The Age, February 26, 2007

In the shadow of the warlords

"They made our blood run like water in the streets and they are still alive, but no one dares to arrest them because of their power."

Paul McGeough, Kabul

Australia and Britain look set to send more troops to fight the resurgent Taliban. But other villains are now wearing the cloak of legitimacy in Afghanistan.

A winter chill bit at hundreds as they trudged the rutted tracks of Afshar to remember just one atrocity in Afghanistan's unending wars.

They came on foot, to scatter rose petals on a rocky mound that is a mass grave for more than 70 victims of just one day in the fighting that reduced Afghanistan to a wasteland over three decades.

They also came to stare down the warlords and to challenge President Hamid Karzai's propensity to sit on the fence in a time of crisis.

Does he hold to demands by these powerful warlords and their militiamen that they be absolved of all their war crimes or does he back a push by some foreign governments and human rights groups for accountability in a genuine process of national reconciliation?

Mostly Shiite men and boys, those who came to remember Afshar, had the round, Asiatic faces of Afghanistan's long-oppressed Hazara minority. But before visiting the mass grave, they gathered in a nearby mosque to mark this 14th anniversary of the massacre - under the watchful gaze of armed guards who took up positions on surrounding rooftops.

A woman cries for Afshan massacre ( )
RAWA Photo: An Afghan woman recounts how her husband was killed in Afshar, west of Kabul. Hundreds of innocent people from Hazara minority were massacred by forces of Sayyaf and Ahmad Shah Massoud in this area in 1993

Old men, some with tears streaming down their faces, were guided to their places. In silence they sat cross-legged while the haunting falsetto chants issuing from a PA system reverberated off the rubble that once was their homes, shops and offices in the foothills of Kabul's south-side.

Fourteen years on, the horror lingered. Most had been tortured or had seen relatives die as the mujahideen warlords of the early 1990s decided they would destroy this quarter of the city - rather than cede control.

The speakers rattled off numbing figures - somewhere between 800 and 1000 were killed in a single day; of the 1220 who were detained, just 150 were released - most only because their wealthier families could buy their freedom; hundreds of homes were looted and thousands of people were displaced when their houses were destroyed in the mindless shelling.

A prominent Kabul journalist, Mohammed Qazim Akhgar, railed against those who he described as "butchers": "They made our blood run like water in the streets and they are still alive, but no one dares to arrest them because of their power."

Ahmad Ali Khargar was as brief as he was blunt: "It was the blackest time for us. We have to know who did this to us and we have to know why our Government will not help us now - they treat us as if we are not Afghans."

A man introduced simply as Colonel Azidullah urged the congregation to tell their stories: "You are the living witnesses - you know the history of the death and torture of our men and the rape of our women.

"Only 72 bodies are buried in our mass grave because we could not find the others in the rubble. Apart from having no money, the fear of uncovering the dead is one of the reasons why so few of our homes have been rebuilt. Who will be held responsible for this?"

Their stories were so overwhelming that they told them only in the baldest terms. Instead they asked a simple question - over and over. Why?

"Why us? Why did no one help us back then? Why does no one help us now? Why are those who brutalised us allowed to get away with their crimes?"

Their grief was all the more potent because in recent weeks they have watched as some of their tormenters have hijacked Afghanistan's new Western-backed parliament in a bid to absolve themselves and their allies of any wrongdoing - driven apparently by their alarm at the fate of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in December.

Last Tuesday, the upper house voted overwhelmingly - 50-16 - to endorse a bill passed in the lower house last month that gives immunity to all accused of atrocities in the Afghan wars - dressing it up as an act of national reconciliation.

Urging Afghans to respect and honour the warlords, the bill states: "All political parties and belligerent groups who fought each other during the past two decades... will not be pursued legally or judicially."

On February 11, 1993, Massoud and Sayyaf's forces entered the Hazara suburb of Afshar, killing - by local accounts - "up to 1,000 civilians", beheading old men, women, children and even their dogs, stuffing their bodies down the wells.
The Guardian, November 16, 2001

Such is the fear today of the old mujahideen warlords and powerbrokers who have seamlessly taken control of the parliament and much of Afghanistan's new government, that the simple act of attending last Friday's memorial service was an act of courage.

Speakers who were brave enough to identify the killers of 1993 as the same mujahideen leaders did so only by omission - pointing out that they were not the Soviet-backed communists who oppressed them in the '80s or the fundamentalist Taliban of the late-'90s.

President Karzai is in a bind. He has endorsed a report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) that sets out a detailed national reconciliation plan and he has said that he cannot accept the amnesty bill passed by the parliament.

After Tuesday's vote, a presidential spokesman said that the President would seek advice on the legality of the amnesty bid, but its backers claim that they can override a Karzai veto with a two-thirds majority vote in the parliament.

The president has publicly defended some of his most powerful advisers and functionaries who are among the accused and he has refused to release or to act on a damning United Nations report on alleged war crimes, which was handed to him almost two years ago.

When the New York-based Human Rights Watch named the suspected war criminals in a widely accepted report last year, Karzai dismissed it as "incorrect and regrettable". He told reporters in December: "(Those accused) have played a positive role in ensuring peace, system-building and strengthening our national institutions in the last five years."

Tom Koenigs, the UN's special representative to Afghanistan, told reporters before Tuesday's upper house vote: "One thing must be very clear, and it should be clear worldwide: amnesty for gross violations of human rights and for war crimes shouldn't exist."

There is a yearning in Afghans for a South-African-style truth and reconciliation process to somehow draw a line under the horror of the past. But there is neither truth nor much hope of reconciliation in the smokescreen bill rammed through the parliament by the warlords and their minions.

The AIHRC reconciliation plan - the cornerstone of which is acknowledgement of and accountability for wrongdoing - was devised after a survey of more than 6000 Afghans revealed that 90 per cent wanted all human rights violators removed from public office and that 40 per cent wanted to see them prosecuted.

As more mass graves are uncovered around the country - the most recent, in December, reportedly contains more than 2000 victims of the 1980s communist regime - human rights groups fear that the Afghan leader will succumb to pressure from the warlords before going along with international demands, particularly given Washington's silence on the calls for accountability.

As he left Friday's memorial service, the head of the AIHRC, Nadir Nadiry, told The Age: "You have just heard the voices of the victims. Granting the blanket amnesty demanded in the parliament would only promote impunity and a personal search by the victims for revenge. It is the victims who must decide who was responsible for their suffering - it is their right. We are still waiting for a proper statement by the President, but this amnesty bill endangers all that we have achieved so far."

In Kabul and beyond there is rising anxiety about how the decisions taken by the governments here and in Washington will impact on the reconciliation issue and it's implications for Afghanistan's future stability.

Sam Zarifi , Human Rights Watch's Asia research director, told The Age from New York before Tuesday's vote: "I think that President Karzai would like to get rid of some of these people but he doesn't have the backing of the US. Until the Americans come out and actively support a genuine process of reconciliation, he will not move against them.

"The indications are that the US is throwing its weight behind action against drug traffickers and is leaving this one alone."

In Kabul, a Western analyst explained his fears: "This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and it's not going to go away - (the warlords) will keep trying to pass the amnesty bill into law."

In the 1980s, the Russian occupation forces and their Afghan puppets destroyed the Afghan countryside; but in the 1990s, it was the Afghans themselves who destroyed Kabul.

"No one has the right to forgive those responsible for human rights violations other than the victims themselves.... For any process of national reconciliation to succeed the suffering of victims must be acknowledged and impunity tackled,"
"International experience shows that truth is vital to reconciliation. As a consequence, the search for truth and the rights of victims are central elements of Afghanistan’s Action Plan on Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice."
UNAMA, Feb.1, 2007

Human Rights Watch's authoritative 2005 report, Blood-Stained Hands, concludes: "Many Kabulis viewed the Afshar campaign as a milestone in the post-communist era, a moment when they (finally) realised the real ethnic tensions underlying the fighting in Kabul and the extent to which different mujahideen factions - who had fought the Soviet regime for so long - were now prepared to kill fellow Afghans."

Human Rights Watch argues that many leaders implicated in the abuses now hold key posts in the Afghan defence and interior ministries - or act as presidential advisers. A slew of them won seats in the parliament and others continue to operate as warlords or regional strongmen, leaning on their proxies in official positions.

The abuses at Afshar and elsewhere in Kabul, according to Human Rights Watch's research, saw whole sections of the capital reduced to rubble, tens of thousands of civilians killed and wounded, and at least half a million people displaced. And of the period since the US-led invasion, the watch group concludes: "For the past five years, the Afghan Government, the UN and the international community, led by the United States, have pursued a counter-productive policy of relying on war criminals, human rights abusers and drug-traffickers instead of prosecuting them - Karzai mistakenly tried to bring (them) under his umbrella, while the US worked with many as part of its 'war on terror'."

At Afshar, those who attended the memorial service queued to tell their stories to The Age.

A 38-year-old medical technician, Shukrullah Safdar Ali, called for public executions: "They are in Government and in the parliament now- they must be hanged and we must always remember.

"They took the wealthy as prisoners and they killed the poor. They made me carry the loot they took from my family's home and then they made me carry ammunition supplies to the top of the mountain - so that they could fire the bullets and rockets back into my community. I think I saw 500 people die in the six months before I escaped - by jumping from a second-floor window."

Despite his accusations of butchery, the journalist Mohammed Qazim Akhgar urged the mosque gathering to cease their annual commemoration of the dreadful days of 1993.

But today there is no sense that the people of Afshar are ready to move on - pain does not forget.

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