Journalist Karen Day is currently visiting women in Afghanistan's prison system as a follow-up to her moving story, "These Women Should Not Be in Jail" in the February issue of Marie Claire.
Dawn paints the snow-covered Hindu Kush neon orange, and the sun lights the plane's cabin like a flamethrower, reminding me of a long list of ballistic nightmares we have just survived as we land in Kabul. First, this particular airline, with the words "Official Airline of Afghanistan" sprawled on its metal belly, has the worst crash rating of any commercial airline in the world. Secondly, last month, in Moscow's Domodedovo airport, where this flight began, an Islamic militant had blown himself up and killed 36 incoming international passengers. Last week, in Kabul, Taliban guerillas claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide attack in the only grocery store specializing in Western hankerings for Belgian coffee and organic lettuce. So why did I feel excited to have spent 29 hours cramped in an economy seat only to arrive at one of the most volatile spots of extremist ire on planet earth? Well, I'm going to prison in Afghanistan — but not before I engage in some power-shopping for underpriced pashmina scarves on Chicken Street.
My job as a humanitarian journalist is a self-imposed sentence in places where there is not, and probably never will be, a Club Med. Floods plains of Bangladesh, refugee camps of Darfur, bullet-pocked prison walls of Khandahar — I go there so you don't have to. It's my job to tell the horror stories for all those who don't have the opportunity to speak for themselves. And for some of those people — no matter how well-chosen or inspiring, my words are simply too late. So I write for those being dragged toward the same relentless fate.
I'm no saint, and I hate Sally Struthers fly-in-the-eyes-of-starving-children commercials. Adrenalin and Jimmy Choo are my drugs of choice. Think of me as Carrie Bradshaw, all grown up but still sadly addicted to age-inappropriate shoes and her desk-free job description. But I diverge, unwisely, because there really is no excuse for sling-back stilettos on the back roads of Afghanistan — except as target practice for the Taliban.
So today, as I tromp through the muddy troughs called streets in Kabul, I'm wearing knee high boots — stylish, flat, black leather ones, caked brown. My first stop is Correction Systems Support Program offices, the U.S. contracting company assigned to handle women's prison reform throughout Afghanistan.
Mike Runnells, the Director of Operations, throws out his hand for a shake. I am the best friend he's never met. I spoke to him for hours long-distance, researching the Marie Claire article. I've brought him his own "Not Guilty" T-shirt, which garners laughs. He must cross out the "Not" when he goes to Kabul's Badam Bagh prison to visit the sweet old women who robbed and killed 37 taxi drivers.
From his conversations, I know Mike is dedicated to helping the unjustly imprisoned women and children in Afghanistan. For all U.S. foreigners in Afghanistan, death is not openly acknowledged as part of our presence here — but as I pass through six security checks with rifle men in towers above, I realize for these people, it's a palpable, daily risk. Justice reform in Western eyes flies in direct cultural conflict to Afghanistan's religious conservatism. And Mike and his CSSP co-workers, like Rita Thomas in Mazar Sheriff, are attempting to bend thousands of years of unyielding gender-based bias against women into a practical and humane alternative. Every day, for the last eight years, they've been actively working to put women who run away from their abusive husbands or refuse to marry their rapist, in prison. (As crazy as that sounds, it's the best way to save their lives and give them a better life.)
I love these people for their courage and compassion. They're doing the beautiful dirty work, but I can admit to never accepting Corrections as a career path. The wardrobe is a real joy-killer. Those bullet-proof vests definitely make you look fat.