Today I’m writing about something that is very disturbing and not uncommon here in Afghanistan. It’s not pleasant to write about, but I feel an obligation to do so since I’m here and seeing the realities for myself. I hope that sharing this information with those in my field will help in some way—if not directly, perhaps at least by gaining a better understanding of what the Afghan people must endure and also to better understand the frustration of U.S. Troops who return from this environment.
Once I started visiting with Soldiers who have been off-post and have seen the country on foot and from the windows of their vehicles, I started to hear similar stories of what they sometimes see: little boys with no ears and evidence of sexual abuse. While I had heard about the marginalization of women and of the poorer citizens of the country, I can’t recall ever hearing anything about the sexual abuse of little boys in Afghanistan or the Taliban practice of cutting off their ears. I remember thinking it odd that child rape was highlighted not once but twice in the novel, The Kite Runner—but now I realize it wasn’t so odd after all since the story took place in Afghanistan. Since my first few days here, I’ve heard very similar accounts from multiple reliable sources in addition to numerous stories from Soldiers I’ve just met. The stories and accounts are too similar to not hold some truth, although to be honest I’ve always found it easier to think things like, “Surely that’s exaggerated” or “that’s really horrible but I’m sure it’s very rare.” But unfortunately I know for a fact there are at least some threads of truth to the horrific stories because I’ve now seen it for myself this past week.
On my usual walk to the office, I passed by the hospital waiting room for U.S. military and local Afghan citizens. As usual, there were families and a couple of burqua-clad women but what caught my eye was a cute little boy in traditional Afghan clothing. He was perhaps three or four years old. As I walked by, he had a look of confusion on his face at this woman wearing pants and then a look of fear crept over his face when he saw the large weapon slung over my shoulder. When our eyes met I smiled to convey he shouldn’t be afraid. He smiled back and then turned excitedly to look at his father as if to say, “Did you see that?” And that’s when I saw he had no ears. I looked away so not to stare but the image stayed in my mind all the way back to my office. It was evident there was no previous medical procedure or birth defect—they were obviously cut off without precision of any kind. For the first time in months, I felt tears in my eyes and I needed a moment alone or I knew they’d soon spill over.
If you’ve seen the cover of a recent Time magazine which featured an earless, noseless Afghan woman, this may not be surprising to hear about. That particular edition on my desk at the mTBI program House struck up more than one conversation about how “messed up this country is” and how “messed up the Afghan culture is” as some of the guys put it. Now, before you knee-jerk to those statements by thinking something like, “that’s not nice to say,” realize what these guys have witnessed and seen first-hand that has upset them to the point that they’ve formed such opinions. Thousands of miles away back home in The States it’s simple to romanticize the culture of burqua-clad women and prayer several times a day. But that’s not the entire truth and there are much darker shadows of evil “norms” that the Troops here have seen first-hand.
One Soldier told me of a patrol in a rural town upon which they found an “old man forcing a little boy” to perform oral sex. Another Soldier told me of his friend who was on guard tower duty next to the quarters of Afghan officials who heard noises of one Afghan man and “his little boy” that he kept in his quarters for sex. The Soldiers in such situations are not allowed to do anything that might be “culturally upsetting” to the Afghans—yet they are caught in a moral predicament because they want to help the children. In one case Soldiers separated a man from the child forcefully which led to complaints to their command. Can you imagine stumbling upon a child rape and having to worry about getting into trouble for helping the child? Can you imagine the feeling of frustration as you help one group of people fight against another but you see both “cultures” embracing the principle of “women are for procreation and boys are for recreation”? These are the difficult realities our Troops face.
Before anyone gets angry at the lack of “cultural sensitivity,” let me emphasize that I have no proof of the prevalence and I have not personally witnessed a child rape. (And I won’t due to the nature of my job.) I’m also not saying for a moment that all Afghans participate in these acts. But I also do not discount the truth in the stories Troops have told me and I believe it is naïve to do so. And while I realize it is easier and more comfortable not to discuss such things, pretending this abuse is not occurring here is an injustice to the victims. Due to the fact that it’s a taboo topic amongst the men and that visitors are not exactly encouraged to speak to women here, I think it will be difficult to adequately research the impacts upon Afghan society. That being said, I think that organizations which are dedicated to human rights and fighting child abuse should acknowledge this and do what they can to be advocates for these children who have no voice against their perpetrators. I’m no expert on the effects this kind of abuse has upon children, but I can’t help but think the allowance of it must have an impact upon the Afghan communities and culture overall. I’ve asked a few people in psychology-related fields who have told me that regardless of an increased “normalcy” in comparison to the U.S., the effects of child sexual abuse still have the ability to drastically damage the developing psyche. This makes me wonder: “What happens to that child as he grows up?”
Does he feel shame, guilt, confusion? Does he feel hopeless, powerless, unworthy of anything better? Does he too become an abuser? And here are some other difficult questions: Will such a culture change and begin to embrace human rights and equality? Is it our job/duty to see that it does? Should we just give up or should we fight for those who can’t fight for themselves? Should we just stay home and enjoy the oblivion of our fast food and reality show news? I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of these questions. I’m just one of many hopeful Soldiers doing their jobs here in this foreign place.
Natosha Monroe is an Army Reserve Mental Health Specialist stationed in Afghanistan. She is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.