Mass graves found in northern Afghanistan

The truth behind horrific reports of bloodletting and mass graves in northern Afghanistan will be buried alongside the victims unless investigations begin straight away, local officials say. Thousands of innocent victims are said to have perished around the region in massacres and revenge killings perpetrated by all sides in the conflicts which have dogged Afghanistan for years.

At least 10 000 ethnic Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks were killed by the hardline Taliban regime and dumped in grave sites around Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, according to a representative of a leading Hazara group.

The Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan until its downfall late last year, is accused of mounting the massacre in 1998 as revenge for the deaths of hundreds of militia members in an assault on Mazar-i-Sharif a year earlier.

General Ustad Sayeedi of the Hezb-i-Wahdat political group, a powerful as the mainly ethnic Pashtun Taliban seized the city. The claims have been partially backed by a Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with survivors in Pakistan.

The report, published shortly after the events, described the deaths as “one of the single worst examples of killings of civilians in Afghanistan’s 20-year war” and urged the United Nations to begin an immediate investigation.

Further support emerged on Wednesday when reports quoted a close ally of the northern Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostam as identifying seven new graves around Balkh.

Dostam’s forces have been implicated in connection with another mass grave site near the northern town of Shebargan said to contain the bodies of 1 000 Taliban prisoners who may have died of asphyxiation in container trucks.

A report by Newsweek magazine said the victims are thought to have suffocated while being transported by the US-backed anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
But with no official investigations under way on either the Mazar-i-Sharif or Shebargan sites, many fear that the truth, already obscured by claim and counter claim, will never be known.

“It is a mystery for us why no one has been to investigate these graves, because we have made many requests,” said General Sayeedi.

Sayeedi said the alleged victims were all killed by the Taliban, despite their willingness to accept the Islamic fundamentalist regime. “After investigations are carried out, it will be proved how innocent these people were.”

Two alleged mass grave sites west of Mazar-i-Sharif seen by an AFP reporter contained human skeletons wrapped in bloodied clothing. According to Hezb-i-Wahdat party representative Mohammad Nabi, one of the sites at Chel Ghazi quarry, 10 kilometres from the city, contained up to 4 000 bodies of people slaughtered by the Taliban and thrown into a pit.

But local villagers dispute both the figures and the “innocence” of those killed.

“We counted the bodies, there were about 70 people all stacked on top of one another,” said Sayeed Mohammed (24) a quarry worker. “They were all in military uniform except for one or two. They weren’t innocent victims, they died in fighting as they fled the Taliban advance.”

Dasht-i-Leili, the alleged mass grave site near Shebargan, is also shrouded in mystery. Although the United Nations has promised an investigation once it considers security in the area acceptable, none has begun and the site remains unprotected. An attempt by AFP to gain access to Dasht-i-Leili through official channels was denied with a warning that other journalists attempting to visit without permission had suffered violent retribution.

Atta Mohammad, a powerful ethnic Tajik warlord who has formed a tense power-sharing alliance with Dostam in the north, said there was a possible mass grave site at Dasht-i-Leili, but contested the casualty figures.

“Maybe this has partially happened and part of this is propaganda,” he said. “There is no doubt a number of Taliban were killed, maybe in a container because of the lack of oxygen. But I do not think the number mentioned is true.”

Atta Mohammad’s account differs from that of Dostam’s supporters, who insist Dasht-i-Leili contains only the casualties of standard warfare. “Among prisoners were sick or injured who died as a result of their condition. We had to bury all of these bodies,” said General Majeed Rozi, Dostam’s deputy.

He said journalists subsequently invited to visit the site had found nothing to support the claims, but he called for a probe all the alleged sites around Mazar-i-Sharif.

“We all want these investigations, we all support these. If there is a human rights commission it should come and conduct and investigation and find the criminals whoever they are.” - Sapa-AFP

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