KABUL, Afghanistan — The scene that Afghan officials say was
caught on video last month near Kabul was as horrific as it was once common in
Afghanistan: a Taliban fighter executing a woman with repeated shots to the back
of her head as his compatriots and scores of villagers watch, and then cheer.
The crime the woman was accused of: adultery.
The video, which has begun circulating in Kabul, recalls the Taliban’s five-year
reign in Afghanistan, when public executions were advertised on the radio and
people accused of crimes were shot in front of crowds that packed the capital’s
stadium. Adultery was among the crimes punishable by death.
The execution captured on the video took place in the Shinwari district of
Parwan Province, in central Afghanistan, less than a two-hour drive from Kabul.
It occurred on or around June 23, said Col. Masjidi, a senior provincial police
official. Colonel Masjidi, like many Afghans, uses a single name.
The area was once considered safe enough for foreigners to drive through. But
security there has sharply deteriorated in recent years, and now even many
Afghans think twice before driving on a main road that passes through the
In the video, Taliban members can be heard saying that the executioner is the
woman’s husband, though Afghan officials offered conflicting accounts of what
transpired in the village, Qol-i-Heer.
Colonel Masjidi said the woman’s real husband was a member of a village militia
that had slain a local Taliban leader. The woman was executed in revenge on
trumped up charges of adultery, he said.
Roshna Khalid, a spokeswoman for the provincial government, said the woman was
killed for having multiple affairs with Taliban fighters. Ms. Khalid said the
woman’s name was Najiba, and that she was in her 20s and did not have children.
A third official, Qari Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, a member of the provincial council,
said the woman had run off with a Taliban commander, who in turn was accused of
passing information to government forces.
He was shot in a nearby village before Najiba was moved to Qol-i-Heer to be
executed by her husband, Mr. Ahmadi said.
A Taliban spokesman could not be reached for comment. The American Embassy and
the NATO-led coalition condemned the execution.
At the outset of the fuzzy video, which runs nearly four minutes and appears to
have been taken by a Taliban member with a cellphone, Najiba is a peripheral
figure, seen kneeling in the background. Her body is turned away from the
camera, her head is shrouded by a gray scarf.
Taliban fighters mill about in the foreground. A few dozen villagers watch from
a hill above the impromptu execution ground. The existence of the video was
first reported by the Reuters news agency, and obtained on Monday by The New
One of the Taliban says the Koran prohibits adultery. Killing the woman is
“God’s order and decree,” he says. “If the issue was avenging deaths, we would
beg for her amnesty. But in this case, God says, ‘You should finish her.’ ”
He concludes by saying, “It’s the order of God, and now it is her husband’s work
to punish her.”
Then someone else says, “Give him a Kalashnikov.”
Armed with the borrowed assault rifle, the man identified as her husband
approaches Najiba from behind. Several Taliban fighters can he heard whispering,
“Get closer to her.”
He shoots Najiba nine times. The third shot jolts her body backward, leaving it
flat on the ground. He keeps shooting.
Someone then says, “Long live the hero of Islam!” The Taliban begin cheering,
and the villagers join in. One of the Taliban says, “Take my video, too,” and
can be seen smiling, with ammunition strapped to his vest.
The video ends with the executioner shooting Najiba’s body four more times.
Ms. Khalid, the provincial spokeswoman, said Afghan security forces were sent to
the village after the execution but most of the Taliban had fled. Those who
remained were hiding in the houses of villagers, who were too scared of the
Taliban to help the security forces, she said.
But an Interior Ministry official in Kabul said at least some of the villagers
were in league with the insurgents. The official pointed to the cheering after
the execution as evidence that the villagers supported it.
Kabul and other Afghan cities, where many women work and go to school, is not
like the countryside, where reports often surface of women being killed over
accusations of adultery or other moral crimes, the official said.
“Villagers are more traditional,” the official said.
On Sunday, the coalition said seven service members were killed in two separate
roadside bombings in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Six service members died
in the attack in the country’s east, an unusually high death toll for a single
In southern Afghanistan, at least 18 civilians were killed in three bombings
along a stretch of road in Kandahar Province on Sunday. The first hidden bomb
exploded after a minibus passed over it, said Jawid Faisal, a spokesman for the
provincial government. Men from a nearby village then headed to the scene to
help survivors on a tractor, which struck a second hidden bomb. A few hours
later another vehicle hit a third hidden bomb.
HERAT, Afghanistan — Even the poorest families in Afghanistan have matches
and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it also can be the
makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from the
abuse and despondency that can be the fate of Afghan women.
The night before she burned herself, Gul Zada took her children to her sister’s
for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a
present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Juma Gul.
This small thing apparently broke her. Ms. Zada, who was 45, the mother of six
children and who earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with burns on
nearly 60 percent of her body at the Herat burn hospital. Survival is difficult
even at 40 percent.
“She was burned from head to toe,” her son remembers.
The hospital here is the only medical center in Afghanistan that specifically
treats victims of burning, a common form of suicide in this region, partly
because the tools to do it are so readily available. Through early October, 75
women arrived with burns — most self-inflicted, others only made to look that
way. That is up nearly 30 percent from last year.
But the numbers say less than the stories of the patients.
It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes
undiagnosed or untreated. Ms. Zada, the hospital staff said, probably suffered
from depression. The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted:
Their family is their fate. There is little chance for education, little choice
about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house.
Her primary job is to serve her husband’s family. Outside that world, she is an
“If you run away from home, you may be raped or put in jail and then sent home
and then what will happen to you?” asked Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human
Rights Watch who tracks violence against women.
Returned runaways are often shot or stabbed in honor killings because the
families fear they have spent time unchaperoned with a man. Women and girls are
still stoned to death. Those who burn themselves but survive are often relegated
to grinding Cinderella existences while their husbands marry other, untainted
“Violence in the lives of Afghanistan’s women comes from everywhere: from her
father or brother, from her husband, from her father-in-law, from her
mother-in-law and sister-in-law,” said Dr. Shafiqa Eanin, a plastic surgeon at
the burn hospital, which usually has at least 10 female self-immolation cases at
any one time.
The most sinister burn cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides,
said doctors, nurses and human rights workers.
“We have two women here right now who were burned by their mothers-in-law and
husbands,” said Dr. Arif Jalali, the hospital’s senior surgeon.
Doctors cited two recent cases where women were beaten by their husbands or
in-laws, lost consciousness and awoke in the hospital to find themselves burned
because they had been shoved in an oven or set on fire.
For a very few of the women who survive burnings, whether self-inflicted or done
by relatives, the experience is a kind of Rubicon that helps them change their
lives. Some work with lawyers who are recommended by the hospital and request a
divorce. Most do not.
Defiant and Depressed
Engaged at 8 and married at 12, Farzana resorted to setting herself on fire when
her father-in-law belittled her, saying she was not brave enough to do so. She
was 17 and had endured years of beatings and abuse from her husband and his
Defiant and depressed, she went into the yard. She handed her husband their
9-month-old daughter so the baby would not see her mother burning. Then she
poured cooking fuel on herself.
“I felt so sad and such pain in my heart and I felt very angry at my husband and
my father- and mother-in-law, and then I took the matches and lit myself,” she
Farzana’s story is about desperation and the extremes that in-laws often inflict
on their son’s wives. United Nations statistics indicate that at least 45
percent of Afghan women marry before they are 18; a large percentage before they
are 16. Many girls are still given as payment for debts, which sentences them to
a life of servitude and, almost always, abuse.
A bright child whose favorite subjects were Dari language and poetry, Farzana
dreamed of becoming a teacher. But she had been promised in marriage to the son
of the family that was providing a wife for her brother, and when she turned 12,
her in-laws insisted it was time to marry. Her future husband had just turned
“On the marriage day, he beat me when I woke up and shouted at me,” she said.
“He was always favoring his mother and using bad words about me.”
The beatings went on for four years. Then Farzana’s brother took a second wife,
an insult to Farzana’s in-laws. Her mistreatment worsened. They refused to allow
her to see her mother, and her husband beat her more often.
“I thought of running away from that house, but then I thought: what will happen
to the name of my family?” she said. “No one in our family has asked for
divorce. So how can I be the first?”
Doctors and nurses say that especially in cases involving younger women, fury at
their situation, a sense of being trapped and a desire to shame their husbands
into caring for them all come together.
This was true of Farzana.
“The thing that forced me to set myself on fire was when my father-in-law said:
‘You are not able to set yourself on fire,’ ” she recalled.
But she did, and when the flames were out, 58 percent of her body was burnt. As
a relative bundled her raw body into a car for the hospital, her husband
whispered: “If anybody asks you, don’t tell them my name; don’t say I had
anything to do with it.’ ”
After 57 days in the hospital and multiple skin grafts, she is home with her
mother and torn between family traditions and an inchoate sense that a new way
of thinking is needed.
Farzana’s daughter is being brought up by her husband’s family, and mother and
daughter are not allowed to see each other. Despite that, she says that she
cannot go back to her husband’s house.
“Five years I spent in his house with those people,” she said. “My marriage was
for other people. They should never have given me in a child marriage.”
A Common Option
Why do women burn themselves rather than choose another form of suicide?
Poverty is one reason, said Dr. Jalali. Many women mistakenly think death will
be instant. Halima, 20, a patient in the hospital in August, said she considered
jumping from a roof but worried she would only break her leg. If she set herself
on fire, she said, “It would all be over.”
Self-immolation is more common in Herat and western Afghanistan than other parts
of the country. The area’s closeness to Iran may partly explain why; Iran shares
in the culture of suicide by burning.
Unlike many women admitted to the burn hospital, Ms. Zada showed no outward
signs of distress before she set herself on fire. Her life, though, was hard.
Her husband is a sharecropper. She cleaned houses and at night stayed up to
clean her own home — a nearly impossible task in the family’s squalid earthen
and brick two-room house buffeted by the Herati winds that sweep in a layer of
dust each time the door opens.
To her family, she was a constant provider. “Before I thought of wanting
something, she provided me with it,” said Juma Gul, 32, her eldest son, a
laborer who earns about $140 a month. “She would embroider our clothes so that
we wouldn’t feel we had less than other people.”
As he spoke, his 10-year-old twin sisters sat near him holding hands and a
picture of their mother.
In the hospital, Ms. Zada rallied at first, and Juma Gul was encouraged, unaware
of how hard it is to survive such extensive burns. That is especially true in
the developing world, said Dr. Robert Sheridan, chief of surgery at the Shriners
Burn Hospital in Boston and a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The greatest risk is sepsis, a deadly infection that generally starts in the
second week after a burn and is hard to stop, Dr. Sheridan said. Even badly
burned and infected patients can speak almost up to the hour of their death,
often giving families false hopes.
“She was getting better,” her son insisted.
But infection had, in fact, set in, and the family did not have the money for
powerful antibiotics that could give her whatever small chance there was to
survive. Juma Gul eventually managed to beg and borrow the money, but not before
the infection spread.
Two weeks after his mother set herself on fire, he stood by her bed as she