Toddler dies a month after a roadside bomb kills most of her family

What would life have been like for Sima, an orphan in a country where women are often subjected to abuse and atrocity?

Mullah Jan holds Sima in the back of a taxi as he brings her body   to her hometown.  Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/The New York Times

Mullah Jan holds Sima in the back of a taxi as he brings her body to her hometown. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/The New York Times

 

On the small whiteboard above the little girl’s hospital bed, in the medical bills that she had no one left to pay, and in the news reports about a shattered toddler’s struggle to survive, she was called Fereshta – the Persian word for angel.

No one knew her real name. A shepherd had carried the child, about two years old, to a hospital in Kabul in October. Most of her limbs were broken and her skull was fractured by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan, a blast that had wiped out most of her family. Despite a month of treatment, she never emerged from a coma and the skull fracture proved fatal.

Sima survived for over a month after a roadside bomb killed most of her family and fractured her skull, in Kabul, Afghanistan. She died on December 1st. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/ The New York Times
Sima survived for over a month after a roadside bomb killed most of her family and fractured her skull, in Kabul, Afghanistan. She died on December 1st. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/ The New York Times

Only when her little body – shrouded in white from head to toe – made its final journey back to her hometown in Nangarhar province, and only after the villagers there cross-checked a list of all her dead brothers and sisters, did her real name become known: Sima.

She survived a month longer than her other family members. But during that time, while the only sign of life was the beeping heart-rate monitor by her bed, her relatives said they wondered what kind of life she could have hoped for had she pulled through.

For everyone who cared for her and for many Afghans who heard her story, death, in her case, seemed like peace. What would life have been like for this girl, they worried, an orphan in a country racked by decades of war, where women are often subjected to abuse and atrocity?

The family had long been travelling down a slow road of loss: through poverty and grief, toward some hope of reparation

Her family’s vehicle struck a roadside bomb in the district of Achin, the stubborn centre of the Islamic State group’s small presence in Afghanistan. But in fact, the family had long been travelling down a slow road of loss: away from their home, through poverty and grief, and toward some hope of reparation.

When Islamic State militants established their foothold in Achin, thousands of families, including the family of Sima’s father, Watan Shinwary, were forced out with little more than the clothes on their backs. Most moved to a refugee camp just outside Jalalabad, the provincial capital, where life was harsh and jobs scarce.

Some laid bricks for about $1.50 a day (€1.30), while others joined the Afghan army for $200 a month and disappeared to faraway battlefields. Shinwary, a man in his 60s who had lost his first wife and fathered about 12 children, most of them from his second wife, spent his days with a shovel in hand on the road near the camp. He fixed potholes and stood on the side of the road, hoping for donations.

Nearly a year ago, a vehicle hit him there and he died. When the situation improved in Achin recently, his widow, Gulalai, moved her family back to their village. Tribal elders had tried for months to negotiate forgiveness for the driver who killed Sima’s father, and by mid-October, they were close to an agreement.

On October 21st, a car packed with 12 people, mostly young children, was making its way from their village in Achin to the refugee camp, where the driver’s family was living, for a final meeting. The family would offer forgiveness, and in return the elders would ask the driver for some financial assistance to sustain the widow and children.

When the vehicle arrived in the Makarnai area, it hit a roadside bomb, wiping out most of Sima’s family. Gulalai, six of her children and stepchildren and four other relatives were killed; Sima was the only survivor. The vehicle looked liked a bundle of scrap metal after it had gone through a car crusher.

“The explosion was so strong that the vehicle’s engine was thrown about 100 metres,” said Mohammed Kamin, a tribal elder from the village who arrived later to help piece the bodies together. “The little girl was wounded and blown away, and she was found about 20 minutes after the explosion.”

The shepherd, the only adult at the site of the explosion when the military arrived, went with Sima when she was evacuated by helicopter, first to the US military base in Bagram and later the military hospital in Kabul, which referred her to a private hospital because, like Bagram, it did not have paediatric care.

Shamal Shirwani, a distant relative of Sima, carries a coffin for her in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/ The New York Times
Shamal Shirwani, a distant relative of Sima, carries a coffin for her in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/ The New York Times
She made a little progress during her time here, but never came out of the coma

Sima ended up at a private hospital in Kabul late that same evening, in the arms of the shepherd, who had stayed by her side. “She was already in a coma when she was brought. She made a little progress during her time here, but never came out of the coma,” said Dr Abdul Jamil Rasuli, who works at the hospital. She died on December 1st.

During her month at the hospital, much of the caretaking fell to distant relatives, a father and son who lived in Kabul. The hospital was at first adamant that someone make a deposit to cover medical expenses, but then made an exception when Sima’s relatives explained there was no one to pay.

“The only way I could bring a deposit is to take the toddler on the streets and collect donations,” said Shamal Shinwary, an army officer and relative who came with his father to care for Sima. To return Sima to her hometown after her death, a taxi was rented with money sent by a politician. Mullah Jan, the father of Shamal Shinwary, bent over to pick her up, gently, as if not to awaken her. He sat in the back seat, holding her shrouded body.

Shortly into the trip home, the taxi stopped and Shinwary crossed the road to buy a coffin – $17 – and a pall. The coffin was too large. Neither a smaller one nor a carpenter could be found. Slowly, Mullah Jan laid the toddler inside the coffin, like a child sleeping in a cradle, and the men filled the rest with cotton. Shinwary punched in the nails on the lid with a little rock.

Distant relatives prepare the coffin for little Sima. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/ The New York Times
Distant relatives prepare the coffin for little Sima. Photograph: Kiana Hayeri/ The New York Times

The vehicle wound through the mountain passes as the sun dissolved over the peaks. After three hours, they made it to Jalalabad. The next morning, they drove Sima home to join her brothers and sisters in the cemetery in Achin, along the road that had taken their lives. – New York Times

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