prison runs a school for them.

Aziza, 11, is in Policharki with her mother and sister. She likes the prison school well enough, especially its handicrafts class, where she makes cigarette holders out of colourful beads, she says.

"If we were at home, we would study, sleep and eat too," she says, looking into her lap and running her fingers along her red dress. "But I do miss my home sometimes, especially our cat."

Shafika tries not to think about home. When asked what she misses most about her village in Wardak, a mountainous province in the centre of the country, she shakes her head and says: "And what would I do with all those memories?"

Brinley Bruton in Kabul
Monday January 8, 2007
The Guardian