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My Name is Aaila: Hope for the Future

"It was impossible to please the Taliban. They created trouble just to keep us scared all the time."

I am 39 years old. I am originally from Guhr province and my father was one of the famous and wealthy people in his province. He had nine daughters and five boys. My childhood was the most beautiful time in my life. When my mind takes me back to my childhood, I feel like I was such a lucky person. I lived in a big house as part of a big family. My father was the owner of a huge plot of land. We had a cook and cleaners, and so many cows and sheep and workers to look after them. And we had farmers that we paid to work on our land.

Russians entered our country and the situation deteriorated when I was eight years old. My father joined the Mujahideens along with my brothers to defend our country. It was a very dangerous time for us to remain in the village because the Russian troops were there and they killed people. To save my life, my father arranged for me to be married. I was only 11 years old at the time and my husband was a teacher at Kabul University. I had been allowed to continue my studies until seventh grade while I was in Guhr province. But after I moved to Kabul I stopped going to school due to pressure from women in my husband’s family.

Ten days after I got married, our house was invaded by Russian troops and I heard that two of my brothers were killed in that invasion. One of them had been a groom just a week before he was killed. I never saw my parents after that. When I remember that day, I cry. I could not go to the village for my brothers’ funeral because it was not safe. My father heard that two of his sons were killed and he died shortly after. And again, I could not go to the funeral.. Never would I ever see my father again.

I was happy with my husband because he was the person who taught me how to cook and how to clean the house; I learned everything from him. And he was so open to me. So it was a good time. But, all this time, I was always thinking of my family, wondering where they were and whether they were still alive. So one day, 13 years after I left my village, I decided to write a letter and ask someone to take it to my village. Months passed before a visitor knocked on my door. I saw a man with a turban standing there and I was scared wondering who he might be. That’s when my little boy went to find out who he was. It was my brother. We were children when we separated and when I finally recognized him, I hugged him and cried. I still remember this moment with fondness.

My brother took me outside Kabul to see my mom and my sisters and other brothers, and we were so happy at the prospect of seeing them that we brought very little clothes. As luck would have it, when we went out that weekend, the Taliban took hold of Kabul. Later we learned that there had been explosions at our house and my husband and I lost everything. The Taliban then came and took my brother-in-law and they tortured him. Many times, they would dig a hole and bury him alive for 10 minutes and then drop him into ice water, and this continued for a week. They said they were punishing him for working during the Communist time. They needed someone to read their documents and write their papers, and since my husband worked at the university, they asked him to be that person. It fell to me to cook for all the Taliban from morning to night, just to keep my husband alive. And then from night ‘til morning, I together with my four children, would weave and sell rugs to make money. That was what I did daily—I worked 24 hours—for four years to save my family.

Sometimes, when the sun rose, my eyes were all red and swollen from lack of sleep. But still, I could not sleep; if I did sleep, I would not be able to earn money, and if I could not earn money, I would not be able to provide the Taliban with dishes, and if I did not, they would kill my husband. To save my husband, I worked and worked every day. And I had my children work every day too, weaving carpets. One morning as I was waking my children up at 5am, my daughter told me, “If this is how you have to feed us, then better not feed us.”

It was impossible to please the Taliban. They created trouble just to keep us scared all the time. It was normal to keep a dog with you at night, to guard the land or the food. Very early one morning, the Taliban came and asked my husband, “Why do you keep the dog and let him come and disturb us?” So they took my husband and I cried so much. My brother-in-law said: “They already took two brothers of yours, so I cannot go there. If I go there to try to free your husband, they will capture me as well.” So I gave him 15,000 Afs to give to the Taliban to release my husband and they did.

After four years of working so hard, I got sick. There was no clinic or hospital in the whole province. So my husband took me to Herat for treatment. I was gone for just 20 days and in this time, my brother came to Herat to tell my husband, “The Taliban entered your house and took everything that you have. And now they are in your house, and they have seized it. If you go back, you will be killed by the Taliban.” I was so worried about my children. My brother went back and brought my children with him to Herat. So with nothing, nothing, we lived in Herat for another year, just to stay alive. And we lived as nomads. My children and I worked once more as rug weavers, starting again that hard work—to survive.

After a year we decided to move back to Kabul. When I entered my house again, there was nothing in it. When I say nothing, I mean that there was not even a glass for a drink of water. When we left, it had been full of antiques. But now, it had no carpet, no glasses, nothing. And we had no money, so we had to start again from nothing. My children sold food from a cart and I started weaving carpets again. And with that money, I was able to purchase some very basic things for my house and I am so thankful to God that, even in those hard days, even though my children worked, they could still continue their education and that they graduated from high school. One of my sons passed the board exam and now he is at university studying economics. This is what I am most proud of and I hope to see my other children get educated too.

One day, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs made an announcement about a program for marginalized women. So I made an appointment at the ministry and I called up some other women that I knew were also poor and in need of some help. Twenty of us went to the ministry and registered our names with the organization. It was really interesting to hear so many new things about our rights, our talent, our courage and everything. I had experienced that before in my life, but it was the first time that I heard it from other women too. I also started as a trainee in the beading training and I was a fast learner because of my experience with carpet weaving. And I knew about designs and what color would match with what other colors; I was talented. We shifted to stone bead cutting for our jewelry project, and I became a trainer’s assistant for this project and made $50 a month.

One day I was on the bus and by chance I met a young woman who was talking about how she was looking for someone who knew about stones and quality and colors and how to distinguish the colors. I told her that I had that experience and we started talking. The next day, she came to my house and she promised to give me a job. I was so happy that I accepted and signed the contract. I started making $200 a month—200 real dollars. I was responsible for finding 500 women to join the project. I worked there for four years before deciding that it was time to open my own organization. I took a loan, I registered this organization with the government, and now I am here.

I am working with almost 600 women. Five hundred of these women are working from their homes and we sell their products at a market downtown and showcase them in exhibitions. They are also coming to our office and getting training on the stone cutting jewelry project. We have a plan to open a kindergarten or day care center here, for this region, and we are hopeful about it.

My husband will never show or say how proud he is of me, but I realize that he is very proud of me and he is very happy that he has me for a wife and that I am successful and can help our children go to school. Now, one of our boys is working as secretary to the head of security in Afghanistan and another is working at the Ministry of Refugees. We are hopeful for our future.

The photo accompanying this article features a Women for Women graduate, however, for privacy or security concerns, it is not an image of the woman described in the article.