Afghan rulers drive 130,000 from homes

The Taliban, who want a UN seat, have been killing and burning in their own land

The Guardian, October 20, 1999
Barry Bearak in Bazarak, eastern Afghanistan

Those who only had their houses burned or crops destroyed often apologise because their story is not bad enough.

They feel sheepish about complaining, so they lead the way to the worse off, the irretrievably broken or the unbearably sorrowful: the children whose parents were killed before their eyes, or men whose wives were carried off screaming.

Or the old woman whose story no one is sure of, who has been sobbing now for two months, fingering a red flower embroidered on a pink cloth.

This is the human wreckage left behind by the binge of blood lust and mayhem unleashed this summer by the Taliban militia who rule Afghanistan, and thousands of Pakistani followers lit with the fervour of supposed jihad.

Killing wantonly, emptying entire towns, machine-gunning livestock, sawing down fruit trees, blasting apart irrigation canals: the destructive spree by the militia is described in consistent detail by witnesses.

Among the survivors are an estimated 65,000 refugees who have escaped to the Panjshir valley, a nape of land nestled in the Himalayan peaks of the Hindu Kush. Huddled in makeshift tents of cloth and plastic, relentlessly foraging for firewood, they are free for now from their tormentors but not yet safe from the furious winds and snows of coming winter.

The Taliban began their summer offensive in northern Afghanistan on July 28, trying to conquer the only part of the country outside their control.

Their main drive was into the Shamali valley, just north of the capital, Kabul. At least 6,000 soldiers rolled through towns and villages in what survivors call a well-coordinated assault supported by tanks, artillery and air bombardments.

Within a week the Taliban were celebrating victory, only to be stunned by a night counter-attack by opposition forces under Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The Massoud forces ambushed and killed hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000, of the Taliban, who went on to suffer even more losses in a disorderly retreat, according to reports. But much of the territory recovered was already in ruin.

Dozens of refugees from Guldara, Bagram, Saraykhoja, Karabagh and other towns to the north of Kabul, interviewed independently, told much the same story: people shot in their homes, fires everywhere, beatings.

"Why did they have to kill my cows and goats, and why cut down the mulberry trees and stomp through my garden?" said Mohammed Kasim, 59. He is now a refugee in the eastern town of Bazarak. His home is a tent of thin blankets held up by branches.

Nafas Jon, 45, a gaunt, tired woman with six children, has taken sanctuary with 1,000 others in Bazarak's decrepit little school. "The Taliban took my husband out of the house and cut him down," she said.

"They were killing everyone who looked young, thinking they must be soldiers. I screamed then, and I cry now. We have nothing left.

"We returned once to see our house," she said, pausing a few seconds to frame the memory in her mind. "The ceiling is now on the ground."

To the victims, the purpose of the Taliban's summer offensive was obvious. The militia is largely made up of ethnic Pathans; they wanted to rid the area of ethnic Tajiks, whose resistance to them has been steadfast, and to leave their enemies with nothing.

Taliban leaders say that their campaign was to save a populace living in constant danger because Commander Massoud's forces, the so-called United Front, used the towns to launch attacks.

To "save" the citizenry, the Taliban forced most to flee; others were trucked to Kabul or the eastern city of Jalalabad.

About 12,500 people - more than 8,000 of them children - are living in the compound of the closed Soviet embassy in Kabul, the UN says A Massoud official says more than 2,000 Tajik men are locked in the stone caverns of the Pul-i-Charki prison in the city.

There are estimated to be 130,000 refugees in all, the largest concentration in the Panjshir valley. With fighting still going on, the extent of the death and destruction is impossible to measure. Individual accounts are, however, supported by the uniformity of their particulars.

Mohammed Wali, a round-faced boy of 10, poked his head through a crowd to call, "They shot my father, and I saw it."

There had been a hard knocking on their door. His father nervously walked to the gate. Men outside fired Kalashnikovs. With his father dead, he ran inside as fast as he could. His mother, he said, "needed to know about it right away".

Shakar Gul sat on a rock with her arms around her nephew Gules Tan, 3. "His father was killed, and his mother was taken away. He cries out, 'Where is my mother?' We tell him she has gone away but will come back. In time, God willing, he will forget her. New York Times

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