Seventeen-year-old Shakila Zareen had been married for seven months to her first cousin when he shot her in the face, blowing out her teeth, nose, left eye, and the hearing in her left ear. With incredible luck—and an unlikely intervention from the upper echelons of Afghan governance—the young girl survived. Now, recovering in New Delhi as a guest of the Indian government, she faces a return to a country where her life is still in danger.
Shakila grew up in Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, Mazar-e Sharif, as one of six children in an impoverished family. When she was 17, she was pulled out of school, where she’d reached a seventh-grade level, and married to her 31-year-old cousin. It was a wedding arranged due to financial necessity. “I didn’t want it to happen, even though we were poor—I didn’t want her to go into that family,” her mother, 43-year-old Sherman Jan, says in Farsi through a translator. “There was no other way.” Her younger sister was removed from school as well, at the insistence of her new family.
The family’s financial strain was due in part to her father’s illness, which had left him comatose in the hospital. It wasn’t until her father’s condition deteriorated and he grew nearer to death that Shakila’s mother realized the dangerous situation her daughter was in. The cousin’s family refused to let Shakila visit him in the hospital, unmoved by her mother’s calls and pleas. Finally, they agreed, and shortly after Shakila arrived at his bedside, he passed away.
In the meantime, Shakila had been suffering at home since her wedding, beaten at the hands of her in-laws who were displeased with her lack of domestic training. She wasn’t ready for marriage, her mother says. “When I called her she would say, ‘I’m happy, things are OK,’” Sherman Jan remembers. But, as she later found out, the family would gather around the phone to monitor each call and threaten Shakila with abuse for complaining.
When her father died, Shakila and her in-laws were traveling from the funeral when they got into a car accident. Her mother-in-law was injured and had to seek medical attention. After that, the family took out their anger at the treatment costs on Shakila.
Not long after, she was kicked out of her husband’s house, and arrived home to her mother, who until then was unaware of her abuse. “When she came to the house she was black and blue from times they had really badly abused her,” she says.
Medical records show Shakila’s injuries included “complete destruction” of her major sinus, her nose cartilages and nasal bones, and her left eye.
That night, Sherman Jan was praying when she heard a large bang. It was already dark and their house doesn’t have electricity, but when she ran toward the front of the house, she saw her daughter on the floor. Shakila had been shot point-blank in the face with a hunting gun, as the medical report says. Her mother panicked, running to get help, and Shakila was soon transported to the local hospital, which was poorly equipped to treat her traumatic injuries. The next morning, on November 10, she was brought by car over 260 miles of bumpy, mountainous roads to the Italian-run Emergency Surgical Center for War Victims in Kabul, arriving 12 hours after the shooting.
Medical records show Shakila’s injuries included “complete destruction” of her major sinus, her nose cartilages and nasal bones, and her left eye. Scans of her skull show shredded bone along the bullet’s path. “Last surgical procedure aim has been to approximate and close as much as possible facial skin on the left side of face,” the nurse’s report reads. Shakila underwent five surgeries, as doctors struggled to cover her wound, which they eventually realized was impossible to do. After a visit to the maternity ward, she learned she’d miscarried a six-week pregnancy.
The local news coverage of Shakila, bedridden and wrapped in gauze, caught the attention of Arezo Kohistany, a 25-year-old employee of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation in Washington D.C. Kohistany, an Afghan-American whose family moved to Virginia when the Taliban came to power, remembers watching the “sense of hopelessness” in the news coverage that showed Shakila’s mother crying next to her hospital bed. “I think because I’m Afghani, and had I not come to the U.S. … there’s a big possibility I could have been in the same circumstance,” she says. Having worked in Afghanistan for two years, and convinced she could use her connections to help, Kohistany started sending emails and making calls each day when she got into work.
“At the end of day, I want to know that, in the large gap between the world I live in and she lives in, somewhere, humanity cares,” she says.
She contacted more than a dozen organizations, from U.N. Women to the World Bank South Asia and the Red Cross. She began enlisting the help of friends. One, Saba Ghorab, a medical student, even began contacting hospitals and medical schools in the United States. A few doctors agreed to perform Shakila’s surgeries, but no hospital would sponsor the treatment.
When Kohistany emailed a highly-placed official with whom she had once worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was moved by the case. The source, who did not want his name used, passed news of Shakila’s plight to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “It was very tragic to see a young woman fall victim to such a horrific crime and not have the financial resources to receive life saving treatment,” he wrote in an email. “I quickly realized that treatment options in Afghanistan were limited, so this was a very time-sensitive matter that needed to be expedited.”
That week, Karzai was set to deliver his weekly radio address on domestic violence, and the official presented him with Shakila’s case. “He was very distraught upon learning of the physical and emotional ordeal Shakila was facing,” the official remembers. “He immediately ordered me to explore treatment options abroad.”
The president even committed to covering Shakila’s medical costs, a gesture that proved unnecessary after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reached out to Amar Sinha, the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, who immediately set into motion her transfer to the Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, where such a complex and lengthy treatment would be possible.
“I was very, very happy, I was beside myself, we both were crying,” her mother remembers of the hearing the news. “Finally somebody cares, we’re going to get help.”
On January 14, Shakila and her mother were flown to India—the first time either of them had left their province, much less Afghanistan. In the first two weeks, she underwent three additional surgeries with three different specialists. After a stint recovering in the hospital, doctors now allow her to spend half the day at the hospital and half at the hotel where her mother is being put up. Her mother spoon feeds her liquids after her stomach pipe was removed because of issues it caused.
But the doctors in India have ordered Shakila and her mother back to Afghanistan in a week to recover before undergoing the rest of her surgeries in three months' time. Her current state is too frail for the procedures she needs to have done, including inserting wires into her face, and they have told her she needs to grow stronger before more work is done. She has two years of treatment ahead of her, but an upcoming return to Afghanistan could threaten her delicate recovery.
"I have no idea who will take care [of her] in Afghanistan," the medical consultant for the Indian Foreign Ministry says, noting that the New Delhi surgeons are providing the best possible treatment. He added that Shakila will need to undergo four or five additional surgeries over the next two years. The source within the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs is similarly unsure of her fate back home, and has posed the question to Ambassador Sinha.
Both Shakila and her mother fear what awaits them back home.
“The only thing we have at this point in Afghanistan is enemies,” Sherman Jan says. “I would be happy if she can stay here and go to school, but obviously I can’t afford to stay here.”
Back in Afghanistan, Sherman Jan has five children to worry about. Three were still living with her, and her 18-year-old son is caring for the other two in the absence of their parents. To get by, their mother says, they’re begging. “My kids still get threats very often,” she says. “That family tells them, ‘It doesn’t matter if your sister is in New Delhi, we’re going to find her again.’”
Shakila’s physical healing is just one aspect of her recovery. Meanwhile, a women’s-rights group in Kabul has promised to help Shakila begin divorce proceedings against her husband, to whom she is technically still married. He was recently taken into custody and is currently in jail.
Kohistany has launched an ambitious fundraising campaign to raise enough money for Shakila to stay in India and get an education. After four months of orchestrating care and attention, her desire to help Shakila and her family hasn’t faded.
“I just hope her story pushes the Afghan government to do more,” Kohistany says. “At the end of the day, Shakila’s story is one of many like that.”
Women’s-rights activists have expressed concern that the international troop withdrawal in Afghanistan could spark a retreat into the cultural mores of the repressive Taliban era. Already, activists both inside and outside Afghanistan held their breaths when, in February, the Afghan parliament sent through a bill that virtually legalized spousal abuse. As pressure mounted, President Karzai returned it for changes without signing. An upcoming election in April also gives cause for concern, as the Taliban seeks to wield more influence in the transitioning capital.
“Violence against women is not part of our culture or religion, nor will it have a place in our society,” says the source within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who says he’s encouraged by the crop of presidential candidates. “Following troop drawdown, our goal is to create a self-sufficient Afghanistan, and one that views women as a vital contributors.” He notes that, “we have made it explicitly clear that the rights and achievements of women will not be compromised in order to achieve lasting peace in any reconciliation and transition process.”
“From this very limited interaction I’ve had with [President Karzai], it shows a shows human side,” Kohistany says. “In interviews he says he really cares about Afghan people—it’s generic rhetoric—but the fact he took this initiative, that speaks a lot about him.”
Kohistany will be going to Afghanistan this summer and plans on re-routing her flight to stop in India. She thinks their similar backgrounds could motivate Shakila. “I hope that somehow she can see herself in me and take charge if there are any possibilities.” In turn, she says, Shakila can “serve as an example for other women who face certain circumstances.”
Shakila, for her part, has plans for an education if she gets one: she wants to be a journalist or a doctor. “Most importantly I want an education and to do something that can stand on own feet,” she says in a soft voice. “I really don’t want to go back to Afghanistan.”