I am a Burmese exile taking a near-permanent refuge in New York and Sydney. Here are my essays about Burma and anything else I feel like writing about. And posting the articles I like from selected sites. Bridging Burma to the world this Blog is more of a Politically-Oriented Literary Blog than a Plain News Blog or a Sophisticated Thoughts Blog.
SHE CROUCHES AT THE BANK OF A RIVER, a shawl wrapped around her head and
shoulders. Behind her, men crowd a steep hillside and stand on rooftops and mud
walls. Several hold up cellphones to record what is about to happen. The girl
seems to look across the river, at a grove of lush trees that shade the far
Flanked by her husband and father-in-law, a man with a long black beard
recites a passage from the Koran condemning adultery. “It is the will of God
that we remove this stain from society,” he says. “This girl is the wife of
Jumma Khan, and he has the right to decide whether he will fulfill God’s will.”
Jumma, a laborer in his early 20s, dressed all in white, seems
uncertain. “Give it to him,” a man says, and someone thrusts forward an AK-47.
“Shoot her! Shoot her!” yell several of the spectators on the hill.
Jumma approaches the girl tentatively. Clearly he is not accustomed to
carrying a weapon. He stops, looks back.
“Go on, go on,” urge the spectators.
He walks to within a couple of feet of her, points the muzzle at the
back of her head. Until now, the girl hasn’t moved. But when someone yells
“Allahu akbar!” she seems to realize that nothing will stop what is coming. It
is as if, until this moment, she preserved some modicum of faith in her husband.
Now she abruptly raises her hands and buries her face in them.
the Prettiest Girl in Shinwari District
Her name is Najiba. She comes from the Shinwari District of northern
Afghanistan’s Parwan Province. Her village sits deep in a narrow mountain valley
called Qola-e Aire: one of many that branch off a much larger valley called
Ghorband. Najiba is one of 13 children. Her father, Sahib Gul, tends a small
orchard of walnut, almond and mulberry trees. Every three or four months, Sahib
Gul hires a car and takes a few bushels of his meager harvest to sell at the
bazaar in the provincial capital. It’s not a lucrative enterprise. Especially
during winter, when the trees freeze and heavy snows seal the valley, his
family is used to wanting.
This is why when Najiba, the thirdborn, exhibited at an early age an
uncommon talent for sewing and embroidery, Sahib Gul put her to work. Never had
he seen a girl so young run a needle so dexterously. Soon he was taking his
daughter’s crafts — snuff tins and picture frames and miniature mirrors
ornamented with colorful beads and needlepoint — to the bazaar to hawk
alongside his nuts and berries.
Najiba was, everyone agreed, the prettiest girl in Qola-e Aire. Maybe
even all Shinwari. Moreover, she was reputed to be exceptionally devout. It was
said she prayed constantly.
Najiba received her first proposal when she was 13. Others followed, at
least five, before Jumma Khan’s. Whereas previous suitors came from distant
villages, unfamiliar families, Sahib Gul had known Jumma’s father Mustafa for
decades. It seemed a good match. Najiba was already 16 and Jumma only 22; the
relatives got on well; and Mustafa owned two wheat mills whose flour earned him
and his sons more income than most. He offered to pay Sahib Gul $10,000 at a time
when the going rate for a wife in their area was $6,000.
They were married in the fall, before the first snow, when the air was
crisp and bright leaves still colored the woods. When Najiba moved into Jumma’s
house, which he shared with his parents and his five brothers and their wives,
she had to give up embroidery, devoting her time instead to making their new
home. She sewed bedding and pillows, cooked for her in-laws, took care of the
sheep and cattle. Because he worked as a day laborer on construction jobs in
the city, Jumma was often away. Sometimes he would be gone for weeks at a
Though Ghorband is less than 50 miles northwest of Kabul, most of the
valley today remains as isolated from the government and international presence
as any of the remotest corners of Afghanistan. When Najiba and Jumma married in
the autumn of 2010, however, the police and army were still at least able to go
to Qola-e Aire during the day. The Taliban, during that time, owned only the
highlands and the night.
But shortly after Najiba moved in with Jumma, the
number of insurgents in Qola-e Aire increased significantly. Soon they were in
the villages, roaming openly with weapons at all hours. The response of the
Afghan security forces was to cede the valley entirely to Taliban control.
There are several conflicting stories that purport to explain how this
situation led to Najiba’s death. One of them goes like this:
Kidnap and Rape of Najiba
Men and boys only spectator crowd watching the execution.
One night, while Jumma was away, a young midlevel Taliban commander named
Qader entered Najiba’s room and forced her to come with him to his own house
deeper in the mountains, where he confined and raped her. According to this
version of events, while Najiba was being held captive, two of Qader’s
superiors — an older Taliban commander named Abdul Khaliq and the Taliban’s
shadow governor for the Shinwari District, Maezer Khan — visited his house on
numerous occasions and raped Najiba as well.
When he heard that Najiba was missing, Jumma immediately returned from
Kabul. For weeks, he searched for his wife, but no one knew where she had gone.
About a month and a half after Najiba disappeared, one of Qader’s neighbors, an
elderly woman, spotted her in the house. She promptly told several local men,
who formed a mob and went to Qader’s. Discovering Najiba, they demanded an
explanation. She told them she was abducted by Qader and raped by Maezer Khan
and Abdul Khaliq.
Khan and Khaliq, when confronted with Najiba’s accusations, advanced a
counternarrative: Qader and Najiba were consensual adulterers, and Najiba was
lying to protect herself. They must both be executed.
Khan and Khaliq went to Qader’s house and killed him. Then they took
Najiba to Jumma’s village, where they triumphantly informed him that they had
rescued his wife from the clutches of her seducer. Khan and Khaliq had
administered justice for Qader; now it was Jumma’s turn to do the same for
Or so the story goes. There are other variations of the tale, some
portraying Najiba as an eloper in love, others as a captive. Whatever the
circumstances leading up to it, however, Najiba’s execution was in many ways
unremarkable. Recent reports indicate that each month more than 10 Afghan women
die similar — and often grislier — deaths. At least Najiba’s came with a bullet
and not a boot or blade.
What made Najiba unique was the fact that her murder was recorded — and
that Reuters obtained the video and published it online this July. Within days,
it was circulating the Internet, spurring protests in Afghanistan and headlines
in foreign newspapers. Whether this flurry of attention on women’s rights in
Afghanistan will result in any kind of longer-term action remains to be seen.
What appears far more certain is that Najiba will receive no justice.
After killing her, Jumma is believed to have joined the Taliban, and villagers
say he now serves as Abdul Khaliq’s personal bodyguard. (They also identify
Khaliq as the man at the beginning of the video who recites from the Koran.)
Today both men are said to live freely in Qola-e Aire. The police claim it is
too dangerous to go there and arrest them.
Execution of Najiba According to Sharia Law
Even though Jumma stands only a couple of feet behind Najiba, the first
two bullets miss, kicking up the dirt in front of her. She remains perfectly
still, keeps her head bowed in her hands. The third bullet flips her backward.
Her shawl is thrown loose, and she lies on her side in the dirt. Most eerily,
Najiba’s face has become exposed and she seems to stare at the men on the hill.
Jumma shoots her again. And again. And again. And again.
“Enough!” someone yells. More join in: “Enough! Enough!”
But it is not enough. Someone calls out, “Long live the hero!” to which the
rest of the crowd responds: “Long live! Long live!”
Jumma approaches Najiba, holding the AK-47 out in front of him until it
nearly touches her bullet-riddled body — as if he is nudging with a stick
something that might bite him. He shoots her again.
“Shoot her in the head,” someone suggests.
Jumma crouches low and shoots Najiba three more times.
The video ends there. The crowd of men gradually disperses, leaving
Najiba where she lies. She remains there until her family comes to collect her.
It is growing dark by then. Only when they get close do they see that someone
has pulled up Najiba’s shawl, in order to cover her face.