KABUL (Reuters Life!) - Children play in sunlit corridors as their mothers embroider or learn to use computers in a facility that could almost be called cozy.
But the guards, and the cells, give away that this is Kabul’s only women’s prison, home to some 90 inmates.
Badam Bagh, which means Almond Orchard, is surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains and, by admission of the United Nations, is probably the best prison in Afghanistan.
“The female prison in Badam Bagh is the best one ever built in Kabul, it is built to international standards that you will not see in other prisons around the country,” Sayed Afzal Sherzad, project manager for prisons for the United Nation’s drugs and crime Agency, UNODC.
“In other parts of the country, men and women are kept in one detention facility, but in Badam Bagh, inmates have separate rooms, bathrooms, meeting rooms and hygiene is also good.”
The women share rooms of three to four bunk beds and spend their days learning to read and write the local Dari language as well as taking classes in geography, English, sewing and computer technology, while their children make a playground of their surroundings.
“This is just like a house,” said Zarafshan, the prison’s governor. “Here we are like a family, we look after each other. We have the best food here, fresh fruit, vegetables, rice, televisions in the rooms.”
Niloofar, a 20-year-old Afghan who only gave one name, is in Badam Bagh with her three children. Her husband is also in jail.
“We don’t have many problems here, we go to sewing classes, we study, we are comfortable, we are looked after,” she said.
“I want to study so that I could have a brighter future and get a job ... I don’t want my daughter to grow up to be unfortunate like me.”
The inmates at Badam Bagh used to be kept in a female unit at Pul-e-Charkhi prison, a notorious Afghan jail where about 1,300 male inmates are kept, including many insurgents, who in the past year have staged a number of uprisings against the prison.
The women were transferred to Badam Bagh two years ago by the UNODC and a significant number of the inmates are from abroad, and most are inside for smuggling drugs.
“They arrested me because of 60 grams of heroin and so they gave me seven years,” said Chantel from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, who only gave her first name.
In the two years and one month Chantel has lived at Badam Bagh, she has given birth to a baby boy and learned to speak Dari, one of Afghanistan’s national languages, almost fluently.
She said the prison staff were good to her and her son Emmanuel, who was born with sight problems at a nearby hospital 18 months ago, but she said she wanted to go home.
“Please uncle Karzai forgive us, we are foreign, let me go back home to see my family,” she said in almost faultless Dari.
Many children have only known life on the inside, and they long to get out.
Eight-year-old Malina from east Afghanistan was born in jail to a mother convicted of belonging to a gang that murdered taxi drivers and took their vehicles, which they later sold for parts, according to one of the prison guards.
Malina’s mother, a doe-eyed woman from a remote village who did not want to be named, was sentenced to be hanged alongside her husband, the guard said, but the sentence was commuted because she was pregnant at the time.
“When I came to jail I was very little and I didn’t know about crime, killing or jail. A dead body was found in our house and the police brought my mother to jail with me,” Malina said.
“I want to be free to see outside, to study in school to play with other children, inside prison it’s very difficult, my mother is sick, everyone in here has an illness and sorrow,” she added.
Editing by Miral Fahmy