Mutilated – for voting in defiance of the Taliban
Lal Mohammed paid the price for wanting to have his say on the future of Afghanistan
Monday 31 August 2009
Lal Mohammed was determined to exercise his right to have a say in his country's future and vote in the election. It was a decision for which he paid a horrific price. On his way to the polling station he was held by Taliban fighters, beaten brutally, and then had his nose and ears slashed off.
What happened to the 40-year-old farmer is the savage and hidden side of the election in a country experiencing a bloody war. This chilling account is the first from a victim of retribution
taken by insurgents on someone who had defied their order to boycott the polls. And it helps to explain why so many people throughout the country were simply too afraid to vote.
The Independent listened to Mr Mohammed's terrifying tale in a house where he has taken refuge and is being guarded by friends. To add to the misery he has suffered, he has not received any serious medical treatment for three days because one of the main hospitals in the Afghan capital – where he had arrived after an arduous three-day journey – declared it had no room to keep him due to chronic overcrowding.
Eminent Afghan and international figures had encouraged citizens to defy the Taliban and vote in the elections. Yet, as a casualty in the process, Mr Mohammed and his friends say he has received no official support.
We found Mr Mohammed, covered by a shawl, lying on a threadbare sofa in a tiny room, with shafts of dusty sunlight coming through a smashed window pane. Two friends, fellow farmers from Uruzgan , carefully bolted the metal door behind us as we crowded into the compartment, which was little more than 10ft long and 5ft wide. Nowhere, people have learnt to their cost, is beyond the reach of the insurgents.
In pain, and often in tears, the father of eight children described how his ordeal began when he left his village, Galpagel, in Uruzgan province, on the morning of election day, 20 August, at about 10am to vote.
About half an hour into the 90-minute walk, Mr Mohammed was stopped by three men with AK-47 rifles and bandoliers of ammunition, who did not hide their faces and identified themselves as Talibs.
The gunmen searched him and found the electoral registration papers he was carrying and from that point his fate was sealed.
"They shouted at me and then they began beating me with their rifle butts, they said they were going to teach me a lesson. The most painful of the blows was when they kept hitting me on the face," he recounted, while shifting the bandage covering his face to show bruising and what looked like a fractured cheekbone.
"They were beating me so hard and kicking me that I fell to the ground. Then one man sat on top of my chest and got out a knife and I began to feel terrible pain when he slit my nose. I was passing out, but another man was still using knives and there was more pain, I could feel blood all over my face. I thought it was better to die."
Mr Mohammed fell into unconsciousness after that. He woke up in agony after a man passing by found him, spreadeagled on the side of the road, possibly left by his attackers as an example to others.
No cars were available in the remote area of rough roads and the farmer, who was drifting in and out consciousness, was carried by a donkey for the best part of a day to a main road where, at last, a taxi driver was persuaded to take him to Kabul.
"The journey on the donkey was very hard, I did not think I would survive that, the road was bad and my face was really hurting," recalled Mr Mohammed among bouts of coughing. "I was very happy when I got to the hospital. But they said they had no beds and I was told to come back in a few days."
Mr Mohammed is a Hazara living in a province bordering Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul in the south of the country. Uruzgan has a mixture of Afghanistan's communities but has also been one of the hotbeds of the resurgent insurgency. The Taliban fighters who ambushed him were Pashtuns, but Mr Mohammed and his Hazara friends do not believe the prime motive for the assault was sectarian.
"We have lived there for a long time. The Talibs had been warning people not to vote, saying it was a conspiracy against Islam by foreigners," said Mr Mohammed. "But I had voted in the last election and I do not think I was doing anything wrong. I am not involved in the war and I do not have anything to do with foreigners. Look at my hands, I am only a farmer, I only work on the land."
Mr Mohammed has now been promised surgery by the hospital. His main concern, he says, is his family. "There are 11 people and I am the only breadwinner. My youngest child is two years old, I do not know what is going to happen to them, who will look after them..." his voice broke into sobs.
The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the election and had repeatedly warned people against participating. On polling day they carried out a series of attacks across the country killing 26 people and injuring about 80. There were subsequent reports, uncorroborated, that they cut off the ink-stained fingertips, which showed they had voted, of a number of people.
However, Afghan and Western officials accept, and The Independent can confirm, that election monitors failed to turn up in vast swaths of the south because it was deemed too dangerous and little or no record was kept of the intimidation which took place there.
One of Mr Mohammed's friends who is now looking after him said with a bitter laugh: "All the foreigners, people like Mr Karzai, said we should go out and vote. But look what happened to Lal Mohammed. Will they look after him now? They have not given him medicine, we are having to gather food for him."
Mr Mohammed said his family had borrowed 20,000 Afghanis (around £250) from a local money lender to tide them over and buy medicine for him in the capital, Kabul.
"We have to pay back 40,000 Afghanis in three months," he said. "I do not know how we are going to do that, I think we will have to sell things. I do not know when I'll work again.
"Poor people suffer in this country, I do not know whether the elections will change that. I do not think I will try to vote again, I am now very frightened."
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