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Hunted down after escape
Writer killed in Afghanistan

New Delhi, Sept. 5: Calcuttan Susmita Banerjee, whose book on her married life in Afghanistan and escape from the Taliban inspired a Bollywood film, was shot dead last night by suspected Taliban militants after she returned to her husband’s home early this year.

Since her escape in 1995, Susmita had spent the next 17 years in Calcutta, where she had first met her moneylender husband Jaanbaaz Khan in 1986 and later left with him to live in Sharana, capital of Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

Her 1998 book Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (A Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife), which detailed her life under the Taliban between 1993 and 1995, was made into the 2003 film Escape from Taliban starring Manisha Koirala.

Around 11.30pm yesterday, the killers forced their way into her home, Paktika governor Moheebullah Shamim has told India’s ambassador in Kabul, Amar Sinha. The militants tied up Jaanbaaz, who is now a businessman, and others in the family, pulled Susmita out and shot her dead.

Shamim told Sinha the police suspect the Taliban killed Susmita, 57, because of her work as a female (untrained) healthcare worker in Sharana, a town of 50,000. No group has yet claimed responsibility.

“I’m shocked and shattered. I can’t believe that someone so selfless and always willing to stand up for what is right has been killed so mercilessly. Manisha Koirala called me sometime ago and asked, ‘Dada, have you heard the news?’” Escape from Taliban director Ujjwal Chatterjee said.

Jaanbaaz’s “joint family”, who lived with the couple, have already buried Susmita near their home, Indian officials said. “It was all over by the time we were told,” an official at India’s Kabul embassy said.

Indian installations in Afghanistan have in recent years come under repeated Taliban attacks, in which New Delhi sees a Pakistani hand. But officials conceded that Susmita’s killing probably had more to do with her work in Sharana that the militants may have considered “un-Islamic”, and possibly with her memoirs on the Taliban’s rule.

“There is no evidence yet that she was targeted because she was Indian,” an official here said.

In her memoirs, Susmita wrote about her journey to Afghanistan with Jaanbaaz, who had to return to Calcutta for his livelihood, leaving her with his family in Sharana.

“Although my in-laws were not too kind, life was tolerable until the Taliban crackdown in 1993,” Susmita wrote in 1998. The Taliban, she wrote, frequented her house, listed “dos and don’ts”, ordered her to wear a burqa and prohibited her from operating the dispensary she ran.

Indian diplomats confirmed that Susmita did reach out to the embassy in 1995, months before it was closed ahead of the Taliban’s takeover of the nation in 1996. India did not have diplomatic relations with Afghanistan under the Taliban.

She told Indian officials she had tried to escape once earlier and had almost reached the Indian embassy in Islamabad before her brothers-in-law caught up with her and persuaded her to return, promising they would help her return to India.

They didn’t, and she stayed under effective house arrest till her 1995 escape.

It is unclear whether Susmita was killed because of her book’s portrayal of the Taliban, or whether the militants were even aware that she had written about them.

“Honestly, it’s still a mystery — both why she was killed and why she went back to Afghanistan in the first place,” an official in New Delhi said.


Facebook profile picture of Susmita Banerjee, posted on January 11, this year

• Susmita was born in 1956 at Khulna in present-day Bangladesh

• Spent her childhood with grandparents in Burdwan and went to St Joseph’s Convent Higher Secondary School

• Came to Calcutta to live with her parents in Baguiati

• Was admitted to and then dropped out of Rammohan College

Got involved in amateur theatre and jatra

• Met Afghan moneylender Jaanbaaz Khan in 1986 in the Lake Town house of a co-actress in amateur theatre

Jaanbaaz, Susmita’s husband

• In the face of family opposition, married Jaanbaaz and left Calcutta

• Stayed with his family from 1988 till 1995 at Sharana in Afghanistan, some 120km from Kabul

• Managed to escape from the Taliban when she realised she would be killed, and returned to Calcutta

• Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou, published in 1998, chronicled her “ordeal” at her in-laws’ home

• Escape from Taliban, starring Manisha Koirala and released in 2003, was based on Susmita’s story


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