The peril and plight of Afghan women needing to escape

The Mosaic Edges of an Afghanistan in Trauma


The sense of time has stopped. The monumental images of Taliban standing where hopes, dreams, and visions of peace had danced just a sun and a moon away shattered any conceptualisation of a brighter tomorrow or a future free from the mesmerisation of trauma.


I am a Senior Lecturer in Global Health at St Georges’ University of London with a PhD in Medical Ethics, and co-editor of Humanitarian Action and Ethics. My research is situated in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq Kurdistan, and South Africa. The world often feels beautifully embroidered with the tapestry of lands through such spaces.


Two weeks ago, even, my research team and I were still finalising plans for interviewing mothers and daughters to help inform our developing of a mental health care package for women survivors of violence. Danger is unequivocally draped over every decision and a darkness that does not ever escape even when there is hope.


Over the last few days, though, the world’s distance shrunk to an irrelevant portal. The tears and fears uncontrollably raining into our phone-call conversation travelled through such different lands and terrains. Our a-part-ness was illusory. Rather, it was just one jagged edge of a mosaic piece that had lost its corner. We shared so much yet the gulf between us meant that we could not build our solidarity side by side.


The faith in being asked to help someone, the voices I spoke to, the words I read, the sounds that stayed silent from fear, these are all the mosaic edges of an Afghanistan in a traumatised state that is so poignantly palpable yet at the same time is elusiveness and ethereal.


There is also the shock. The betrayed trusts and enflamed memories of an existence that had never really ceased and is now resurrected.


When I reflect on the suffering of Afghanistan, a land-locked mountainous region, with a historical legacy of travellers, bringing forth the essence of storytellers to find poems or songs or stories in a personified land, a land that perhaps was born in the wrong place. On my visit to Kabul to analyse the meaning of suffering and the role of storytelling in the trauma therapeutic response to gender-based violence, one of the first sentences that greeted me was “here, in Afghanistan, even a tree has a story”.


Yet, here we are now. The trauma of war is such that creativity is mirrored with destruction, and imagination is murdered by bearing witness to violence.


Photograph: Nocerm Cocello

Against this literary and sentimental reflection of Afghanistan, there is an imminent humanitarian crisis. The journeys of tribes and nomads have been strictly determined by the direction of war. Since the beginning of 2021, an estimated 550,000 and rising, Afghans have been internally displaced within the country and between the 1st July and 15 August 2021, 17,600 internally displaced persons (IDPs) entered Kabul, and a significant number of these have serious health concerns and health needs. Some are staying with relatives but there is an urgent immediate need for shelter especially since Kabul is in the hands of the Taliban. Many of these IDPs who came to Kabul have significant reasons to fear identification by the Taliban and expected that the province would be a sanctuary from Taliban power.


There are those who are left behind with unaddressed humanitarian needs, and there are those who are screaming to the world that the story their efforts tried to create for Afghanistan’s future is now being condemned to end along with their life. Many of us who have friends and colleagues in Afghanistan have needed to battle over the last few days, and continue to do so, to find ways to honour their pleas for help.


In my area of global health, I specialise in psychological trauma from gender-based violence during conflict and ethical issues in humanitarian action. From my experience in the United Kingdom responding as an expert witness to the mental health and gender-based violence that Afghan asylum seekers have endured, I have learnt that the global and humanitarian community must do more than to know the words that are being spoken, or, rather, the words that are being silenced.


We can create spaces for voices to speak and to tell expressions of the self and the surrounding world as it is experienced by those we seek to listen to. But in these moments when there are those with the leverage to speak and those with the perilous curse of silencing, to prioritise breath over words, we need to reflect on our own landscapes. How are we creating and designing spaces so that the mosaic edges of Afghanistan in trauma do not have to conform or fit into a space, but for the land to find its own shape, and for voices to be heard. So, the worn-down edges of a mosaic corner are seen as complete.


Unless the academic community can ensure that we extend our spaces to where Afghan women can no longer tread, then Afghanistan will be the graveyard of Afghan women who never slept whilst threading their dreams through the hearts of the new generation of Afghan girls. Selay Ghaffar, a political and women’s rights activist, after the murder of Farkhunda in 2015, sponsored the construction of a memorial [pictured below]. We cannot let the blood of Afghan women be in vain. Theirs is a story that needs to continue. Afghan women are bleeding, bleeding stories. Their words are their own, but to speak, we must focus our efforts on giving safe sanctuaries to Afghan women who are dying for their words, the mosaic obliteration of a land born on stone. May these stones be their platform, not on their grave.


Photograph: Ayesha Ahmed