Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 26, 2001
Villages take stock of lives lost to Taliban
Where two statues stood, a grim monument to the Taliban.

At War With Terror

Sayed Sher Agha (center) and other townspeople inspect a mass grave in the bandoned village of Qatar Haq. "They were just civilian people," Agha said of the 27 bodies he believed to be buried there.

DU OB, Afghanistan - When the Taliban marched on this small farm village three years ago, most of the residents fled to a remote hamlet for safety.

Sayed Sher Agha stayed behind to collect the last of his family's belongings.

The delay saved his life.

By the time Agha went to rejoin his family, the Taliban had blocked his path, and he ran away. He never saw the 27 male villagers who sought sanctuary that day, including two brothers, a son, and five other relatives.

Yesterday, Agha sank a shovel into a mound of dirt in Qatar Haq, an abandoned village not far from Du Ob. After several shovelfuls of tan soil and rocks, he struck the bones of a human leg and a foot. He said it was the mass grave of the 27 men from Du Ob who were executed three years ago by the Taliban for being opposition sympathizers.

"They were just civilian people," said Agha, 47, who plans to return in a week to exhume the bodies and give them a proper burial in Du Ob, a community of flat-roofed earthen homes set in a narrow valley among fields of wheat, corn and barley. "They weren't armed at all."

It is a scene that is being repeated in numerous towns and villages across Afghanistan as exiled residents slowly return to assess the wrath of the Taliban, the puritanical Islamic movement that was driven from the capital of Kabul two weeks ago. The toll is particularly high here in central Afghanistan, where the Taliban had a special contempt for the ethnic Hazaras, the descendants of Genghis Khan's invading army.

In village after village along the Gorband River and into Bamiyan province, residents cited examples of atrocities committed by the Taliban. On Thursday, residents near the village of Charday said they exhumed and reburied the bodies of 21 young men whom a Taliban commander named Ibrahim three years ago ordered hung by their feet and shot after they fled the front line in the face of an overwhelming enemy force.

The village of Qatar Haq, where the mass grave was located, is a ghost town of empty market stalls and disintegrating mud-brick homes, bombed and then dismantled by the military in early 1999 after the Taliban swept through much of central and northern Afghanistan.

"The people who lived here were resisting the Taliban," said Sayed Sher Jan Jalal, the regional representative of Harakat Islami, a political party that represents mostly Hazaras.

Jalal said the Taliban treated the Hazaras badly because they are Shiite Muslims, unlike the majority of Afghans, who are Sunni Muslims. Many Hazaras also have a distinctive central Asian appearance. Their language, based on Persian, is similar to Dari spoken by ethnic Tajiks.

"The Taliban would kill anyone opposed to them," Jalal said. "They treated Hazaras the worst."

The Hazaras say they are hopeful a new interim government will protect their ethnic group, but it is unclear how many Hazaras will be represented in the conference scheduled to begin tomorrow in Bonn, Germany. Hazaras make up about 15 percent of Afghans.

As more Hazaras return to their homes, the call for vengeance gains volume.

"My father's buried somewhere in the hills," said Abdullah, 24, a soldier whose father, a commander, was caught by the Taliban and disappeared. "If the Taliban ever come here, we will arrest them and kill them."

But political leaders, cautious about touching off the ethnic hatred and factionalism that disintegrated Afghanistan in the early 1990s, counsel caution.

"People are very furious and angry, but now is not the time for revenge," said Karim Khalili, leader of the Hezb-i-Wahdat party that represents Hazaras. "They will wait until a central government comes and people can take their charges to a court."

Khalili, interviewed in his temporary office at a hospital in the town of Bamiyan, ticked off a list of incidents in which Taliban fighters killed Hazaras, especially cruel public executions.

"Some people were killed by bullets; some had their eyes gouged out," he said. "Some had their tongues cut. Some were skinned alive."

He said the Taliban raiders would destroy what they couldn't carry away. "If they couldn't take all the food with them, they would spread the rest of it on the floor," he said.

"The Taliban had a saying - send the Tajiks back to Tajikistan. Send the Uzbeks back to Uzbekistan. And send the Hazaras to gorestan" - the cemetery. "It meant very clearly that our people should not be alive, even in other countries."

The incident at Du Ob occurred amid a strong offensive the Taliban mounted in the autumn of 1998. The year before, the Taliban forces were stopped at Du Ob in an attempt to capture the Gorband River valley.

"The second time we were too weak," said Sayed Abdul Ahmed Mustafawi, a Hazara commander loyal to the Harakat Islami party. Two of Mustafawi's commanders died, and most of the area fell to the Taliban quickly.

Du Ob was surrounded, and residents fled to a nearby village, Mazara.

The Taliban pursued them to the village, demanding that they first present village elders and then asking for all young men. The men were put under arrest in the mosque. Their arms were tied behind their backs.

The next morning the 27 men were put in vehicles and sent to the Syagerd headquarters of Commander Abdul Wahid, from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. According to Mustafawi, Wahid sent back a radio message to stop the cars en route and execute the men.

In groups of three, the men were shot in the town of Ferinjal. Their bodies were left unburied for several days, according to Mustafawi.

"The Taliban would not let anyone touch the bodies," said Mustafawi, who speaks in a raspy whisper since he was shot in the throat by Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.

It took days before Taliban forces picked up the bodies and dumped them a few miles away in Qatar Haq. They still went unburied, so women from the village secretly carried dirt and covered the bodies.

Muhammed Hussein, now 16, did not know what happened to his older brothers, Issahq, 23, a farmer, and Musa, 18, who worked for a miller.

"They accused them of having guns and fighting," Hussein said. "After they were taken away, we were told they were alive and in prison. But they told us lies. When they were taken away, they were killed almost immediately."

Hussein wants revenge. "Nobody can forget the blood of their brother," he said.

Sayed Sher Agha, who lost eight family members - most of the people in the village are related - said he was haunted by the loss. They are memories that he shares with many Hazaras.

"It is unforgettable," he said. "There were so many children left from those people that every day they will remind me of what happened. There are so many widows to remind me." home page   
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