Afghanistan Tries to Hide Troubled Past

War crimes evidence disappearing in northern Afghanistan as perpetrators reportedly try and clear the bones from mass graves.

Afghanistan Tries to Hide Troubled Past

War crimes evidence disappearing in northern Afghanistan as perpetrators reportedly try and clear the bones from mass graves.

Dasht-e-Laili is a broad, desolate expanse of desert in northern Afghanistan that, at first glance, holds nothing but sand-devils whipped up by the whistling wind.

But underneath the arid soil lie the bones of thousands of victims of Afghanistan’s recent conflicts, when wave upon wave of prisoners were dumped in the desert.

Human rights activists say the perpetrators of these acts are trying to erase the evidence of their crimes by clearing out the mass graves that still dot the Laili desert. They want the government to act to protect the sites, so that those responsible can eventually be brought to justice.

“Our colleagues in Mazar-e-Sharif have found that graves have been destroyed and only a small number of bones are left,” said Mohammad Nadir Naderi, spokesperson for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “The destruction of the evidence of human rights violations is a major problem.”

He added that the AIHRC has received videotapes that appear to show armed men digging up bones and other remains from a mass grave in Jowzjan province, in northern Afghanistan.

The AIHRC, a government-sponsored institution, has been at the forefront of appeals to make war criminals answer for their actions. It has issued several reports, including “A Call for Justice” in 2005, which seek to give voice to the victims of the widespread savagery that characterised Afghanistan’s chaotic civil war in the first half of the Nineties, as well as the subsequent conflict between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance.

According to Naderi, the AIHRC’s efforts to document war crimes are being undermined by the destruction of the graves.

Most of the burial sites lie within Jowzjan, south of the regional capital Shiberghan. The area is dominated by strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who fought on several fronts during the war years. His name is associated with mass killings of Taleban prisoners committed in late 2001, when forces under his command were allied with the United States-led Coalition. However, some of the grave sites date from earlier massacres committed by other forces.

It is not clear which period the graves in question date from. Representatives of each of the warring militia forces accused of committing a particular set of mass killings now say it was the others that filled these graves and hence have a motive for concealing the evidence.

AIHRC officials would not speculate on who was behind the destruction of the burial sites, merely saying that it was likely to be those who were afraid of the outcome of investigations.

Faqir Mohammad Jowzjani, deputy governor of Jowzjan and a former lieutenant of Dostum, told IWPR that the bulk of the interments were destroyed in 2003 and 2004, when international human rights organisations began calling for Afghan war criminals to be brought to justice.


Jowzjani was one of Dostum’s chief commanders, but he split from the general after the fall of the Taleban. He told IWPR that the mass graves date to three main periods, the first of which was in 1997, when local commanders who had initially welcomed the Taleban into Mazar-e-Sharif turned on them and killed them; second, by the Taleban when they captured Jowzjan and much of the north in August, 1998; and finally by Dostum in 2001 after the collapse of the Taleban regime.

All three phases were marked by large-scale violence. Forces controlled by General Abdul Malik and his allies reportedly slaughtered hundreds of Taleban in the course of driving them out of the Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, and the Taleban exacted brutal revenge on civilians when they came back a year later.

Finally, Dostum’s troops are alleged to have killed numerous Taleban captives in 2001.

“When General Malik fought the Taleban in the north, he killed a lot of them,” said Jowzjani. “After Malik fled, the Taleban killed a number of people [in 1998] and dumped them in Dasht-e-Laili. And after the collapse of the Taleban regime, when Dostum came back to the north, he transported between 4,000 and 5,000 Taleban prisoners from Kunduz. Some of them died inside the containers and they were buried in Dasht-e-Laili.”

Jowzjani said he did not know how many died in the first and second massacres, but said that Dostum's followers buried more than 2,000 captured Taleban in mass graves.

The Taleban claim the number of dead in 2001 was much higher. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told IWPR that their figures indicate that 3,800 Taleban were killed after surrendering.

After the Taleban were surrounded in Kunduz, he said, “Some of them were martyred in American air strikes, while the rest surrendered to Dostum. That man, that breaker of promises, he too martyred the mujaheddin.”

The killings were brutal, according to Mujahid. “They were put in closed metal containers with no openings for air,” he said. “Some of them died, and the rest were taken to Dasht-e Laili and killed there at night.”

Shamsulhaq Naseri, a former Taleban commander in the north, told IWPR that 8,000 men surrendered to Dostum in 2001. Naseri was acting as mediator between Dostum and the Taleban fighters led by Mullah Fazel in Kunduz, who had been surrounded by Dostum’s militia.

“After our mediation, an agreement was signed between Dostum, the Taleban, and the Americans,” he said. “The Afghan Taleban were supposed to lay down their arms and go to Kandahar through Faryab province. Foreign Taleban such as Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and al-Qaeda should be turned over to the UN.”

According to Naseri, there were 12,000 men under Mullah Fazel, but 4,000 were local and were kept in the Kunduz area. The remaining 8,000 were handed over to Dostum, who was to take them to Mazar-e-Sharif.

“There were supposed to be 3,000 men guaranteeing their security, so that they could go to their homes in the south through Maimana [capital of Faryab province] and Herat,” he added.

The 8,000 were taken to Dostum’s base, the Qala-ye Zaini fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif.

“Once the men arrived at Qala-ye Zaini, their hands were shackled and they were put in containers and moved to Shiberghan,” said Naseri. “Most of them suffocated on the way.”

Naseri could not give the exact number of Taleban killed. But officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, who were charged with inspecting prisons, said that only 4,600 prisoners made it as far as Shiberghan.

Ali Ahmad, who used to work for the ICRC in the north, spent 40 days at the Shiberghan prison.

“When we went to Shiberghan, we saw that the detainees had not been given food,” he told IWPR. “They were eating the leaves off the trees. Approximately 2,000 were suffering from malnutrition.”

The ICRC began feeding and treating the prisoners, he added.

The Taleban have long memories, warned Mujahid, and clearing out the graves was not going to help.

“These criminals cannot kill the thirst for revenge among those who lost family members,” he said. “Perhaps they think they can escape from the American human rights organisations, but they will never escape from the revenge of the victims’ families.”


Mass graves are not limited to Jowzjan. Hundreds of bodies have been found in graves south of Mazar-e-Sharif, and officials speculate that there are more to come.

In the summer of 2008, police in Balkh province arrested a man who discovered a large number of bodies as he was laying the foundations for a house in the Shadian desert, south of Mazar-e-Sharif. The man tried to remove the bodies, but his neighbours reported him to the police.

Police officials in Balkh did not comment on the possible identity of the bodies, saying their investigation was continuing.

The ICRC’s Ali Ahmad said there were many mass graves south of Mazar-e-Sharif, some of them containing 100 or more bodies of Taleban killed in US airstrikes in 2001.

Shamsulhaq Naseri, the Taleban negotiator, said that, according to his information, most of the men buried in mass graves south of Mazar were al-Qaeda fighters.

”There were 2,500 al-Qaeda fighters in Takhar province,” he said. “They were not under Mullah Fazel. When the agreement was made, they left the front line and scattered everywhere. Mullah Fazel took most of them with him to Mazar.”

The al-Qaeda fighters were not turned over to the UN, said Naseri, a clear violation of the agreement he had negotiated. Instead, many were imprisoned in another fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif, Qala-ye Jangi, where an uprising claimed the lives of over 500 prisoners in November, 2001.

“There was a cache of arms in Qala-ye Jangi,” continued Naseri. “One of the al-Qaeda fighters took a hand grenade and attacked a local commander, thinking it was Dostum. Fighting erupted and all of them were killed.”

Ali Ahmad confirmed the account.

“When the fighting stopped, there were bodies in the houses and streets near Qala-ye Jangi,” he said. “We hired labourers to collect the bodies, load them on to tractors and take them to the Shadian desert. We also hired a photographer to take pictures of each person, so that we could show their families that they were dead.”

According to Ali Ahmad, the municipality dug the graves, burying as many as 100 bodies in each. He could not give exact figures, but said that it took them ten days, using two trucks and one tractor, to move all of the bodies out to the desert.

“We moved more than 500 bodies from Qala-ye Jangi alone,” he said. “The labourers were stacking the dead bodies in the trucks like bricks.”


Provincial security officials deny that graves have been cleared or destroyed in Dasht-e Laili, but they do call for more help and resources to protect the sites.

General Mohammad Khali Aminzada, Jowzjan’s police chief, told IWPR that no illegal excavation had occurred around the graves.

“When the media reported that some graves had been cleared out, we arranged for a delegation, including a representative of the interior ministry, to go to the area to inspect the sites,” he said. “They determined that the bodies were still there. We inspected three sites, and there was no sign that they had been dug out. Perhaps the wind had cleared the sand from their bodies.”

Aminzada could not comment on sites other than the three that were inspected, and said police could not control the whole of Dasht-e-Laili.

“You go and look at how big it is,” he said. “Then look at the limited number of police. Where are we supposed to go first? If any organisation that creating an outcry over these old graves gives us money and people, we can ensure security at these sites.”

Officials of Junbesh-e-Milli-ye Islami, the party that largely controls Jowzjan and is dominated by Dostum and his men, deny responsibility both for any of the killings and the disturbance of grave sites. These allegations, they claim, are part of a political campaign against them.

“This is not Junbesh’s fault,” said Kinja Kargar, the party’s head in Jowzjan. “General Dostum sent the Taleban prisoners back to their home provinces, and showed them great hospitality. He provided them with clothes and shoes. This is just a plot against Junbesh and General Dostum.”

He said the dead now lying in mass graves were killed by others.

“They [graves] were probably created by those in power at the time. Perhaps it happened during General Malik’s time, or the Taleban might have done it themselves,” he said.

Kargar also denied that Junbesh had played any role in the destruction of burial sites.

“Whoever did this is trying to hide evidence of their crimes,” he said. “It was not Junbesh. This is just a false accusation against us.”

The Taleban and General Malik also deny that their forces committed mass killings, and that they have been clearing graves.

”We have never done such a thing,” said Mujahid, the Taleban spokesman.

Malik, who now heads the Afghan Freedom Party, acknowledged that graves existed and had been tampered with, but tried indirectly to place the blame on Dostum by saying they dated solely from a period when he exerted political control.

“The investigation by the international community was not done blindly,” he said. “They were capable of uncovering the reality and understanding it. The whole world says that these graves were created after 2001, [therefore] it was not me – there is no truth to these personal allegations. The information we have received from the national and international media, the United Nations, the international community and human rights groups is accurate.”


Some analysts believe that the appeals made by some human rights organisations that war criminals be brought to justice could have a negative impact.

Lal Gul, a human rights expert in Kabul, told IWPR that many of those accused of war crimes have now taken steps to destroy the evidence.

“When the list was announced, it was like a warning signal for them,” he said. “It told them that they may have to go through the process, but these people are in power and bringing them to justice is just not possible.”

In the meantime, he said, sites such as the graves in Dasht-e Laili must be protected.

“When these mass graves are destroyed, people think that those who committed the crimes are behind the destruction,” he said. “Therefore, these graves have to be protected, and those who have destroyed graves should be asked to explain their actions.”

Afghans, meanwhile, just want justice.

Mohammad Amin, a resident of Jowzjan province, did not lose any family members during the wars. Still, he said, he wants to see those responsible punished for their acts.

“Not only those who have killed many people should be brought to justice; those who killed just one individual should also be questioned and brought before a court,” he said. ”If they are not punished now, everybody will be able to do whatever they want because they will think that they won’t be held accountable.

“If justice is not ensured, one of us could also end up being dumped in a mass grave.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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