Taj Bibi, a mother of five in her 30s, always wears “chadori,” an all-enveloping blue Afghan veil, whenever she meets strangers. But even with her faced covered, her grief is palpable. Surrounded by her three girls and two boys, she talks about her tumultuous life.
Bibi recalls her first marriage nearly 18 years ago in Marawara, a remote mountainous district of Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar Province. She says she dreamed of a happy life with her first husband, Fateh-ur Rahman. But his family’s poverty and a lack of opportunities led him to join the newly created Afghan Army in 2003.
The following year, he was killed in a clash with the insurgents and left Bibi a widow. In line with a local Pashtun custom, she married Rahman’s younger brother Rahimullah. He was also a soldier in the Afghan Army and was killed in 2013. Bibi then married the next brother, Mohibullah, who was also a soldier. He was killed in 2017.
Bibi is now married to the fourth brother of her three late husbands. Like them, he is an army infantryman and is currently posted away from Marawara. Another surviving brother lost his eyesight during fighting. The family is reluctant to share their names to protect their identity.
“All of them joined the army because of extreme poverty,” Bibi told Radio Free Afghanistan, explaining that her in-laws have no land and the men in the family have little education or marketable skills in the remote region. “Our lives are now unending grief. Allah is my only hope as I raise our children.”
Bibi says that whenever she hears the echo of gunshots inside their rented mud house in a remote corner of Marawara, she is haunted by images of her deceased husbands.
“I immediately pray that Allah may protect my husband and our family,” she said, adding that in addition to honoring the local custom of a widow marrying her deceased husband’s brother, she did not want to abandon her father and mother-in-law. “I hope to raise our children so they can witness better times,” she said.
Mohammad Rahman, her father-in-law, says the loss of his three sons has broken his soul. Tears roll down his cheeks as he looks at photos of them wearing their Afghan Army uniforms.
“Allah granted these children to me and then took them back,” Rahman, in his 60s with a flowing salt-and-pepper beard, said between sobs. “This grief has broken my back and is accentuated by our poverty,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We still do not have our own house.”
Mohammad Israr, 11, the eldest among his siblings, still remembers his late father, Rahimullah. “He loved me,” he recalled. “I used to have new shoes and clothes and he brought me everything I asked for. Now most of my classmates have new shoes, clothes, and schoolbags, but I don’t have those.”
Rahman says his best hope now is that his grandchildren can live in a peaceful Afghanistan. “After losing my three children and seeing another one live with blindness, I do not wish death or harm to any other Afghans,” he said. “Our hope is that we all can live in peace without constantly worrying about being killed or grieving after loved ones.”
Haleem Gul, a tribal leader in Marawara, says residents of the district feel aggrieved for the tragedies Rahman’s family have had to endure. “We feel sorry for them, but alas there is little we can do to help them,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Across Kunar, a major recruiting region for the Afghan Army, many families have lost their sons to the fighting. Few, however, have received any tangible benefits from the Afghan government, which in some regions has awarded apartments and plots of land to families of Afghan soldiers killed in battle.
Gul Mohammad Baidar, Kunar’s deputy governor, says authorities in the province continue to pay the monthly salaries of Rahman’s sons to his family but have failed to give them a house.
“We were unsuccessful in helping them get a plot of land in the neighboring provinces of Laghman or Nangarhar,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “This family will be our top priority whenever the central government in Kabul approves our plans for awarding land to the families of martyrs from the security forces.”
Beyond the government’s aid, Bibi says the best way to help her family would be to make sure her children get an education. “I see that as our only path to happiness,” she said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Marawara, Afghanistan.