Mazar-e-Sharif Suicides: Poisonous Freedom for Afghan Women

But the family home of the dead sisters is located in one of the best areas of town. It is spacious and in good condition, with a garden full of blooming roses. Marzia Gul, their mother, says "Please, come in," and sits down on the sofa in the living room, sinking into the red upholstery. "Fareba, my oldest daughter, studied law," she says. "She wanted to be a lawyer like her father" and was just a year away from her final exams. Nabila, the younger one, also did well in school, she continues. "She wanted to be a journalist."

Marzia gets up, walks over to the cupboard and takes a photo from a glass tray. The picture shows a smiling little girl with pigtails and freckles. "She was so kind and helpful," she says. Then her voice breaks.

A Place of Despair

The sisters' suicide is particularly unsettling because the girls led privileged lives in this long-suffering country. They watched Bollywood films, had mobile phones and Internet access. Along with jeans and makeup, they wore headscarves but no burqas. They didn't have to hide from the world.

And they lived in a city that does not force the well-off to barricade themselves behind concrete walls. A powerful governor controls life in this part of Afghanistan -- so effectively, in fact, that residents hardly have to fear death from a bomb attack. Foreign aid workers are permitted to move around freely. Visitors barely see any weapons in the streets. Instead, they can watch women in the bazaars trying on shoes, their eyelids shaded with the traditional cosmetic kajal and their hair lightly covered by a headscarf.

Indeed, in theory, Mazar-e-Sharif is a place of hope. But at least in the regional hospital's department of internal medicine, the city is a place of despair.

"Fridays are the worst," says Dr. Khaled Basharmal as he takes out a notebook. "Eight attempted suicides on a single day." He reads off the names of the most recent patients -- Raihana, Roya, Shukuria, Terena, Rahima. There are also the names of two young men.

"It's a disaster. Since late March, we've had more than 200 cases," Basharmal says. The sisters, Fareba and Nabila Gul, were among his patients as well.

Basharmal is sweating underneath his white coat, and he is exhausted. It's noon now, and he was forced to work another shift that lasted through the night.

No official statistics are kept, and no one can confirm his figures. Nevertheless, Afghanistan is believed to be one of the few countries in the world that has more women taking their lives than men. A recent study concluded that five out of every 100,000 women are committing suicide each year. But the real number is likely to be much higher, especially in rural areas far away from the big cities. More than 1.8 million women in Afghanistan, which has an estimated population of 31 million, are said to be suffering from depression.

A Cry for Help?

Anyone visiting the department of internal medicine in Mazar-e-Sharif doesn't need statistics. It is a hospital room with empty walls and no medical equipment; there are only eight beds. A new patient is brought in, another suicide attempt. Nurses put her in one of the empty beds. The girl's veil has been pushed up, revealing a strikingly beautiful face. But the eyes are strangely lifeless. A nurse inserts a tube into the girl's nose. A salty liquid flows into her body. When it's pumped back out of the girl's stomach and into a plastic bottle, the liquid is pitch-black. "Sleeping pills," Barshamal says.

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