Taliban's secret massacre

Revealed: How thousands of Shia Muslims were killed by the Islamic zealots who run Afghanistan. Robert Fisk in Beirut reports
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The Independent Online
HORRIFIC evidence of rape, throat-slitting and mass suffocation of Shia Muslim men and women during the seizure of the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif last August has come to light in a series of United Nations files hitherto kept secret.

Until now, one of the few known details of the events of 8 August was that 10 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist died in the slaughter by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, almost provoking an Iranian military incursion into Afghanistan in September. But it has now emerged that eyewitness reports of the massacre were compiled by officials of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights in Pakistan and sent to New York. Perhaps because the UN is still trying to negotiate with the Saudi-funded Taliban, they have never been made public.

An Afghan man, a Tajik father of three, described to UN officials how he had "never before witnessed such scenes of bestial violence" until the day the Taliban entered Mazar to find the unsuspecting men and women of the city going about their daily shopping. "They were shooting without warning at everybody who happened to be on the street, without discriminating between men, women and children," he said. "Soon the streets were covered with dead bodies and blood. No one was allowed to bury the corpses for six days. Dogs were eating human flesh and going mad and soon the smell became intolerable."

The same witness said that on the second day of their victory over opposition forces, the Taliban - adherents of the strict Sunni Muslim Wah- habi sect - began house-to-house searches in a hunt for Shia Muslim families who were identified by their facial features. "Almost all who were found were either shot three times on the spot (one bullet in the head, one in the chest and one in the testicles), slaughtered in the Halal way (with a knife to the throat) or stuffed into containers after being badly beaten."

The containers - up to 12 in number - were parked all day in the sun with sealed doors. The witness "saw a container that had had its doors opened after all the males inside had died of suffocation. Some of the containers were filled with children (boys and girls) who were taken to an unknown destination after their parents were killed". When some family members survived a killing, "they dug holes in the garden or even inside the house to bury the dead".

Women, according to the UN documents which came into the hands of The Independent on Sunday last week, "were usually abused and many rape cases were reported ... almost all the reports the witness received agreed that it was mainly Pashtun groups formerly with Hizbe Islami who were involved in the rape of the women and young girls, rather than the mainstream Taliban".

Another man recorded how he had fled with up to 12,000 other civilians from Mazar after the Taliban take-over on 8 August. "When he and his family were running through the streets of Mazar, they were stepping on dead bodies lying all over the place. He also heard the calls of the muezzins in the mosques asking all Shias to convert to Sunni and attend the daily prayers for their own sake."

A 40-year-old Shia mother of five children interviewed by the UNHCR had her own terrifying family story to tell. When the Taliban entered Mazar, nobody was expecting them, she said. "The streets and markets were crowded with people going about their normal daily life. On entering the city, Taliban soldiers started shooting randomly at everything that moved, including men, women, children and animals."

The woman's husband, who was not in Mazar, rushed back to the city to protect his wife and children, believing that his Tajik features and Taliban- style beard would protect him. But, led by Pashtun collaborators, the Taliban began house-to-house searches.

In the dry prose of the UN report, "in the afternoon of 8 August, a group of Taliban entered the [woman] witness's house and shot her husband and her two brothers on the spot. Each was shot three times (twice in the head and once in the chest). Then their throats were cut in the Halal way (as animals are slaughtered for food). The witness and her children saw the whole scene but were too terrified to react. The Taliban then left immediately, shouting that they had more serious executions to carry out, but that they would be coming back."

Most of the witnesses interviewed by the UNHCR were traumatised by their experiences. The woman whose husband was executed "was weeping throughout the interview... she is frightened, desperate..." the UN's report says.

Another witness, a 32-year-old married man, said that the Taliban had embarked on a "killing frenzy" when they entered Mazar at 10.30am, arriving in the city in convoys from a fertiliser factory 13 miles to the west. Most of the inhabitants had expected the local opposition militias to put up a fight. The dead were lying in the streets for up to four days, the man said. Dogs were eating their limbs. Another witness pleaded successfully with a local Taliban officer to bury a corpse which was lying in an alley near his home.

Of the thousands of Shia Muslims taken from the city, not one returned. Many of those who died of suffocation had been locked in containers in the town of Shebergan.

According to witnesses quoted in the UN reports, the Iranians were massacred on the first day of the Taliban's entry into Mazar. "Punjabi Taliban" entered the Iranian consulate and the bodies of the diplomats were left lying in the building for two days until they were buried in a mass grave in the compound of the Sultan Razia Girls' High School.

All the UN interviews were conducted within a month of the massacres, and UN staff noted in their reports the credibility of the witnesses, some of whom had travelled two weeks on the roads to reach Pakistan. International Red Cross officials have recorded similar accounts although, like the UN, they have kept them confidential.

The UN still regularly meets the Taliban in Kabul, even though aid agencies in Mazar were looted by the militia when the city fell last August. Clearly, no UN officials wished the terrible stories from Mazar to reach the rest of the world.