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

Balkh Businessmen in Panic Over Abductions

Several kidnappings during elections prompt many to suspend trade and take their money out of the country.
By Ahmad Kawoosh
Engineer Ismail is still too terrified to talk about it. But his body betrays the violent nature of his abduction. His eyelids were sewn together, he was beaten and his arms were bound tightly with a cord. The imprint is still visible on his wrists.

The owner of the Jamshidi filling station in the northern city Hairatan was abducted on August 19, one day before the presidential and provincial council elections. Two days later, a money-changer was kidnapped in Mazar-e-Sharif, also in northern Afghanistan.

It is not clear whether the abductions are directly tied to the elections. But tension has ratcheted up sharply during the campaign and post-election period, and many people are convinced that the two are related.

As a result, dozens of businessmen have decided to halt trade at least temporarily. Once the dust settles from the chaotic and uncertain elections, they will decide what to do next, they say.

In Balkh, the memories are still fresh of the wave of armed robberies and abductions of businessmen two years ago. At the time, many business people stopped investing in Mazar-e-Sharif, and shifted their money to the United Arabic Emirates, China and Pakistan.

Then the police took action. They killed several alleged criminals at their base in Mazar-e-Sharif, a house from which they are said to have launched their various operations, and where it is claimed they held people they had abducted. Another band of alleged kidnappers was also apprehended.

The fear among the population subsided, and people got back down to business. In other parts of Afghanistan, like Kabul, kidnapping for money happens frequently. Statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that several people are abducted and held for money every month. Many wealthy people do not leave their houses without bodyguards.

In Balkh, it had been quiet for a while. But, earlier this year, unidentified gunmen abducted Gul Khan Ahmadi, the deputy chief of Hairatan’s petroleum department. His body was found on the bank of the Shulgara River. Government officials said that he was murdered because of personal disputes. The police did not appear to make any noticeable effort to find and prosecute the murderers.

Then, right around the elections, two more businessmen were abducted.

According to Ismail, on his way home to Kart-e-Lagan, he was stopped by gunmen who fired on his driver, injuring him. Ismail said he was blindfolded and taken to a house in the city, where he was held and tortured for several days.

After threats by the kidnappers not to involve the police, Ismail said his family paid a ransom of 200,000 US dollars in Kabul. He revealed that originally the abductors had asked that the family transfer two million dollars into a bank account in Russia. After the much smaller sum was paid, Ismail said he was released during the night in the Dasht-e-Shoor area of Mazar-e-Sharif.

There is still no news about the money-changer who was kidnapped one day after Ismail.

The relatives of those abducted try to keep the police out of it. They don’t trust them, saying that in other places in Afghanistan, like Kabul, they often just made things worse, with the abductors eventually killing their victims.

Meanwhile in Mazar-e-Sharif, a standoff between the powerful governor of Balkh, Atta Mohammad Noor, and the central government, has left the population worried that violence could break out at any moment.

Atta openly supported Dr Abdullah Abdullah in the elections, a direct challenge to the incumbent, President Hamed Karzai. The president tried several times to isolate and remove Atta, but so far has not been successful.

It could be the open tension in the air, as much as the two abductions, that has set the business community on edge. A month after the elections, the results are still not certain. Karzai has a comfortable lead according to preliminary results, but allegations of fraud are so widespread that the president may yet be deprived of a first-round victory.

While the accusations and hand-wringing over the elections continue in Kabul, the situation in Balkh is rapidly spinning out of control.

Few believe Shirkhan Durani, spokesperson for the Balkh security authorities, when he says that the police will soon arrest the abductors as they did in the past.

The business community is beset with rumours and theories, ranging from the far-fetched to the downright absurd.

“In two cases the abductors only wanted money, which makes you think that perhaps there were candidates behind it who lost in the elections and want to get some money back that they spent on their campaign,” said one trader, who wants to remain anonymous. “Or they might have been common criminals, who want to throw the suspicion on the candidates who lost.”

But Sayed Taher Roshanzada, chief of Balkh chamber of commerce, said, “I don’t think that those who have nominated themselves to serve the interests of the people and to develop democracy and the rule of law could be involved in such activities.”

Be that as it may, the businessmen prefer not to take any risks.

“A lot of traders have taken out their money of Afghanistan and will not import again until the result of the elections is announced,” said Ghulam Nabi, representative of the Construction Materials Importing Companies. “Balkh businessmen have stopped their cargos at the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They are afraid because of the increase in abductions and because of the threat from some candidates that they will not accept the results of the elections if they don’t win.”

Abdullah and his team have said openly that, while they do not advocate violence, they may not be able to control their supporters if a fraudulent Karzai victory is forced on the population. With Atta so clearly on Abdullah’s side, there is ample cause for concern, and will be until the elections are finally settled. But, given the current state of affairs, this could take months.

Ahmad Kawoosh is an IWPR trainee in Balkh.

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