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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '19 & Jan '20



Genocide: The Major Contour of Justice in Afghanistan, Referring Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

Chaitali Giri, Guest Lecturer in English, MUC Women’s College, BC Rd, Pairakhana, Purba Bardhaman, WB



Etymologically genocide means the killing of a race or a race of people. ‘It almost goes without saying that serious efforts to define and penalize genocide began with, and as a result of, the Holocaust.’ (Rubinstein 305). Applied at its invent to the Holocaust, the term itself smacks of its brutality and violence. Where genocide is a serious threat to the existence of human kind, the Taliban in Afghanistan at their emergence made killing, especially public killing, incessant killing, indiscriminate killing and only killing their ultimatum of implementing justice. A huge number of people were killed for their failure to stand to the test of the Taliban’s taste of morality. The Taliban justified their human butchery in the forms of beheading, stoning to death, shooting etc, in the name of Islam and their necessity of keeping up with morality and the purity of the religion. Shockingly a good many people from the land itself supported them where even the Nature protested the violence by making a bunk of its natural course there. The enshrouded genocide probed many to suicide and many to fly crossing the borders to escape their own countrymen and not the invaders this time for a change. The paper will focus on that aspect fictionalized in Hosseini’s novel.

Keywords:  Stoning, Beheading, Shooting, Public Killing, Rockets



“Mass murder is probably as old as the human race, but only in the twentieth century has it became a significant a part of the world-wide importance or, indeed, to have been given a name…’genocide’…(Rubinstein 1)”. Though the concept of the conceptualization of the term genocide owing to the Holocaust is unanimously accepted by the world, there is certainly no respite from the dispute and disagreement over proper defining the term. Rubinstein in his book Genocide: A History attempted correctitude thus: “How does one reasonably define ‘genocide’? Probably the best place to start is with a ‘common sense’ definition…genocide might then be defined as the deliberate killing of most or all members of that group. Genocide is normally carried out against an ethnic or religious minority, and entails the deliberate killing of such groups of non-combatants as women, children and the elderly, who are normally seen as protected by international law or common moral custom.” (2). “The issue of genocide appears in both fiction and non-fiction. Fictional books about genocide include historical fiction, literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy.” (Fischer and Polacek 292). If realism is considered to be the most important characteristic of a fiction, a novel, and if a novel is considered to be ‘the logical literary vehicle of a culture’ (Watt 13) and if the most important aspects of a novel are ‘characterization’ and ‘presentation of background’ ( Watt 17), then Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a true creation of the genre. Hosseini’s narrative authenticates the culture and background of the war devastated Afghanistan. In his book Cultural Genocide Lawrence Davidson referred to the current -century wars thus: “ Since 1945 and the end of World War II, the world has experienced at least 104 major conflicts that warrant the title of wars….did more than just demonize an enemy. They went further to demonize whole cultures and civilizations. “(17). The Afghan culture too was demonized being victim of such conflicts.

The Argument:

The main reason why this country has suffered endless war and conflicts is being its favourable geographical location in the Central Asia sharing borders with big countries like Pakistan, Iran and China. The historian Larry P. Goodson in his book Afghanistan’s Endless War has thus generalized the idea: ‘Afghanistan will be the key to peace and stability, economic development and growth, and social change and human development in this region of the world. Thus it comes to no surprise that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors are deeply involved in manipulating its internal affairs…all have significant interests in Afghanistan and most have supported at least one of the many parties contesting for power in that country’s interminable and devastating civil war.’(4) Like a vulnerable sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves, Afghanistan suffered violence and inhumanity for the last two decades – first at the hands of the Mujahideens and then by the orthodox Taliban.

In Hosseini’s novel these two phases of anarchy, the careless killings without any sign of regret, the trauma of being killed at any point of time have been built with an immediate and immense effect through the characters representing the two generations, the two different lives of Mariam and Laila. While Mariam experienced the invaders through Rasheed’s prejudiced views not unlike most of the Afghans, Laila’s knowledge on the other was the views of her teacher-father. Though they both experienced the violence of the Russian-Mujahideen attacks-counter attacks and went through the cruelty of Taliban who were particularly inhuman to the women, Laila’s plight and wounds were more incurable.  The rockets of the Mujahideen shattered the body of her parents into pieces, untraceable in front of her own eyes. It is the terror of the rockets, which every time with its explosion at any part of the country was sure to turn living human beings into pieces of mass, that forced Tariq, the love of  Laila’s life to move to Pakistan with his parents leaving Laila and the token of their love in her womb. It is the self invented ideology of the Mujahideen and their followers that took the toll of the lives of her two young brothers, who served the Mujahideen, turning their mother a loony as a consequence. It is because of the Mujahideen that she was compelled to marry a man of about her father’s age to survive a parentless girl in such a society and moreover to make Tariq’s child survive in her womb. Then when the Taliban came, the situation altered but only to become worse. Though the rockets were gone, the terror stayed in other forms. She couldn’t perform her duties as a mother being incapacitated for all the imposed bans on the freedom of women outside the house by the Taliban. She had to drop her daughter in an orphanage just to keep her alive and to save her from dying of starvation. Mariam on the other hand being born as a harami i.e. an illegitimate child was a born sufferer. She was more a victim of the patriarchy than the patriarchal Taliban or Mujahideen.
All those who came to rule the country with the intention to bring back the lost order and peace, paradoxically chose killing as their only weapon. The Russians reinvaded the country to save human rights. Those who opposed them, the sorawi, formed an ethnic group named Mujahideen and declared jihad against the Russians:

After the soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Azzam left Saudi Arabia to participate in the Afghan jihad. …Together with Osama Bin Laden, he established the Maktab-al;-Khidamat, also known as the Afghan Service Beureau, in Peshwar. …it was in reality a conduit for the vast sums the Soudis were making available to the Afghan resistance as well as a recruitment center for the worldwide inflow of young Muslims eager to fight in Afghnaistan as mujahideen, or “holy warriors”. As the enterprise developed, it provided basic military training and medical care for the mujahideen. (Rubenstein chapter 1)
On the true meaning of jihad and its relationship with the Muslim community Richard L. Rubenstein said: “The basic meaning of jihad is ‘to exert oneself’. The concept rest in turn upon a religiously legitimated worldview in which the world is divided into two irreconcilable realms, dar-al-Islam…and dar-al-Harb…Muslims are under an unconditional obligation to undertake jihad against its inhabitants. Nevertheless, jihad does not necessarily involve military effort. It may take the form of nonmilitary activity.” (Chapter 1) While the Mujahideen made it almost customary and compulsory for the Afghans to send their sons to fight their non-military jihad to which there was no respite or escape, the Taliban, the accepted rescuers, on the other made even the escape from the country something too scary and risky to attempt to.

The random – planned and unplanned killing started with the Russiaan invasion that gave way to the first anarchy of the group of ethnic Afghans named Mujahideen. The continuous fight, bombing and throwing rockets between the shorawi i.e. the Russians and the Mujahideen the anti-Russians, turned the country into a heap of rubble and debris.  Those who joined the Mujahideen never returned and those who did not, were killed by their rockets. Laila the female protagonist in Hossini’s work was planning to leave the country to escape the game of death with her parents one day, just when a rocket hit their house and all she could found later was the blood smeared chunk of her father’s body lied on the floor with the remaining of his cloths which happened to be his sole identification mark. Earlier one day Laila learned that her best friend Giti was struck by a rocket near her house on her way to home and her mother later hysterically screeched through the road collecting the pieces of her daughter’s flesh in an apron while the decomposing right foot, still in its nylon stock and purple sneaker was found on a rooftop two weeks later:

Giti was dead. Dead. Blown to pieces. At last, Laila began to weep for her friend. And all the tears she hadn’t been able to shed at her brothers’ funeral came pouring down.( Hosseini 175)

Farah Ahmedi, another Afghan writer, in her autobiography The Story of My Life: An Afghan Girl on The Other Side of the Sky wrote a similar story of losing her legs by walking over a landmine on her way to school:

“The light shining in my eyes told me I was late. … And so I thought. I’ll take a shortcut today. … and then suddenly a fire flashed in my face and the earth seemed to move beneath my feet. I remember a shower of soil and then nothing. I woke up on the ground, surrounded by a crowd…They looked horrified. (Ahmedi 42-43)

The same brutality and horror of these rockets, fired in order to save the country, according to the Mujahideens, is reflected in the autobiography of Abdul Salam Zaeef entitled My Life With the Taliban. In a chapter named “Kandahar: Portrait of a City” in his book Zaeef, who himself was a Talib once, wrote:

There were so many bodies that in death they were shown disrespect, tossed into the back of cars and trucks for the journey back to town. …in front of the cars the mat is ripped and mixed with a twisted mess of skull caps, woolen blankets , shreds of clothes, half of someone’s brain, a tail of intestines…These were the meager traces of people who stood here before the explosion…’( ix)

Thus, this civil war resulted in genocide, a huge killing which led many to fly to the nearest country, Pakistan. For those who stayed with the hopes of the situations to alter, the worst was waiting for them. The rise of the Taliban who, according to Goodson, were on a kind of ‘Holy crusade to conquer Afghanistan, establish an Islamic state and society there’ (4) and whom the Afghans took to be their saviors and welcomed whole heartedly with crackers and flowers as Rasheed, the husband of Laila and Mariam exclaimed, ‘at least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. At least they’re decent Muslim boys. Wallah, when they will come they will clean up this place and order. People won’t get shot anymore going out for milk. No more rockets…Let them come…I, for one, will shower them with rose petals.’(Hosseini 267), changed everything. When the Taliban within a very short period of time produced their real cards and real motifs which Zaeef described, fortifying Goodson, in his book that ‘Taliban as a religious movement that actually wanted to establish an Islamic state…was a group of individuals who had a particular goal, who used their religion as a vehicle to mobilize the people.’(119), the whole country wailed especially the women. In A Thousand Splendid Suns Laila and Mariam experienced the dictatorship of the Taliban rules and regulations, violation of which would be resulting only in death – either stoning or shooting.

‘At the international level, the definition of genocide is inextricably linked to the historical context in which it developed….To this day, the Holocaust remains the lens through which other cases of possible genocide are interpreted, which has significantly limited the number of incidents that have ultimately been labeled as genocide.” (Sainati 164) The Taliban took indiscriminate killing to be their chief mode, main contour of justice in the name of Islam to implement their weird set of punishments like stone to death publically in a stadium full of people cheering the killing though “The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights has, especially dealt with the question of genocide. The Declaration condemns acts of genocide and recognize it serious crimes against the philosophy of Islam.” (Malekian 240). Anybody failed in the test of the Taliban’s taste of morality would be ending losing his/her life and this was quiet destined. One tribal elder said in Zaeef’s book that ‘I am not afraid of being killed by the Taliban. If the Taliban want to get you, they get you. There is nothing you can do.’(xi) Farah Ahmedi while comparing the Mujahideen with the Taliban said in her autobiography that though both the dictators were dangerous, the Mujahideen were much familiar in appearance looking like their own countrymen, the Talibs on the other were foreign with their terrified looks with big turbans, kohl and dark clothes. The Soviet-Mujahideen fight not only took the tolls of afghan lives, but also silently swallowed so many lives of the Russian soldiers who came to save the country. In the novel The wasted Vigil, Lara’s plight has been described thus by the narrator:
She said that a quarter of century ago her brother had entered Afghanistan as a soldier with the Soviet Army, and that he was one of the ones who never returned home. She had visited Afghanistan twice before in the intervening decades but there has been proof neither of life nor of death,” (Aslam 8)

The trauma of this undeclared genocide-the indiscriminate killing gave birth to the feeling of being killed at any point of time without his or her being aware of the impending death that was probably dwindling over everybody domiciled there in the country. This traumatic transitoriness of a human life forced the citizen to grab enforced escapism. The terror of Taliban caused probably the biggest number of refugee population from Afghanistan and this is something never the new. Taking into account both -the past, and the recent, one can easily picture the helplessness of the victims of genocide. From the plights and fate of the Jews during 1940s to the unchanged picture of this present era of technology and human rights when the refugeeism of the Rahingya people has proved to be a bane on the human society. The Islamophobia and the anti-Rahingya sentiment led 700,000 Rahingya refugees to fled abroad since August 25, 2017.( Wikipedia). A citation from the article by Bradley Campbell in this context of referring recent genocides may well be quoted:

“approximately 1 million Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1916; nearly 6 million Jews and more than 200,000 Gypsies in Nazi-controlled Europe between 1939 and 1945; more than 100,000 Hunts in Burundi in 1972; more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994; at least 50,000 Kurds in Iraq in 1988; and others.” (151). While speaking on the hypotheticalness of actions against the crime of genocide Malekian in his article pointed out the difficulty in applying law to prohibit the crime as the difficulty in “the legal application of the concept of this crime…because the convention does not clarify the definition of ‘intent’ or ‘intent to destroy’ and many other terms such as ‘in part’, ‘deliberately inflicting’ and so forth.” (238).

The terror of living each day as the Doom’s Day tempted Laila and Mariam to embrace an escape to Pakistan, apparently the safest to the victims of Afghanistan. But women’s plights were doubled because they were fighting patriarchy along with the patriarchal Taliban. Respiting only Kabul to a certain degree, women in Afghanistan were already living with subjugation and their plights were only kindled by the advent of Taliban who spread it all over the country. When Mariam came to Kabul for the first time after marriage, she experienced:

The women in this part of Kabul were a different breed. …These women were… ‘modern’…were swinging handbags and rustling skirts…they all had university degrees, that they worked in office buildings…These women mystified Mariam. ( Hosseini 74)
On the other while staying in a forlorn kolba in Herat, she was only the result of her father’s lust for his maid.

However, Mariam and Laila’s plan for the fly was well-planned but against the so called rules implemented by the Taliban. Their escape was as much from Rasheed, their brutal husband as from the Taliban. The Taliban rule for a women’s outing was thus:

You will stay inside your homes at all the time. It is not proper for women to wonder aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home. ( Hosseini 271)

Laila and Mariam reaching without a mahram at the bus stop asked for help from a man addressing him brother but he betrayed them and they were hurled back to Rasheed with warning. At their return they had to face the inhumanity of the man of the house which was more brutal than those of the Taliban:

“Laila didn’t see the punch coming…she was being dragged by the hair…Hair was ripped from Laila’s scalp…Downstair the beating began…She saw Rasheed leading Mariam across the yard by the nape of her neck. Mariam was barefoot and doubled over. There was blood on his hands, blood on Mariam’s face, her hair, down her neck and back.” ( Hosseini 261-262)

In A Thousand Splendid Suns Rasheed once whispered to Mariam explaining the foreignness of the Taliban calling Pakistanis as the ‘real masters…the Taliban are puppets. These are the big players and Afghanistan is their playground.'(Hosseini 300) Many people, especially the men folk supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. ‘The Taliban were also widely supported by the people of Pakistan’(118) is what Zaeef has observed in his book. Mariam who killed her husband in Hosseini’s novel as it was the only way to save her and Laila’s life, faced the cruel judgement of the Taliban ruler who without judging anything actually implemented the judgement of death at once justifying the act by the name of Allah:' I am tired and dying, and I want to be merciful. I want to forgive you. But when God summons me and says, But it wasn’t for you to forgive, Mullah, what shall I say?'(Hosseini 357)- The Mullah at the time of the trial said this to Mariam. Later Mariam was asked to kneel and look down wearing a burqa in a stadium and was shot in front of the public so that they can set examples for others:

“An armed man approached her and told her to walk towards the southern goalpost. Mariam could sense the crowd tightening up with anticipation. She didn’t look up. She kept her eyes to the ground, on her shadow, on her executioner’s shadow trailing hers.” (Hosseini 360)

Similar instances of Taliban’s punishment can also be cited in the other novel by Hossini, The Kite Runner. There Hassan, the step brother of Amir, when protested against the Taliban’s capturing their house, he was taken “to the street…order…to kneel…and shot him dead at the back of the head…Farzana came screaming…shot her too…Self-defense, they claimed later…” (Hossini 192)

“Acts considered evil, insane, or criminal…may represent different aspects of social life and require different theories for their explanation. … genocide is moralistic, then, and can be explained with a theory of social control.” (Campbell 151). The Mujahideen at first left the country fatherless killing almost all the men in their jihad and then the Talibs enforced women's complete confinement within homes. This let the children of the country suffered the most. While even the human beings supported these heinous acts and human butchery in the name of religion, nature showed its protest as well as disapproval by making a bunk of its natural course from the country. The country which was green and beautiful became dusty and dry. Hosseini narrates thus, it “didn’t rain at all the spring. All over the country, farmers were leaving behind their parched lands,… The Kabul River, without its yearly spring floods, had turned bone-dry. It was a public toilet now, nothing in it but human waste and rubble.'( Hosseini 287 ) Perhaps Lemkin has rightly identified genocide saying that “the main purpose of genocidal practices is to destroy the oppressed group’s identity.”   (Feierstein 25) and Afghanistan along with the humble Afghanis lost their identity to the world.


Thus death became an ordinary event to the Afghans. They were not afraid of dying. What worried them the most was the degree of violence they were to tolerate before death actually comes. The killing took place various ways on the earth of Afghanistan. Sometimes a folk of innocent people were killed by the Russian-Mujahideen rockets before their knowing their own destiny and sometimes they felt death walking and approaching with all the grandeur, thereby making the horribleness more vivid. Genocide occurred sometimes to a single person, sometimes destroying a whole city. While conceptualizing genocide in the novel by Hosseini and in general as well, an altered view on the subject can also be cited relevantly thus, that “The claim that genocide is distinctively heinous need not imply the deliberate destruction of groups worse than mass murder, terroristic torture, slavery, mass rape in war, or any other form of violence. Genocide might be heinous in a different way than these other forms of violence even if it does not come first in an overall ranking of evils, yet the view that genocide sits atop such a ranking has significant support in the literature. In his influential study of genocide in international law, William Schabas argues that “in any hierarchy, something must sit at the top. The crime of genocide belongs at the apex of the pyramid. It is … the ‘crime of crimes’. (Abed 329-330).  Thus writing on genocide can never achieve unanimous acceptance because “writings on the subject of genocide are dominated by activism, narrativism, genocidalism, or (extreme) pacifism or (any combination of those elements)…” (Jokic 44). To prevent such heinous crime Genocide Convention was invented in 1948 to implement law but “Developed under the aegis of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention was a virtual codification of the “Never again” ethos. …Unfortunately, the past sixty years have not been kind to the promise of the Genocide Convention.”(Greenfield 922) and Afghanistan is a living example of that unkindness.



Works Cited

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