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Terrorised, victimised, incarcerated: an Indian woman’s story of life under the extremist regime. Six years in Afghanistan, three of these under the Big Brother scrutiny of the Taliban, has made Sushmita Banerjee a hardened woman with bitter memories. The 34-year-old Calcuttan was trapped in Sarana, a village three hours from Kabul, ever since 1989 when—after a whirlwind romance and marriage to Jaanbaaz Khan, a Pathan—she had gone to visit her in-laws’ home. Eventually, she became the target of the Taliban. For close to three months she was placed under house arrest. And was nabbed when she tried to flee the country.
Sushmita recalls to Outlook in this 1998 piece her trials in a country where the populace, particularly women, live under severe repression:
Sarana was a picturesque village when I went there in 1989. But, for an Indian, the Muslim laws pertaining to women were hard to follow. Being a woman meant that one had to live an isolated life—never stepping out of the house or talking face to face to any man other than your husband.
My husband, Jaanbaaz, who ran a business in Calcutta, had to make an urgent trip back to India. I stayed back. Unfortunately, he failed to come back to Afghanistan. Though my in-laws were not too kind, life was tolerable until the Taliban crackdown in 1993.
I remember it was early that year that members of the Taliban came to our house. They had heard of the dispensary I was running from my house. I am not a qualified doctor. But I knew a little about common ailments and since there was no medical help in the vicinity, I thought I could support myself and keep myself busy by dispensing medicines. The members of the Taliban who called on us were aghast that I, a woman, could be running a business establishment. They promptly ordered me to close down the dispensary and branded me a woman of poor morals.
I tunnelled through the mud walls of my house and fled. But they caught me. A 15-member Taliban group interrogated me.
They also listed out dos and don’ts. The burqa was a necessity. Listening to the radio or playing a tape recorder was banned. Women were not allowed to go to shops. They were even prohibited from stepping out from their houses, unless accompanied by their husbands. All women had to have the names of their husbands tattooed on their left hand. Virtually, all interaction between men and women outside the confines of their own homes was banned.
Here I must mention the case of a woman who called in a priest to pray for her son who was seriously ill. Members of the Taliban saw the maulvi going into the house. The woman and the priest were executed in public. They were taken to the square by the local police station and shot. The entire village was terrorised by the incident.
Members of the Taliban would often call on the village folk and demand food. They came to my house on at least 50 occasions. I have cooked for them. They would come in groups of 50 persons. Sometimes, the house would be searched for weapons. We had two AK-47s. In fact, every house had its own weapons. This shows the terror all around.
Sometime in early 1994 I decided to escape. I can’t recall the exact date because you don’t have calendars in rural Afghanistan. One keeps track of months by watching the phases of the moon. I sought the help of a neighbour who pretended he was my husband and for a consideration offered to take me across the border to Pakistan. But in Islamabad, the Indian High Commission could not help me as I had no passport or visa.
Meanwhile, my brothers-in-law tracked me down and took me back to Afghanistan. They initially promised to send me back to India. But they did not keep their promise. Instead, they kept me under house arrest and branded me an immoral woman. The Taliban threatened to teach me a lesson. I knew I had to escape.
One night I tunnelled my way through the mud walls of the house and fled. Close to Kabul, I was arrested. A 15-member group of the Taliban interrogated me. Many of them said that since I had fled my husband’s home I should be executed. However, I was able to convince them that since I was an Indian I had every right to go back to my country.
The interrogation continued through the night. The next morning I was taken to the Indian embassy, from where I was given a safe passage. Back in Calcutta, I was reunited with my husband. I don’t think he will ever be able to go back to his family.
Ever since my return I wanted to write about my experiences. I am happy that my book on a Bengali bahu in Kabul has been published. There are many other Indian women trapped in Afghanistan. I hope someone does something to help them.