KABUL // When Farida was sentenced to jail for murder, she decided two of her children would be better off behind bars with her. "My husband is busy working as a labourer. Sometimes he even sells his blood to buy fruit or clothes for the children and me. That's why he can't keep them with himself," she said.
Here at the new women's prison in Kabul, her dilemma is a familiar one. Life in a crammed building with little chance for fresh air and exercise might be bad, but the alternative is often worse. There are 82 inmates and almost as many children. Aged between three months and 12 years old, they are locked up simply because they have nowhere else to go and no one else to look after them. Meena Nouri is still living with her young sons as they all serve out her sentence for prostitution. Her husband, who is more than twice her age, is a drug addict, she said, so he is not fit to look after them.
It is not a situation she is comfortable with and she is well aware of the potential long-term consequences it could have on their upbringing. "When they play together sometimes one will pretend to be the police and the other a robber. They do not play like other children, they use words like 'commander', 'kidnapping' and 'thief'," she said. The jail appears to be a marked improvement by Afghan standards. It opened about seven months ago as a replacement for women to the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison, with its dark, damp cells, permanent smell of excrement and history of torture.
The facility has a kindergarten and a shop and the corridors are fairly well lit and relatively clean. However, it is impossible to find anyone who believes this is a good place for children. Instead, there is frustration at all levels that the children have none of the alternatives, such as foster care or welfare programmes, that are available in Europe and the United States. "I'd be very happy if the children could be taken out of the jail and put somewhere else," said Sgt Aqahi Hashimi, the head of the prison.
"When they reach the age of 15 or 16 they will start to wonder why their mum was kept inside a room where the door was closed all the time and while they are here they will be wondering who their father is. When they leave they will react very angrily if they are asked about this." Like many of the inmates, Nasima only uses one name and maintains that she has been wrongly convicted. Despite facing a lengthy jail term for kidnapping, she decided that her daughter, aged three, and her son, seven, should remain with her. "I don't have anybody at home to take care of my children. My husband is old and works every day as a labourer," she said.
"Of course I am worried a lot about the situation that is waiting for them when they leave. The problem is that the judges are not good here. If you have money they will release you, if you don't they will tell you to stay in jail for 12 years." Afghans are not the only prisoners. There are also nine foreigners. They include Chantel Yapi, who was one month pregnant when she was detained for trying to smuggle heroin out of the country.
A citizen of the Ivory Coast, in West Africa, she said her son helps her get through the long days. She refuses to let him play with other children and rejects the idea of sending him all the way home to his father. When they are eventually due to be released, he will have spent the first seven years of his life locked up. In the meantime, Yapi will continue to make and sell the bracelets and prayer beads that allow her to buy him non-regulation food.
"The people around us are like our family, but the problem is that you cannot be happy when you are in prison," she said. email@example.com