Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Jan ‘08

IWPR investigation into alleged massacre by foreign troops prompts ICRC and international media to make enquiries.
By IWPR

Once in a very long while, a journalist has a chance to make a real difference. This is, I believe, happening in Afghanistan with some courageous and persistent reporting by a team of IWPR-trained journalists in Helmand province.

In mid-November, we heard the first rumblings about an alleged massacre that had taken place in Garmseer, a remote and largely Taleban-controlled district in southern Helmand. Foreign troops had reportedly killed over a dozen local residents in a late-night raid; the dead included children and two brothers whose throats had been slit. A third was recovering in hospital, his neck slashed from ear to ear.

An IWPR reporter managed to get into the ward to interview the man, and the resulting story started shock waves that are still reverberating.

IWPR journalists checked the story out with numerous sources. The NATO spokesman confirmed that a military operation took place in the area at the relevant time, but he said an investigation had turned up nothing. Under pressure from Afghan journalists, he agreed to reopen the inquiry.

It has not been an easy ride. The military have taken a very hard line, denying the story completely. But our reporters have persisted, gathering testimony and going back again and again to witnesses to check the facts.

As a result of the story, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent has intervened, asking the United States military for answers.

Mainstream international media are starting to pick up the story, and are also beginning to ask questions.

While at present the facts are still in dispute, there is every chance that an major investigation will have to be conducted, with full public scrutiny.

The most gratifying result to date has come from the reporters themselves. “We didn’t think anyone would care,” said Aziz Ahmad Tassal, who was instrumental in gathering testimony. “This happens every day in Afghanistan. But people are paying attention.”

In one other instance, IWPR reports have made a major difference to the world’s perception of Afghanistan.

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a fearless and tireless reporter, has faced numerous challenges over the past five years in his work for IWPR. He has taken on many difficult subjects. But over the past several months he has written a series of reports exposing abuses committed by former militia commanders or “warlords” in the north of Afghanistan.

As a result, he has received threatening phone calls, he has been followed, and his home and office have been searched.

In late October, the security services targeted his younger brother, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, whom they arrested on a charge of blasphemy. Parwez insists he had nothing to do with the article, as does Yaqub. But the charges stuck, and in January, Parwez was condemned to death in a closed court session, with no legal representation.

The case triggered an enormous outcry in the world press. It was picked up by media around the world, notably the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the BBC and Reuters, as well as by international rights watchdogs like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch. Both Yaqub Ibrahimi and IWPR Programme Director Jean MacKenzie gave numerous press and broadcast interviews and were widely quoted on the story.

The result has been a close examination of Afghanistan’s legal system, highlighting concerns that the judicial process is flawed and susceptible to political influence, and a better understanding of the challenges facing President Hamed Karzai, as well as a gratifying outpouring of support for Parwez.

The verdict is subject to appeal by higher courts. We can only hope the media attention will help save Parwez.

More IWPR's Global Voices