I will admit; I love Herat, one of the most historic cities in the world. Home to Alexander’s Fortress, gorgeous Minarets, and the world’s oldest fully contained sewer system. Also close to Rabat I Sangi, which is mentioned in Kipling’s book “Kim”. It is a relatively peaceful city. Partly, I believe this is because Iran has a strong presence there, to include a huge embassy complex, which takes up a large part of the downtown area, and it is in Iran’s best interests for Herat to be peaceful due to its proximity to Iran, itself.
The city is known for its poets and intellectuals, and it is a decidedly groovy place to hang out, smoke some shisha and talk to young Iranian and Afghans over plates of hummus, yoghurt and kabab, washed down with copious amounts of chai or iced pomegranate juice. While hanging out at one of these places with friends, we ran into some Western NGO types, who invited us to visit them at their place of work the next day. We jumped at the chance, because they worked at the Herat Women’s Prison.
We were really excited to go for a variety of reasons. First, we’d never been in a Women’s Prison before in Afghanistan, so we saw it as a potentially unique experience. I’d worked in the US for a few years as a teacher in a prison, so I was intellectually curious about how it would differ from that experience.
Some notes about Afghan women’s prisons: Most women in Afghanistan are in prison for adultery, drug crimes, murder or running away from their husbands. And adultery, includes the crime of being raped; Being raped carries a sentence for the victim as well as the perpetrator in Afghanistan more often than not. A woman in prison for murder may have killed an abusive spouse, or she may be serving a sentence in lieu of a male relative who committed murder.
When women go to prison in Afghanistan, their children often go with them. On the surface, this seems kind of inhumane, but that’s until you actually experience the wonder of the Herat women’s prison. The women in Herat Prison work together to care for the children, and the facilities themselves are first rate. In fact, the women being kept there joke about it being “The best hotel in Afghanistan”. The western aid community has really come through on this, and it is very nice, as prisons come.
So, we arrived at the front gate, and were given permission to enter, with a warning that the women did not want their faces shown in any pictures taken. Once we entered the prison, it was about 10 seconds before the first wave of children came at us. Somewhat belatedly, the guard with us told us to secure our valuables, as the smaller children were in the habit of retrieving loose items from pockets. Somewhere in the act of moving my money from my front pants pocket to my breast pocket, a little hand purloined my room key. The children eventually returned it to one of the women guards, as the intent was curiosity, not actual theft.
Ilya, a gorgeous 3-4 year old Tajik girl, singled me out instantly. She then made it perfectly clear that I was “hers” and I was to take pictures of her and then let her see them. When not actively taking her picture, her right hand was intently in my left and when she could, she buried her other hand in my beard and held on tightly. The problem is, to my great sadness, the light was not good in the prison, and Ilya wouldn’t stop moving long enough for me to get a good, in focus picture of her.
Evidently her mother is an addict, and is in prison to be saved from herself, as well as to protect Ilya. The head guard there explained that Ilya’s mother is a year past her release date, but they are keeping her for Ilya’s sake.
After surviving the initial onslaught of children, we moved to the central yard. Today was visiting day, so all the women were in the yard, with some families having lunch together. What struck me the most was the amount of early pubescent girls who are there. Most striking was a particular Tajik girl who was there for the crime of being disposable. The guards told us that her brother had murdered someone else in another family, and to keep the peace between them, her family had to give up someone to serve in prison, and she was “it”. The guard nonchalantly stated that this young girl was the most disposable member of her family right now.
She was in the coltish, obviously just starting to be a woman phase, and just seeing her was painful. She preened and flirted just a bit for the men in the group, but then caught herself, knowing it to be out of line. Then, she just sat in a corner by herself and looked miserable. I was captured by the incredible bitterness of this moment, and felt such a sense of hopelessness and helplessness on her behalf.
We toured the prison school, which is top-notch, by Afghan standards. The English teacher was Hazara, and was convinced I was at least part Afghan. We finally decided that I was German, (not completely a fib) and most Afghans I meet are more comfortable with me being German, as they never encounter Americans travelling there.
We had invited some US service members to come with us that day, and two daring young Marines took us up on it. One, a female Marine Captain became the center of attention for the prison’s Billy Goat. He was a spectacular black animal, with prodigious horns. He proceeded to go into full display mode for her, pawing the ground with his hooves, arching his back and neck, and puffing up and strutting around. The Captain, (who will remain nameless) who is NOT a farm girl, looked at me curiously, and asked why the Billy Goat was acting like that, and I responded wryly “he is hitting on you.” You could see that a) this is not precisely what she wanted to hear and b) she really didn’t believe me 100%.
But to reinforce my point, Billy continued to follow her around the yard, taking every opportunity to flex and preen for her. It was really funny to see her blush darker, every time we stopped, and old Bill started putting on his “macho goat show” directly in front of her. I later met with her fellow Marines, and to my credit, did not relate this tale, though she looked at me threateningly when the opportunity presented itself.
The toilet in the Herat men’s prison
Next, we toured the men’s prison, which is adjacent, and is a very rough place. Mud walls, open courtyard and surrounded by rough rooms carved into the walls. The toilet areas consisted of open rooms with sluices angled out to the street. We toured the kitchen areas and the workshops, where men learned to make rugs and do tailor work.
We walked up to the top of one of the guard towers, where we saw an Old Russian machinegun that had been repaired using bicycle parts. The guards there swore it worked perfectly, and one of the Marines with us commented, “Someone, somewhere, is wondering where in hell their bicycle went. This machinegun later became the subject of a New York Times blog by C.J. Chivers, who I consider somewhat of a kindred spirit, and earned me a by name mention in his At War Blog.
On the way home, we were engaged with machinegun fire from a military convoy. They put a round through our windshield, which shook us up a bit, but left us otherwise unharmed. We angrily followed the patrol to their base, and then confronted them. To their credit, they looked completely chagrined, and the young man on the machinegun confided that his Sergeant told him to, over his repeated objections.
Leaving the prison left me hollow and drained. The sheer volume of children demanding affection, combined with the stress of seeing obvious injustice (by our standards) combined to wear out my emotional reserve. It was, however, a once in 100 people’s lifetime kind of moment. This lives in my mind as one of those unique, utterly unforgettable experiences. I will remember Ilya forever, hoping and praying she gets a chance at a good life, knowing in my heart that it isn’t very likely. I also hope and pray that the young women we saw would eventually find freedom and have lives of their own, but I also know in my heart that isn’t likely, either.
Here is a link to a Human Rights Watch report on Women in prison in Afghanistan: