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

Kabul Officials 'Play Down' Pashtun Atrocities

Questions raised over Afghan government claims that reports of crimes against Pashtuns in the north of the country are exaggerated.
By Abdul Zarmalwal

The government is suspected of trying to play down atrocities against Pashtuns in the north of the country because many of its ministers represent parties whose military wings are implicated in the crimes.

Although the majority ethnic group nationwide, Pashtuns form a minority in the north. Some were perceived to enjoy considerable privileges under Taleban rule. And since the Pashtun-dominated Taleban regime fell at the end of last year, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias have allegedly carried revenge attacks against the minority, under the pretext of disarming them.

The American NGO Human Rights Watch, HRW, issued a statement earlier this month identifying the military factions of government parties, the Uzbek Junbish Millis Islami (Renaissance of the Islamic Nation), the Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami (Islamic Association) and the Hazara Hizbi Wahdat (Unity Party), of perpetrating the attacks.

HRW said in its statement that members of the minority community were being subjected to murder, beatings, sexual violence and forced to abandon their villages and seek asylum and refuge elsewhere.

Khaan Jaan, head of a family from the Doshi district of Baghlan, described how the retreat of the Taleban had been a signal for local Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara commanders to turn on his people. "They made our lives hell and forced us out of our houses," he told IWPR. "They took everything we had - cars, shoes, wristwatches, everything."

A similar pattern has been repeated across the north. Sayed Mohammad, an inhabitant of Farkhar district in Takhar, said, "We were driven out of our houses and told by commanders there was no place in the district for us to live."

Some aid workers have suggested that around 20,000 victims of the northern terror have fled south towards the Pakistan border. IWPR found some 2500 deported families in the Hesaar-e-Shahi district, crammed into refugee areas with little food or drinking water, their children falling sick through malnutrition, cold weather and dirty water. Some of them claimed that they were attacked merely for speaking their own language.

On a recent tour of Afghanistan, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, visited Mazar-e-Sharif, the main northern city. After hearing numerous accounts of atrocities, she joined the calls for the British-led western security operation to be expanded. "I think that the international force must be extended beyond Kabul, and that's very clear when you're here," she said. "The violations were extremely serious. Killings, physical beatings, rape of women, looting, taking everything out of houses."

Arif Noorzai, the minister for light industries and foodstuffs, led a fact-finding mission to the northern provinces. He confirmed that atrocities had taken place. "We have received around 500 petitions from people asking for the return of their properties," he said.

However, government spokesman Yusuf Nuristani has said that the international community is exaggerating the scale of the violence. "There might be some incidents, some minor incidents, because we are coming out of 23 years of war," he told reporters.

Deputy defence minister General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who leads the Junbish Millis Islami, insisted that the situation in the north was under control. "There have been reports that there is war between people and faction - I would like to reassure you that the situation is good and things are becoming calm," he told the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Analysts say that government is anxious to play down reports of atrocities in the north because it is made up largely of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ministers who lead some of the political factions allegedly involved in the killings.

Some government ministers have suggested that they simply haven't the resources to deal with the unrest in the north, but analysts believe that they're in a position to do more if they wanted. "They could, for example, simply order the commanders of the militias to stop their killing sprees. The real problem is that they haven't the will to do even that," said one senior Afghan journalist on condition of anonymity.

Given the government's inaction, Pashtuns fleeing the terror can't understand why the international forces based in the country are not intervening to help them. Many feel betrayed.

"What wrong have we done? Our only fault is that we are Pashtuns. They took everything and we were lucky to save our skins," one refugee told IWPR. "Why is the UN looking on so passively? We urge them to intervene and disarm the militias so that we can return home."

Abdul Zarmalwal is a pseudonym for a Kabul-based Afghan journalist