Prisoners released from overcrowded northern prison speak of brutality and greed

AP, May 25, 2002
By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press Writer

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) Former Taliban fighters released from an overcrowded prison in northern Afghanistan returned home this weekend with tales of death, brutality and greed. The first of 512 men released by northern warlord and U.S. ally, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls the prison in Shibergan, arrived Saturday from Mazar-e-Sharif, more than 420 miles north of Kandahar.

Mostly ethnic Pashtuns, many of the men were stopping in Kandahar en route to neighboring provinces.

Dostum released the men after an appeal from interim leader Hamid Karzai for reconciliation. Karzai, who is an ethnic Pashtun from southern Kandahar - the former heartland of the Taliban - said the deposed religious hard-liners forced many of their foot soldiers into military service. He said his new government wanted ethnic harmony and called the foot soldiers ``Afghan brothers.''

Afghanistan's majority Pashtuns - the same ethnic group as most Taliban - have mostly felt marginalized since the Taliban fled and the former northern alliance took power. The United Nations and other international human rights groups say ethnic Pashtuns are being discriminated against in the post-Taliban setup.

Five newly freed prisoners from Shibergan spoke of mass deaths in sweltering containers, little or no food, and conditions so crowded many could barely move. They also recounted the lack of compassion by guards who sometimes beat them, gave them little drinking water and who demanded up to $800 from their families for their release. Some of the men said they were conscripted by the Taliban who set quotas for each village.

None of the men wanted to fight again, but some expressed anger at the United States and the coalition for its assault on Afghanistan that unseated the Taliban and blasted away at the infrastructure of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Eighteen-year-old Mir Ahmed from central Ghor province accused the U.S. of destroying his country, but said his fighting days were over.

In my whole life this was the happiest moment.'' His hand trembled from a bullet injury he received on Nov. 16. I am very positive about my future. I will never harm a human being.'' A former taxi driver who joined the Taliban for better pay, Ahmed was captured by Dostum's forces in Kunduz province on Nov. 26. His Taliban commander had surrendered to Dostum's forces on condition that his men be given three days to return home.

But Dostum reneged on the deal and jailed many of them in steel containers. Of the 200 men in his container, only 35 survived. Ahmed said he managed to stay alive by drinking his own sweat. After their transfer to Shibergan, they were packed 60 to 80 men in a room, with barely enough space to move. Food was a handful of bread a day and a sip of water. Conditions improved in recent weeks after the International Committee for the Red Cross began a feeding program, provided medical supplies and rudimentary sanitation.

Mohammed Hassan, 23, from western Herat province, was also captured in Kunduz and recounted a similar story. He joined the Taliban to prevent his younger 16-year-old brother Hasamuddin from going to fight.

He said more than 100 relatives of prisoners waited for their release outside Shibergan when they were released. ``These were the people who paid'' for the release of prisoners, he said.

According to fellow prisoner Dilbar, 22, the rate paid for release varied from $350 to about $800, and that ``many paid but were not released.''

After they were freed, the Red Cross gave each of the prisoners $28 for the trip home. They all said they paid about a third of the money to get from Mazar-e-Shari to Kabul, and a similar amount from there to Kandahar.

"The rest we will spend to get home,'' said Nasurullah, 18, who lives in northwestern Badghis province.

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