Thursday, December 07, 2017

Her Entire Life A Prison

"My whole life has passed in this prison."
"Yes, I wish I could go out. I want to leave here and live outside with my mother, but I won't leave here without her."
Meena, 11, daughter of prisoner, Jalalabad, Afghanistan

"How do you think she feels? It's a prison, how should she feel? A prison is a prison, even if it's heaven."
"You, Mr. America [New York Times reporter], tell that blind man Ashraf Ghani [Afghan president] your puppet, your slave, tell him to get me out of here. I didn't commit any crime. My only fault is that I cooked food for my husband who committed a crime."
"What you should do, Mr. America, is get her a TV. You’re my visitor, you came to talk to me. We don’t even have a TV. I should get ISIS to come and cut off your head."
"I have many enemies. I wouldn't trust anyone to take Meena outside."
Shirin Gul, convicted serial killer, Jalalabad, Afghanistan
Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

Shirin Gul was a married woman in Afghanistan whose husband was a police colonel. As a demonstration of just how much of an outlier she is, in a culture of Sharia in Afghanistan, she had an affair with a man reputed to be a former Taliban commander. She and her lover murdered her legal husband. It didn't seem to bother Shirin Gul that her lover, Rahmatullah, was also a pedophile and a thief. And he was not, as it happens, Meena's biological father. They never, in fact, met one another.

While Shirin Gul and Rahmatullah were arrested and placed in prison [he implicated her once he was arrested], they were in different prisons located in different cities. A prison officer evidently, was Meena's biological father. It would seem that prison officials feel that the little girl's mother connived to become pregnant as a means to avoid being hanged as her sentencing deemed would be appropriate punishment for her crimes.

Her crimes? She claims  to be innocent of any crimes. This gruff, spirited woman so unalike how Afghan women are meant to be; retiring, soft-spoken, subservient to men, above all chaste. Shirin chain-smokes, she wears tattoos, she has a brash demeanor and is clearly outspoken, and her hair is streaked with henna, her head scarf worn carelessly askew to show off her hair. But she loves her daughter. And clearly, the child loves her mother. And the child shows nothing of her mother in her demeanour.

The little girl has no other relatives. They are dead. Before she was born her mother was quite involved in criminal activities. Working as a prostitute, she invited men into her home and gave them kebabs doctored with drugs. Members of her family robbed, killed and buried those men who were mostly taxi drivers. And in the yards of two family homes their corpses were eventually discovered, among them Shirin's husband's corpse.
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Meena, 11, with her mother Shirin Gul, serving a life sentence. Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

Police arrested Shirin, her lover, her brother-in-law, her son, an uncle and a nephew, all of whom played a role in this macabre, murderous scheme. All six of the arrested were sentenced to death, the five men hanged, but Shirin Gul spared, because she was pregnant. The result is that Meena and her mother are never visited by family members or friends; they are either dead or estranged, and because there are no surviving relatives to take care of the girl outside prison, she remains there.

She is not the only child to live in the prison with a convicted mother, but she is the only one who has lived all her life in the prison. Under Afghan prison policy Gul is able to keep her daughter living with her until the girl turns 18. Shirin Gul is meant to serve a life sentence and in Afghanistan a life sentence is a life sentence. The Nangarhar provincial prison maintains the women's wing allowing children to remain with their mothers.
Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

There are 36 children with their mothers living in the jail, a common practice in the country, most particularly when no other close relatives are available and willing to look after these children. There exists an estimated hundreds of such imprisoned children in Afghanistan, living with their convicted mothers. In the prison there is a spacious courtyard with mulberry trees where the children are free to play on rudimentary swings, monkey bars and slides. The women's cells are placed around the courtyard. One of the cells is converted to a schoolroom.

The setting is bleak and unappealing, severely limiting to a child's needs. Meena likely lacks nothing in intelligence, but she has managed to advance only to the second grade. A single teacher teaches three grades. There is a white board and benches and chairs to seat 16 children at eight desks. It is by no means an enriched and inviting atmosphere, one to motivate children to learn and to satisfy any curiosity they may have about life. Theirs is dreadfully circumscribed.

Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

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