Rukhsana was married and had three daughters. She lived on the outskirts of Kohat, a city close to Darra Adam Khel, the pseudo-tribal area once known for its weapons factories, thirty-five kilometres south of Peshawar. Darra Adam Khel was now in control of the Taliban. There was complete peace – like a grave yard. Different groups backed by the Taliban started activities in Kohat too. Chaos emerged after the US invasion of Afghanistan on the other side of the border, leading to the end of peace in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This was the third day that Rukhsana’s kitchen was empty. She looked into the jars of sugar, flour and oil: there was nothing. Her youngest daughter, following her mother into the kitchen, said: “Babay, Mother, I am hungry”. Her colour had turned pale and her lips were dry from hunger. Tears started to well up in the eyes of hapless and helpless Rukhsana. She poured some water into the glass and gave it to her daughter who refused to drink it.
“No, I need bread,” she replied in response to the offer.
“Ok, go to your bed I am coming,” Rukhsana told her daughter, who did not leave the kitchen.
Rukhsana went out of the kitchen and straight to the tree planted near the boundary wall around their mud house. She picked some of the leaves and took several grey stones, putting them into her chaddar. Her daughter, still standing close to the kitchen, looked at her with surprise wanting to know what her mother was doing. Rukhsana put everything into a pot and placed it on the fireplace. Then, with a few logs, she started the fire.
“What are you doing babay?” her daughter asked with surprise.
“Cooking a meal for you,” she replied coldly.
“But this is not a meal, it is mere leaves and stones,” the daughter objected.
Rukhsana stopped moving to look at her.
“So what should I do for you? Look, if you are hungry I will make these leaves delicious for you. You know in older times even my great-grandparents used to eat it. In tribal areas people would eat leaves and mountain stones that have their own taste. Just go to your bed, you will see.”
Rukhsana made her case for cooking leaves with a taste of stones. But she was just playing with the hunger of the daughter. She knew that soon sleep would overpower her hunger. The daughter was getting furious and left her alone in the kitchen. She poured some water in the pot, just to show she was serious about cooking the meal.
It was a cold afternoon when her husband came.
“Rukhsan, oh, Rukhsana, where are you?” he shouted.
“I am here in the kitchen,” she replied.
“I am hungry, what is there for food?” he asked.
“Leaves and stones.”
“Shut up and give me money, I shall eat something at the hotel.” He gripped her arm. But she pushed him back.
“You have already sold my jewellery, my cutlery and even my furniture. Nothing remains in my hands except the three lines of my fate”, she complained.
“Oh, you whore, always complaining. Today I will solve all the problems.”
Saying this, he left home.
Rukhsana looked at the fireplace. The water had evaporated from the pot – there were just leaves, stones and smoke. After putting out the fire, she went to the other room. All three of her daughters were sleeping, including the one that had been waiting for food. She had already given syrup to the other two daughters and they were still under the influence of that medicine. She was used to giving that kind of medicine to her daughters whenever they could not sleep due to hunger. It was a common cough syrup, but it put her children to sleep.
She looked at the ceiling of her room. Birds had made nests in a corner of the room. She started thinking about birds. How easy for them to fly freely and feed their offspring. She thought how much better it would be if she was a bird. But she was a human being, a woman. She remembered that in the past, she was sometimes unable to even feed her children from her own body, when the milk in her breasts had dried up due to her own hunger. Then, as usual, she went on hunger strike against hunger.
Late in the night somebody shook her body. It was her husband.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Look, I have brought food. This is mutton, fish, and look at this, it’s chicken roast! Wake up and give some to your daughters. And prepare yourself, I have a good friend of mine sitting in the room next door waiting for you.” She found her husband completely intoxicated. She did not understand his words but looked at the food and woke up her daughters.
But the bird in the cage can do nothing except rapidly move its wings, a token struggle for freedom. Her husband closed the door behind them. Rukhsana surrendered to hunger.
While in their sleep, the daughters had smiles on their faces. When awoken, their eyes opened widely thinking it was all a dream. Finding it real, they dived into the food. Then, her husband took her hand, almost dragging her to the next room. This was their cattle room. Long ago, her husband had sold all the cattle to buy drugs for himself and now it was a room reserved for her husband. A filthy, fleshy and bald middle-aged man smiled at her when she entered the room. He was waiting as if for an animal. She realised what was happening and tried to resist. But the bird in the cage can do nothing except rapidly move its wings, a token struggle for freedom. Her husband closed the door behind them. Rukhsana surrendered to hunger.
The man left before dawn. She was tired and hurt. She did not even know his name. But she slept until morning. When waking up, she found five hundred rupees under her pillow. She stuffed the money into her clothes. She was still on the bed when her husband entered the room, still under the influence of heavy drugs. He smiled at her. It was a poisonous smile.
“Did he give you money?” Her husband came close to Rukhsana.
“No”, she simply answered. The expression of the husband changed.
“I opened the door for him, and he told me that he had given you some money.”
“No, I have not received a penny from him. I did not even ask his name.” Rukhsana stood by her stance.
“You are a liar.” Saying this her husband put his hand into her bra and snatched all the money from it. He knew the secrets of his wife. She resisted, but his cold hands were too powerful.
He left home. Rukhsana, again with empty hands, started her morning. She found her daughters expecting breakfast as their father had told them that all their bad days had ended. They had indeed ended. It was against the religion but for her no religion was bigger than hunger. Rukhsana put her chaddar telling her elder daughter to wait and take care of her other two sisters and left the house. She knew her husband’s good places. In different parts of Kohat city, there were separate spots for drug dealers and prostitutes, as in all the other cities of the world.
Soon, Rukhsana was patrolling the streets. She was naïve, ignorant of the world’s oldest profession, but hunger taught her. Those were the good days for hunger-stricken bodies. The Taliban, aware of the worsening moral situation in the city, started distributing pamphlets against social evils. They had a special squad to stop immoralities and impose faith.
It was late in the afternoon. Rukhsana gave some money to her husband. From that day until now, her husband never asked her what she did to get the money. Whenever her husband looked at her she gave him money, and he always accepted it with the same poisonous smile. That day too she gave him money and left home. She had just started her business at a busy road, and a big vehicle with tinted windows stopped near her. By now she knew the rest and got in the back seat. To her surprise the men inside were all bearded. She realised her mistake, but it was too late.
The next morning, people of the city found her dead; a sign lying over her body inscribed with a few lines: “All those going against the Sharia will face the same fate.”
Somebody informed her husband, who was still waiting for Rukhsana. She had spent the whole night out, and he was expecting a big amount of money. He was informed that she was killed, and that he could receive her body from the municipality. Hearing this he looked at her older daughter, still sleeping.
It was a sunny morning in March. Gul Rukh got ready early. She ate her breakfast and packed her books. Her mother, as usual, gave her some money for lunch during her school break. This was their routine after her father’s death. He had died of heart failure, but her mother sewed clothes and earned some amount of money with it.
Gul Rukh left for school. Her school was within walking distance in Mingora, the capital city of Swat, almost four hours drive to the north of Peshawar. She had covered a few yards and was now on the main road that led to the school. She felt a tension in the air. The military was patrolling the roads. A few months ago, the army had carried out a major offensive against the militants. It was like a nightmare for Gul Rukh.
The heavy artillery and uninterrupted gun shots did not allow her to sleep well. Then, the government announced the end of the operation and declared complete control over the valley. But there were still talk about the Taliban at the school. Her classmates coming from the suburbs of Mingora always complained about the presence of militants in their areas. Some of the girls thought that the militants appeared stronger after the army’s operation. At the end of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s rule in Pakistan, elections were held and the new political government took charge of the North West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They were Pashtun nationalists. On their arrival, the militants threatened them and pressed the government for the implementation of Sharia law.
Gul Rukh and her classmates were not clear about Sharia. They thought it would be like an extension of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The pictures and news they saw and heard were quite horrible. They worried, what if this happens here?
Gul Rukh had already covered half the distance to her school. She was only a few feet away from a military check post when a security convoy passed her. A huge blast pushed her back. Thick black clouds appeared over the sky and intense firing started. It was a suicide attack. Gul Rukh saw body parts spread over the road. The security forces started indiscriminate firing and Gul Rukh hid behind a roadside tree, but suddenly, a bullet pierced her right leg; there was a cracking sound. She felt as if her leg was on fire. Her white salwar turned red as blood came gushing out of the wound like a stream. She fell down. She felt weak and the rest of her body went cold while she lost her ability to move. Then she heard someone from the security forces shouting “stop, stop, there is a girl.”
The last thing she remembered was a group of security men approaching her. She was shifted to a nearby hospital. When she opened her eyes, she found her school friend and mother looking worriedly at her. She glanced at her right leg; it was bandaged. But the doctors advised to shift her to the provincial capital Peshawar as it was almost impossible to do a proper operation in Mingora. A local non-government welfare organisation heard about the incident and helped Gul Rukh. She got an artificial leg and was able to walk again. There is a saying in Pashtu: when one door closes, many others open.
Life was nearly normal again for Gul Rukh. She sometimes got tired and often looked at her artificial leg, the new attachment to her body. Sometimes it gave her comfort because it made it possible for her to walk, though with some difficulty, but sometimes she found herself quite disturbed as this was not a natural part of her body.
Though she had joined school again, Gul Rukh was scared about the future. People in the town were saying that the government was going to strike a deal with Taliban. Some thought that a deal with the militants was necessary for peace in the valley while others believed that this would ruin life in Swat and Malakand. Gul Rukh had no sense about what was right. For her, the choice was between bad and worse. So she thought that a deal would at least stop the suicide attacks, cross-firing and bomb blasts. As a victim of violence, she wanted the violence to stop. For this, she was willing to sacrifice.
One afternoon she found the streets of Mingora filled with Taliban. They were holding white flags in their hands and chanting slogans: “Allah is great, Allah is great, death to America, death to infidels.” She looked at them from the roof of her house. Many faces were unknown to her. Some of the local religious leaders were also there, but most of them were strangers to people in her town. She found that none of them had any weapons. This seemed strange to her as all of these faces always carried guns in her mind. They gathered on the grassy ground in the middle of Mingora. They were thousands in number. She saw faces with beards all over the city.
Late in the afternoon, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the religious leader of Malakand came on stage. The people of the area knew him for his blood sports; whenever he appeared there was bloodshed and killings. He had led a group of thousands of young and old men from Malakand and Bajaur to Afghanistan to fight against the US-led coalition forces. Very few of them came back to their homes, thousands were still missing, while Maulana Sufi Mohammad came back without firing a single bullet. Now he was again in the media so people were expecting bloodshed. But to their surprise, this time he was talking about peace. This astonished even Gul Rukh.
Another shocking surprise was waiting for the citizens of Malakand. Maulana started his address to the public: “There is no room for democracy in Islam. All the courts are serving Western laws and are agents of infidels. All courts are ordered to shun their activities. Now we are going to implement Sharia in Malakand and the Taliban will decide on all matters. The government of Pakistan is like a slave of the West. We, the followers of Mohammad, will not allow any delay in imposing the laws of God.”
Some thought that a deal with the militants was necessary for peace in the valley while others believed that this would ruin life in Swat and Malakand. Gul Rukh had no sense about what was right. For her, the choice was between bad and worse.
The crowd roared “Allah is great, Allah is great! Shame to the Western slaves!” And then, Maulana left Mingora like a newly crowned king. He was not wrong and soon a massive operation was launched in the valley causing millions to flee from Malakand. That night was horrible for Gul Rukh and her mother. A big bomb shell hit their boundary wall, probably shrapnel. Gul Rukh and her mother left the house with only their clothes on. It was early morning, and they started their journey to an unknown destination. They found other families also leaving Mingora city.
The roads were empty, no vehicles, so all of them walked. Soon Gul Rukh’s leg started aching. She had been facing some problems with the artificial leg, always unacceptable to her body. She found blood on her salwar but she kept quiet to not worry her mother.
They walked and walked. There had been times when Swat was a heaven for tourists, but now it was a heaven for terrorists – and a hell for its inhabitants. Mother and daughter covered many miles and finally reached Landaki. A gunship chopper crossed them thundering in the sky, heading towards Mingora. Gul Rukh looked at the helicopter hovering in the sky, but the scorching heat forced her to look down. She and her mother were now moving with just three legs.
She was no more, the last stone hit her right eye and it closed – like a window to life. The tribal people were still pelting her dead body with stones. There was complete darkness but the stones continued piercing her body.
The last scene her eyes captured before death was a green mountainous area and a few dozen chaddar-clad bearded men with weapons in hands. Some were young, some were old, but all of them were white-capped. The person who announced the stoning left the crowd and then, no light, no image…
Rehana was no exception. When she crossed twenty years of life her parents started worrying about her marriage. She had four other sisters – all of them born in their parents’ struggle for a male baby. He came, but first, five girls were born. And now, when he was just four, the parents looked at their first child, Rehana.
They were from the urban area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but followed rural traditions where girls have little say over their future. Birth and death it is said is God’s will but another of life’s transitions, marriage, always remains influenced by circumstance.
Rehana’s parents decided to marry her off at all costs:
“Billal is now four years old, next year we have to send him to school,” the mother said to Rehana’s father.
“Yes. But we are losing the crop, so how would we arrange the money?” the father responded, looking worried.
“And we also have to manage the money for Rehana’s marriage,” the mother said. It was unbearable for her husband, and he left the house in desperation.
The night crept in, and the dogs started barking. Rehana’s father was on his way home. There was satisfaction on his face as he had solved all problems. He knocked on the door and Rehana opened it with a smile. Unusually, the father too gave her a smile.
Looking at her, the father thought about the situation. Poor Rehana was unaware of her future, opening the door smiling and happy. Her father went straight to the bed of Billal who was in deep sleep. He kissed Billal’s forehead and shook his wife’s shoulder.
“Roshan, oh Roshan, wake up!”
She woke up, her eyes opened with fear, as she had been expecting the worst in her dreams.
“What happened?” she asked her husband.
“Nothing, I have met with some guests from the tribal area, they solved all our problems,” he answered reassuring her.
“Tell me, is it true? Or am I dreaming?” She still felt sleepy.
“No, no, it’s all true.” Rauf, her husband laughed at her.
“Tell me, how?” She was eager to know, and Rauf told her the whole story.
“Oh God, thank you! So Billal will go to school and Rehana to her in-laws.” She sighed with relief as a weight was lifted off her chest. Both slept well that night.
In some areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa there are often arguments about marriages, with expenses ranging from fifty thousand to half a million rupees, and one can easily find families selling their daughters. But Rehana’s fate was soaked with blood.
Next year, Billal was admitted to school after participating in his sister’s marriage dancing, wearing new clothes. Both Rauf and Roshan were happy about catching two birds with a single arrow.
With the emergence of the Taliban, the situation had become more complicated in some tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and family and personal feuds changed form. The Taliban declared the end of personal enmities; no one was allowed to kill their enemy for personal reasons. So, influential people of the area adopted other ways to settle scores with their rivals and local laws mixed with Sharia law. They bought girls for marriage, labelled them tor, a term used for a woman having illicit relationships, and the Taliban was asked to decide the case according to Sharia law. It always worked.
Next year, Billal was admitted to school after participating in his sister’s marriage dancing, wearing new clothes. Both Rauf and Roshan were happy about catching two birds with a single arrow. Rehana’s husband, thirty-year-old Munir Khan, was young and muscular as most young tribal men from the area. His father was killed by Saeed Khan, and Munir had to take revenge. After his father was killed, Munir married his cousin. It was his mother’s decision as she feared that her only son might also be killed by Saeed Khan and wanted to see a grandson as soon as possible.
Rehana was sitting next to her husband, feeling the warmth of his shoulders. The car was on its way to the tribal area, a six-hour drive. Their car was followed by a dozen other cars packed with Munir Khan’s cousins. His mother had remained at home with Munir’s first wife and the children. Soon their car entered a lush, green valley. Being from the plains, Rehana was fascinated by the green mountains. Goats were grazing freely on mountain slopes. She had never imagined that goats and sheep, these simple innocent and weak animals, would walk and run at such heights. The air was pure, fresh and pregnant with moist drops as if it was raining lightly outside.
They reached their destination. It was a thick-walled stone house with a big gate and clay posts at each corner of the house. Tribals used to make these kinds of posts to defend their homes from invaders. Earlier, before the Taliban, local opponents used weapons against each other in disputes, and the posts were erected as protection.
Weeks passed and the weather changed. Munir was fair in his distribution of time between the two wives. But Rehana never met his first wife. Munir had already made a partition in his big house and both the wives were kept separate from each other by a stone and mud wall. It was five in the afternoon, but the sun was already out of sight when Rehana heard the voice of her husband.
“Open the door you bitch,” Munir Khan shouted. She turned pale and rushed to the door opening it in a hurry.
“Khan ji, what happened?” She never called her husband by his first name.
“Oh, your cunning innocence! As if you don’t know anything!” Full of anger, his body was shaking.
“I swear, I don’t know.” She replied almost weeping, not knowing why her husband was angry.
“You whore, you spent the whole afternoon with Saeed Khan.” Munir pushed his wife and dragged her outside by her hair. Rehana was stunned, she heard this name for the first time.
People of the neighbourhood gathered. A Taliban vehicle was patrolling in the area. They stopped to look into the matter and asked for witnesses. Munir Khan had already arranged seven instead of the required four witnesses.
Saeed Khan was very powerful though not more than the Taliban. The Taliban’s local commander was impressed by Munir Khan’s love for religion and jihad: Munir had presented him two brand-new vehicles and was responsible for supplying the fuel to be used. When the commander heard what happened to a true Muslim like Munir Khan, he jumped to a conclusion and acted fast. The commander summoned Saeed Khan to the local shura, a council of religious leaders, comprising twelve people. Saeed Khan had no other option than to surrender as he knew that no corner of the world was safe from the Taliban. He gave in after many rounds of talks between his elders and the Taliban leadership who agreed to shoot him. Stoning was reserved for women.
Rehana was kept in a separate room. She was not afraid of death but feared shame. She wanted to prove her innocence as the blame might affect the future of her four sisters. But communication was not possible, she was not even allowed to talk to her parents, and she resigned to her fate. Circumstance had led her here, so she let circumstance decide again.
She did not know that hundreds of miles from her, her parents were planning to do another strike of two birds with one arrow. Billal wanted a bicycle.
She was stoned to death. The goats and sheep are still moving and grazing freely on the mountain tops.
~Farzana Ali is a journalist based in Peshawar, reporting on human rights and gender issues. She currently works as Bureau Chief for Aaj TV in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.