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Human Rights Group Discovers Mass Graves in Afghanistan - 2002-05-01

A human rights group has issued a preliminary report suggesting that not only the Taleban, but their opponents may have been involved in mass killings in northern Afghanistan.

The Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights, says several mass graves have been discovered in northern Afghanistan, including two that suggest that surrendering Taleban prisoners had been slaughtered late last year.

The group, which has also examined mass graves in the Balkans, made two visits early this year to examine mass graves in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Most of the sites are thought to contain victims of the Taleban because they date back four or five years. But two sites, Physicians for Human Rights said, are much more recent.

Dr. Jennifer Leaning, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and sits on the human rights group's board, was a member of the initial team to examine the sites.

Dr. Leaning described what they found at one site in the Dasht-I-Laili desert outside Shebarghan. "We saw bits of human bone and skulls and femurs, prayer caps, trousers, sandals, prayer beads, littering on the surface," she said. And if one kicked just gently below the sand, there were other bones. And one got the sense that it was a multi-layered, quite large, quite recent gravesite."

Dr. Leaning says the grave, which contains an unknown number of human remains, was not more than one month old when she visited it in January. A subsequent visit by a forensic team from the Physicians for Human Rights confirmed that view.

Based on preliminary examinations of several sites and interviews with local inhabitants, the group says these two sites may have been used to dispose of the bodies of Taleban prisoners killed by victorious Northern Alliance troops.

Reports of Taleban atrocities have circulated in the region for years. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are believed to have been killed by the Taleban when they took Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. But this is the first evidence that the Northern Alliance may have engaged in like-minded reprisals when they retook the area last year.

Dr. Leaning said local inhabitants told of what they saw. "We heard different stories," she said, "two big container trucks, six big container trucks, three big container trucks, but these were also on different days. So each of these stories could be true, that there were big container trucks with soldiers offloading from them bodies, and big earthmoving equipment digging trenches into which the soldiers were throwing the bodies, and that the soldiers were wearing bandannas over their mouth and nose to protect against the smell. And this we heard from different independent eyewitnesses on several different occasions."

But how they died is unclear. Some reports say some of the Taleban suffocated as they were transported in sealed metal shipping containers. Other reports suggest they were killed by Northern Alliance soldiers loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek strongman who controls much of northern Afghanistan. Spokesmen for General Dostum have denied there were any mass killings.

Dr. Leaning said there are many still-unexamined mass graves in northern Afghanistan. As she points out, much killing along ethnic, tribal, or political lines has occurred. She said, "There are different people who are alleged to be the perpetrators, depending upon what year you're talking to and what warring clan you're talking to. That's part of why it's so complicated. There are layers of atrocities, and no one has clean hands in Afghanistan."

Physicians for Human Rights executive director Leonard Rubenstein has written to Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai to ask that the mass grave sites be secured to preserve the evidence from the ravages of the desert as well as human interference.