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Nerves of steel

Zianullah Stanikzia
When the Taliban came to take her village, Feroza picked up an AK-47 to expel the insurgents from her district. Often lacking reinforcements and ammunition, she remains committed to defending her neighbors and…
15.04.2015  |  Helmand
Feroza received a medal of honor from Interior Minister Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi for the extraordinary bravery she showed defending her village from the Taliban. (Photo: Interior Ministry of Afghanistan)
Feroza received a medal of honor from Interior Minister Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi for the extraordinary bravery she showed defending her village from the Taliban. (Photo: Interior Ministry of Afghanistan)

Cut off from civilization by barren deserts, Feroza's home village in the Marja District of Helmand province is often the target of insurgent attacks. She her family members have been fighting off anti-government forces in the remote hamlet of Sistani for three years now. In the beginning, Feroza and her fellow villagers were aided by foreign and government forces. But they have since learned to fend for themselves.

In 2010, U.S. Marines led Moshtarak, a major military operation that deployed 15,000 ground forces and air support to expel the Taliban from Marja district. Their victory improved the district's security situation and led to the creation of a local police force charged with protecting Sistani and the district from future onslaughts.

Two years later, Feroza's two sons, who served in the local force, were killed in a Taliban attack along with five other villagers. “Since then I pledged to myself that in the absence of my sons I will stand to defend my area and home, and lead the local police forces,” she says.


Of medium build, Feroza wears a black chador and smiles often. Her countrymen call her "Hajanai," a term of respect Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan use when referring to elderly women.


Feroza is illiterate, and condemns the Taliban for their cruelty. By murdering civilians, destroying villages and closing schools, the insurgents made life “hard to bear,” she says, “so I picked up a weapon.”


She explains that even though she has been serving alongside government forces for three years, she still has no official appointment and does not receive a salary although she is frequently called upon to defend her people.


Last month, hundreds of Taliban launched an assault on Sistani. Just before the attack, a major unit of the Afghan National Army and some units of the National Police abandoned the area. Feroza stayed on alongside 13 local police officers. Together with her children and family members, the group pushed back the attackers.


“The afternoon before the attack, I spoke with officials of the National Army about the Taliban’s imminent attack,” Feroza recalls. “They told me to sit down inside my home and stay calm, because they were about to start an operation against them. By the late afternoon of the same day, the soldiers abandoned the area.”


The fighting started soon after the security forces' departure and lasted through the night. The Taliban showered bullets on the trenches and village strongholds where Feroza and her people hid. The group comprised 13 local police officers, Feroza's two sons, two teen-aged grandsons, village women and young girls.


When Feroza’s positions were attacked, most of the male soldiers broke down, but she resisted through the night virtually empty-handed. Witnesses say she received support from family members until reinforcements arrived in the morning.


Like a woman


As she puts it, Feroza's motivation for fighting is her zeal. She lacks proper weapons, fuels or ammunition, and balances her peacekeeping duties with managing and providing for an extended family of 40 members. Local men have asked her to leave the police force and go live “like a woman.”


Feroza says she is the only woman in the area who fights against the Taliban and safeguards her home village. Three years ago another Helmand woman, police commander Bibi Zahra of Sangeen District participated in the local jirga, formed an 18-member local police force and fought against the Taliban.


Bibi Zahra's motivations for fighting were similar to Feroza's. She too lost a son and other relatives to the Taliban. She eventually left the forces because the government failed to provide proper equipment and salaries to her and the other soldiers.


Helmand Commander of Security Headquarters Major General Nabi Jan Mullah Khiel says Feroza has motivated and boosted the fighting morale of the Afghan soldiers. Last week, Interior Minister Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi travelled to Helmand and awarded Faroza a medal for her bravery.


“Nearly a month ago, Hajanai’s resistance and fighting not only saved Marja district from falling, it also inflicted heavy casualties and losses on the Taliban and showed that women from villages can also safeguard their country and people,” said Khiel.


Aside from Feroza and Bibi Zahra, who serve in local police forces fighting against the Taliban, 31 other female officers work at Helmand Security Headquarters as part of the National Police Force. Two have achieved the rank of officer, seven have the rank of Sergeant Major and 21 are Private First Class. Two female police officers were killed in targeted killings in Helmand province in the course of the past two years.