Butchered and beheaded for singing and dancing (or were they?)

When the bodies of 17 young Afghans were found last weekend, there could be only one conclusion: they were victims of the Taliban's strictly enforced moral code. But is the truth more complex – and testament to our limited understanding of the country?

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The Independent Online

As crimes go, it appeared to be black and white: 17 villagers who had known little but hardship and brutality in their short lives were butchered in cold blood for indulging in a rare moment of music and dance. As the news of last Sunday's slaughter – carried out by Taliban insurgents enraged by the "moral" crime of mixed-sex dancing – flashed around the world, the first, pitiful details emerged.

There was the shattered electric keyboard in the corner of a room daubed in blood; the letters of warning posted on a mosque door by night; the decapitated corpses dumped beside an irrigation canal. There was the fleeting hint of human happiness, cruelly curtailed by masked gunmen inspired by a 20th-century imagining of 7th-century Islam. There were dead children. It all harked back to the worst excesses of the Taliban regime and was the kind of grotesque misery that politicians use to justify an ever-creeping mission in Afghanistan, and which colours – or clouds – Western notions of the place.

But maybe this isn't what had happened at all. In such a profoundly conservative part of the country, Niamatullah Khan, the governor of nearby Musa Qala district, argues, "There's no way anyone would dare to hold a party with women. This is a baseless claim, whoever made it."

Indeed, the idea that revellers would decide to throw their party in derelict houses in an abandoned village in the middle of nowhere – which is what the crime scene is – is a strange one.

"A no-man's land between [the remote rural districts of] Kajaki and Musa Qala is not the best spot for such a merry social event," points out Fabrizio Foschini, of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. "If you have the money to organise that, you at least go to [the relatively bustling provincial capital] Lashkar Gah."

And how villagers in a remote corner of a country that the former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, described as being trapped in the 13th century, got hold of an electronic keyboard is also questionable.

In fact, competing stories that pandered less to the easily digestible "Taliban-as-repressive-social-tyrants" narrative soon emerged. Tribal elders from the remote patch of Helmand province where the killings took place told The Independent that the victims had been government spies, executed for informing on the insurgents.

"Two women pleaded and lamented with the Taliban to spare their relatives," said one elder, who claimed to have seen the bodies in the derelict village of Roshanabad. "So the insurgents shot them, before beheading the victims they suspected of spying and dumping the bodies in abandoned, ramshackle houses."

Haji Malim Saib, a second elder, told the same story. "We've no idea how they decide who's working for the government," he said. "But they readily cut their heads off. That's what we live with in Afghanistan."

Government investigators, dissatisfied with this explanation, gave their own version. The killings had, they said, helped cover up an unseemly fight over women by senior Taliban .

"Two Taliban commanders, Mullah Wali Mohammad and Mullah Sayed Gul, clashed over women and villagers were detained to stop them interfering," said Daud Ahmadi, the Helmand province spokesman. "Later, at a big meeting held by the Taliban shadow governor, Mullah Abdul Bari, he decided that all witnesses [to the dispute] should be killed because it brought shame on the Taliban and hurt their reputation."

Not to be outdone, the Taliban leadership issued its own spin. "A secret music party was organised inside a remote house close to wells in the desert between Roshanabad and Shahkarez areas of Musa Kala [sic] district, Helmand province because no one can dare do such a vile thing openly," spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi declared on Tuesday. "Around 20 corrupt individuals participated in this event and boys dressed in women [sic] clothing were forced to dance. According to information gathered, the said group turned their guns on each other and killed each other at around midnight after getting heavily drunk, becoming both the killers and the killed."

Yet if there was any truth in either the government or Taliban accounts – and the crudeness certainly raised questions about their veracity – they didn't stop a fifth interpretation: the victims were supporters and relatives of a local commander contemplating an anti-Taliban uprising.

"The Taliban sensed it and reacted – ruthlessly," explains Mr Foschini as he describes this rendering of events. "On top of it, they killed a couple of women [and] circulated rumours that they [were] Pakistani dancers."

But plausible as the story is, he says, there's as little evidence substantiating it as there is for the other accounts. In a way, though, these five competing accounts reveal more about Afghanistan than the truth alone. They show how vigorously the information war is fought in Afghanistan, a wilderness of mirrors where conspiracy-obsessed perception is often more important than reality.

"There is no conception of truth based on hard fact," says a former development worker who asked not to be named. "Truth is personal," he says. In a place where what you say can get you killed, "it's second nature to dissemble" and tell powerful people what they want to hear. Afghans, he says, become "quite adept by themselves at information warfare". Things are rarely as they seem.

Despite an 11-year occupation by Western forces, costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and a Soviet intervention that lasted almost as long, nobody really knows what is happening in remote places like Musa Qala and Kajaki, Mr Foschini says.

"You have no way to double-check facts, the government can even capitalise on its absence from some areas to spread rumours, and the Taliban only claim responsibility for what suits them."

And whichever way you spin it, the murders of 17 civilians for whatever reason, in whatever circumstances, is a cruel reminder of the brutal existence villagers eke out in a swathe of mountains and deserts where the once-in-a-generation chance presented by 9/11 to transform the country has now sadly passed.

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