KABUL, Afghanistan - Eleven-year old Gulsoma lay in a heap on the ground in front of her father-in-law. He told her that if she didn't find a missing watch by the next morning he would kill her. He almost had already.
Enraged about the missing watch, Gulsoma's father-in-law had beaten her repeatedly with a stick. She was bleeding from wounds all over her body and her right arm and right foot had been broken.
She knew at that moment that if she didn't get away, he would make good on his promise to kill her.
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When I meet her at the Ministry of Women's Affairs I'm surprised that the little girl, now 12, is the same one that had endured such horrible suffering. She is wearing a red baseball cap and an orange scarf. She has beautiful brown eyes and a full and animated smile. She takes one of my hands in both of hers and greets me warmly, without any hint of shyness.
"She looks healthy," says Haroon, my friend and translator. I nod. But she looks older than her years, we both agree. In orphanages — first in Kandahar, then in Kabul — she has had a year to recover from a lifetime's worth of unimaginable imprisonment, deprivation and torture.
In one of the ministry's offices she sits in a straight-backed wooden chair and tells us the story of her life so far. She is stoic for the most part, pausing only a few times to wipe her eyes and nose with her scarf.
Her story begins in the village of Mullah Allam Akhound, near Kandahar.
"When I was three years old my father died, and after a year my mother married again, but her second husband didn't want me," says Gulsoma. "So my mother gave me away in a promise of marriage to our neighbor's oldest son, who was thirty."
"They had a ceremony in which I was placed on a horse [which is traditional in Afghanistan] and given to the man."
Because she was still a child, the marriage was not expected to be sexually consummated. But within a year, Gulsoma learned that so much else would be required of her that she would become a virtual slave in the household.
At the age of five, she was forced to take care of not only her "husband" but also his parents and all 12 of their other children as well.
Though nearly the entire family participated in the abuse, her father-in-law, she says, was the cruelest.
"My father-in-law asked me to do everything — laundry, the household chores — and the only time I was able to sleep in the house was when they had guests over," she says. "Other than that I would have to sleep outside on a piece of carpet without even any blankets. In the summer it was okay. But in the winter a neighbor would come over and give me a blanket, and sometimes some food."
When she couldn't keep up with the workload, Gulsoma says, she was beaten constantly.
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