Unearthing Anguish In a Troubled Land

Afghan women join in a small protest last week in Kabul, calling for justice in the disappearance of relatives in the 1980s.
Afghan women join in a small protest last week in Kabul, calling for justice in the disappearance of relatives in the 1980s. (Top Photo By Reuters; Photo Above By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 13, 2007

CHAM TALA, Afghanistan -- A dusty track winds through acres of used-car lots, a vast municipal garbage dump and a cluster of abandoned Russian bunkers just north of Kabul, the capital. Eventually it stops at a steep sandy slope, marked off with police tape. At the bottom are three caves, freshly sealed by bulldozers.

Ten weeks ago, acting on a citizen's tip, police excavated the caves, where they found eight human skeletons and signs of others buried more deeply. It was the latest of 88 mass grave sites across Afghanistan charted in the last year by local and international human rights groups, which believe they contain many thousands of victims.

Some of the mass graves are connected with infamous massacres in rural provinces or prison executions in Kabul, and their locations have been rumored for years. A few have been partly excavated, with several hundred remains identified. In most cases, though, there is no way of knowing who the victims are or when they were killed.

But the grisly discovery at Cham Tala, shown repeatedly on national TV, has suddenly unearthed the long-repressed anger and hopes of Afghans whose relatives disappeared between 1978 and 2001, while the country veered from communist revolution and Soviet occupation to chaotic civil war and religious dictatorship.

For the first time ever, victims' families are beginning to come forward with their stories. They are also demanding justice, despite the fear of reprisal from former militia bosses, a broad amnesty for war crimes passed by parliament, and numerous obstacles to identifying the remains and prosecuting the killers.

"This is my brother. This is my cousin. This is my uncle," said Wida, a slight, grim-faced woman, taking several framed photographs out of a plastic bag. One was an air force engineer arrested in his office, one a long-haired college student dragged from his classroom, one a retired military officer seized while plowing his field. All vanished without a trace, more than 20 years ago.

Last week, Wida and about 150 other people staged a brief protest, holding up photos of the missing as they walked to the U.N. mission headquarters in Kabul. Some victims had vanished into prisons during the repression and factional power struggles of communist rule in the 1980s. Others were captured by Islamic insurgent groups, who turned against one another in a frenzy of bloodletting that destroyed Kabul in the 1990s.

"Thousands of families are missing people. Every time we hear there is a new mass grave, we all think our relatives might be inside," said Wida, 42, who asked that her full name not be used. "We hoped the state would take action, but the government is filled with criminals. Now our only hope is with the international community. If they help us, we will find more families and form a great movement and make our voices heard."

According to Afghan and U.N. human rights officials in Kabul, however, the painstaking work that has been done to locate and preserve the mass grave sites, and the evidence that is being gathered from witnesses and victims' families, will essentially be useless unless the authorities are willing to endorse forensic investigations and legal prosecutions.

Until now, the post-Taliban government headed by President Hamid Karzai has shied away from the sensitive issue. He has neither signed nor rejected the amnesty passed last year by parliament that would protect militias and other groups from war crimes prosecutions, although he submitted a revised bill that would allow individuals to be prosecuted if victims or relatives come forward. Human rights groups say dozens of legislators and appointed officials are either former Islamic commanders or communist officials with records of abuse.

"There were 60,000 civilians killed in Kabul alone during the civil war, and some of those responsible are sitting in parliament," said Nader Nadery, an official of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "If we don't see the minimum political will to deal with the issue of justice, people will just become more frustrated. These graves are stirring up terrible memories, and we cannot afford to ignore them."

Yet both the United Nations and the Western governments that back Karzai have stopped short of calling for prosecutions of wartime abuses and investigations of mass graves, suggesting that preserving political stability is a more urgent priority. In recent weeks, a team of U.N. experts has been visiting some of the grave sites, but their mandate is only to teach Afghan police how to preserve the contents for any future investigation.

"The common wisdom is that if we touch these graves, it will destabilize the country, but I am not sure that is right," said Javier Leon Diaz, chief human rights officer at the U.N. political assistance mission in Kabul. "There may be hundreds of mass graves in Afghanistan, but without proper forensic investigations, we will never know the truth. The people want justice, and if they see there is no rule of law and the perpetrators are in positions of power, is that not more destabilizing?"

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has tried to determine whether each site was a product of the communist, civil war or Taliban era. In several notorious cases, the perpetrating forces and burial sites are widely known, such as the Taliban massacres in the late 1990s of hundreds of ethnic Hazara villagers at Yakowlang District in Bamian province, and the communist government's systematic executions during the 1980s of thousands of prisoners, whose bodies were dumped near Pul-i-Charki prison east of Kabul.

But many of the graves remain shrouded in historical fog and present-day political obfuscation. Some were used as dumping grounds by both the communists and the Islamic commanders who fought them. Some alleged perpetrators are still too powerful to touch, and no one has dared disturb the explosive evidence underground.

In 2002, for example, rumors spread that a northern warlord, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, had suffocated hundreds of Taliban prisoners inside unventilated shipping containers in November 2001 and buried them in Jowzjan province. Journalists found witnesses, and there were calls for an international investigation. But Dostum was still a powerful militia commander, and the Karzai government was seen as too fragile to challenge him, so U.N. officials advised against an exhumation. The site has never been touched.

In many other cases, witnesses or victims fled the area long ago or were too intimidated to come forward. In several locations where graves have been opened, evidence has been unintentionally damaged by police or journalists. At Cham Tala, for example, police trampled through the freshly opened caves, moved bones and allowed TV cameras inside, rendering the contents virtually useless to investigators, Diaz said.

With the facts so hard to pin down, political factions can easily use the latest grave site discovery to tar their adversaries and keep old wounds alive. At one site found and partly inspected this spring in remote Badakhshan province, a museum of communist-era atrocities is already being built, even though no forensic examination of the remains there has been done.

"We are trying to chart the locations according to phases of time and patterns of violence, but it is very challenging work," said Nadery, the rights commission official. With help from the U.S. group Physicians for Human Rights, commission teams have interviewed more than 5,000 people in 20 provinces, including bulldozer drivers who were ordered to cover the graves. But Nadery said they have not had the means to examine the contents and have documented only "a small part of the overall picture of atrocities."

Ultimately, it may be up to the citizens of Afghanistan to force their government and its international allies to dig up the evidence that others are trying hard to keep buried. Last week's demonstration was a small start, but it was a daring, unprecedented act in Afghanistan. Afterward, the grief and rage that welled up as several protesters told their stories seemed a potentially powerful force for change.

One graying man, Ahmad Ayub, 52, said he stumbled on the protesters by chance and decided to walk along. He trembled with anger as he recounted how his cousin had been murdered along with hundreds of other prisoners at Pul-i-Charki during communist rule.

"I was in that jail, too. It was a horrible place," he said. "Every day they took away a few more people to be killed. Their crime was being too educated or too religious." During the civil war and the Taliban era that followed, he said, people fled the country or had no chance to seek justice. "We thought there would be a decent democracy now, but instead we see the same assassins, talking on TV and passing a law to forgive themselves," he added bitterly. "They are still playing with the blood of the people."

Sarwar Ehsan, 42, listened quietly until Ayub finished, then carefully unrolled a high school portrait of his younger brother. One night in about 1983, he said, a band of Islamic militiamen swept through their neighborhood, grabbing students and accusing them of belonging to communist youth groups. Ignoring his mother's pleas, they dragged off the brother without even letting him put on his shoes.

"I tried to find him everywhere, but there was never a trace," Ehsan said, his eyes reddening. "Then we had to run away to Pakistan, and there was nothing we could do. But all of us have this compulsion to keep searching. I would at least like to find out where my brother is, to see him buried with some respect for human dignity. That does not seem too much to ask."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company