Their escape that night in March 2014 into the high mountains of central Afghanistan seemed hopeless. The barren terrain provided nowhere to hide, and they had fled without any warm clothes or other necessities. “If we had only had one day together, it would have been worth it,” Zakia said. “How can I be sad? We’re together. I’m with my love.”
In Afghan society, a girl is considered her father’s property until she becomes her husband’s property. By eloping, Zakia was not just defying her father’s wishes but also stealing what he saw as rightfully his. So the police began looking for them, as well as Zakia’s incensed family members. I was searching too. As a reporter for The New York Times, I had already written about the star-crossed couple once, calling them an Afghan Romeo and Juliet, and I managed to find them before the police and her family. They were in a mud house in a remote village in the high mountains, and it was pretty nearly the end of the road for them. Their hosts, hearing the police were on the way, were about to turn Zakia and Ali out so they wouldn’t be arrested too.
The couple had no car, no money, no prospects. What they had was me. I didn’t want their story to end like this, and I felt responsible: Quite possibly my arrival had made it even easier for the police to trace them, since foreigners were so rarely seen in that area. I decided to help them escape. I gave Ali $1,000 and put the couple in my car. The police were just hours behind us, but we got away (see “A Journalist’s Dilemma,” below).
In the following months, they bounced around the country, always on the move. Finally, they took refuge in the capital, Kabul, hoping the anonymity of a city of 5 million would protect them. Ironically, that’s where Zakia’s family finally found Ali, and things took a turn for the worse. Ali was put in jail, charged with kidnapping his own wife. Zakia, who still feared for her life at the hands of her father and brothers, was returned to a women’s shelter for her own safety.
But Zakia, whose face had become a fixture on Afghan TV, had become a hero to every young Afghan woman who dreams of marrying someone she loves rather than someone chosen by her family. When the couple was taken into custody, young Afghans were so outraged that the authorities let them go.