In Afghanistan, terror from the Taliban

Scripps Howard News Service
December 22, 1997

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Everyone has their horror stories, though they refuse to be quoted. There was the 12-year-old boy arrested by the Taliban and held overnight in a Kabul police station. A member of the Hazara minority, he was raped and castrated before being returned to his terrified family. They have now escaped to Pakistan with their other children, according to a European aid worker.

There was the 86-year-old Tajik accused of being involved in military activity and having secret contacts with anti-Taliban forces to the north of the city. The man's family had to pay $2,000 to get him released.

Two Hazara staff workers at a United Nations office had their sons kidnapped and were forced to turn to the United Nations for the ransom money.

A hospital doctor says the number of Hazaras coming for treatment has decreased sharply in the year since the Taliban occupied Kabul. They fear being beaten at Taliban roadblocks. After the night curfew falls, Taliban groups knock at doors and demand hidden weapons or money.

It is all anecdotal and hard to check, but the pattern that seems to emerge is of regular ethnically motivated harassment of Hazaras and, to a lesser extent, Tajiks. Together, they form almost two-thirds of Kabul's population; the Taliban are mainly from the Pashtun tribes of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

In the two-thirds of the country under their control, the Taliban militias pride themselves on having brought security. The chaotic network of roadblocks run by local guerrilla commanders who took "tax" from travelers has been dismantled.

Unofficial groups have been disarmed, and you can travel for hours through Taliban territory without seeing anyone carrying weapons. Even in Kabul the squads of Kalashnikov-toting Taliban who used to roar up and down in pick-up trucks when they first seized the city have been dispatched to the front or confined to barracks.

"There is a paradox: more security and more terror," says a UN official.

"All kinds of atrocities took place when the Mujahedin were in power here between 1992 and 1996," a British aid worker adds. "Their excesses were greater than the Taliban's, but now it's more systematic and institutionalized."

We are sitting in the U.N. staff house, once a rich merchant's villa with a carved wooden ceiling and marble pillars. On the sofa beside the fire sits Choong-Hyun Paik, a soft-spoken South Korean law professor and the UN Human Rights Commission's special agent on Afghanistan.

His last report, in October, contained a grim list of abuses and concluded: "The measures taken by the Taliban during the period under review clearly indicate that they have realized that support for their movement among the population of Afghanistan has eroded further."

Paik cited the forced displacement of people living to the north of Kabul; the shooting of people who tried to flee north; stricter enforcement of the dress code for women; increasing attempts to control the aid community; and restrictions on foreign journalists.

U.N. staff and independent aid workers update him. An American woman says a minister has admitted to her that the government is paralyzed.

A British aid worker says: "There are constant extra-judicial arrests and detentions. Ministries arrest their own employees."

Another aid worker says the kidnappings and extortion are not done on instructions from top Taliban people but by privateering gangs and low-level Taliban members. There is talk of splits between the idealists and the realists in the high command.

According to another theory, Kabul is treated more toughly than Kandahar "to punish it."

If there is a constant in the complaints, it concerns the Hazaras. Said to be descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongols, they have the distinctive oriental features of Central Asia. For much of Afghan history they were the servant class in Kabul, and traditionally subject to discrimination.

But even their current problems under the Taliban need to be seen in perspective. Five years ago when an earlier group of Pashtun Mujahedin were in Kabul, they slaughtered several thousand Hazaras.

The Hazaras, whose traditional homeland is in mountainous central Afghanistan, form the backbone of Hizbe Wahadat one of the main armies opposing the Taliban. Hizbe Wahadat is believed to have killed many of the 2,000 Taliban prisoners-of-war recently found in mass graves in the north of the country. "The Hazaras' troubles now are in part a reaction to that atrocity," says a U.N. official.

Judgment is hard to reach. All that can be said safely is that the Taliban's discrimination against educated women is only part of a wider picture of human rights abuse, and that Afghanistan's anti-Taliban groups also have much blood on their hands.

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