South Asia

Afghan Romeo and Juliet live in fear, face grave risks

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After nearly a year on the run, a pair of star-crossed young lovers are back in the Afghan village where both their love affair and their problems began.

The young couple, Zakia and Mohammad Ali, had faced criminal charges and death threats after eloping and fleeing their village in the high mountains of central Afghanistan last year. Now, they have had their legal issues resolved and their marriage legally recognised.

But while his family has welcomed them back, hers is another matter.

When Mohammad Ali (22), works in the fields of his family’s farm, he wears his shirt untucked, and a black pistol attached to his belt pokes out beneath it. A guard dog is tied up in front of their mud house, one of several small buildings in a walled courtyard in their village on the outskirts of the town of Bamian.

Zakia Ali (19), never goes out at all, for fear that she might encounter someone from her own large family. Her fathers and brothers publicly vowed to kill her and Mr. Mohammad Ali when they eloped. They accused him of kidnapping her, and said she had been married to a man she had never met, chosen for her by her father.

Since eloping on March 21, the couple has faced many obstacles. There were months of flight, followed by Mohammad Ali’s capture by the police in Kabul, who he said beat him daily. Zakia Ali took refuge in a shelter run by Women for Afghan Women, a charity. The group’s lawyers managed to win Mohammad Ali’s freedom, and the two were reunited and their marriage recognised as valid.

Even as they became a cause célèbre — particularly among young Afghans, many of whom mounted Facebook and Twitter campaigns hailing them as a modern Romeo and Juliet who had the courage to choose their own mates in defiance of Afghan social norms — the couple dropped from public view. Zakia Ali’s family was vehemently opposed to the union because they were Tajiks and Sunni Muslims whereas Mohammad Ali was a Hazara and a Shia Muslim.

They tried that seeking asylum in a Western country. Officials at the U.S. Embassy as well as at several European embassies in Kabul told them they could consider their asylum request only if they first fled as refugees to a neighbouring country.

In October, they crossed into Tajikistan on visas, along with Mohammad Ali’s father, Anwar, intending to apply for status as refugees, in the hopes of then asking for asylum in the West.

Shortly after they started the process to register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Tajikistan, Zakia and Mohammad Ali were stopped on a busy street in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, during daytime by two men who identified themselves as police officers.

The officers robbed them of their life savings, about $5,000, including jewellery that Ms. Zakia wore and cell phones, and then summarily deported them from Tajikistan, according to interviews with the couple and Anwar, as well as an independent witness who accompanied them on the trip.

“We’re done with running away,” Mohammad Ali said, sitting at home late last month with Zakia and their new baby, a daughter named Ruqia, who was born at the end of December. “This is our proof that we belonged together,” he added, nodding toward Ruqia. “Nobody can take this away from us now.”

If they survive, Zakia said, they want to see their daughter get the education neither of them had. “It doesn’t matter that she is a baby girl,” she said. “I just want her not to grow up illiterate as we are.”

If they do live to see Ruqia’s adulthood, Mohammad Ali added, one thing was for sure. “We won’t choose her husband,” he said. “She will.” — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 3:18:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/afghan-romeo-and-juliet-live-in-fear-face-grave-risks/article6972044.ece

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