Married at the age of four, an Afghan girl was subjected to years of beatings and torture, finally escaping to discover that within all the world's cruelty, there is also some kindness.
KABUL,Afghanistan - Eleven-year old Gulsoma lay in a heap on the ground in front of her father-in-law. He told her that if she didn't find a missing watch by the next morning he would kill her. He almost had already.
Enraged about the missing watch, Gulsoma's father-in-law had beaten her repeatedly with a stick. She was bleeding from wounds all over her body and her right arm and right foot had been broken.
She knew at that moment that if she didn't get away, he would make good on his promise to kill her.
* * *
When I meet her at the Ministry of Women's Affairs I'm surprised that the little girl, now 12, is the same one that had endured such horrible suffering. She is wearing a red baseball cap and an orange scarf. She has beautiful brown eyes and a full and animated smile. She takes one of my hands in both of hers and greets me warmly, without any hint of shyness.
"She looks healthy," says Haroon, my friend and translator. I nod. But she looks older than her years, we both agree. In orphanages — first in Kandahar, then in Kabul — she has had a year to recover from a lifetime's worth of unimaginable imprisonment, deprivation and torture.
In one of the ministry's offices she sits in a straight-backed wooden chair and tells us the story of her life so far. She is stoic for the most part, pausing only a few times to wipe her eyes and nose with her scarf.
Her story begins in the village of Mullah Allam Akhound, near Kandahar.
"When I was three years old my father died, and after a year my mother married again, but her second husband didn't want me," says Gulsoma. "So my mother gave me away in a promise of marriage to our neighbor's oldest son, who was thirty."
"They had a ceremony in which I was placed on a horse [which is traditional in Afghanistan] and given to the man."
Because she was still a child, the marriage was not expected to be sexually consummated. But within a year, Gulsoma learned that so much else would be required of her that she would become a virtual slave in the household.
At the age of five, she was forced to take care of not only her "husband" but also his parents and all 12 of their other children as well.
Though nearly the entire family participated in the abuse, her father-in-law, she says, was the cruelest.
"My father-in-law asked me to do everything — laundry, the household chores — and the only time I was able to sleep in the house was when they had guests over," she says. "Other than that I would have to sleep outside on a piece of carpet without even any blankets. In the summer it was okay. But in the winter a neighbor would come over and give me a blanket, and sometimes some food."
When she couldn't keep up with the workload, Gulsoma says, she was beaten constantly.
"They beat me with electric wires," she says, "mostly on the legs. My father-in-law told his other children to do it that way so the injuries would be hidden. He said to them, 'break her bones, but don't hit her on the face.'"
There were even times when the family's abuse of Gulsoma transcended the bounds of the most wanton, sadistic cruelty, as on the occasions when they used her as a human tabletop, forcing her to lie on her stomach then cutting their food on her bare back.
Gulsoma says the family had one boy her age, named Atiqullah, who refused to take part in her torture.
"He would sneak me food sometimes and when my mother-in-law told him to find a stick to beat me, he would come back say he couldn't find one," she says. "He would try to stop the others sometimes. He would say 'she is my sister, and this is sinful.' Sometimes I think about him and wish he could be here and I wish I could have him as my brother."
One evening, Gulsoma says, when her father-in-law saw the neighbor giving her food and a blanket, he took them away and beat her mercilessly. Then, she says, he locked her in a shed for two months.
"I would be kept there all day," she says, "then at night they would let me go the bathroom and I would be fed one time each day. Most of the time it was only bread and sometimes some beans."
She says every day she was locked in the shed, she wished and prayed that her parents would come and take her away. Then she would remember that her father was dead and her mother was gone.
But Gulsoma had an inner strength even her father-in-law couldn't comprehend.
"When he came to the shed he kept asking me, 'Why don't you die? I imprisoned you, I give you less food, but still you don't die.'"
But it wasn't for lack of trying. Gulsoma said when her father-in-law finally let her out of the shed, he bound her hands behind her back and beat her unconscious. She says he revived her by pouring a tea thermos filling with scalding water over her head and her back.
"It was so painful," she says, dabbing her eyes with her scarf and sniffling for a moment. "I was crying and screaming the entire time."
Five days later, she says, her father in law gave her a vicious beating when his daughter's wristwatch went missing.
"He thought I stole it," she says, "and he beat me all over my body with his stick. He broke my arm and my foot. He said if I didn't find it by the next day, he would kill me."
* * *
Gulsoma found hope after escaping
She crawled away that night and hid under a rickshaw. When the rickshaw driver found Gulsoma, broken and bleeding, he listened to her story and took her to the police. She was hospitalized immediately.
"The doctor at the hospital who treated me said, 'I wish I could take you to the village square and show all the people what happened to you, so no one would ever do something like this again,'" Gulsoma says.
It took her a full month to recover from her last beating. But the fear and psychological trauma may never go away.
"I was happy to have a bed and food at the hospital," she says. "But I was thinking that when I get better they will give me back to the family."
However, Gulsoma says when the police questioned the family, the father-in-law lied and tried to tell them she had epilepsy and had fallen down and hurt herself. But the neighbor who had helped Gulsoma confirmed the story of her beatings and torture.
The police arrested her father-in-law and "husband." They told her, she says, they would keep them in jail unless she asked for their release.
"Everyone was crying when they heard my story," Gulsoma says.
Gulsoma says she stayed at an orphanage in Kandahar, but was the only girl in the facility. Eventually, her story was brought to the attention of the Ministry of Women's Affairs.
The toll of torture
Gulsoma was then brought to a Kabul orphanage, where she lives today. She takes off her baseball cap and shows us a bald spot, almost like a medieval monk's tonsure, on the crown of her head where she was scalded.
She then turns her back and raises her shirt to reveal a sad map of scar tissue and keloids from cuts, bruises and the boiling water.
Haroon and I look at each other with disbelief. Her life's tragic story is etched upon her back.
Yet she continues to smile. She doesn't ask for pity. She seems more concerned about us as she reads the shock on our faces.
"I feel better now," she says. "I have friends at the orphanage. But every night I'm still afraid the family will come here and pick me up."
Gulsoma also says that when the sun goes down, she sometimes begins to shiver involuntarily — a reaction to the seven years of sleeping outdoors, sometimes in the bitter cold of the desert night.
She says she believes there are other girls like her in Kandahar, maybe elsewhere in Afghanistan, and that she wants to study human rights and one day go back to help them.
As we walk outside to take some pictures, I ask her if, after all she's been through, she thinks it will be harder to trust, to believe that there are actually good people in the world.
"No," she says, quickly.
"I didn't expect anyone would help me but God. I was really surprised that there were also nice people: the neighbor, the rickshaw driver, the police," she says. "I pray for those who helped release me."
Looking directly into the camera, she smiles as if nothing bad had ever happened to her in her entire life.
"I think that all people are good people," she says, "except for those that hurt me."