Bamiyan Panorama

Bamiyan Panorama

Monday, May 28, 2012

Afghanistan's supergran crimebuster on wheels

Zarifa Qazizadah
It's unusual for a woman to be a leader in Afghanistan but Zarifa Qazizadah has become the country's only female village chief through force of personality and determination to get things done - even if that means cross-dressing, wearing a false moustache and driving around on a motorbike at night.

"I tell the men of the village, all I want is your prayers," she says. "When you have a problem, I'll speak to the government on your behalf and whenever there is any disturbance at night-time, I'll pick up my gun and come to your house to see what's going on."

When the mother of 15 first sought political office, and told local men she wanted to connect the village to the electricity grid, they laughed.

That was in 2004. She lost the election, but she got the electricity all the same, and two years later the men asked her to apply for the post of head of the village - Naw Abad in the country's northern Balkh province.

Now she guards the electricity supply with a vengeance, and if anyone wires their home up and starts stealing it, they have to watch out.  "I can't let that happen because we have to respect the law," she says.

"When something happens in the village at night and I have to react quickly, I'll put on men's clothes and ride my motorbike."  Women in rural Afghanistan are rarely seen riding motorbikes alone and Qazizadah disguises herself, with the clothes and a fake moustache, to avoid attracting too much attention.

She has also been known to come to the rescue of her villagers by wrestling Jeeps out of ditches with a tractor.  "She does the type of work that even men are not capable of doing," says Molavi Seyyed Mohammad, one of her local supporters.

Qazizadah does not take "No" for an answer.

To keep her promise to voters on the electricity supply, even though she failed in her bid to get elected to parliament, she travelled to the Afghan capital, Kabul, with her four-year-old daughter and went straight to the home of the Minister for Power, Shaker Kargar, demanding to speak to him.

He agreed to see her the following day in his office, and by the end of the meeting he had given his consent.

There was one problem - the village itself had to pay for the posts and cables.

Qazizadah, who had already sold some of her jewellery to pay for the trip to Kabul, borrowed money wherever she could and remortgaged her house to raise the necessary capital.

Zarifa Qazizadah with villagers underneath the power supply (Only one third of Afghanistan's population have access to electricity)

Five months later, everyone in the village had electricity in their home. "It was only then that people recognised what I'd done and started to pay me back," she says.

The income from the electricity system was poured into construction of a new bridge over a dangerous river, connecting the village with a major road.

Qazizadah also sponsored the building of Naw Abad's first mosque. Unlike most mosques in the country, it is designed so that men and women pray together.

"When people saw the work I was doing on these projects, they would start to join in," she says.

"Now people can pray in their own village and the local boys don't have to go so far to learn how to read the Koran."

All this is a profound achievement for a woman who was married at 10 years old - and just 15 when she became a mother.  For much of her young adult life, she lived in a very remote village with her husband's family where, she says, she was little more than a servant.

During Taliban rule, she moved to the regional capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, with her husband, where she had her first taste of community work, volunteering to help parents get their children vaccinated. Covertly, she helped teach young girls to learn to read.

Now aged 50, with 36 grandchildren, she is head of the local women's council, as well as village head, and hosts large meetings of local women in her home, encouraging them to follow her example.

"I was just a housewife like you," she told a group of 50 women at one of her recent gatherings.  "But today I can have a meeting with 1,000 people. I can meet and discuss issues with authorities. In Western countries, women can become presidents. These women are brave and they can achieve a lot."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Afghanistan's ruby mines plundered by thieves

Rubies recovered from mines in the hills of Jegdalek

Only a few hours' drive from the Afghan capital Kabul is an area renowned for some of the world's brightest and most valuable rubies. But this wealth is being plundered by thieves, corrupt officials and the Taliban, as the BBC's Bilal Sarwary discovers.

The sun was about to rise over the Hindu Kush peaks surrounding Kabul when we hit the road to Jegdalek. It is a mountainous area noted for its rugged beauty in Kabul's Surobi district, some 96km (60 miles) south-east of the capital. There are opium crops here, but it is ruby mines that have earned Jegdalek such renown.  It is seen as a part of the country which could hold the key to many of Afghanistan's pressing economic woes.

"Jegdalek mines have been worked for more than 500 years," one tribal elder told me. "They are known for their high-grade blood-red rubies, which were popular with royalty across the world."

But the great and the good willing to pay magnificent prices no longer purchase Jegdalek rubies. Tribal elders say that instead the mines are being plundered by thieves, corrupt officials and the Taliban.

The situation has become so worrying, officials say, that President Hamid Karzai has become seriously concerned.  "He is aware that we can easily become [like certain] African countries, where mineral worth is a curse, not a blessing, and could be used to further destabilise the country," a presidential official told the BBC.

There is supposed to be a ban on ruby mining because the government views the mines as national wealth. Despite government denials, local traders in Jegdalek bazaar openly display newly-mined gems.

Jegdalek is not a wealthy area, sandwiched between the snowy passes of Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains on one side and Pakistan's Parachinar valley on another.  There are mostly mud houses and ruins - its few roads are in a poor condition and locals say that there is no electricity or drinking water.  Like much of rural Afghanistan, the government's diktats are of little consequence here, which is why the ruby mining ban is so flagrantly flouted.

Officials admitted to the BBC that the government was not in control of dozens of mines for precious and semi-precious stones around the country.  "The Taliban are greedy and they lure locals to mine the area unprofessionally," says Wasil Khan, a disgruntled resident of a village near the mines.   Unskilled miners dig huge, deep holes, fill them up with gunpowder and then set them on fire. Such blasts have damaged the mines as well as the wealth that lies underneath."

The hills of the area are covered with hundreds of white trenches, leading the way to the mines themselves.

Mr Khan says that the mines rarely produce the red rubies they were once famous for - more often than not semi-transparent pink sapphires are the only gems found, even at depths of 150m (492ft).

But those who are illegally mining think otherwise, and the government clearly contends that much of value still lies deep within the soil here.

Once a major base of mujahideen fighters during the Soviet invasion of the country, local officials say that two-thirds of Jegdalek is now controlled by the insurgents.  "The Taliban tell the locals to work here," police officer Mohammed Talib - who accompanied us on our tour of the region - told us.  "They tell them: 'We will give you 25% of the profit on the rubies you bring. The best rubies are on Taliban's side of the mountain'."

Dr Talib said that every Friday the Taliban organises a ruby bazaar near Jegdalek in the small village of Soar Naw - a remote and mountainous area covered with deeply forested valleys.  Here they sell rubies which are then smuggled to Dubai, Pakistan and Thailand.   Just two months ago, the Taliban reportedly smuggled a ruby out of the area which sold for $600,000 (£383,000) in Dubai. While there is no way of substantiating this claim, similar stories abound.

Afghan soldier at Jegdalek The government admits that it is only in control of a few of the mines

"The income from rubies is used to buy weapons and pay fighters. If we can somehow plug this source, it will be a big blow to Taliban finances," an intelligence officer accompanying the police party said.

Police say that other criminal groups - working under the name of the Taliban - are exploiting the area's wealth and denuding the landscape solely for cash returns.

The police officer took me inside one of the mines. It is a vertical, narrow trench surrounded by thick marble walls about 4m (13ft) long with a hole in the surface. Yet despite this compelling evidence of recent mining, police insist the ban is being enforced.  As I was trying to look deeper into the mines, a policeman came running up to the commander and said something in his ear.  "We will have to wind up," the officer said. "My men have spotted some suspicious people on one of the hills. They could be locals, but I wouldn't like to take a chance."  As we prepared to make a hasty exit, nearly a dozen Taliban fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns took positions in the nearby hills, less than a kilometre away from our position.

Back in Kabul, mining official Tamim Asey admits that the government is losing millions of dollars every year as powerful warlords, tribal chieftains and corrupt officials collude to rob the nation of its natural resources.  He says that the priority is to ensure that revenue from the mines - which for years has been the source of wealth for different power brokers - goes to the government and people of Afghanistan.

"It is unfortunate indeed that the country's assets are not benefiting people who need it most," Mr Asey lamented.
-BBC News

To see more information on a nearly 20 year old mining project in Afghanistan that does benifit local Afghans, click here. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Stone carvers return to Bamiyan valley

Stone carvers defy Taliban to return to the Bamiyan valley
Under perfectly carved niches that once held dozens of small buddha statues, the purposeful tap of chisel on stone echoed over the Bamiyan valley for the first time in centuries.
Twelve young Afghans had gathered to take the first tentative steps back towards a stone-working tradition that once made their home famous, at a workshop in a cave gouged out as a monastery assembly hall more than 1,000 years ago.
The cave-hall was part of a complex built around two giant buddhas that loomed serenely over Bamiyan for about 15 centuries – until the Taliban government condemned them as un-Islamic in early 2001 and blew them up.
"I was interested in this course because I want to restore our culture," said Ismael Wahidi, a 22-year-old student of archeology at Bamiyan University, who set aside more conventional studies for a week to learn how to turn a lump of stone into a sculpture. "If you want to destroy a people, you first destroy their heritage and history."
The workshop, held just a few metres from where the larger buddha's face was once carved from the cliff face, aimed to reintroduce stone-carving to the valley by showing that creating basic pieces is easy, even if mastery takes years.
Under the guidance of Afghan, American and German artists, the group picked the stone they would shape from some of the rich seams of marble, quartzite and travertine [a form of limestone] that thread through the local mountains, foothills of the Himalayas. Then they set to work, with chisels forged by local blacksmiths from the suspension springs of old cars. "We wanted to give young people the idea that it is possible to do stone carving with what you have here," said Bert Praxenthaler, a sculptor and conservationist who has been working on the valley's monuments for several years, including stabilising the niches that once held the buddhas.
The Bamiyan valley is pockmarked with hundreds of caves that were once part of sumptuous monasteries, packed with statues and lavishly painted with frescoes. This rich artistic heritage was funded by centuries of taxes on caravans passing through what is now an isolated backwater, but was once a wealthy and important stop on the silk road.
"There must have been at least 2,000 years of sculptural tradition," said Praxenthaler. "Even excavating the caves is a kind of architectural sculpture. It was not just hacking holes into the cliff but also shaping the rooms, and they are quite extraordinary."
That tradition was probably killed off around 1,000 years ago, Praxenthaler said, when the valley was conquered by Mahmoud of Ghazni, a leader whose epithet suggested little interest in figurative art. "Anyone who calls themselves the 'destroyer of idols' probably wouldn't support further stone carving," Praxenthaler said.
Sculpture has remained largely off limits in Afghanistan because of strict Islamic prohibitions on idolatry. Depictions of any human or animal are strongly discouraged in art, and calligraphy, floral and geometric patterns dominate the country's more recent cultural heritage, from the majestic minaret of Jam, to mosques and monuments in cities such as Kabul and Kandahar.
"As you know, extremists often make propaganda about idols. But this is our heritage, not something religious," said 20-year-old Abdur Rahman Rosta, one of the student sculptors. He added that that in Bamiyan itself the sculptors were feted. The valley's people suffered badly under the Taliban, and have little sympathy for their hardline views, and Bamiyan has remained one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan as insurgent violence spreads elsewhere.
The provincial governor came to a small ceremony unveiling the sculptures, and picked up a chisel herself as musicians played in a niche that once held the cave's largest statue – and might perhaps one day hold another.
"During this course we realised we had much more ability for working with stone than we could have imagined, and we understood we can do so much more," said Jawed Mohammadi, a 20-year-old history student at the university, who used the week to chisel out a human face. "The buddhas were destroyed, but maybe we can build them again."

(from The Guardian)

Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Afghanistan's National Institute of Music is the first and finest institution for the education and nurturing of gifted young Afghan musicians. Integral to our music program is a high quality academic education ensuring that our students are able to achieve at the highest level internationally as musicians, music educators, academics and specialists.
The institute is committed to providing a dynamic, challenging and safe learning environment for all students regardless of gender, ethnicity or social circumstances. We also have a special focus on supporting the most disadvantaged group in Afghan society – the orphans and street working kids - to help them attain a vocation that will allow them to reach their full potential, while contributing to their emotional healing.
Through the provision of an internationally-accredited curriculum our graduates will have the skills, creative vision and confidence to contribute to the artistic, social and cultural life of Afghanistan, and the rebuilding and revival of Afghan music traditions.
Afghanistan's National Institute of Music will be the model for future music schools and colleges to be built throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Winter Music Academy 2010/2011
The Afghanistan Winter Music Academy is an intensive eight-week musical experience designed to offer Afghan youth from age 10 to age 30 a chance to improve their musical abilities, while offering the Kabul community a series of exciting concerts. The First Annual Afghanistan Winter Music Academy took place at Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), founded by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, from December 19, 2010, through February 9, 2011. It was made possible by the Afghanistan Ministry of Education and sponsored by the Embassy of the USA, the Embassy of Finland, and the Goethe Institute. The Second Annual Afghanistan Winter Music Academy will take place from December 2011 through February 2012.

 Sitar and Sarod Ensemble and Young Traditional Afghan Ensemble
The Sarod and Sitar Ensemble, directed by Ustad Irfan Khan and Ustad Ehsan, at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, playing "Rag Khamaj." Samim (tabla), Abdul Qadir, Ahmadullah, Shabeer, and Nagina (sarod), Gulalai, Farshad, and Huma (sitar), and Masoud Kochi (violin).

The Young Traditional Afghan Ensemble, directed by Ustad Murad, at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, playing "Obadin Chashman." Ahmadullah (dhol), Abdel Wahab, Ali, Eraj, and Farhad (ghichak), Ruhullah (dilruba), Samim (rubab), Samiullah (harmonium), Mustafa (tambur), Hameedullah (tabla), and Meeran (zerbaghali).

Restoring Iraq's Marshes

There used to be large natural marshlands in Iraq, full of villages such as this one.  The marshes were home to hundreds of species of migratory birds, as well as wildlife local to Iraq.  Each little island you see is made of dried reeds, and each house you see is also made of dried reeds.

A photo slideshow of what Iraq's marshes used to look like.  All the buildings you see are made using dried reeds.

THEN after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein drained the majority of the marshes as a punishment for a failed uprising of some of the Marsh Arabs.  Many people were forced to flee or move elsewhere.

All of the water feeding the marshes, and the water in the marshes themselves, was diverted into a huge canal that went straight to the Gulf. 

The marshes turned into this:

After the Iraqi invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, a few people and organizations have made attempts to break the walls of the canal and reflood the marshes.

Here are two videos made since then about the rehabilitation process:



Map of the Marshes in 1976.

 Map of the Marshes in 2000.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Update on Sahar Gul as of 5/7/2012

Tortured Afghani girl after rescue
(Finally, some updated pictures!)

Justice for Sahar: Afghan family who tortured child bride jailed for 10 years

Three relatives of Sahar Gul, the child bride whose case caused worldwide outrage after she was rescued – tortured and starved – from a filthy basement in northern Afghanistan last year, have each been sentenced to 10 years in prison for human rights abuses.
The 15-year-old was found in a cellar in Baghlan province last December after her uncle tipped off police. Following an arranged marriage, Ms Gul's husband and his family kept her in isolation for five months, with barely enough food to survive, and tortured her because she refused to enter into prostitution.
In one of the most extreme examples of domestic violence exposed in Afghanistan, Ms Gul's in-laws pulled out her fingernails, beat her, broke her fingers and burned her body with hot pokers.
Ms Gul attended the sentencing, coming face to face with her husband's mother, father and sister for the first time since she was rescued. In court, she pulled off her headscarf to show the judge the scars on her scalp, face and neck inflicted during her ordeal. She asked the judge to punish her relatives by imposing the death penalty.
Ms Gul's representatives said the 10-year sentence handed down to each member of her husband's family was nowhere near long enough and they are appealing for harsher punishment.
"She said she was happy they were all put in jail," said Huma Safi of Women for Afghan Women, which runs the half-way house where Ms Gul was taken to recover after leaving hospital. She has since received intensive psychological counselling and physical therapy.
"I saw the happiness on her face – but also the fear," Ms Safi said. "The fear that in 10 years they will be able to leave jail. Ten years is not a long time. She said: 'Look how old I am. Ten years will go past very fast'."
Ms Gul's husband, a soldier in the Afghan army, and her brother-in-law fled when she was rescued and remain on the run. They were found guilty in absentia and presiding judge Sibghatullah Razi said the pair would be sentenced when they were caught.
Heather Barr, a researcher for Human Rights Watch Afghanistan, said the sentences were encouraging because they showed that "at least in this instance, the prosecutors have taken an act of violence against women seriously".
"That's a positive – but I'm afraid it's atypical," Ms Barr said. "This case is unusual in the amount of publicity it received but not unusual in the type of horrible acts that were involved. The challenge is to make sure that the law on the elimination of violence against women is implemented in all cases of violence against women, not just the unusual cases that receive media attention."
Over the past decade, since the Taliban were ousted from power, the situation for women in Afghanistan has improved. As many as four million girls now attend school, and women are employed in a variety of jobs. Although she refused to consider it at first, Ms Gul is now thinking about beginning her education.
However, activists believe more work must be done to address issues such as underage marriage, "honour" killings and the use of women to settle debts. Although the legal age for marriage in Afghanistan is 16, the UN estimates that half of girls marry before they are 15.
Ms Gul's case was one of three instances of horrific violence against women that made worldwide headlines at the end of last year. In November, the plight of Gulnaz came to light. Although she had been raped and impregnated by her cousin's husband, Gulnaz was imprisoned for adultery.
In December, three men doused a 17-year-old girl and her family in acid, in revenge for her refusal to marry an ageing suitor. Perhaps the most notorious case in recent years, however, is that of Bibi Aysha, whose mutilated face appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Her husband cut off her nose and ears and left her for dead after she ran away from home.
4 million: Estimated number of girls now attending school. Education of girls was banned under the Taliban

-From 'The Independent'

Windblown landmine clearance by Massoud Hassani

The Mine Kafon is a cheap, wind-blown mine clearance device made primarily from bamboo, plastic and iron. (Copyright: Massoud Hassani)

A simple device that is designed to clear some of the millions of landmines scattered around the world offers a lesson in thoughtful design and adaptation. 

The global statistics on land mines and their effects make sobering reading. According to the United Nations, up to 110 million mines have been laid across more than 70 countries since the 1960s and that between 15,000 and 20,000 people die each year because of them.
Many of the victims are civilians - children, women and the elderly - not soldiers. Thousands more are maimed. Moreover, mines are cheap. The UN estimates that some cost as little as $3 to make and lay in the ground. Yet, removing them can cost more than 50 times that amount. And the removal is not without human cost either. The UN says that one mine clearance specialist is killed, and two injured, for every 5,000 mines cleared.
One of the worst affected countries is Afghanistan, with an estimated 10 million land mines contaminating more than 200 square miles of land. It is something that Massoud Hassani, who grew up in the northern part of Kabul, knows that all too well. "We lived out by the airport, and there's a big desert out there where all different militaries trained," Hassani tells me. "It was a real war zone. They left a lot of explosives, including land mines."
"But, it was our playground," Hassani continues. "When we were kids, we used to make these wind-powered toys, and play with them on this desert full of explosives, and they'd get stuck out there."
Hassani's family left Afghanistan in 1993, moving around different countries before eventually settling in The Netherlands. Hassani tried studying different subjects, but nothing grabbed him. And then, one day, a colleague at a security company noticed him drawing. "I was doing a job just sitting all day long in a building, and I was sketching because I was really bored. And my colleague suggested that I do something creative."
He eventually ended up at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where his experience of Afghanistan’s mine fields would serve as inspiration for a unique device. Whilst looking for ideas for his final project, one of his professors suggested he look to his Afghan roots for inspiration. Hassani says he thought back to that desert north of Kabul filled with land mines, and those small, wind-powered toys that used to skip across it. "My teachers told me to make a link between them," Hassani says. And that is how the Mine Kafon was born.

Explosive conclusion
Hassani has designed and built, by hand, a wind-powered ball that is heavy enough to trip mines as it rolls across the ground. Each $50 device looks like an artwork inspired by a starburst. In the middle of the Kafon is a 17kg (37lb) iron casing surrounded by dozens of radiating bamboo legs that each have a round plastic "foot" at their tip. Inside the ball is a GPS unit to map where it has been – and in theory cleared of mines. Around the iron ball is a suspension mechanism, which allows the entire Kafon to roll over bumps, holes and so forth. In all, it weighs a little more than 80kg (175lb). The idea is that it is light enough to be pushed by the wind, but heavy enough to trip mines. Hassani thinks that humanitarian organizations could take Kafons with them into areas suspected of being mined, and then let the wind do the dangerous work.
"Nowadays people search for mines by hand, and it takes a lot of time," Hassani says. "People walk along, sticking things into the ground. Many are not trained to do it, and there are a lot of accidents." He believes that the mine Kafon could be a safer, and cheaper, alternative. He has spent the last year and a half improving his invention, has also teamed up with the Dutch military and the country's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit to test it.
"When we work for the UN we have to prove that an area is 98% clear of mines and fragments," says Henk van der Slik, head of the Dutch EOD unit, who has 23 years of experience in de-mining.
"Normally, we use dogs and mine-detectors. Even if a mine has less than one gram of metal, we can find it."

But, he say, that takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money “because you have to dig out every metal part you detect”.
“You don't know whether it is actually a mine or not until you excavate it," he says.
As a result, you would think that devices like the Kafon, which in theory can speed up this process or take some of the danger out of the equation, would be seen as a quick and easy win. Unfortunately, the tests did not draw the same conclusion.
"It's not suitable for de-mining activities," was van der Slik’s stark analysis. In other words, if the idea is that the Kafon can hit a mine, survive the blast, and then continue to roll on and detonate other mines and eventually clear an area, then van der Slik says it will not work. As it stands, he says, 100g of explosive (the average for antipersonnel mines) stops the Kafon dead it in its tracks right in the middle of a probable mine field, which would make retrieval and repair very dangerous. There are also a couple of other obvious drawbacks. First, you have to have a wind blowing for the Kafon to move. And second, it will only work on fairly flat and open terrain, like a desert. It isn't designed to move in jungles and the like.
Also, van der Slik notes, "when the Kafon is rolling, it would activate trip wires (on fragmentation mines)." If the mine explodes into fragments, he says, it causes “bigger problems”, because in subsequent sweeps “every fragment will be detected as a potential mine." In other words, more metal pieces mean more work for the human de-miners who have to prove 98% clearance.
So not a resounding success, for what seemed like a good idea on paper. But van der Slik says not all is not lost; Hassani's mine Kafon could have other uses.
"The aim is maybe when you have an area of potential risk, you don't know if there are mines, and people are afraid to go in, then you can work with this design and when you have a detonation, you know there are mines, because mines are never alone," he says. "Then you can mark the area as a dangerous area. It's a more humanitarian aim, for marking a potential area."
It’s an idea that resonates with Hassani who, rather than being disappointed that the tests undermined the original idea for the Kafon, is excited about improving the design so that it can be used in the way van der Slik describes. For example, he tells me, it's clear that he needs to find a way to strengthen the device so that it won't lose as many legs when it explodes. "That's why you do the tests," Hassani says, "to see how it gets damaged."
The Kafon was recently selected as a finalist for the 2012 Design of the Year award at the Design Museum in London. And he says he's working to improve the design of the bamboo-legged device, and is talking with engineers to improve both the form and function of it. He also says he's also working on another, more cylindrical version that could potentially detonate more mines at a time.
Right now, Hassani says, further development of the mine kafon idea is his full-time job. He's actively looking to partner with like-minded organizations, and get enough money to move the project out of the prototype phase and into real field tests.
"If that works," Hassani says, "then we can really ramp up the project."

Inner circle
The device consists of an iron ball, which contains a GPS device, surrounded by bamboo legs topped with biodegradable plastic feet.  It is designed to be light enough to be pushed by the wind, but heavy enough to trip mines as it rolls over them.

 The tests concluded it was not suitable for clearance, but could be used as a cheap and safe way to identify dangerous areas that need demining. Hassani is now working to improve the design and hopes to conduct field tests soon.

Brave recovery of mutilated Bangladesh woman

Brave recovery of mutilated Bangladesh woman

Hawa Akther Jui Several months after the attack, Ms Akther can write legibly, appears confident and chats without any hesitation to a stream of visitors

When doctors in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, told Hawa Akther Jui that she would be able to write again with her mutilated right hand, her joy knew no bounds.

Ms Akther, 21, had lost all hopes of writing again after her fingers were cut off, allegedly by her husband because she started attending a college without his permission.

Doctors at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Dhaka carried out a series of surgical operations on Ms Akther's hand, which involved setting up a splint between her thumb and wrist so that she can hold a pencil or a pen.

"The fact that I can write again has given me lots of hope and confidence. I have slowly started practising. I will continue my studies and achieve my aim of becoming a lawyer," Ms Akther said while sitting in her parents' one-bedroom house in the town of Narsingdi.

Ms Akther has just finished sitting her exams. She is not yet able to write independently. She dictates answers and her sister writes them. The college has given her extra 20 minutes for this.

She said that her husband, Rafiqul Islam, attacked her soon after paying a surprise visit from his job in the United Arab Emirates in December.

Women in Bangladesh Activists say that women from all classes are at risk of domestic violence

When she met him at a relative's house, she said, he blindfolded her, taped her mouth and chopped off her fingers with a meat cleaver. They could not be attached again as they were recovered too late from a dustbin.

Ms Akther said that her husband, who is not well educated, did not approve of her enrolling in a local college for higher studies.

Mr Islam is in custody.

Although domestic violence in Bangladesh is rife, the brutality of this particular incident shocked the nation and there was an outpouring of sympathy for Ms Akther.

When I met her soon after the attack, she appeared shocked and traumatised and broke down repeatedly while explaining what happened. At that time, she said, she had begun to practise writing with her left hand.

Months later, she appears confident and chats without any hesitation to a stream of visitors to her house.

Her wounds on the right hand have healed but there are no fingers beyond her knuckles and only a half thumb is remaining.

'Example to everyone'
The mutilation has definitely not dented her resolve to continue with her studies. She proves that by writing a few sentences using a pencil.

Hawa Akther Jui  recovering after the attack Ms Akther was lovingly nursed by her family immediately after the attack

"All those horrible things happened to me because I wanted to study. So, I will pursue my education. Doctors say I cannot write [in] my exam for three hours at a stretch. So, I need a writer for the exam. But I will continue practising with my right hand," she said.

Her determination to fulfil this objective has even tempted her to break rules at home.

"I had to register and pay exam fees three days after my fingers were cut off. So, my parents told me not to sit for them this year," she said.

"But I didn't want to miss it. So I took money from my mother's handbag without her knowledge and paid my fee," she said with a giggle.

Ms Akther also said she did not want to go back to her husband's family again and will seek a divorce "once everything is settled".

Her family is gradually coming to grips with the situation. They said despite promises of help from various quarters, they did not receive much financial assistance for Ms Akther's medical expenses.

"We want her to get educated so that she can be self-reliant. We will do whatever we can do to fulfil her dreams. I think my daughter will be an example to everyone," said Musammat Parveen, Ms Akther's mother.

"We need to make sure that no girl goes through this kind of suffering."

Women's rights activists in Bangladesh point out that the brutal attack on Ms Akther is part of a growing trend of violence against educated women.

In June last year, a university lecturer lost her eyesight in an attack allegedly carried out by her husband. She said it happened because he was jealous of her academic achievements.

He denied the allegations, but was unable to face trial because he died in prison before the case went to court.

The 2011 Human Rights Report by the Odhikar organisation points out that violence against women is on the rise in the country.

It said that more than 300 women may have been killed in dowry-related violence last year. In addition to this, dozens of women were also killed in rape and acid attacks.

"Domestic violence happens in all sections of the society and it is increasing. But very few women come forward to report these abuses because of the social stigma," Odhikar spokeswoman Taskin Fahmina said.

"Ms Akther's attempts to talk about this openly are a positive sign. The awareness is increasing, but the law should be implemented properly to punish those found guilty. That will send out a clear message to others."

The stoicism of women such as Ms Akther proves the old argument that education plays a vital role in creating more awareness of the scourge of domestic violence.

"I think women should get an education like men. Once they are educated, they don't have to rely on others," she asserts.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Walk to Beautiful - about Fistulas

Many young girls around the world don't quite get enough food to eat.  They also work very hard doing chores.  This causes their bodies to be smaller because they have lacked the nutrition needed to grow normally.  On top of that, they are married young - before their bodies have fully 'become adult'.  While giving birth, the baby causes damage and sometimes dies because the mother's bone structure is too small to give birth properly.  Sometimes the mother dies as well.  The damage caused (fistula) can only be fixed by surgery, and without surgery the woman is incontinent and ostracized.  This happens all over the world.