"They burnt some of us alive." It was almost the first thing he said to us. In the dust and squalor of a refugee camp, Salahuddin told yesterday how the Taliban burnt an entire family to death in their own home in revenge for the American bombing.
He says he saw them bringing out the blackened bodies of the children. Then the Taliban took Salahuddin and the other villagers to the front line, where they ordered them to gather up scattered bits of bodies, all that was left of Taliban soldiers killed by the American bombs.
"There was a hand on its own in one place, and then a head on its own far away from it," he said. "None of the bodies were in one piece. I myself found three heads." They too were blackened, he told us, with the faces having been burned off. He spent two days picking up heads without faces.
We found Salahuddin, a tall, turbanned man with a heavy, brown beard, living in a makeshift tent with his wife and two young children, sleeping on the filthy ground without even a blanket under them. He said they had not eaten for days.
We had already heard rumours of a village on the other side of the front line called Dasht-e Archi, where the Taliban had come after the American bombing started. There were stories of women being raped and men being beaten to death. But nothing prepared us for Salahuddin's story.
At first, he seemed unnaturally calm, his voice even and matter-of-fact. Only after a while did it become clear that he was in shock. His mind veered wildly from one horror to another. At one point, he was talking about the killings in Dasht-e Archi when he suddenly broke off and said: "The bodies were all in pieces, scattered all over the place." It was the first time he mentioned picking up the pieces of Taliban soldiers on the front line.
Salahuddin came here with his wife, his seven-year-old son, Qudbuddin, and his two-year-old daughter, Sakina, four days ago, making the perilous journey across the front line by night. If the Taliban had seen them, they would have shot them. But it was better than staying in Dasht-e Archi.
There is no way of verifying Salahuddin's story. Several other people have arrived from Dasht-e Archi in the last few days telling of Taliban atrocities, and stories are beginning to leak out of a Taliban reign of terror in the wake of the US bombing.
The Taliban chose Dasht-e Archi because the people there still openly support the Northern Alliance, according to villagers who fled. The Taliban captured the village, just over a mile from the front line, two years ago, after savage fighting with the locals. After that, the Taliban largely left the village alone – until a week ago, just after the American bombs started to fall regularly on this front.
"One day they came, and ordered everyone to go into the bazaar and protest against the bombings, and chant: 'Death to America'," said Salahuddin. "I was in my house and I had to go outside. When we refused to protest against America, they got angry."
Another man who fled the village said he saw the Taliban drag a man called Lash Boi from his house to the mosque and beat him to death when he refused to protest. Lash Boi's three sons are on the front line now, fighting to avenge their father's death, he said.
Why did the villagers refuse to make even a show of protesting? "Because we hate the Taliban," said Salahuddin. Many of the Taliban soldiers who came to the village were not Afghans, he said, but volunteers from Pakistan, Chechnya and Arab countries. "They started telling some of the people to give them their houses, to use for military purposes. When they did, the Taliban soldiers started to smash up the houses, then they drove their jeeps inside the ruins to hide them from the American planes."
But a man called Abdulhamid refused. And so, says Salahuddin, the Taliban burned his house down with seven people inside. Abdulhamid was a distant relative of Salahuddin. The first Salahuddin knew of what was happening was when he saw the smoke from Abdulhamid's house burning. "The women went over and said it was Abdulhamid's house. The Taliban poured petrol over it, and set light to it," he said.
Inside were Abdulhamid, a 50-year-old farmer, his eight-year-old daughter, Maira, and his three sons: Abdulhaq and Rahim, both 12 years old, and Abdullah, who was seven. His wife was there too. Salahuddin would not tell us her name as it is dishonourable in Afghan society to give the names of adult women. Abdulhamid's brother, Abdullah, was there too. He had run to Abdulhamid's house to hide from the Taliban, said Salahuddin.
"We were afraid they would do the same to us," says Salahuddin. "Then, that night, after the Taliban left, we went to the house. They were bringing the bodies out. They were all hunched up, their hands clutched in front of them.
"There was a smell of burning, a really bad smell. Everyone was crying. I was crying. We buried the bodies that night," he said.
The next day, the Taliban returned and ordered the men to go to the front line, where the bombs had been falling. Now they were subjected to forced labour, picking up body parts.
"They made us gather up the pieces of bodies in plastic bags," he said. "Some of the pieces were a long way from the trenches, where the soldiers were when the bombs fell." He did not think any of the dead were civilians; from where the body parts lay, he said, they all appeared to be Taliban.
"They came back the next day and made us do the same," he says. "After two days, I decided to escape. It was dangerous, but I decided: 'If we get there, we get there. If we die, we die. Trust in God.' "Now he and his family are in a wretched refugee camp, hungry and sleeping on dirt. "Please help us," he said. Plenty of US bombs have fallen here but of the promised humanitarian aid there is little sign.Reuse content