KABUL // Mahbooba Ghazi Zada received the threat a few weeks ago. A man gave it to her seven-year-old daughter as she walked to school. It was on letterhead, with the words Engr Abdul Salam Hashimi, Chief of Military Committee, Hizb-e-Islami, Afghanistan printed at the top in Dari and faltering English. A picture of an open Quran on a wooden stand and the phrase "God is Great" lent an official look.
Below all this, handwritten in neat blank ink was "Warning!" Then, further down: "If we catch her we will kill her and we will bury her children alive." Ms Ghazi Zada and her two daughters are now in hiding and trying to escape the country. "The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse day by day. When the Americans came, we thought they would finish the terrorists, the fighting and the kidnapping, but unfortunately our enemies have gained more support," she said.
Her crime, in the eyes of the insurgents, was to work as a policewoman in Kapisa province, a short drive north of Kabul. It is, according to whoever wrote the letter, "the land of martyrs and full of their blood". All women who have government jobs or collaborate "with the foreigners" are therefore "under the investigation of the Emirati-Hizb." Violence in Afghanistan reached record levels last year, killing more people than at any point since the US-led invasion in 2001. The upwards trend has continued in 2009 and the chaos is spreading, causing fear in a country that thought it had already suffered the worst the world could offer.
Ms Ghazi Zada, 40, joined the police during the mid-1980s, serving the communist regime in Kabul. She stayed in the city through the 1992-1996 civil war, then fled when the Taliban announced their arrival by butchering the former president, Mohammad Najibullah, and putting his mutilated body on public display. She moved to Iran where one of two sons from her first marriage was abducted and she was blackmailed into marrying the kidnapper's brother. The boy was killed anyway and she eventually escaped again, this time to an Afghanistan under US occupation.
Three years ago she joined the police in Kapisa, volunteering for a province that was meant to be a far cry from the insurgency-plagued south. "I chose to work there because I wanted to clean the tears from the widows' eyes and take the orphaned children in my arms." For a while it appeared to be a genuine success story, a sign that Afghanistan was moving forwards. But last year things started going wrong.
Three times in a matter of days men attacked her home at night, at one point opening fire. But, she continued her work and until a month or so ago it still seemed like the correct decision. Then the Afghan intelligence service sent a letter to Kapisa's chief of police warning that "our enemies the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami" were preparing to target women in government positions. Ms Ghazi Zada - whose first husband died of cancer - was mentioned as someone who could be vulnerable on her way to her house or the office. Soon afterwards, the rebels wrote their own letter and handed it to her daughter.
The militant faction of Hizb-e-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister of Afghanistan and perhaps the country's most notorious warlord. After receiving the death threat, Ms Ghazi Zada pulled her two daughters out of school and fled to Parwan province. She has since moved to Kabul and carries a pistol in her handbag, just in case. Like increasing numbers of Afghans, the mother of three somehow wants to find asylum abroad.
"Gulbuddin's people are active in Kapisa now, so if he comes and joins the government you can imagine what will happen," she said. "From when I was young until now there has been fighting. Now they want to bury my children alive. If I had known this was going to happen at the beginning, I would never have let them be born." firstname.lastname@example.org