She Married 3 Brothers in Family Torn by War

Khadija, 18, has married three brothers, losing two of them to the Afghan war. “I do not want this husband to be killed by the Taliban,” she said.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Khadija is 18 now, just a year older than the Afghan war itself, and she has already been married three times — to three brothers.

One was a Taliban insurgent, killed fighting the United States Marines. One was a policeman, killed fighting the Taliban. One was an interpreter for the Marines who is now hunted by the Taliban, who have threatened to kill him and his infant son.

The story of Khadija and the three brothers she married is an account of war and tradition that is tragically Afghan. It encompasses the bitter arc of the Afghan war in its most violent place, Helmand Province in the south, the Taliban stronghold where many families have been torn apart by loyalties divided between the government and the insurgents.

It is also the story of women in a traditional society struggling against the lack of choice their culture gives them in their own lives. Their Pashtun society considers it the duty of brothers to marry their brothers’ widows — and leaves those widows with little choice but to obey, or lose their children and their homes.

The details from interviews with Khadija, who like most rural Afghan women has just one name, and the family members were confirmed by local government and police officials in Helmand.

Khadija’s journey began in a southern farm community called Marja, which was once one of the Marines’ greatest successes, but is now a conspicuous failure of the Afghan government. Farmers there mostly cultivate opium poppy, and regularly pay taxes to the Taliban.

Even before she was born, Khadija was engaged to her first cousin, Zia Ul Haq. Their fathers were brothers and farmers who lived near one another in Marja.

At age 6, Khadija formally married Mr. Haq, who was 15 years older — although the marriage would not be consummated until she reached age 11 or puberty, whichever came first, the family said. Child marriage is illegal, but still widely tolerated in Afghanistan.

Before that could happen, an American airstrike struck a nearby house where Taliban insurgents were said to be hiding, in 2010. Shrapnel from the strike killed her husband’s 8-year-old sister, Farida.

Marja was a Taliban hotbed then and the Marines were intent on subduing it. In those days, casualties from airstrikes were among the biggest killers of civilians in the Afghan war, and public anger was running hot.

After the attack, Mr. Haq joined the Taliban. “They brainwashed him,” said Mr. Haq’s youngest brother, Shamsullah Shamsuddin, 19. “At first they forced him to join, but then they persuaded him.”

From time to time, their Taliban brother visited.But then it got hard to do so as more Marines poured into Marja. The Americans arrived saying they would not only destroy Taliban control, but would deliver a vaunted “government in a box,” providing services like schools and electricity that the community sorely lacked.

A year went by with no word from Khadija’s husband until one night a Taliban delegation came with his body wrapped in a shroud — his shoulder blown off from a gunshot wound, one of many — and turned it over to the family.

Khadija was a widow at age 10.

Two of Mr. Haq’s other brothers became policemen, because the pay was good and there was little alternative employment in the middle of war.

Credit...Erin Trieb for The New York Times

Khadija then married one of them: Mr. Haq’s next oldest brother, Aminullah. It was her father’s decision, and she said she knew she had no choice in the matter.

Aminullah, 22, was fabled as a fighter with the Afghan police, his family members said. “He could handle every kind of heavy weapon, and the Taliban were afraid of him,” Mr. Shamsuddin said.

Khadija raves about Aminullah, too. “He promised when he came home that I could remove my burqa, and he was going to bring me good clothes, and we would have a good life,” she said. “He was a good man, and a good husband.”

He was also fiercely devoted to the government’s cause, just the opposite of his Taliban brother, Khadija said. “He would say, ‘I will never leave my country to them, as long as there is blood in my body, I will fight them.’ Whenever he went out, I was always watching the door until he came back.”

She was pregnant with their daughter when Aminullah did not come back, in 2014. He was killed on the highway by a roadside bomb. The Taliban were so delighted, Mr. Shamsuddin said, that they slaughtered sheep in celebration, distributing the meat to their neighborhood in Marja.

“I lost him and I was thinking, ‘How could this happen to me?” she said. “But it is God’s decision, so I can say nothing.”

Mr. Shamsuddin said that the family fled Marja and moved to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. After they left, the Taliban burned down their old house, he said.

At age 14, Khadija gave birth toher daughter, Roqia, a few months later. After waiting the Quranic-stipulated four months and 10 days after Aminullah’s death, Khadija married Mr. Shamsuddin, the youngest brother, in 2015.

Years before, probably when he was around 14, though he is hazy on the dates, Mr. Shamsuddin had begun hanging around the Marines’ base in Marja and quickly picked up English from the troops. Soon they hired him as an interpreter, for the comparatively princely sum of $25 a day.

That job ended when the Marines left Afghanistan in 2013. Today, Mr. Shamsuddin earns $5 a day as a rickshaw driver in Lashkar Gah and is the sole support for both his own growing family and his extended family, with at least half a dozen members.

Gul Juma, Mr. Shamsuddin’s mother, now has only three children left of her 11. Two young sons died of disease, and her 21-year-old son, Hayatullah, also a policeman, was killed in a so-called blue on blue, or insider, attack by a Taliban infiltrator, only a few months before Aminullah’s death.

Mr. Shamsuddin is her last surviving son.

He is proud that he is not, as he put it, “a typical Pashtun man.” When Khadija’s father, his uncle, proposed that Khadija marry him, Mr. Shamsuddin said the decision was up to her.

“We didn’t force her to marry me, although we could have,” he said. “I had the ambition to marry someone else, but she was my brother’s widow, so I had no choice.”

Khadija was listening as Mr. Shamsuddin said it, and responded, politely, that it was not quite like that. “Uncle’s Son did not force me to marry him,” she said using a polite term for her husband, “but under Pashtun culture, I had no other choice.”

Widows cannot work, like most women in traditional areas, and any inheritance or property would go to her husband’s brothers, not to his widow or children.

She and Mr. Shamsuddin have a son together now, Sayed Rahman, 1. The Taliban have Mr. Shamsuddin’s phone number and often call him, he said. “They say they will kill me and then kill Sayed Rahman,” he said.

Khadija and Mr. Shamsuddin spoke frankly about their disappointments, though they showed no bitterness toward each other.

“My wife is very strong. Some lesser person would not have survived what she has survived,” Mr. Shamsuddin said. “She is not expecting very much from me; financially I don’t have much to give her, just good words and good behavior. Even though I believe men should beat women when they don’t listen, I have never had to beat her. I guess I give her respect even more because of my brothers.”

Mr. Shamsuddin said it is a sad responsibility, marrying the wife of a dead brother. “When you look at her, you always see your brother,” he said.

It was a sadness for Khadija, too.

“Once I had dreams, but I cannot talk about my dreams with anyone, because I am a woman,” she said. “Once I wanted to study and be an educated woman who could stand on my own two feet, but in my culture it is not possible. Now my biggest dream is that I do not want this husband to be killed by the Taliban. I ask God to protect him.”

Mr. Shamsuddin also had his dreams. He earned a lot of money working for the Marines, before his marriage, and through intermediaries he had approached the father of a woman named Halima to marry her. The father had approved the match.

Then, suddenly, the Marines were gone, he was jobless, his brother was dead. He married Khadija; Halima married another policeman.

“I told my wife about Halima, because we both shared the same destiny in a way: We couldn’t choose who we ended up with. Sometimes she teases me if we have an argument, ‘Oh, you love Halima too much.’”

It is not exactly that Mr. Shamsuddin does not love Khadija. “She is beautiful enough for me, and as a person I like her,” he said. “We are like friends, we have fun together, tease each other. But love? We are happy with each other so you could say I love her. But I was severely in love with Halima. When I think of her I get a pain in my heart.” He beat his chest there with his fist, twice.

Khadija described much the same feeling for her late husband Aminullah. “No man has ever kissed me but him,” she said. “Now I can only kiss my son.” When she thinks about Aminullah, breathing becomes difficult, she said. “I cry when I’m alone.”

Earlier this year, Halima’s policeman husband was killed by the Taliban. Mr. Shamsuddin then wanted to take her as a second wife, and he said Halima was open to it. “I just don’t have enough money to take care of a second wife, that’s the only problem. And of course I would have to discuss it with my wife and my mother.”

So now he plans to join the police force in Helmand, as his brothers did. The pay is four or five times as much as what he earns with his rickshaw. Casualty rates are much higher among Afghan policemen than soldiers or other security forces, and those rates are highest of all in Helmand Province. But he might earn enough to afford to marry Halima.

As Mr. Shamsuddin spoke of this, his wife and mother were in the other room. Had he told them of his police plans? “I didn’t tell my mother or my wife: Men should not be sharing such decisions with women,” Mr. Shamsuddin said. “I’ll tell them after.”

Afterward the women went off by themselves, talking to female visitors, including a Times journalist. “I know he wants to join the police, but we will never allow him,” Khadija said. “If he joins the police, I am sure the Taliban will kill him in two or three months. And after that, what can we do? Who is going to protect this small baby?”

Khadija scoffed at the talk of Mr. Shamsuddin’s marrying Halima, which she was also aware of.

“Uncle’s Son could never marry her,” she said. “She has 10 brothers-in-law, and they would never allow her to marry outside their family. He is dreaming.”

Fatima Faizi contributed reporting.

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