Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

An Independent Woman

Laila Haidari speaks in her office at the ‘Mother Camp’ in Kabul, June 2012. (Qais Usyaan/AFP/Getty Images)
Get to know Afghanistan’s ‘mother of a thousand children’

Oslo

Laila Haidari is the kind of person someone should make a movie about. And, indeed, someone did — two someones, actually: Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei, a husband-and-wife team. Their movie is a documentary, Laila at the Bridge (2018).

The title may put you in mind of “Horatio at the bridge.” Horatio, remember, was a Roman officer who held off an invading army almost singlehandedly. Laila Haidari has demonstrated a lot of courage, including physical courage, and she has often stood alone. But the title of the movie refers to something else — a bridge in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Under this bridge, drug addicts gather, and languish, and perish. Laila tries to help them.

Barely 40, she has already lived an eventful and consequential life. I will tell you a little about it. I’ve met Laila at the Oslo Freedom Forum, here in Norway. She is obviously a tough, no-nonsense woman — but also one of great tenderness. This side, too, becomes clear.

She was born in a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1978. The family was Afghan. When she was two months old, they were forced to move to Iran. Laila’s native language, incidentally, is Dari, also known as “Dari Persian” or “Afghan Persian.”

When she was twelve, she was married off to a man of 30 — an Afghan mullah. She sensed this was wrong — that she was being raped by a grown man every night. She bore him his first child when she was 13. There would be two others.

There are lots of Afghan refugees in Iran — more than 3 million. “How did Iranians treat you refugees?” I ask Laila. “Very badly,” she says. “Who treated you worse,” I ask, “the people themselves or the government?” “Both,” she says, “but the government was worse.” She details some of the ways.

Afghan children have to go to schools that are inferior to regular Iranian schools. When an Iranian commits a crime against an Afghan, the Iranian is rarely brought to justice. Afghans work in dangerous jobs, and when they get hurt, they often turn to drugs, to ease the pain. Then they are deported to Afghanistan, where they continue as drug addicts. They may wind up under the bridge.

Laila Haidari, with a lion’s heart, stood up for the rights of her fellow Afghan refugees in Iran. At 21, she was jailed by the Iranian authorities.

“Did you feel like a girl, and then a woman, without a country?” I ask her. Yes. “I was like a woman with no one to support her. No one at all.”

Her husband allowed her to take religious classes. But her interest was in film — indeed, this was her passion. She managed to get herself into a filmmaking school. As she saw it, film was the best medium for relatively voiceless people to make themselves heard.

Eventually, she obtained a divorce from her husband. Under Islamic law, he kept the children. This is a painful subject, needless to say. Today, her children live in Germany, and she is in touch with them.

Laila went to live in Afghanistan in 2009. Did she at last feel at home? No. “My country is occupied by extremists and terrorists, who fight one another and have turned Afghanistan into a battlefield. We don’t feel like it’s home, because, in your home, you feel safe.” I ask about the American war effort: Is it succeeding or failing? “Failing,” she says, quickly and somberly.

She found her brother, Hakim, under that bridge: Pol-e Sokhta, which means “Burned Bridge.” The area under that bridge is one of the most miserable, squalorous places on earth. Hakim had become a heroin addict. He was not the person he was before. But Laila made it her mission to wean him from addiction and bring him back to health. She did, and now he is the person he was before — studying architecture.

Having seen what she saw, and done what she did, she could not stop with Hakim: There were so many others to help. Afghanistan is one of the most addicted countries in the world, being the world’s opium capital. Also, people have been wracked by war. An Afghan has every excuse, or incentive, and every opportunity to turn to drugs.

Laila started a drug-rehabilitation center. She did it with her modest savings and the help of some friends. The center believes in “tough love,” of which Laila is an exemplar. It is called “Mother Camp,” the center is. Why? Because the addicts, early on, called Laila “Mother” — even if she was younger than they. She was treating them, caring for them, in a maternal way. She sometimes refers to them as “my boys.” She is also called “the mother of a thousand children.”

To date, she has treated, not merely a thousand, but more than 5,000 addicts. How many have stayed clean? With eerie precision, she says the number is 1,376, “according to our latest survey.” Many of the recovered addicts help those still in the throes of addiction. Some of them set up their own camps, extending the range of care.

I ask Laila a personal question: Have you ever used drugs? “No, but I’ve been smoking cigarettes for the last 17 years.” Another personal question: Are you religious? A quick shake of the head, along with “No.”

She did something extraordinary — something else: She started a café in Kabul, the first woman-owned restaurant in the country. It is called “Taj Begum,” or “The Crown of Begum” — Begum being an Afghan queen of the 15th century. Recovering addicts work at the café. It is a foothold back into clean life. Men and women mingle at the café, even if they’re not married, which is rare. Taj Begum is a social hub for all Kabul.

What’s more, the proceeds fund the Mother Camp, which was Laila’s purpose in starting the café.

She wins applause for her efforts, yes — but she also has a lot of enemies, who wouldn’t mind seeing her dead. The drug dealers hate her, because she is bad for business. Fundamentalists hate her because the café seems free and easy. Personal security is a great concern to her, and she must fend off attacks. One night, two drug dealers entered her bedroom, to choke her to death. She grabbed her shotgun and fired into the ceiling. They ran off.

“The café is my weapon,” she says (along with her shotgun, I gather). “It has given me financial independence, freedom, and self-confidence. It has let me help others. It has allowed me to fight for my ideals.” If you’re a woman without an income, she says, you are no one. You cannot even leave your home, assuming you have one. Only if you have an income do people take you seriously.

She can drive a car, and do so with an uncovered head — without a hijab. She gets away with a lot in Afghanistan.

She wants to be sure I understand how difficult it is for women and girls in Afghanistan. She tells me about a situation — a common situation — that I think of as a reverse Romeo and Juliet. It goes like this: Two families are feuding — the Akhtars and the Zahirs. A man in the first family kills a man in the second. Instead of coughing up the killer, the Akhtars give up one of their girls — say, twelve years old, as Laila was — to the Zahirs. This is in compensation. The law (such as it is) need not be involved. The Akhtar girl is forcibly married to one of the Zahirs. She is not treated as a bride or a daughter-in-law — a loved member of the family. She is treated as the damnable kin of the killer, and her life is a hell.

Laila also tells me about an infamous case in Afghanistan: A girl named Shakila was raped and murdered by a member of parliament, who got off scot-free. His guard — an innocent man — was imprisoned in his stead.

Like boys and men, girls and women get addicted to drugs — but it is worse for them, Laila says, not least because of sexual exploitation by the drug dealers. She does her best to help them. She has the deepest sympathy for them. In 2013, she set up another camp, another rehab center, for women and their children.

She warns that Afghanistan may get yet worse for women — if the Taliban return. They have been out of power for 18 years. They are angling to get back. If they do, she says, that will be the end of her, or any other woman who wants a public role or any independence at all.

Almost everyone has injuries from the war, trauma from the war — whether mental, physical, or both. She wants to help people heal, even if the war is still going on. Even if people are concerned with surviving day to day. She wants to lessen the “footprint” of the war, is how she puts it. Afghans can’t afford to wait until the war is over, Laila says: first, because the need is urgent, and second, because, When will the war be over?

I ask her what makes her different from others — what gives her her drive and courage. Was she born that way or did it come from hard experience? She pauses and tears up. She then cites her birth in a refugee camp; her forcible marriage; her imprisonment in Iran; and other things she has endured. “These experiences have made me who I am today.”

She continues, “Being an Afghan woman, your whole life is a struggle. You have to fight for your basic rights. The right to an education, the right to leave your home, the right to vote. Even the right to wear earrings. The right to do anything at all. Your whole life is a struggle. It’s not easy to be a woman, but if you can get through the hardships, you want to help other people, in any way you can.”

 

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