Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-AFGHANISTAN: Amnesty Alleges Taliban ‘Massacred Thousands’

Dipankar De Sarkar

LONDON, Sep 3 1998 (IPS) - Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia has been accused of massacring “thousands” of ethnic Hazara civilians within three days of taking over the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif last month.

The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, basing its information on eyewitness and survivors’ accounts, said Thursday that the vast majority of those killed were Hazaras living in Zara’at, Saidabad and Elm Arab areas of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The town — among several strongholds of ethnic Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek armed opposition groups in northern Afghanistan — fell to the ethnic Pushtun and fiercely Islamist Taliban forces on Aug.8.

“This latest information shows yet again how the Taliban disregard internationally recognised humanitarian laws on the treatment of civilians in armed conflict,” Amnesty International said.

“The victims were killed deliberately and arbitrarily in their homes, in the streets where their bodies were left for several days, or in locations between Mazar-e-Sharif and Hairatan. Many of those killed were civilians including women, children and the elderly who were shot trying to flee the city.”

If the reports are true, the massacre may be blamed on a combination of ethnic and racial hostility and the Taliban’s desire to wreak revenge on the fighters who so fiercely defended the city.

They may also have been seeking revenge for an earlier Taliban defeat in the city, when 2,000 of their captured men were themselves allegedly massacred by members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which includes the Hazara. The later discovery of mass graves by the U.N. lent credence to these stories.

As orthodox Sunnis of the Hanafi school, the Pushtun-dominated Taliban do not regard Shi’a Hazaras as ‘proper’ Muslims. Also, unlike the six other main ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Hazaras are descended from the Mongols, and are distinctively facially different from the rest of the population.

Thus when the Taliban took over Mazar on Aug. 8 they targeted Northern Alliance members. The activists of the ethnic Uzbek National Islamic Front and the ethnic Tajik Jamiat-e Islami were all singled out, but the Taliban were especially cruel to the Hazara.

An Amnesty researcher on Afghanistan who requested anonymity said the exact number of victims cannot be ascertained yet, but that it is in its thousands.

Cited figures range from around 7,000 up to 16,000, although he thought the latter figure “far too high”. He said the information was based on interviews conducted on the ground and elsewhere with survivors and eyewitnesses.

“Our policy of ensuring the safety of our contacts means that we interview and debrief our contacts in a place where they can feel safe. This could be on the field if possible, or in another location within the country, or outside the country.” he said.

In its report, Amnesty said following their takeover, Taliban guards imposed a curfew in the city. In the Uzbek populated areas, they told people to hand in their weapons, while in the Hazara areas, people were ordered to stay in their homes.

“They then entered Hazara houses one by one, killing older men and children and taking away young men without any explanation. In some houses, they also took away young women as ‘kaniz’ (maidservants) saying they would be married off to the Taliban militia.

“Detainees, reportedly totalling thousands, were transferred in military vehicles to detention centres in Mazar-e-Sharif and Shebarghan and interrogated to identify their ethnic identity. Non-Hazaras were released after a few days.”

The Hazaras are the fourth largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, after the Pushtun, Tajiks and Uzbeks, and make up about 12 percent of the Afghan population of 20 million. The smaller ethnic minorities are: Turkmen, Baluchis and Ismailis, though this last are technically considered a sectarian minority.

Their name derives from the word Hazar, meaning ‘One Thousand’. According to the story, after capturing Afghanistan in the early 13th century, the Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan (1162-1227), left behind 1,000 Mongol soldiers, from whom the present Hazara population of Afghanistan is directly descended.

They are mainly based in the central Hazarajat (Mountain of Hazaras) highlands in Bamiyan province. Because of the terrain, and their grip on the mountain passes, the Taliban have been unable to conquer Bamiyan, one of four provinces not under their control.

The Hazaras are almost 100 percent Shi’a and thus have a special affinity for Iran. Tehran this week organised military exercises along its border with Afghanistan in a specific show of force to the Taliban. Ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist were captured and later disappeared when the Taliban took over the city and Tehran demands their safe return.

During the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Iran aided the Hazara anti-Soviet resistance, independently of the supply operation run through Pakistan under the supervision of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

During the years of war in Afghanistan, many Hazaras migrated to cities, where they made their living as menial workers. Most house servants in middle and upper class families were Hazara.

The Hazaras back a party called Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party) led by Karim Khalili. When the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, the Wahdat became part of the opposition Northern Alliance, by then essentially a coalition of Afghan ethnic minorities, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

According to Amnesty’s Thursday reports, released Hazaras said they were beaten while hundreds ere flown to the Taliban HQ in Kandahar. Many others, they claim, were taken during the night to fields in the surrounding areas of Mazar-e-Sharif and Shebarghan and executed.

Amnesty quoted families escaping Mazar-e-Sharif as saying that they were stopped at checkpoints by Taliban looking for Hazaras. “They took away anyone whom they suspected of being a Hazara. Hazara men and boys younger than 12 years old have been taken to Jalalabad prison while women and girls have been sent to Sarshahi camp.”

In a reference to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Amnesty said foreign governments “bankrolling or giving military support to the Taliban bear some responsibility for failing to rein in the Taliban’s worst excesses”. Amnesty has called for an independent and impartial international body to be set up to investigate rights abuses in Afghanistan.

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