KABUL, Afghanistan » The stitches and bandages are gone, but scars streak across one side of the girl’s face, across her cheek and behind her ear: stark testimony to the brutal attack she barely survived three months ago.
When the girl, Gul Meena, is with other people, even those whom she knows at the shelter where she now lives, she pulls a veil across the damaged side of her face, often touching it gingerly and sucking in her breath.
"It hurts," she said softly.
The man who swung an ax over and over into her face and neck was her brother, according to the Afghan police and her neighbors. His reason, as best it can be pieced together from people who know the family, was that Gul Meena had dishonored their family by running away with a man to whom she was not married.
What made her perceived crime worse — and, in the eyes of some, what made the "honor killing" necessary — was that she, barely past childhood, was married, said relatives and people in her village.
With the thin, small wrists of a child and large eyes looming sadly, Gul Meena’s emotions flicker between the occasional smile and a solemn, distant look, as she seems to retreat into herself. While the doctors who treated her when she was first admitted to a hospital thought she might be 20 years old, now that her bandages are off, she looks far younger; her caretakers at the shelter in Kabul believe that more likely she is about 16.
When talking to people she sometimes sounds confused, even surprised at her situation, like a person who wakes up for the first time in a new place and cannot remember getting there. "I don’t know how this happened to me," she said as she traced the scars’ raised welts with her index finger.
Neither the doctors nor hospital orderlies who saw her in the days and even weeks after she was brought to a hospital in eastern Afghanistan at the end of September — with her brain protruding from her skull — thought she would survive, much less regain the ability to walk, wash herself, eat and speak. The surgeon who first treated her said he was unsure she would ever regain her motor skills.
She does remember where her family comes from, and talks about it all the time: She has four brothers and two sisters, and they grew up in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the Afghan side of the border, the area is in Naray district in Kunar province; on the Pakistani side, it is in Chitral.
She says she cannot recall, however, what led to the attack. She has no memory of running away from home or of going with a man who was not her husband to Nangarhar province, where her brother found her 10 days later.
"We had her see a counselor, but we don’t want to push her," said Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, a human rights group that runs the shelter that is caring for her. "She says different things at different times. At the beginning she said she was married and had four children, now she says she has never been married."
Loss of memory after traumatic events is a response seen sometimes in Western victims of violent rape who have had head injuries or in cases of child molesting, but that kind of amnesia is less frequent in Afghanistan, said several women’s advocates.
"I can’t remember a case where a person had lost her memory, but I am sure it is possible with time and treatment for her to recover it," said Belqis Roshan, a female senator from Farah province who has been outspoken on women’s issues.
Asked what she wants to do now, Gul Meena says that all she wants is to return to her family.
"I will go as soon as you will take me," she said to Naderi.
For a woman in Afghanistan who has broken every taboo, however, there is no going home.
Instead of returning to a haven, it is far likelier that at least one family member if not more would feel compelled by duty to enforce Pashtun tribal law and kill her to regain the family’s standing in the community, women’s advocates say.
That is what happened to Nilofar, another young woman being cared for in one of Naderi’s shelters. Her father and brother tried to kill her, slashing her throat with a knife and stabbing her in the stomach after she refused to marry an older man they had picked out to be her husband.
They left her for dead, but with enormous effort she managed to reach some farmers who took her to a hospital. When she returned home, she soon learned from her sister-in-law that her brother had started hiding a butcher knife under his pillow and was plotting to kill her in the middle of the night. A few days later she fled.
"I don’t think Gul Meena can go home," said Hassina Nekzad, the director of the Afghan Women’s Network in western Afghanistan, where there have been 22 "honor killings" in the last nine months. "I am sure that they will try to kill her again. If her brother did this and they did not put him in jail, why would he have changed? And maybe he will even feel more strongly."
With all the trauma she has endured, it is no wonder that she has a wish to find her way home, to be safe from the treachery of the world.
And yet, even she seems to realize that could be dangerous.
Asked if she was able to sleep at night, she responded: "I fall asleep, but then every night I have a dream of my older brother coming to me and saying, ‘It’s time for you to come home,’ and then I wake up and I feel so afraid."