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Apr 21, 2012 1 Comment ›› Angelia

UT San Diego

Camp Pendleton commanders stop potential Afghan “honor killing”

The Afghan girl turned up one winter night at the Marine base with fist-sized bruises beginning to blossom across her body. Her name was Malika, and she looked about 16 years old, 17 at the most.

More worrisome to military medical staff than the abrasions on her battered shoulders was the vomiting. Malika had ingested rat poison or insecticide, apparently in despair over her situation.

Her brothers had accused her of having a romantic relationship with a boy she had hoped to marry. In southern Afghanistan, a deeply conservative and devout area of the country that spawned the militant Islamist Taliban movement, that amounted to a death sentence.

“Don’t let them kill me,” she pleaded. “If you send me back to Marjah, I’ll be dead.”

The Marines did not let her brothers kill her, or let her kill herself. What’s more, long after the Camp Pendleton command staff returned to San Diego County, they discovered this spring that she had done more than just survive. She had thrived.

A happy ending to her story was far from certain in January 2011, when Malika fled her family and the fields of opium poppy checkering her hometown and threw herself at the mercy of strangers at a Marine base.

Her troubles began years before, she told her foreign benefactors, when her father was killed in the war-torn province by a rival for her mother’s affections. Her mother was forced according to local custom to abandon her children when she remarried. That left Malika to be raised by her older brothers, whom she described as small-time drug peddlers of ill repute.

Malika and a boy she grew up with fell in love, but Sarwar’s family had betrothed him to another. His mother took pity on the star-crossed couple and smuggled Malika a cellphone so they could talk.

Malika could not read or write or understand numbers. She never learned how to work the phone, the Marines said. But the mere suspicion of an affair between them was enough in her brothers’ eyes for Malika to lose her honor.

After the beating, she wrapped herself in a cloak to hide her face and made a run for it to the nearest U.S. military base. Medical staff feared she had life-threatening internal injuries, so they flew her to the British-run hospital adjoining Camp Leatherneck, headquarters for U.S. and NATO operations in southwestern Afghanistan.

When the commanding general of the international coalition in the region, then-Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, heard about this modern day Romeo and Juliet story, he recognized how dangerous the situation could be.

Malika’s brothers and elders later traveled from Marjah to cajole Malika and the Marines into sending her back. But they discussed their plans for her within earshot of a military interpreter: “we’re going to kill her,” Mills recounted. According to her brothers, “she had disgraced her family.”

Mills tasked his liaison in Helmand Province to the U.S. State Department, Maj. Jennifer Larsen, to take charge of Malika during what turned out to be a three-week stay at Camp Leatherneck.

Then, with help from State Department officials in Helmand Province, Afghan government representatives and women’s rights advocates, they evacuated her out of the province to a shelter.

Before she could leave, officials working on behalf of the Afghan governor held Malika overnight in a women’s prison in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Malika was locked in a room with several inmates, including an Afghan Lizzie Borden of sorts — a woman who killed her father with an ax to stop his abuse of her mother.

Malika was subjected by the Afghans to a virginity test, which she passed, to Larsen’s great relief. But Malika’s brothers showed up at the jail and tried to bully Larsen into giving them Malika. After Larsen called Maj. Gen. Mills and repeated his name several times in a loud voice, the warden ordered them out.

The Malika mission was an unusual operation, said Larsen, now stationed at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. But once they realized her life was in danger, they had no choice.

“We saw someone in real need of help. We couldn’t turn her away. I don’t know how else to say it other than that it was mostly the decency of the people involved. The reality of this girl’s life being important to us,” especially amid the violence of war and the day-to-day decisions about what to blow up or who to attack.

“This was one life we could affect in a positive way, and we did,” she said.

Quil Lawrence, Kabul bureau chief for NPR news, heard about Malika’s plight last year from an Afghan woman who works as a legal advocate.

In March, Lawrence interviewed Malika by telephone and discovered that she had been introduced by a female judge to a prospective husband. They married and are expecting their first baby.

Mills, now a three-star general in charge of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, spent much of his yearlong tour in Afghanistan overseeing a fierce fight with Taliban insurgents. When he heard about the outcome of their efforts to help this Afghan girl and ensure her safety, the first thing he wanted to do was tell his wife.

“It was a good news story,” he said. “Almost a Hollywood-movie type story.”

Larsen’s eyes teared up when she heard. Malika’s story shows that “as hard as things are over there, especially for women, there is hope. There are women who will stand up for themselves.

“I hope that more women can have the strength that Malika did to not resign themselves to an unhappy life or to death. … I don’t know that she got exactly what she wanted, but she got as close as she could if not better.”