A year ago, she drank battery acid to escape life under the Taliban. Today, she has a message for other Afghan girls

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Karachi, PakistanCNN — 

Holding a mirror steady in one hand, Arzo carefully applies pencil to her brows as she gets ready for an English lesson a short walk from her home on the outskirts of Pakistani megacity Karachi.

Every step toward the classroom takes her closer to a future she no longer thought possible almost a year ago when she walked downstairs at her family’s home in Afghanistan and tried to take her own life.

“On that day, I felt like everything was over. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness, and that’s why I drank acid, convinced it would end my life,” said Arzo, whom CNN first met last November as she lay in bed, too weak to speak.

At the time, she was 15 years old but weighed as much as a 4-year-old, her limbs painfully thin after months of starvation despite her siblings’ best efforts to feed her through a tube inserted in her stomach.

Now, after an extraordinary intervention, Arzo is making a remarkable recovery – but she faces a new threat that could force her family to return to Afghanistan, and a life under Taliban rule that has become so intolerable for women and girls that some would rather die.

Before life-saving treatment, Arzo was wasting away. Now she’s studying with hope for the future. CNN

Pakistan, a place of refuge for millions of Afghans, is carrying out a mass deportation program that has already seen more than 600,000 people cross the border since September 15 – with the threat that more could follow in July, when another class of visas expires.

What awaits them is a system of gender apartheid – violations against women and girls so “severe and extensive” that a senior United Nations official says they may amount to crimes against humanity.

It was what drove Arzo to try to take her own life.

For months, Arzo’s siblings fed her fluid through a tube direct to her stomach but it wasn’t enough.

“The gravity and scale of the crimes cannot be overstated,” Richard Bennett, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, told a Human Rights Council meeting on June 18, as he presented his damning report on the Taliban’s rule.

“We have a collective responsibility to challenge and dismantle this appalling system and to hold those responsible to account,” he said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the report as an attempt to “tarnish perceptions” of Afghanistan before a rare meeting this weekend between UN member states and Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar.

Despite strong condemnation of the Taliban by most UN member states, the issue of women’s rights will not be on the formal agenda.

Instead, talks with Taliban officials will focus on counternarcotics and the private sector.

Afghan women and other civil society members weren’t invited to the meeting – they’ll meet separately with member states, without the Taliban, the next day, according to a UN official.

Rights groups are furious the Taliban meeting is going ahead without Afghan women, and say it legitimizes Afghanistan’s leaders and fails to hold them to account for grave injustices.

Smuggled across the border

Arzo is not her real name. She and her older brother and sister, Ahamad and Mahsa, are using aliases to protect their family members in Afghanistan from reprisals from the Taliban, who have sought to silence critics of their repressive rule.

They’re also hiding from Pakistani authorities, who have threatened to arrest and deport undocumented foreigners, making every trip outside their rented room fraught with risk.

After Arzo drank the acid in Afghanistan last July, a doctor told her family she’d likely die if treated there, so they smuggled her across the border to Pakistan, where another doctor inserted a feeding tube into her stomach.

For most of that time, Arzo has been confined to bed, unable to eat, after the acid created a stricture – or a blockage – in her esophagus.

Every three hours, including through the night, Ahamad and Mahsa said they fed their little sister fluids – nutritional milk powder and juice – through the tube direct to her stomach.

But it wasn’t enough, and by November, Arzo weighed just 25 kilograms, or 55 pounds.

By then, most of their money was gone, too, on rent and private medical bills.

“We are financially broken here. Whatever we had, we spent it,” Arzo’s brother Ahamad, a 27-year-old journalist under threat from the Taliban due to his occupation, told CNN in November.

“I don’t cry in front of her, but I kiss her and cry while she sleeps at night, for her future, for her treatment, so she can survive this sickness,” he said.

In November, Arzo needed help walking across the room where she lives in Pakistan. CNN

A lifesaving intervention

Within hours of Arzo’s story airing on CNN last December, an email arrived with the offer of help.

A non-profit organization volunteered medical care on the condition that its name wouldn’t be published due to potential repercussions in Pakistan for aiding an Afghan who is residing in the country illegally.

“She was 20 to 22kg at the time that we saw her,” said the doctor who treated Arzo, whom CNN has also agreed not to name.

“She had come to us on a wheelchair and was bedridden at that point. She was essentially one influenza, or cold, or other kind of infection away from essentially dying,” he said.

Doctors told her siblings to increase her caloric intake threefold, so she’d be strong enough for her first medical procedure – an endoscopic examination that revealed severe damage to her esophagus, so that it had almost closed, making it impossible to eat.

Using X-ray guidance, the doctors passed a wire through a gap the size of a pinhole and inflated a tiny balloon to slowly widen the passage.

“Over the course of two months or so, with multiple staged procedures, we were able to open it up to the point where she was able to eat by mouth, which itself was a game changer,” the doctor told CNN.

Arzo’s brother Ahamad sent CNN regular WhatsApp messages.

JANUARY 13, 2024

She is worried. She cannot eat, she wants food very much.

JANUARY 16, 2024

My sister has gained five kilos again. Now her weight is 33 kilos. My sister is fine, but when the doctor said that she might need an operation in the end, tears flowed from her eyes.

JANUARY 23, 2024

Today, they inserted a balloon into my sister’s throat, next week they will insert a balloon again. She is fine but her throat is a little sore.

JANUARY 24, 2024

My sister can eat through her mouth for the first time. The doctor said to cook rice with milk well and give it to her. Today she was very happy.

‘These lives are not worth anything’

During an interview this month, Arzo sat upright on the bed, straightened her head scarf and spoke for the first time about why she tried to take her own life.

It was July 2023, and she was sitting on the second floor of her family’s two-story home, in a remote Afghan province, eating what would be her last meal for months.

“As I ate food at home, I glanced at pictures of my classmates and felt a deep sense of longing for them,” she said.

Arzo told CNN what drove her suicide attempt.

Arzo hadn’t seen her classmates since the Taliban banned girls from secondary education after seizing power in August 2021, and rarely messaged them because the internet connection was cut to her family’s village.

So, in a moment of grief for the friends and the life that she loved, she walked downstairs to the battery her family used to power their home and drank its contents. Her sister Mahsa found her and forced her fingers down her throat to make her vomit.

“When I asked her why she had done such a thing, her response was heartbreaking,” said Mahsa. Arzo had told her: “These lives are not worth anything,” she said.

At the time, Arzo was just 15.

Mahsa also lost everything with the Taliban takeover. She was 22 and had graduated from high school before the Taliban banned girls from getting an education beyond elementary school. She held ambitions to become a dress designer or to work in a beauty salon, but those career paths were soon shut down.

“When I went to Kabul, I enrolled in a tailoring program. However, for three months, I lived in constant fear as the Taliban would visit our workshop daily and criticize us for not wearing the hijab. They eventually forced us to shut down the workshop,” she said.

The Taliban ordered beauty salons to close in July 2023.

Instead of working, Mahsa found herself in Pakistan caring for Arzo, who was in constant pain with no medication to ease her suffering.

“When she was asleep, it provided a brief respite from the distress, but the moments when she was awake during our meals were particularly challenging for us to endure,” Mahsa said.

Arzo’s treatment has allowed them both to think about their future, and for the first time in years, they’ve glimpsed the possibility of a better life.

“When hope is lacking and life seems directionless, unexpected events can present themselves,” Mahsa said.

Arzo is determined to put the past behind her and has urged other girls in Afghanistan not to follow her lead.

“My message to all girls in Afghanistan who can’t continue their education or go to school is to stay strong and don’t lose hope.”

No safe haven in Pakistan

While the Taliban is in power, Arzo does not want to go back to Afghanistan, but she and her siblings are not wanted in Pakistan.

Last October, Islamabad gave around 1 million undocumented Afghan migrants one month to leave the country or face arrest and deportation. More than 600,000 people fled – most voluntarily, though 89% said they did so for fear of arrest, according to UN data. Of the total, more than 30,000 people were arrested and deported.

On the outskirts of Karachi, residents in one Afghan community thought they were safe from the deportation drive. Security officials came to their area late last year and painted red numbers on their homes to show how many people lived there and their visa status.

“At the beginning, the local people were happy over the markings because … it would certify that only registered Afghan refugees were living in a specific premises,” said lawyer Moniza Kakar, who showed CNN the markings.

Some houses were marked with “ACC” (Afghan Citizen Card), others with “POR” (Proof of Registration) – both forms of identification issued to Afghans long before the Taliban’s return.

But then in April, the government added around 800,000 ACC holders to its removal list. And the expiry date for POR cards was set to June 30, putting another 1.35 million people at risk of deportation.

Rain had already washed away some of the red paint, then residents tried to scrub it off to avoid encounters with police, said Kakar, managing partner at Abbas and Kakar Law Offices, who helps community members navigate Pakistan’s immigration system.

“They feel fear and uncertainty about what should happen to them,” she said.

Pakistan’s policy on “illegal foreigners” is no different to that of other nations, Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told CNN.

“Individuals who are here illegally have to be dealt with according to Pakistani laws, and that includes fines, imprisonment and deportation,” she said.

Baloch told CNN on Friday that the government still hadn’t decided whether to extend POR visas that were set to expire on Sunday, and had earlier said that Pakistan was considering the implications of “all the various options.”

Many of those at risk of deportation know little of Afghanistan.

Amanullah was just a boy when his family sought refuge in Pakistan during the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, an event that ultimately plunged the country into four decades of near constant conflict. Now he’s firmly settled in the Afghan community in Karachi with seven children of his own, and two grandchildren.

“We have nothing left in Afghanistan anymore,” Amanullah told CNN. “My children have grown up here and know little about their homeland.”

A member of the Mughal tribe, Amanullah sells watermelon at a fruit stall, but he said some other residents had closed their businesses for fear of being deported with no notice.

Pakistan has sheltered Afghan migrants for decades but now, amidst a surge in militant attacks on its territory, government officials say they present a security risk.

The Taliban has denied any involvement, and relations between the two countries are worsening as they trade accusations – and in some cases retaliatory strikes.

‘Our room is like a prison’

In March, as Arzo began to regain strength, her brother Ahamad’s messages turned to the threat of deportation and what that could mean for their family.

There are ways out of Pakistan for people like Arzo, Ahamad and Mahsa, but they typically involve taking risky journeys across borders, or joining lengthy waiting lists to be relocated to a third country that agrees to receive them.

Afghans without visas can’t legally work in Pakistan, and many who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover have already run out of money.

Arzo and her siblings survive on handouts from a small number of supporters outside Pakistan, who are trying to raise enough money to sponsor them to move to Canada.

“I really thank all the doctors from the bottom my heart,” she said.

“My message to my friends is to be patient. One day, the Taliban will leave Afghanistan, and we will be able to pursue our goals.”

But until then, women and girls live in a suffocating silence, where the Taliban have issued at least 52 new edicts since last June, tightening their control over the female population, according to the UN report.

“It should shock all of us that that there’s a country on this planet that denies girls access to education beyond sixth grade, that denies women access to most paid employment,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“Women can’t go to a park. They can’t walk in the sunshine; they can’t exercise; they can’t play sport,” she said. “You know, all of these things that make you feel human.”

Barr is scathing of the UN process and says it’s clear that engaging with the Taliban has not worked.

“Diplomatic engagement in terms of getting the Taliban to respect women’s rights has been a 100% failure,” she said. “It’s achieved nothing. And so, it’s time now for us to be talking about other strategies.”

She said countries could bring a case against the Taliban in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), much like South Africa’s allegations of genocide against Israel over its military actions in Gaza, or Taliban leaders could be charged with gender persecution in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“It (also) means diplomats and countries listening to the Afghan women’s rights defenders, who are calling for the crime of gender apartheid to be recognized under international law,” Barr added.

In his report, UN special rapporteur Bennett also backed calls for gender apartheid to be a punishable offense and predicted a dystopic future for women and girls should the world fail to act.

“Left unchecked, the Taliban’s institutionalized system of gender oppression will become more robust, as those resisting it suffer increasing violence, as memories of female role models and notions of female independence fade, and as new generations are raised and radicalized in a society unquestioning of its dehumanization and exploitation of women and girls,” he wrote.

Arzo doesn’t want a life like that for herself, her sister, or the women and girls still in Afghanistan.

She’s learning English, hopeful that one day soon she’ll be able to leave Pakistan for a safe country.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but as long as I am in Pakistan, I will continue my lessons,” she said.

“I’m determined to achieve my goals … Now I am not scared of anything.”



A year ago, she drank battery acid to escape life under the Taliban. Today, she has a message for other Afghan girls