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

In another bed lies Roya, a skinny young woman among those who survived the previous night. Although her family claimed she is 24 when she was admitted to the hospital, Barshamal thinks Roya is probably closer to 18 years old. She barely has enough energy to speak but, in a fading voice, she says she injected rat poison into her veins and points to the inside of her left arm.

Roya had meticulously planned her own death. She first went to her general practitioner and got a prescription for low blood pressure and a syringe. Then she got the rat poison. She says that she was desperate, that she wanted to die.

Roya's mother enters the room along with her brother. "She's has a happy life," he says. "There are no problems." Roya only nods. She doesn't dare contradict him.

One floor below lies Zarghana, a 28-years-old relative of Roya. She took sleeping pills and pesticides, and now the poison is attacking her internal organs. She was rushed to the emergency room, which she shares with two other women. One of them is naked, her body covered with bruises; the other is a mere child, bloody and in a coma. Are the women victims of an accident? Of domestic violence? The nurses give inconclusive answers.

"Nobody is listening to me!" Zarghana had kept screaming throughout the night. Now that someone is asking to hear her story, she's pushing the sheets and the edge of her robe aside with trembling hands. She points to her neck and shoulders; the skin is scarred and destroyed, full of white blotches.

Zarghana says that she has tried to kill herself twice. The first time she almost succeeded. She took gasoline from a generator in the bathroom, doused herself, lit a match and was burning like a human flame. But then she thought of her children, and the pain became so strong that she reached for a blanket hanging from the laundry line in the yard. She managed to put out the flames. Afterwards, one could see through the flesh on her back, right down to the bones.

That was six months ago. Zarghana received treatment in Kabul, where doctors performed skin transplants. Her father, a wealthy civil servant, paid the bill.

"Many don't really want to die," Dr. Basharmal says. "They are looking for a way out. They want to set an example." Yet in about one of 10 cases, he adds, this supposed cry for help actually does end in death.

Trapped in a Spiral of Self-Destruction and Depression

A search for clues that might explain Zarghana's attempted suicides leads through a dusty street on the outskirts of town. She has now been released from the hospital and returned home. She is unlikely to recover from the piercing pain that keeps plaguing her; the poison has severely damaged her stomach and kidneys.

Zarghana can read and write, and she even speaks a bit of English. For years, she had been working for a local human rights organization. At first, she was a volunteer teaching rural women in villages and explaining to them what their rights are. Then she was taken on as a paid employee. The money sustained her family, as she earned more than her husband. "I was a very successful woman," Zarghana says and immediately starts to cry.

But this success is only half of Zarghana's real story. When she was only 13, like so many other women in Afghanistan, Zarghana was promised to her future husband. Between 60 and 80 percent of all Afghan women are still forced into marriage, an independent human rights organization has estimated, and some 15 percent of the brides are no older than 16.

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