Afghan Couple Find Idyllic Hide-Out in Mountains, but Not for Long


HINDU KUSH RANGE, Afghanistan — They eloped from their village in the Bamian Valley on the first day of spring, but their month on the run has taken them back into winter as they fled higher into these rugged mountains in centralAfghanistan. They stayed in the homes of friends when they could, and they slept rough in caves when they could not.

Mohammad Ali, 21, and Zakia, 18, are fugitives, but they are together at last, married by a mullah after being kept apart by disapproving families and the taboo of their different ethnicities and sects. Her family has threatened to kill them, and now they face potential arrest, too, as the police are seeking them on what the couple say are concocted charges of bigamy and “attempted adultery.”

A week ago, they reached the spacious, mud-walled house of Haji and Zahra on a promontory overlooking a valley of freshly tilled wheat and potato fields along a fast river. On three sides, towering mountains still capped with snow shielded their hamlet of only four homes from view, and the nearest road was a steep walk away over a shaky log bridge — a perfect hide-out, and honeymoon picturesque.

Haji and Zahra are distant relatives and former neighbors of Mohammad Ali, and they welcomed the couple despite having eight children of their own, and little in the way of food beyond bread, rice and tea.

When Mohammad Ali and Zakia related how her family opposed the match because they are Sunni Tajiks and he is a Shia Hazara, and how they had tried for years to persuade her parents to allow them to be together, Zahra and Haji readily agreed that the couple could stay.

“I support what they did; they love each other,” Zahra said. “And for God’s sake, I decided we should help them.”

This was the eighth place the couple had slept since the night that Zakia fled the women’s shelter in Bamian, where she had spent months in custody under court order. At one point, they tried to flee across the Iranian border, but the people smugglers there wanted more money than they had, and the walk was, Mohammad Ali feared, more than Zakia could survive.

ImageFor a while, they took refuge in Ghazni Province, a dangerous area with a large Hazara population.

Finally they came to these high mountains, where they could at least find friends and distant relatives, although not all were welcoming. One night, turned away from shelter, the couple had to sleep on a mountainside; two nights, though they were near a large town, they feared to enter it and slept in a cave on the outskirts.

By the time they arrived at Haji and Zahra’s home, Mohammad Ali said, he was down to his last 1,000 afghanis — less than $20. There was no cellphone service unless he climbed to the top of a 14,000-foot peak nearby, and often that still did not work. He needed to make calls to arrange their next refuge.

Meantime, they described it as a week in heaven. “We could go out for walks in the mountains,” he said. “Everywhere else we had to hide inside.”

Green grass crept up the mountainside, providing forage for the donkeys and sheep, and reminding Mohammad Ali and Zakia of their shared childhood, when they tended their families’ animals together; their farms had been side by side.

“They seemed so happy together,” Zahra said. “For the whole week they were here, they were never fighting or angry with one another.”

By Friday, reality caught up. Mohammad Ali’s father, Anwar, and his oldest brother, Bishmullah, 27, came to visit them because word had circulated about where the couple were hiding. A woman, another distant relative, coming back from a funeral had visited Zahra and Haji and saw the couple there.

“That stupid woman,” Zahra said. “Some people don’t know how to keep a secret.”

Haji spoke up: “They have to leave here today.”

There was neither argument nor resentment. Zakia quickly packed the two plastic bags in which they keep their clothes, along with a small knapsack. Zahra teared up. “She loves him and wanted to be with him is all,” she said. “But the problem is if it comes to a dispute between families, they might kill each other — and them, too.”

Anwar thought it might be the last time he saw his son and daughter-in-law, and he had something to say. The first time he had heard about Mohammad Ali’s plan to marry Zakia, Anwar had thrashed his son so badly that the young man had facial bruises for months. But since then, the father had come around.

“My daughter-in-law stood behind my son and was brave enough to say she loves my son, and it is an honor for us to stand behind her,” Anwar said. “She’s a part of my family now.” Both Anwar and Bismullah were red-eyed with emotion. (Like many Afghans, none of them use surnames; in Haji and Zahra’s case, surnames are being withheld for their protection.)

Mohammad Ali and Zakia were the only ones who did not look bereft, smiling and laughing easily with each other, even as they got ready to run again. “It’s worth it, because we love each other,” he said. “Of course we’re concerned about our safety, but our happiness is greater than our concern.”

“How can I be sad?” Zakia said, and gathered her veils over her face. “We’re together; I’m with my love.” Mohammad Ali had suggested she wear an all-covering blue burqa for disguise, but she refused proudly.

“I can’t put that thing on me,” she said.

They hoped to be hundreds of miles away by Saturday morning, but were not sure which way they would go. The road to the north went through Taliban country. To the west, bandit country, where they risked being robbed — or worse. The road to the south went over passes still blocked by snow.

There was no road east, but they could always walk.

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