The daughter of one of Afghanistan’s most notorious serial killers has been living with her, in her jail cell, for her entire life. New York Times reporter Rod Nordland recently visited eleven-year-old Meena and her mother in prison.
Meena was born in Nangarhar provincial prison in 2006. Although she hasn’t committed a crime, Afghan prison policy allows mothers to keep their children in prison with them until they turn 18. In fact, Meena is only one of 36 children in the women’s wing of her prison, but her mother has a far longer sentence than any of the other women.
Meena’s mother is Shirin Gul, who was convicted of the murders of 27 Afghan men between 2001 and 2004. She, her lover, and several members of her family orchestrated a crime ring where she lured men to their house to be murdered and stole their valuables. The others in the ring were sentenced to death in 2005, but she became pregnant while on death row. Her sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison.
When Norland visited the pair last month, Meena showed the same interests and preoccupations as any other child her age. She talked about the dolls that she had made out of scrap fabric and spoke happily about her relationship with best friend Salma, age 10. She also proudly showed Norland pictures of her “father,” Gul’s lover and accomplice in her many murders.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many children are in Afghanistan’s jails, but the numbers are believed to be in the hundreds. Technically, Afghan law only permits the mother to keep their children with them until the age of seven, but when there are no other close family members to take the children or the mothers refuse to part with them, older children remain in prison. Even though life inside the prisons can be grim, mothers are often reluctant to entrust their children to those who remain on the outside. “If I let my daughter go to live with her uncle, he may sell her to someone,” said Shaperai, a woman jailed in a prison outside Kabul for allegedly murdering her husband. “I will never let him sell her.” When Nordland asked Ms. Gul about the subject during his visit, she concurred. “I have many enemies,” she said. “I wouldn’t trust anyone to take Meena outside.”
“When you didn’t commit a crime, you shouldn’t be punished for it, and those children did not commit any crimes,” Bashir Ahmad Basharat, the director of the Child Protection Action Network, told The New York Times recently. “But it’s something where we don’t have other alternatives.”
Many of the imprisoned children long for freedom. Malina, a 7-year-old girl interviewed in one of Kabul’s prisons in 2008, said, “If I go outside, I can help my sister cook and wash the clothes. I can study, go to the mosque, study the Quran, and when I come home, I can help my sister wash the dishes.” But Meena is torn between wanting to be free and not wanting to leave her mother. “My whole life has passed in this prison,” she told Nordland, during the visit. “Yes, I wish I could go out. I want to leave here and live outside with my mother, but I won’t leave here without her.”
For more stories like this, see ‘NEXT POST.’ And why not ‘SHARE’ on Facebook?