November 24th, 2010
12:28 PM ET

Desperate women burn themselves

This is not hard to write; it's cathartic. Shooting the story though was anything but: raw emotions accumulated - anger, sorrow, revulsion, and anger again, jumbled in some subconscious store to be sifted and sorted later.

It was a story about Afghan women, their oppression and their desperation.

For a few moments, some of these oppressed voices surface, enter our conscience, before sinking back into the social morass. They are absorbed and returned to the bosom of inhumanity, disappearing without trace, beyond reach, back to the isolated hell whence they came.

Afghan society is closed to outsiders. Even to neighbors. But if you are a woman here you risk entrapment, sealed off more completely inside the home than out.

No one will know your pain, few will hear your screams, and if they did, it's unlikely they'd dare care.

In Afghanistan, Herat has a reputation for self-immolation, a regional trend, according to doctors, picked up by Afghan refugees in Iran. It may be an unfair label but the figures speak for themselves. In the next largest city there are six beds for burns victims; in Herat it's 54, and they often have so many patients they are forced to double up.

The last time I had come to the hospital here it was early 2002. My report back then talked of shortages of everything: doctors, nurses, medicine, bandages. Six years of Taliban oppression had rendered the sprawling regional health center barely operable.

I was coming back now in part because it was up and running and doing a good job. So good, it was drawing burns victims from all over the region including women who were not there by accident. They had set fire to themselves, so oppressed and desperate were they to escape abusive bad marriages.

On the steps outside I met Dr. Ghafar Khan Bawar, a warm, friendly Afghan who'd spent years in Canada practicing reconstructive surgery. He'd come home three years ago to run the burns clinic. Female self-immolation cases had doubled in the past year, he told me.

We swapped our shoes for cheap plastic sandals, donned clean but crumpled surgical gowns, face masks and hair covers. Stepping inside the hard, white tiled corridors, the smell was overpowering, medicinal, antibacterial, heavy with overtones of disease barely kept at bay. It inspires confidence and revulsion in equal measure.

I had an idea of what we'd see. I've talked to burns victims in other Afghan hospitals before. Young women often too afraid to tell the truth, fearful of their husbands lurking not far away.

Sad Gul was 18; Zara, in the bed next to her, 17. Both swathed in bandages covering the arms, chest, belly and thighs. Tip a bowl of water from your neck on down, what's wet is what was burned. It was a kerosene burn, although Zara and her mother insisted it was an accident.

Sad Gul was an orphan, married at 11 to an older man. She told me as she burned she finally felt relaxed, at ease, her stresses lifting. She told me she was so poor she could not afford bread. Her husband was older than her, a drug addict. She wanted him to stop but he couldn't. Feeling hopeless, she set fire to herself.

As Dr. Bawar and a nurse prepared to treat her wounds, I could see her eyeing them with utter horror. Her eyes wide open, then wincing before they even got close. She'd been in bed number 25 for almost two weeks, and she knew too well what to expect.

Tears welled up as they cut away the old dressings, and then her muted cries as they swabbed her raw chest, the open wounds on her neck and breasts running with blood. Better to have your husband kill you than live like this, she told me.

She has two children, one three, the other one-and-a-half. That's what keeps her going. Her husband tells her he has quit drugs, wants her to come home. She has no choice, no family to turn to. She says she loves him.

Dr. Bawar told me he'll give her skin grafts on the worst burns, but unless she wears an ugly, large neck brace when she's goes back to her village her muscles will contract. If she ignores his advice, as he fears, she'll need more surgery and the next time she won't be able to get a general anesthetic. But on reflection that may be the least of her worries.

There is a new law protecting women. Herat even has the first female chief prosecutor in the country who is pushing to bring abusive husbands to court. But she is bucking tradition. Custom, practice and culture ingrained over centuries block her every move, not to mention attacks on her life.

It's not that there are no enlightened minds, it's just they are a minority. Dr. Bawar is among them. He's spreading his message of medical care: Outreach clinics in remote areas teaching life- and limb-saving techniques to keep burns victims alive.

He is a smart fellow, offering the country's only training in plastic surgery to young doctors willing to study burns and reconstructive surgery together. Burns alone is an unpopular discipline in Afghanistan.

He's drawing in bright young minds to the hospital. And the country's health minister, a woman, wants him to take his program nationwide.

Dr. Bawar's own life is instructive. He learned his skills during the era of Soviet influence in Afghanistan. The country had no burns doctors and an American specialist from Wisconsin working for a Non-Governmental Organization took it upon himself to teach Dr Bawar.

It was a five-year course crammed into three. But the seed was planted. One man's goodwill, transformed decades later into a generation of new hope.

And in Afghanistan's awfulness, individuals can make a difference.

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