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The Universal Sadness Issue

Protest By Fire

Everything starts to look a bit unremarkable once you stumble upon a hospital ward full of girls who have tried, and failed, to kill themselves.
January 2, 2009, 12:00am

INTERVIEW BY BRUNO BAYLEY, PHOTOS BY ANNE HOLMES

Most of us are pretty familiar with the hotbed of sad news stories that is Afghanistan. The hundreds of killed and injured troops, the thousands of dead civilians, the poverty and instability, but all of them start to look a bit unremarkable once you stumble upon a hospital ward full of girls who have tried, and failed, to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire, a horrible form of suicide known as self-immolation. Franco-American photojournalist Anne Holmes came across these young women in Herat Regional Hospital in the province of Herat. We spoke to her about what she encountered there.

Vice: When were you in Afghanistan and why?

Anne Holmes:

I travelled to Afghanistan in July 2007 because I wanted to see what the war looked like, the war that my country [the US] was fighting. I wanted to see how the people were living, how their lives had been affected, particularly women. I remember talking with a colleague about the first elections after the 2001 invasion and how amazing it was to see so many women line up to vote. The Taliban years had been really hard for Afghans, and initially there was a fair bit of good will towards the US, but that sentiment was dwindling and I wanted to take a survey of civilian life.

Did you go there looking for these girls or find them by chance and thus stumble upon the self-immolation phenomenon?

I knew about it. I had read about it and seen two other photo essays, and I felt compelled to tell the story myself because it just seemed like such a cry for help. I suppose I was trying to wrap my head around it too, trying to understand what would push someone to such extremes. All the cases I interviewed used the most basic means of setting themselves on fire. One day they doused themselves with cooking oil, petrol or kerosene and struck a match.

What drives these women to do this?

All but one of the women I interviewed complained of some form of mistreatment by men. It was either that they had been forced to marry at a very young age with a much older man, or abuses were occurring within the family, or both. Beatings were talked of openly, but many girls spoke in vague terms about “problems” or “arguments” that left big question marks. In Afghan society, there is no way to talk about sexual abuse. It is too shameful. But a UN report, which consisted of anonymous interviews, found that a lot of these young women are being molested by family members, or being used as prostitutes by their husbands.

What is the significance of the burning?

These young women are being beaten, abused verbally or sexually, and have virtually no control over their lives. They are usually married off at a very young age at which point they are absorbed into the husband’s family. They have no actual self-determination, but their act seems to suggest that they want it very desperately. Ending your life is in itself an act of self-determination, but setting yourself on fire is more than just suicide, in my opinion. It’s a statement, particularly in a Muslim society where harming the body in any way is considered sacrilege. There seems to be no way to put the kinds of abuses they are enduring into utterable language and maybe self-immolation breaks the silence in a way. It forces people to question “why?”

How common are these cases?

The only sense we can get of the numbers is by what is reported. Last year it is estimated there were 500 cases, but I suspect the number is much higher. Afghanistan has become an increasingly dangerous country for NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to work in and there are many regions that are pretty much cut off so culling data is not an easy task. Herat Regional Hospital opened a special wing in the burn ward to deal with self-immolation cases because they had so many that they were piling more than one patient in per bed. They get about six per week, mostly between the ages of 13 and 22. Most who make it to the hospital do not survive. Often they have deep burns over more than 50 per cent of the body, and the infection rate is very high. It can be a very long and painful path to death.

And what if they survive?

Most survivors are forced to return to their abusive families or beg in the streets. There are rescue organisations but they try to keep a low profile as they get constant threats and sometimes have to relocate their shelters for fear of being attacked. Herat has a rich history and is quite developed by Afghan standards. I don’t know that there are many rescue programmes in the more rural areas where women tend to have even less freedoms than in the city.

Were there any specific cases you remember?

There were two cases that really struck me. One was Hanifa. She is nine years old and she said she had an argument with her father and that’s what led her to set herself on fire. I never got anyone to expound on what they quarrelled about, but she stared at me with these eyes that seemed to know so much more than a girl her age should. She was almost like a sign that this “trend”, for lack of a better word, has really become popular culture. When kids start copying the stuff you know it’s happening way too often.

The other case was Raziah, aged 16, who set herself on fire because her family wouldn’t let her marry the boy she was in love with. There was something poetic in her act and it said so much about how these women want so much to have power over their fate but see no way to acquire it.

Has or can anything be done to solve this problem do you think?

There needs to be an infrastructure set up so that women in dire situations can take refuge, and this needs to be protected by law enforcement, but that’s difficult with the war still raging. Most of the country is not really in control of the Karzai government, so they can pass laws all they want. [President of Afghanistan Hamid] Karzai’s Afghanistan pretty much ends at the city limits of Kabul. But there are a lot of Afghan women who take risks to create women’s groups like RAWA [the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan] and the Afghan Women’s Mission. Raising awareness and supporting the existing NGOs that deal with these issues is a good start.

For more Anne Holmes, visit vigilantejournalist.com