Spring In Afghanistan

A Groom's Tale

In rural Afghanistan, girls aren't the only ones getting married too young.

View a slide show of the strange, dark world of Afghan weddings.

OQA, Afghanistan—"Are you excited about the wedding, Ozyr Khul?" "Do you like your bride, Ozyr Khul?" "Ozyr Khul! Ozyr Khul is getting married!"

Embarrassed, Ozyr Khul blushes and runs off. He runs from questions about his wedding, from the pestering adults and from the taunting children. Mostly, he runs because that's what boys do in his tiny, arid village: They run, alone and in flocks, dashing about like hosts of sparrows, dirty heels flashing over the hard-packed soil, slingshots in hand.

Ozyr Khul's exact age is a matter of some dispute in Oqa, a waterless hamlet prostrate in the middle of the desert of northern Balkh province, without a single tree or field, as though accidentally placed here by some absent-minded cartographer. He doesn't know how old he is; one of his friends says he might be 13; another suggests 15. His parents swear he is 16, the legal marrying age in Afghanistan.

"I know he looks small, but I know he's old enough because he goes to the desert every day to collect firewood," an uncle says. But in Oqa, all boys older than 10 go to the desert every day to collect tumbleweed they sell as kindling in larger villages.

Ozyr Khul is slight; not even 5 feet tall in his plastic flip-flops and his turquoise and fuchsia skullcap. His best friends are ages 12, 11, and 8. His favorite pastime is to fire his slingshot: at speckled desert birds, at distant rocks, at the immense blue sky. He recently got into a wrestling match with a 9-year-old girl. (He won.)

Child marriage in Afghanistan is pandemic. "In the villages people believe very strongly that the earlier you marry the better: This way your children are old enough to help you with work while you are still young," says Farid Mutaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e-Sharif. The U.N. agency that monitors the rights of children worldwide, UNICEF, reports that 57 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age limit. Afghan and international nonprofits consider the problem of child brides to be one of the foremost threats to women's rights here.

What is addressed less often, and studied less thoroughly, is that many of the child newlyweds are boys.

Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged by the parents and are a form of a calculated financial exchange between families that focuses on the merger of two estates rather than the union of two people. Such marriages rarely take into consideration the wishes of the bride or the groom.

On top of being arranged, as all marriages in Oqa ever have been, Ozyr Khul's marriage is a badaal, or bridal swap -- a common practice in poor Afghan villages where families cannot afford a bride price that can be as high as $9,000. In a badaal marriage, two men, usually cousins, marry each other's sisters. This lowers the bride price significantly, though some money usually still is exchanged, thus ensuring that the inheritance of both women -- or girls -- remains within the family.

The union of Ozyr Khul and Anamingli, who is 16 years old, parallels the marriage of Anamingli's brother, Naim, to Ozyr Khul's sister, Mastura. Naim is 40 years old. He was betrothed to Mastura three years ago, when Mastura was 14, and has already paid her family more than $1,000 for the bride. This month, Mastura's parents finally agreed that it was time to consummate the marriage.

Ozyr Khul and a dozen other kids run through Oqa. Spotting a visitor, the kids push the boy forward, like a curio, or a sacrificial offering. They chant a nursery rhyme to tease the groom:

Eagle, eagle, there is no hen here,

But there is a hen in another house.

Ozyr Khul does not know how to count, read, or write. He has no trade other than foraging for tumbleweed with his camel. If he ever had a chance of breaking out of the grip of poverty that suffocates his village, which has received not a cent of the billions of international aid dollars pumped into Afghanistan in the last decade, it is gone now that he has a family to support. The marriage cements his life in Oqa, a life that will mirror the lives of the town's men for generations: of scantly paid toil in the desert, of children perpetually sick for want of clean water or doctors, of an opium pipe at the end of the day to take his mind off his hardship.

"Ozyr Khul!" an older man calls out. "When you are alone with your wife for the first time, what will you do?"

Ozyr Khul breaks free from his tormentors, and flees.

The wedding day arrives.

By seven in the morning the desert is aglitter with women sashaying in their holiday embroidery like some displaced mermaids past piles of donkey droppings and bellowing camels. The women congregate inside and around Ozyr Khul's honeymoon suite, a single-room, doorless house hand-slapped out of clay and straw. It is spiffed up for the occasion: Tin garlands and headscarves hang from a temporary ceiling fashioned from a sheet of dark-green cloth, concealing the dusty thatch roof. A pillow-sized papier-mâché heart at the western wall of the room marks the spot where the newlyweds will later lie together atop a narrow tick mattress. The colored reflections of the women's dresses rebate off the clay walls like strobe lights at a disco.

Anamingli, Ozyr Khul's bride, in a pinkish shaft embellished with silver beads and tiny flecks of foil, seems grown up enough in the corner of the room. She nods at the visitors gravely. She is taller than her husband-to-be, her face already lined with desert hardship. Vines of henna flowers trail up her wrists; her lipstick is blood red.

Ozyr Khul is somewhere outside. He is wearing the same plastic flip-flops, the same bright skullcap, the same pale salwar kameez as he has all week. Flanked by several other boys, he darts about the village, peeking into other people's yards and chasing birds.

"Ozyr Khul!" a wedding guest calls. "Are you happy you are getting married today?"

Without a word, the boy runs off.

At the eastern end of the village, a cook brought in for the occasion from a larger village stirs a giant vat of veal palau with a shovel. When the wedding lunch is ready, Oqa's elders stand around the vat and open their palms to the heavens, blessing the food, the day, and the wedding. The cook shovels the palau onto trays. The men eat separately from the women. Someone has managed to corral Ozyr Khul inside one of the houses, where he sits with the younger crowd. On a straw mat outside, men make crude comments about his age.

"The boy is very young," says one guest, sucking marrow out of a bone. "He won't know what to do with the bride. He may just end up smelling her, that's all."

"Nowadays, they grow up so quickly," says another, swapping at wasps. "I'm sure he knows everything there's to know already."

Half a village away, the women blast folk tunes from an ancient, battery-operated radio and accompany the music on several large goatskin tambourines. The syncopated, forward-moving rhythm of the songs toll across the village like a countdown, propelling the sun across the sky from east to west, changing morning to night, boys to men.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Spring In Afghanistan

Trauma Center

How do you bring peace to a country where everyone has PTSD and the only therapy is prayer?

ASFAKHAN, Afghanistan — Two weeks ago, police delivered several bodies loosely wrapped in cloth at the gate of Mazar Civil Hospital. Taliban fighters killed in battle, the officers explained to Abdul Hamid, the hospital gardener who was pulling a night shift as a guard. Take them to the hospital morgue, they said.

Then one of the shrouds slipped off. A man's ghastly head, decomposing and bloated after many hours in May heat, stared at Abdul Hamid from the stretcher. The ragged gash of an exit wound gaped blackly where the left temple once had been. Abdul Hamid passed out.

The next day, Abdul Hamid woke up without any feeling in the hands that had touched the grotesque cadaver. The morning after that, he woke up blind.

A five-day course of anti-inflammatory injections prescribed by an ophthalmologist had no effect. A textbook case of conversion disorder -- a common dimension of mental trauma -- a psychiatrist would have said, had Abdul Hamid seen a psychiatrist. But neither the gardener nor his family had ever heard of one. The culture of seeking cognitive therapy, like cognitive therapy itself, is almost nonexistent in Afghanistan. Its inchoate health-care system offers only 200 beds for mental-health patients in the entire country.

And so, eight days after Abdul Hamid's eyes refused to take in any more woe, a rickety zaranj moto-rickshaw carrying the 35-year-old man and his two weeping sisters joined the tumbledown procession of vans, trucks, taxis, and private jalopies that crawls steadily out of the sandbagged northern boundary of Mazar-e-Sharif, rattles past the lowland where the city dumps her refuse and human waste into black-rimmed lakes of stunning turquoise putrefaction, and jigs westward along a dirt track dead-ending at the Asfakhan Shrine.

The shrine's mud-brick beehive bell-jars the 830-year-old remains of a Muslim holy man named Mir Sangin. His tomb, a low adobe ziggurat painted pea green, is said to cure mental ailments. The men and women who pilgrim here in disturbed and desperate throngs are the truly forsaken in a land too busy fighting to care even for its healthiest people. The flotsam and jetsam of war hoping for a miracle.

By the most conservative estimates, two out of three people in Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder -- although the term's prefix seems inadequate in the land where trauma never ceases. Millennia of compounded war trauma have envenomed the country's population with mistrust, fear, and hypervigilance. When transcribed for the scale of a nation, experts who study conflicts believe, such symptoms, if unaddressed, impede reconciliation and help perpetuate war.

The signature injury of veterans of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, "post-traumatic stress disorder" is a household expression in the United States. But in Afghanistan, where the noxious bouquet of depression, psychosomatic ailments, insomnia, rage, and panic attacks bleeds an entire society that for generations has been eking out an existence amid unending violence, it remains almost entirely unrecognized and untreated, says Dr. Mohammad Alemi, one of the country's leading psychiatrists who operates a 20-bed private psychiatric hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif. Most of the people suffering from the disorder come for comfort to shrines like the one in Asfakhan.

Each week, estimates Ishani Abdul Ahi, the shrine keeper, between 500 and 600 pilgrims journey to this eerie oasis in the sedimentary desert that yawns indifferently at the diaphanous Khorasan sky. Inside the sepulcher they claw at the walls and moan. They prostrate in prayer for hours on the carpet soaked with the urine of the incontinent. They weep silently beneath the swallow nests in the vaulted ceiling. They leave offerings of rice grains and money on the black cloth embossed with Quranic verses that drapes the tomb, and fasten their wishes to the tomb's pale railing with strips of cloth, tiny padlocks, and bits of thread.

"Miracles happen here," promises Ishani Abdul Ahi, whose ancestors have maintained the shrine for seven generations. "Crazy people come away cured." Several of his 20 grandsons, one of whom will inherit the esteemed position of shrine keeper from his grandfather, squat outside in the shaded arcade, selling trinkets, toy guns, and soft drinks cooled in buckets of murky stream water.

Last Wednesday, Abdul Hamid's sisters led the gardener into the shrine's putrid crepuscule and anchored him, teetering, on the floor near the northwest corner of the tomb. Next to him, a young man clasped the railing and shook. A few paces away, another man, recently paralyzed on his left side after a stroke, moaned a lament he alone could comprehend.

A woman ran fierce laps around the tomb, as she has done for 20 years, marking each footfall with a sharp, piercing shriek, as though her voice could scare away the destitution, horror, and war all around her. Then she collapsed on the floor in defeat.

Disoriented and frightened, Abdul Hamid wept.

The ammoniac reek of urine wafting from the floor of a place supposed to be holy, the cacophony of sounds -- the rattle of the metal railing, the woman's screams, the incoherent keening, the slapping of palms against adobe walls -- made no sense to him. His sudden blindness made no sense. "I am afraid," he whimpered, again and again, "I am so afraid."

He curled up against the corner of the tomb railing and tied, with his sisters' help, a plain white string to a metal post with long fingers he could not feel. His sightless eyes teared. He lay on the floor awhile. Unseen by him, swallows tumbled down elegantly out of their nests in the ceiling and dove through the shrine's open green door to somersault above the golden plains.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images