“The mistake she made was going back for her cow.”
—BBC World News, May 2011
Two policemen came to our door and told my husband that something was wrong with his vehicle registration and he had to go with them to the station. “Five minutes, madam.” They looked me in the eye. Smiled. Promised. “One cup of coffee, madam, and we will bring him back. We will escort him ourselves. Personally.”
They took my husband. I made a cup of coffee. Then I made another. Ten minutes passed. Ten months. Ten years.
Twelve years after they took him, as I was about to feed my cow, I opened my door and there he was, lying in the dirt. Missing thumbs. Missing an eye. No breath. I cried for so long that my body was so full of loss there was no room for food. Rage filled me with the desire to go to the police station with my kitchen knife hidden beneath my clothes, to stab two policemen — any policemen—the first two I saw. But even in this rage and grief, I knew I could never kill, even to avenge my husband’s death. I could not kill for many reasons—because I could not imagine taking another life, because I could not imagine getting away with it—but the biggest reason was that if I were caught then who would take care of my children?
Four months after they took my husband, I gave birth. Twins. Boys! A pride that filled me with love, then emptied me with the anticipation of what their lives might become. If their father could be taken from me so easily, then why would I not anticipate the same destiny for my sons?
I used to have so many questions. And I waited—stupidly—as if there would come a day when my questions would be answered. But now I see so much wider, farther. And I know so much more than before: my old questions were never going to be answered, even if I had believed that I had a personal relationship with God.
Those of you who do not believe in a redeemer, hang onto your conviction. I’m dead and I still do not know if God exists. I am simply suspended in this place of all-seeing, but not all-knowing.
Just before my death I saw my own country’s flag and my own country’s army, coming towards my village to bulldoze our homes. When the soldiers were close enough that I could see their guns, I knew that I had to abandon the place in which I had lived since my wedding; my own two rooms—my kitchen and another room, the one in which we ate, watched the news, and slept. As the flags and tanks got closer, I knew that I had to abandon not only my home, my sky, my soil, but also, my cow. The question that I now hold is this: Was it more important to protect an animal or to protect my own body?
Run, Kholood, I told myself. If I chose to stay, destruction was certain. If I left, there was a possible future. So as soon as it was dark, I took my two boys’ hands and we ran.
We had gone less than a mile before I said to my sister-in-law, “Take them. Please. I have to go back for my cow.”
Once your life is taken from you, there is no looking forward, only memories to question: Why return for my cow? Would she have run with me? Could she have run faster than the bulldozers? Could we have run faster than the bullets? Could I have used her as a shield? If I had managed to rescue her to keep my boys fed for a year or so, would her slaughter have come on the day of my own choosing? In a safe place, far from my home? Which was never truly safe, now that I’m speaking honestly.
War or no war, no place is safe at any time for any woman, even if she has a husband; that husband will always be stronger than she is. Even if he never imagines hurting her, she will do the imagining for him.
Peaceful sleep? Does a woman ever know it? No woman I have eaten breakfast with has looked like she has had one night of restful sleep since her monthly bleeding began. The world is not the same place for men and women. Never. Anywhere.
In my living, not one week passed when I didn’t look at my kitchen knives and wonder if that day would be the day that one of my knives would be used against me by my husband or my father or a solider or a stranger—or any man who sees a women alone and seizes his chance to have dominion over her.
And yet, it turned out that it was not I who had to watch out for a man who wanted dominion over another’s life, but my husband. When my brother-in-law helped me to bring in my husband’s body, we saw the marks where they’d hung him from meat hooks—his ripped skin testimony to the violence of men.
I had known many years of the men in my family sitting in one of my two rooms drinking the coffee I had made for them, talking about the fight for democracy. Democracy? Let me tell you about the fight for it. It is difficult to keep your mind on this fight when your first thought is how you will feed your children. I was not an ignorant woman. I had a father who valued his daughters as much as his sons—our educations were the same. I was schooled. I read newspapers. As the men drank my coffee, I sat in the kitchen listening to the same news that they were listening to, and this is what I learned: there are no immediate Happily Ever Afters following a country’s revolution. What follow are arguments, turmoil, and empty food shelves. I could not add to this with the violence of hunger.
The two other mothers who ran from my village with me had left behind their teenage sons. “Some sacrifices,” one said, “are stronger than a mother’s love for her children.” They left their boys to stand in the line of fire. “We do this,” the other said, as if I didn’t already know, “in the name of victory.”
The first mother to speak was my neighbor. Her house had been so close to mine that I could hear her husband shouting at her, “Bring me my food! Don’t sit there like a cow waiting for rain.”
In life, I used to pepper my sentences with Thanks be to God and God is merciful. But now I ask: How did God show me his mercy? Even in this moment, I still have no evidence of it; only this hole in my forehead, this gunshot wound to remind me of my mistake—going back for my cow.