Foreign troops are leaving Afghanistan, marking an official end to 13 years of conflict, in which 13,000 Afghan soldiers have lost their lives. For a new BBC documentary, Our World: The War Widows of Afghanistan, Afghan journalist Zarghuna Kargar has been on the trail of the hidden victims of the war: the Afghan women whose husbands were killed in the fight against the Taliban.
On a quiet side street in Balkh province, in Northern Afghanistan, Marzia is hand-weaving a carpet. It’s painstaking, monotonous work.
She learned to weave when she was seven years old. She is now 26, and regularly spends up to ten hours a day sitting by her loom.
“I’m tired of weaving,” she says, without looking up from her work. “Before my marriage I wove, after my marriage I wove — now I want to go outside and get a proper job.”
But Marzia’s chances of finding work are slim. She is just one of Afghanistan’s estimated two million war widows, and, as such is subject to rumours and gossip.
She says: “People think that when a woman is widowed she becomes morally loose and is out of control. They think we are like a pot with no lid; uncovered and ready to do anything. But they are wrong — we are just women, and we have hopes and dreams.”
Marzia’s husband was also an illiterate carpet weaver. But once he had a family to support he joined the Afghan army. He was killed when his vehicle hit a mine in 2010, leaving Marzia to support their two young children.
Her experience of widowhood is typical. Without a husband, widows in Afghanistan’s conservative society are left almost powerless. They lose not only status but also freedom. Many are uneducated and young and don’t have the support systems to help them move forward with their lives. When Afghan soldiers are killed, their wives often struggle to find food and raise their children — the UN estimates that 85 percent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate. In the US or the UK women are supported by welfare systems, other family members, even society. They also retain their freedom — the most important thing.
Tajbibe lives in Kabul. Her husband was a translator for the American army and was shot on his way to work in Logar province seven years ago. She only found out what had happened when his mutilated body was brought to her front door.
“It had started to snow, and I heard a car arriving,” she says. “My children called out, ‘It’s our daddy.’ I went outside and saw his body surrounded by soldiers. He had been shot in the heart, and his uniform was full of holes, like a sieve.”
She says she doesn’t know how to access what government support is available to military widows.
“When he died I lost his ID and all his papers,” she says, “I don’t know how to claim a pension for widows and orphans. If someone has a man they could make a claim, but without a man, how could I do it?
“I used to be the wife of a big man, but now I suffer — I look like a beggar.”
We were incredibly fortunate to gain access to these women who have become ghosts in their own society. Indeed this is the first time they have shared their stories. One of the most touching things I experienced during the making of this documentary was when another widow I spoke to, Mehrjan, said that no one had ever asked her before how she feels and how she is. Their treatment and the reactions of those around them is heart breaking; one of the women told us “they think that widows are like a pot without a lid,” it tells so much about being a widow in just one sentence.
Growing up in Afghanistan, I was very aware of the conflict’s impact and now, as a BBC journalist, I wanted to explain and share much these women widowed by war have suffered.
The experiences of Afghan widows may on the surface seem a world apart from those experienced by U.S or British women who lost husbands in the same war. But they are united by something than transcends borders and culture; as a universal sense of loss. As Marzia says, they have all lost the men that they loved.
“The foreign troops all have families — and yet they have sacrificed themselves for Afghanistan’s security,” she says, “Their families are also grieving.”
Marzia is finding a way to make sense of her husband’s sacrifice and the war he fought in.
“He served this country from the bottom of his heart,” she says, “He sacrificed himself for the security of his people. And his place will be in paradise.”
Zarghuna Kargar is a journalist for BBC World News and author of Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan. Her TV documentary Our World: The War Widows of Afghanistan will broadcast on the 24 hour news channel BBC World News on Sunday 27 July 22:30 and Wednesday 30 July 21:30 ET. Learn more about the documentary here.