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Afghan widows form community on Kabul hill

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In KABUL — The hills of this capital stand as monuments to men in battle, topped by crumbling forts and rusted tanks, ancient ramparts and gleaming tombs of kings. One is different but no less a testament to war. It is known as Tapaye Zanabad — the hill that women built.

For the past decade, war widows have converged here and built by hand their mud hovels on a slope above a cemetery in an eastern neighborhood of the Afghan capital. They came at first because the land was free and they were poor. Police would fine or beat men for raising a settlement on government land, but the widows found that they could build if they were clever.

Hundreds of widows came, aid workers said, and they now number perhaps more than 1,000 on the hill and its surroundings. The first squatter homes have since morphed into a crowded community that has a private drinking water supply and spotty electricity. Most of the women have not been able to escape from wretched poverty, but they have preserved something far more unusual in a country dominated by men.

“Most of the widows didn’t have anything when they came here,” said Aneesa, an elderly widow who has lived on the hill for eight years. “Once we got to know each other, we felt like we were sisters.”

More than three decades of uninterrupted war in Afghanistan has mass-produced widows. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of the children in Kabul have lost a parent. The overall number of widows is not known, but it is thought to range from several hundred thousand to 2 million.

Sometimes the widows are painfully visible — Kabul is filled with burqa-clad beggars panhandling in traffic. More often, Afghan widows are shrouded from view, ordered by male relatives in extended families to stay at home.

For those without relatives to take them in, there are few options. It remains difficult for Afghan women from religiously conservative backgrounds to work, and neither the Afghan government nor its foreign donors have built a substantive safety net for women who must get by after the family breadwinner is gone.

But in Tapaye Zanabad, the women have found what they need.

Aneesa came to the hill after the Taliban government fell in 2001. Her husband, a soldier, had been killed years earlier during the civil war. In a culture with little to offer a penniless widow who had few relatives, she had been squatting in homes abandoned by those who fled the fighting. But she never felt comfortable, and as refugees returned to their homes during the early days of President Hamid Karzai’s administration, she decided she needed to move.

“Once you become a widow and live alone, people are strange toward you. They say a lot of bad things,” she said of her time before moving to Tapaye Zanabad. “Other women get worried you might try to marry their husbands. They talk behind your back. It’s Afghanistan; it’s full of negativity. We feel more comfortable when we’re around other widows.”

Aneesa found her way to Zanabad when it had more feral dogs than homes. With her nephew — “I’m allowed to live with him,” she said — she set to work with a pick and a shovel, cracking stones and fashioning mud walls. She learned the trade by necessity and under duress.

To avoid police detection, she would build by moonlight, then throw blankets over the walls to disguise her progress.

“Police would come and collapse the walls and destroy them,” Aneesa recalled. “As soon as they left, we’d rebuild it.”

“I would have rather died than lose this place,” she said.

Aneesa, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

Several widows in Zanabad, which is predominantly composed of ethnic Tajiks, have refused to remarry. After Fareeba’s husband died in a car crash on the treacherous road to the city of Jalalabad two years ago, the young widow moved into a house on the hill that she shared with her brother-in-law and his family.

He has a wife and two children but nearly each day demands that she marry him, too, Fareeba said. “If he says I can never leave the house or never allow someone to come in, I will do that,” she said. “But I will never accept to marry him.”

Up the hill, Bibi Amenah, an older widow, has found peace in her daily work. Her husband, a grocer, died in a rocket attack during the pre-Taliban civil war, one of 20 members of her Tajik family killed in the conflict. She has tried tailoring, selling jewelry and weaving prayer rugs. She now fashions mud bricks for other widows to build houses.

“I really want to work,” she said. “There was a time when for three or four nights we didn’t have food, but I never went out to beg. I don’t like begging at all.”

In Zanabad, there is a widows association that has held meetings from time to time, and the widows try to informally cooperate with one another. But the hill ultimately offers little refuge. Aid workers talk of prostitution and persistent attempts by the city to level the illegal dwellings. The government offers meager help: a $130 annual payment to each widow, and a ration card for rice and oil.

When Miro Gul’s husband, Atiq, died in a suicide bombing three years ago, the family was just scraping by on his day-labor wages. The couple’s 15-year-old daughter, Rhuksar, tried to cover the lost income by washing cars, but it wasn’t enough.

In Zanabad, the family found an acquaintance who housed them in exchange for cooking and cleaning.

Outside Gul’s door, barefoot kids with day jobs selling plastic bags or hailing taxis scale the narrow and steep alleys. The 54-year-old diabetic has trouble walking up these trails and rarely ventures out, but she is forced to do so occasionally to visit a public medical clinic. It is a long march to the nearest paved road and a long bus ride from there. When she recently needed wheat, she asked Rhuksar to carry 45 pounds on her head back from the thresher. A man called out that she should be easier on her daughter. “I had to do that,” Gul recalled, near tears.

Her husband, who was 10 years younger, “loved me from the core of his heart,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe it. When I was walking barefoot, he would stop and kiss the soles of my feet.”

“Now my daughter says, ‘Mom, you’re going to keep me here until I’m old.’ She wants to get married,” Gul said.

Rhuksar was invited to a wedding party the other day, some rare entertainment off the hill. She does not own shoes, however, and so she stayed home. “If I want something and can’t have it, I don’t mind anymore; I’m too old,” Gul said. “But my daughter, when she wishes for something and I can’t get it for her, that really kills me inside.”

She finds little solace on the hill that women built: “It’s better to die than become a widow in this country.”

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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