Years After Acid Attack, an Afghan Story of Survival Takes a Dark Turn

August 13, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan — Mumtaz’s new baby still has no name.

Mumtaz is a 23-year-old woman from the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, the victim of an acid attack when she was 18, whose tormentors were jailed. It was a rare legal victory in the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan, hailed at the time as proof that justice for female victims was possible.

But as far as Mumtaz is concerned, justice has brought her nothing but tragedy.

Last month she was widowed, her husband killed by relatives of her attackers. When his body was brought to her, she went through his pockets in desperation and found 2,000 afghanis, about $28, which was the only money he left her.

Last week that money ran out when her first child, an 18-month-old daughter, Asma, became sick and Mumtaz spent what was left on a doctor.

Before his death, her husband, Mohammad Khan, had bought a treat for Mumtaz, a large can of powdered milk. She was due to give birth in September and that would help with the baby’s nutrition.

But Mumtaz and Asma had little to eat besides bread and tea, so they finished off the milk last week. “I have no hope. I have nothing,” she said.

Then, on Monday her second child was born prematurely, a month early but otherwise healthy. “There was no joy in her birth. For two days I could not even look at her,” said Mumtaz, who like many rural Afghans uses only one name.

Most of Mumtaz’s own family, including her parents and all of her siblings, are now stuck in a Turkish refugee camp, unable to send her anything. She lives with her dead husband’s family, who are just as poor, and now unable to work their fields for fear of being killed themselves.

Even if anyone wanted to help, Taliban insurgents have made her area of Kunduz impassable to aid groups and government officials.

This is the sad outcome to what was once hailed as an improbable success story in Afghanistan’s effort to eliminate violence against women. Mumtaz’s situation shows how difficult it is to protect women in the face of continuing conflict, in which chronic insecurity leads to the use of violence to enforce male prerogatives.

Mumtaz was the victim of a notorious 2011 acid attack. The leader of what was then a pro-government militia, who claimed she had been promised to him as his wife, became infuriated when she decided to marry someone else. With fellow militia members, he attacked her and her family, dousing Mumtaz, her two teenage sisters and her mother with acid and badly disfiguring Mumtaz’s face.

As horrific as that was, Mumtaz and her family at least saw some justice done for an act that normally would have gone unpunished. The authorities stepped in, using newly granted powers and stiff sentencing under the country’s landmark Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, and arrested four confederates of the militia leader, jailing them for 12 years with no hope of parole.

Mumtaz and one of her sisters were sent to India for facial reconstruction surgery. Despite her worst fears that her fiancé would no longer want her, he married her when she returned. Three years later, their daughter Asma was born.

Five months ago, the spurned suitor who led the 2011 attack, Naseer, was caught and arrested and now faces a long prison sentence. That was when Mumtaz’s fortunes, which had been looking brighter, took a turn for the worse. Her struggles underscore how little control the national government has over large areas of Afghanistan.

Her family’s village in rural Kunduz Province was overrun by the Taliban, and the militiamen who followed Naseer joined the insurgents; many of the numerous armed groups in Afghanistan change sides depending on who dominates their area.

Mumtaz’s father, Sultan Mohammed, refused demands from Naseer’s relatives to withdraw the charges against him and his men, so they kidnapped his older brother, who was released after village elders intervened.

Sultan Mohammed, badly beaten up by Naseer’s men, decided to flee his country. “I could not fight them, and I could not stay there, so I took my entire family and escaped to Turkey,” he said. “I fled thinking they won’t do any harm to my son-in-law and my daughter.”

When Mumtaz became pregnant again early this year, she and her husband excitedly discussed names: He chose Amir Khan in case it was a boy, and said she could decide on the name for a girl.

But so far, the girl has no name; Mumtaz said she has been unable to choose one because she has been too distraught over the burden of another child to feed to think of a name. So nurses in the hospital gave the infant a temporary nickname, Husna.

Mumtaz said her husband, 27, had been on his way home last month from his work as a taxi driver when Naseer’s brother, Zabih, and another man, Baba, stopped Mr. Khan, dragged him out of the car and beat him to death with the butts of their rifles. Both men have been charged with murder but have not been arrested because the authorities cannot safely visit the area.

Now Mumtaz is sorry she ever pressed charges against her tormentors. “I regret that I didn’t pardon them before they killed my husband,” she said. “They had been begging for that, but we were late to do it, so it cost me the life of my husband.”

Even before the new baby was born, her father said his daughter’s situation was hopeless. “I don’t know how she will cope with all that,” he said. “Her in-laws are not able to take revenge or protect her; they are very poor people. She needs to get out somehow.”

Last week her husband’s killers came back to their village, knocking on doors at night, trying to find her relatives.

The Kunduz office of Women for Afghan Women was involved in Mumtaz’s case early on and financed her plastic surgery.

“Her case is one of our oldest ones,” said Shamila Sahibzada, the organization’s provincial director. “We would very much like to have her under our protection, but unfortunately we have no access to her.”

The police told the group they would try to rescue her but could not do so until the fighting in the area, now raging for more than two years, died down.

In the meantime, Mumtaz has no expectations. She said she has run out of medication to treat the chronic pain from some of her acid wounds, which were on her body as well as her face.

All her husband left her, other than the $28 and the powdered milk, was a carpet to sleep on. “I have nothing left from him, but I still love him,” she said. “It is very hard to live like this. There is no one to share the pain with. I don’t know what the future will be like for my daughters.”