after Sept. 11, the war against al-Qaeda morphed into the war against the Taliban
regime. As the US bombed Afghanistan, it enlisted the Northern Alliance (NA),
led by the notoriously unsavory warlord Rashid Dostum, to do the dirty work on
the ground. |
"a US-orchestrated military operation" (6), the NA
captured the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. Ultimately, thousands of Taliban
fighters surrendered to the NA in the nearby town of Kunduz and were taken prisoner.
fell in November. In December, New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall
reports that "dozens...of prisoners asphyxiated in shipping containers used
to transport them to [the] prison" in Shibarghan, "a journey that took
two or three days." (1)
with the problem of moving thousands of "potentially dangerous" men,
the NA "packed many of them into the sealed containers" which "line
the roads of Afghanistan and are frequently used to hold and transport prisoners."
"dozens" figure comes from the prison commander, who allows that 43
had died in transit, mostly from injuries suffered in battle. However, interviews
with inmates who survived the journey lead Gall to conclude that "the number
of deaths may be much higher."
opens a follow-up report in May with the news that "A tangle of abandoned
clothes, half-covered in sand, lies just off the desert track. Pieces of white
bone are strewn among the mess and the smell of decaying bodies drifts over the
site." The desert outside Shibarghan "hides what are suspected to be
large-scale killings committed five months ago by Afghan allies of the US."
died, "most of them from suffocation," but "there are also credible
accounts, including from people close to General Dostum's own circle and some
of his own soldiers, that troops opened fire on three containers full of prisoners,
killing many inside."
neither of these articles does Gall use the term "al-Qaeda." She describes
the prisoners as "Taliban fighters," many of whom are "foreign."
A fraction of the "fighters" who died could have been innocent civilians
caught up in the Kunduz sweep, she indirectly indicates.
it comes to the prisoners' suffering, Gall is restrained. There was no oxygen,
they are quoted, and a certain number in each container died.
contrast, Julius Strauss cuts to the quick in The Daily Telegraph: "The
prisoners were crammed at gunpoint into large, oblong freight containers. When
no more could be squeezed in, the metal doors were shut tight. Slowly they began
to suffocate. By the time the containers were opened two days later...many were
men related how during a two-day ordeal at the hands of the Northern Aliance,
hundreds or even thousands died," he continues in an article titled "Slow
death on the jail convoy of misery."
drank the sweat off of our own bodies and off the dead men. Some drank their urine.
Of 400, half were dead by the time we arrived," one says. Another puts the
NA's "opening fire" in context, "Zubair, a man who was crushed
against me, died after two or three hours. We were praying to God. When the soldiers
heard our cries for help they opened the rear doors and began shooting."
notes that this "treatment is fairly typical for prisoners of war in Afghanistan...but
at least two prisoners said American specials forces...were present when the containers
were loaded and, two days later, when the containers reached Sheberghan prison
carrying their cargo of live and dead bodies. Until the end of [December] access
to the prison was controlled by two American special forces."
Gall spares the Times readership "American special forces" as well as
"slow death" and "misery." Or perhaps parts of her stories
ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Doran, a freelance filmmaker who spent seven years with the BBC, is putting together
a full-length documentary to be called "Massacre at Mazar." At the center
of the film is the testimony of a number of eyewitnesses. These include Amir Jhan
(the local commander who negotiated the Kunduz surrender), a NA general, two NA
soldiers, two civilian truck drivers, and a taxi driver.
the 8000 who were taken prisoner at Kunduz (Jhan actually counted them), the 7500
who were not suspected al-Qaeda members were processed through fort Qaali-Zeini.
There, according to the NA general, they were loaded into about 25 containers,
200-300 prisoners per container. Then the containers were lifted onto trucks for
the ride to Shibarghan.
the road, when the prisoners began to cry out for air and water, a soldier was
ordered to shoot holes in the containers for ventilation. He complied, he admits,
killing some of the prisoners inside. At a gas station, the taxi driver "smelled
something horrific" and "noticed blood pouring out of three containers
on the back of a truck." (4)
second soldier testifies that many US soldiers were present at Shibarghan when
they arrived and it was a US officer who gave the order for the dumping of the
bodies. "All the containers were full of holes which were visible,"
he states. "In each container about 150 to 160 had been killed. The Americans
told the Scheberghan people to get them outside the city to avoid them being filmed
from a satellite." (5)
separately, the two drivers say that dead, wounded and unconscious prisoners were
left on the trucks for the ride to the desert site. As the trucks were unloaded
there, the prisoners who were still alive were summarily executed by NA soldiers.
One of the drivers maintains that on at least one occasion, dozens of US soldiers
were present during the executions.
interviews, Doran insists these witnesses have gained nothing and put themselves
in grave danger by agreeing to appear in the film. He hopes more will come forward
as he finishes it.
reports (above) that at least two of the surviving prisoners said US special forces
were present when the containers were loaded. It appears that none of Doran's
witnesses confirm that. Still, he says his film "indicates that it was the
Americans who were running the operation." (5)
the Washington Post has no reports analogous to Gall's in the Times, it
does mention that "scores of those who surrendered at Kunduz died when they
were packed into closed cargo containers..." This fleeting reference occurs
in an editorial "The Shebergan Famine." (6)
conditions under which the 2700 Sheberghan inmates live are "shameful and
inhumane," the Post argues. Most of them "had little or nothing
to do with either Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization or its Afghan allies."
They were captured "in a U.S.-orchestrated military operation...and their
prison is controlled by a warlord who is a US client." The Bush administration
cannot continue to "wash its hands" of responsibility for them.
course, what the Post says about the survivors applies as well to those
who were killed.
the US took on warlord Dotsum as a client, the warning was sounded. "Uncle
Sam's shifty new ally...a snake in the grass" was the title of a Chicago
Sun-Times article. Julius Strauss wrote "General's name is a byword for brutality"
for The Daily Telegraph. Suffice it to say that in the Afghan civil war,
it was a well-established practice to use the containers which "line the
roads of Afghanistan" not only to "hold and transport prisoners,"
as Gall reports in the Times, but to torture and kill them as well. (7,8)
the last two times Mazar had fallen, the vanquished had been subjected to "slow
death on [a] jail convey of misery," and there was no reason to expect it
wouldn't happen again. The Post's logic leads to the conclusion that even
if the US wasn't "running the operation," it bears a great degree of
responsibility for it.
Doran got word that Dotsum's troops were tampering with the grave site, he showed
a short version of his film to the German and European parliaments, in the hope
that the publicity would lead to the protecting of the site and an investigation
leading to war crimes trials. 5000 of the 8000 Kunduz prisoners are unaccounted
for and may be buried in the desert, he fears.
for Human Rights also has called for the site's protection and a full investigation.
Its personnel have performed autopsies on three of the bodies and found suffocation
to be the probable cause of deaths.
"Slow death," Julius Strauss observes that "stories such as these
have only served to harden the resolve of Islamic militants." In being a
party to such horrific acts, the US endangers its own citizens. One of the purposes
of bringing criminals to justice is deterrence. For this reason alone, the US
people should support the calls for an investigation.
Say Many Taliban Died in Custody," Carlotta Gall, New York Times,
December 11, 2001
Hints at Mass Killing of the Taliban," Carlotta Gall, New York Times,
May 1, 2002
Death on the Jail Convoy of Misery," Julius Strauss, The Daily Telegraph
(London), March 19, 2002
U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Complicit in a Massacre?", Michelle Goldberg,
Salon.com, June 15, 2002
"Did the US Massacre Taliban?",
Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald (Glasgow), June 16, 2002
"The Shebergan Famine,"
Washington Post (e-Arianna), April 26, 2002
"Uncle Sam's Shifty New Ally," Jan Cienski, Chicago Sun-Times,
October 21, 2001
Name Is Byword for Brutality," Julius Strauss, The Daily Telegraph
(London), October 24, 2002
'on the path to Allah'", Anna Badkhen, San Francisco Chronicle, December
Afghan Investigators Probe Mass Burial Sites," Brain Williams, Reuters
(e-Arianna), May 7, 2002
Had Role in Taleban Prisoner Deaths'", Andrew McLeod, The Scotsman
(Edinburgh), June 14, 2002
Stirs Controversy Over Mistreatment, Executions of Afghan Prisoners," Jean-Christophe
Peuch, Radio Free Europe - Radio Liberty, June 18, 2002
war documentary charges US with mass killings of POWs," Stefan Steinberg,
World Socialist Web Site, June 17, 2002
is the US media blacking out documentary on war crimes in Afghanistan?",
Kate Randall, World Socialist Web Site, June 21, 2002
evidence of a massacre of Taliban prisoners," Peter Schwarz, World Socialist
Web Site, June 29, 2002
evidence of US war crimes in Afghanistan: Taliban POWs suffocated inside cargo
containers," World Socialist Web Site, Jerry White, December 13, 2001
in Mazar," Genevieve Roja, AlterNet, July 9, 2002
denies Afghan torture claims," Gareth Harding and Elizabeth
Manning, June 13, 2002
Rissman is an "information specialist" for the state