Slow Death on the Jail Convoys of Misery
by Jim Rissman

Shortly 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.

In "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.

Kunduz 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)

Faced 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."

The "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."

Gall 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." (2)

"Hundreds" 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."

In 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.

When it comes to the prisoners' suffering, Gall is restrained. There was no oxygen, they are quoted, and a certain number in each container died.

In 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 dead." (3)

"Several 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."

"We 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."

Strauss 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."

So, 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.

Jamie 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.

Of 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.

On 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)

The 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)

Interviewed 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.

In 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.

Strauss 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)

While 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)

The 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.

Of course, what the Post says about the survivors applies as well to those who were killed.

As 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)

Indeed, 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.

When 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.

Physicians 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.

In "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.

1. "Witnesses Say Many Taliban Died in Custody," Carlotta Gall, New York Times, December 11, 2001

2. "Study Hints at Mass Killing of the Taliban," Carlotta Gall, New York Times, May 1, 2002

3. "Slow Death on the Jail Convoy of Misery," Julius Strauss, The Daily Telegraph (London), March 19, 2002

4. "Were U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Complicit in a Massacre?", Michelle Goldberg,, June 15, 2002

5. "Did the US Massacre Taliban?", Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald (Glasgow), June 16, 2002

6. "The Shebergan Famine," Washington Post (e-Arianna), April 26, 2002

7. "Uncle Sam's Shifty New Ally," Jan Cienski, Chicago Sun-Times, October 21, 2001

8. "General's Name Is Byword for Brutality," Julius Strauss, The Daily Telegraph (London), October 24, 2002

other articles:

"Detained 'on the path to Allah'", Anna Badkhen, San Francisco Chronicle, December 7, 2001

"U.N. Afghan Investigators Probe Mass Burial Sites," Brain Williams, Reuters (e-Arianna), May 7, 2002

"'US Had Role in Taleban Prisoner Deaths'", Andrew McLeod, The Scotsman (Edinburgh), June 14, 2002

"Documentary Stirs Controversy Over Mistreatment, Executions of Afghan Prisoners," Jean-Christophe Peuch, Radio Free Europe - Radio Liberty, June 18, 2002

"Afghan war documentary charges US with mass killings of POWs," Stefan Steinberg, World Socialist Web Site, June 17, 2002

"Why is the US media blacking out documentary on war crimes in Afghanistan?", Kate Randall, World Socialist Web Site, June 21, 2002

"Further evidence of a massacre of Taliban prisoners," Peter Schwarz, World Socialist Web Site, June 29, 2002

"More evidence of US war crimes in Afghanistan: Taliban POWs suffocated inside cargo containers," World Socialist Web Site, Jerry White, December 13, 2001

"Documenting the Massacre in Mazar," Genevieve Roja, AlterNet, July 9, 2002

"Pentagon denies Afghan torture claims," Gareth Harding and Elizabeth Manning, June 13, 2002

Jim Rissman is an "information specialist" for the state of Wisconsin.

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