An Unspeakable Crime

December 28, 2009

U.S. Air Force Major Dr. Jeff Lewis still remembers the stifling August afternoon when Nadia reached his surgical team near southern Afghanistan’s Tarin Kowt, a town long known as a Taliban stronghold.

The young woman, whose name has been changed to protect her security, had been brought to the coalition’s Forward Operating Base Ripley by her father, who hoped the base’s medical clinic could help his teenage daughter, who he said was around 17 or 18 years old.

She was missing most of her nose and both ears.

“I have never seen anyone do something like this before to another person,” said U.S. Air Force Major Dr. Jeff Lewis.

Lewis and his clinic staff immediately went to work cleaning the girl’s wounds and treating her for trauma. She was conscious, but largely incoherent. The girl’s father told the Americans, through the base’s translator, that Nadia’s in-laws had cut off her nose and ears as punishment for the young woman’s attempted escape from her husband’s home, which she had fled after years of physical abuse.

Nadia’s injuries were among the most shocking Lewis, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, could remember seeing.

“I think everyone had to reset themselves to focus on her and make sure there were no other life-threatening injuries,” Lewis said, recalling the first moments when he and his team met their new patient in the trauma bay near the base’s front gate, a spot usually occupied by injured soldiers, not abused girls. “I have never seen anyone do something like this before to another person.”

The next day Giselle Assifi, an Afghan-American who left California six months ago to work as a translator with the US military’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan Province, was called in to help the clinic’s staff learn more about Nadia’s case. Assifi broke into tears when she saw what had happened to the teenager.

“I knew that women were treated very badly and that women were abused, but I didn’t know that they did things like that to women,” Assifi said. “I said, ‘My God we have to do something here.’”

Assifi and Capt. Erin Stibral, a physician’s assistant working at the Tarin Kowt clinic, spent hours working with Nadia and listening to her story. They began by giving her a bath to clean the caked blood stuck to her hair and ears, a process that frightened the already scared young woman. She had never before seen a Western-style shower.

Eventually Nadia’s story emerged. She said she had been forced to marry her husband, a local Talib, when she was about 13, in order to settle a dispute between his family and her uncle’s. She had never been educated and had had no say in the matter. From the beginning, her husband’s family mistreated her. She was forced to sleep in the stable with the animals and beaten regularly. When she could bear it no longer, she ran away. But neighbors turned her into the police, and she ended up in prison in Kandahar. Her father picked her up from jail and returned her to her in-laws after they assured him they would treat her better. Only days later, however, they maimed her in retribution for her disobedience.

Though suffering from psychological problems resulting from her recent trauma and years of abuse, Nadia eventually relaxed in her new surroundings. She began picking up bits and fragments of English and helping clinic staff with their daily chores. When area children came to the base’s clinic during the two days a week it was open to the public, she played with them and put them at ease.

“She ended up becoming a part of Ripley,” said Capt. Stibral.

Nadia’s father came each week to see whether he could take his daughter home. The surgical team’s staff told him that she needed more time to heal and that the next step in her recovery would be reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile, they worked frantically to find a place that was willing to take Nadia in and help locate a doctor in the United States who would be able to complete the extensive plastic surgery she so desperately needed.

In the middle of November, Nadia was transferred to a women’s shelter in another region of Afghanistan. She is now attending literacy classes and awaiting a visa that will take her to the United States for plastic surgery to rebuild her face. Her husband’s family still wants her back. But shelter staff say they are certain the young woman’s sole chance for a new life rests in finding safety far from home.

“A happy ending would be for her to have another chance,” said Manizha Naderi, the head of Women for Afghan Women, which runs shelters for domestic violence victims in three Afghan provinces. “She is very young. There is so much ahead of her.”

Staff with the U.S. Agency for International Development reached out to Naderi late this fall after learning of Nadia’s case through the local Provincial Reconstruction Team. Women for Afghan Women is now talking to American medical centers willing to perform the facial reconstruction and expects Nadia will travel to the United States sometime early next year.

Already the young woman’s story has moved many to act. From doctors offering their time to supporters donating their dollars, people are pitching in to do what they can on Nadia’s behalf.

“If we can even save one woman’s life, you know, that is a lot,” Naderi said. For the team that helped Nadia during those first days at Camp Ripley, her case is one they cannot forget.

“I know there are a lot more stories out there similar to hers,” Stibral said. “We do what we can, and hopefully we can make even a small difference that in the end will help the big picture.”

How to Help: If you’d like to help Nadia and young women like her, Women for Afghan Women, based in New York and Kabul, runs several shelters in Afghanistan for victims of domestic violence and their children. MADR is a women’s rights NGO that helps fund travel and other emergency costs for Nadia and women like her though its Afghan Women’s Survival Fund. The Grossman Burn Foundation has also offered to assist Nadia, through its Afghan Reconstructive Surgery and Burn Center Project.