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

Standing Up to the Warlords

Now that many commanders have been at least partially disarmed, their former victims are demonstrating their new-found power.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

Local Afghan commanders who have surrendered some of their power under a United Nations-sponsored disarmament programme are now finding themselves under attack from long-suffering civilians demanding retribution for years of abuse.


The most recent incident occurred in late November when more than 1,000 residents of Sang Charak district in northern Afghanistan’s Sar-e-Pul province demonstrated against a local militia leader who they said had illegally confiscated their property over the past 20 years.


In response, the local commander Haji Rahim and his men opened fire on the demonstrators. At least 10 people were injured either by bullet wounds or blows to the head.


Haji Rahim insisted that his men opened fire only to protect the district headquarters and its staff from the demonstrators.


Haji Rahim, formerly commander of the 26th Division, handed over most of the weapons under his control in October as a first step in participating in the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, DDR. However, he and several guards retained between 20 and 30 guns, which they used to open fire on the demonstrators.


After the incident, residents demanded that Haji Rahim’s remaining weapons be collected and his division dissolved.


General Abdul Saboor, commander-in-chief of the 7th Corps and Haji Rahim’s superior officer, said the militia commander had a right to hold the weapons he still possessed.


But the general insisted he was not defending Haji Rahim, his deputy Mohammadullah, or any other commander who had oppressed the people


He urged local residents to encourage the government to take legal action against such commanders, saying, "People like these are national traitors and should be prosecuted as soon as possible. If people have clear evidence of blackmail and extortion, they can present it to the government and based on that evidence, it will arrest the commander and punish him according to the law.”


General Saboor noted that two months ago, people in the Gosfandi district, also in Sar-e-Pul, lodged a complaint against the local commander, Sharaf, and his followers, accusing them of torture and extortion. After evidence was collected, the men were detained and are still in police custody.


There are no specific laws defining the punishment for someone found guilty of crimes such as torture or seizing property. And over the past three years, the central government has been slow to bring those accused of violating human rights to justice.


Qazi Sayed Ahmad Sameh, the national Independent Human Rights Commission’s director in northern Afghanistan, told IWPR that his office had received an increasing number of reports about commanders breaching human rights in the Faryab, Sar-e-Pul and Balkh provinces.


He speculated that when commanders realise their days in power may be numbered, they tend to step up their violent criminal activities. But in many cases, people are now taking matters into their own hands and standing up to violence, extortion and intimidation.


Rustam Shah, a resident of Sang Charak, said that was exactly what happened in his district,"After [deputy] commander Mohammadullah laid down his arms under DDR, I went to his home because I wanted to get some money that I had already paid to him.


"But there were three armed men standing in front of his house and they stopped me entering.”


Rustam said that he and others in the area are now worried that the local commanders may attempt to flee the country rather than face possible arrest.


But Mohammad Nadir Nadiri, a spokesman for the Independent Human Rights Commission, said Afghanistan has signed agreements with many countries on the extradition of people accused of human rights violations. If an alleged criminal takes refuge in a country not covered by such an agreement, Afghanistan will try to get them back through other legal means, he added.


Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.


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