Burnt and beaten, 19-yr-old Afghan girl rebuilds life in Delhi hospital

FP
"What will urge you to live?" Mumtaz's surgeon asked her after she attempted suicide a few times. "A meeting with Akshay Kumar," said the 19-year-old Afghan girl, burnt in an acid attack, recovering from a series of facial and body reconstruction surgeries in a Delhi hospital.

On December 2, Mumtaz's wish was fulfilled when she and her 15-year-old sister, Farhanas, met the actor while he was in the capital to promote his upcoming film Khiladi 786. Mumtaz, who speaks Hindi fluently thanks to the popularity of Bollywood and Indian TV serials back home, was so starstruck that she couldn't utter a word in Kumar's presence.

That she was there at all, sitting and smiling with the star, was a miracle enough.

Last year in November, a week before her wedding, seven men had barged into their village home in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. They beat up her father, tied him in a bag and dumped him in a stable, and attacked her mother. When a scared Mumtaz covered herself with a blanket, the attackers went and got bottles of acid, emptying them upon her till her skin began to melt. Later, she was hit on the head and lost consciousness.

When she came to, she realised there was worse. Her frantic flailing of arms had splashed drops of acid on her two younger sisters, scarring them too.

As Mumtaz recounted her story, sitting on the hospital bed, Farhanas listened in absolute silence. She was discharged recently after a reconstruction surgery on an eyelid and re-grafting of skin on her arm.

Mumtaz was born and raised in a poor household as one of eight children — she has four sisters and three brothers. She dropped out of school early as studies didn't interest her, learning instead household chores, specifically how to cook rice. "An Afghani girl is never considered 'good' till she can make extraordinary rice," said Muzhgan Nuzhat. A final-year MBBS student in Kabul, Nuzhat is also a social worker with the Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a grassroots organisation working for child and human rights in the war-ravaged country.

When the long-haired and pretty Mumtaz turned 15, her father received a marriage proposal for her. He felt it was inappropriate and turned it down. She was later engaged to a 22-year-old youth working in the construction industry.

WAW workers believe that the armed attackers came that day to avenge the rejected proposal, deliberately waiting till Mumtaz's wedding was just a week away.

"The acid left a mass of scars," said her surgeon. "Her lower lip got stuck to her chin, upper lip stretched towards the nose, the neck was mangled, her scalp fell out in patches and her body was seriously burnt."

Mumtaz's was one of the first cases of acid attacks brought to WAW, said Nuzhat. Most crimes against women in Afghanistan involve honour killings within families, especially in case of love marriages, though attacks by outsiders such as on Mumtaz are on the rise, said WAW programme officer Huma Safi, speaking from Kabul.

Mumtaz was first taken to a hospital in Kunduz, then to Kabul by WAW, which has shelters in eight provinces in Afghanistan. That's where the plan for her surgical rehabilitation in India took shape.

The Indian connect wasn't incidental. WAW was founded in New York in 2001 by an Indian, Sunita Viswanath. Apart from medical expertise available in India, Safi said, the diplomatic goodwill between the two countries makes it easier to bring girls like Mumtaz for government-funded treatment.

Mumtaz began idolising Akshay Kumar after his 1999 film Jaanwar and remembers entire songs from his Khiladi series. When he died in his 2005 film Dosti, she shed copious tears. So when the actor personally called up to promise to meet her within minutes of being told of her wish, her surgeon promised to "prepare" her for the star appointment.

"I will rearrange the bandage beneath your lip so you can smile freely and fully," he told her. Her arms in a cast, her neck in an orthopaedic collar, an eyebrow yet not fully formed, Mumtaz never let that smile slip for the half-an-hour they spent with Akshay Kumar at his hotel. The actor ensured that it was a low-profile visit, without the usual media trappings.

"He asked us about the condition of Afghani women, our food and culture and invited us for a Mumbai trip paid for and hosted by him," said Nuzhat. On Wednesday, Mumtaz went out shopping to prepare for the visit to Mumbai this weekend.

What she yearns for though is to have her face reconstructed, go back home to her mother and lead a "normal" life. Her fiancé calls her once in a while, she said, but she instinctively feels he is no longer interested in her.

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