Fergal Keane: The siege of Kunduz is a defining moment for us all

'From my own experience of siege conditions, I can testify that the atmosphere will be thick with panic'

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We have come to a moment of crucial moral choice in the still young century. It has arisen because of a dust-blown town whose name may yet come to rank among the sites of the most notorious atrocities of the last 100 years.

We have come to a moment of crucial moral choice in the still young century. It has arisen because of a dust-blown town whose name may yet come to rank among the sites of the most notorious atrocities of the last 100 years.

Kunduz. A place that might become like My Lai in Vietnam, Hama in Syria or Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. Or maybe not. For Kunduz is not yet the chronicle of a massacre foretold. There is still time to save the city and the 300,000 people – fighters and civilians – besieged within its perimeters.

This could depend on whether the Taliban commanders are willing to surrender or prepare to fight to the death. Either way, there are serious doubts as to how the fighters of the Northern Alliance will behave. If there is a surrender, will they slaughter the foreign Taliban, as has been hinted? Or, if there is a battle and the Alliance emerges victorious, will they embark on a bloody rampage?

The town in northern Afghanistan offers a classic illustration of the kind of situation the Geneva Conventions were designed to deal with. There are plenty of other examples any day of the week in other countries. From Congo to Chechnya, soldiers are shooting the unarmed, but none is experiencing the same media attention as Kunduz. One can lament the promiscuous nature of the media, lavishing attention on one horror while ignoring many others. But that does not take away the singular opportunity that Kunduz presents.

The word "opportunity" might seem strange in the circumstances: thousands in terror of their lives, the word massacre reverberating across the world. But Kunduz offers us the chance to make a practical statement of belief of a kind rarely possible in a world of cynical power games and political expediency. With no reliable news coming from the city itself, the world speculates on the terrors of its inhabitants. We are told that foreign Taliban fighters are preventing a surrender and even executing those who advocate such a course of action.

From my own experience of siege conditions, I can testify that the atmosphere in the town will be thick with panic. I remember the Angolan city of Menongue – the colonial Portuguese called it the place at the end of the earth – during the Unita siege of the early 90s. We flew in on a rare aid flight, the jet taking a steep descent to avoid becoming too easy a target for anti-aircraft missiles. On the ground we encountered a terrified civilian population and a defending army that was only a little less frightened. Most of the food was gone, and shells were landing regularly in the town centre.

Though the shells were still killing people, the greater concern by far was whether the town would be able to hold off an all-ground assault by Unita. The rebel army, led by Jonas Savimbi – one of Africa's most disagreeable psychopaths – had little respect for the notion of human rights and regarded the Geneva Conventions, designed to protect civilians and prisoners of war, with contempt. In that, it must be said that Mr Savimbi's army was acting in much the same way as the mass of African armies do. All over the continent I've seen the logical consequence of a policy of "no quarter". Bodies shot, knifed, burned and mutilated, the human form rendered into a fearful-looking pulp in the vengeful aftermath of siege.

The people in Menongue had a fair idea of what to expect if their town fell to Unita. (For the record, the Angolan government's army showed little respect for the Geneva Conventions when its forces executed scores of Unita fighters in the capital several years later). What I will never forget is the pure terror in the faces of those condemned to stay behind in Menongue while we flew out to safety. If the city fell it would be a long time before any outsider, journalist or human rights investigator would come to search for mass graves or torture chambers.

The most dangerous moments in the life of a siege are those first few hours after the entry of the victorious forces. In the flush of victory, and with hatred of the enemy and his civilian supporters (for that is how many soldiers will regard them), acts of cruelty can be rampant. Take a disciplined army and put it through weeks of laying siege and taking casualties, and commanders will have difficulty in imposing restraint. When you are dealing with forces for whom there is no tradition of adherence to the Geneva Conventions, forces who are actively encouraged to give "no quarter", massacre becomes inevitable. The men who currently encircle Kunduz will hardly know where the town of Geneva is located, let alone enjoy any familiarity with its famous protocols.

In fact, soldiers have refined the issue of survival down to a question of minutes. If a captured soldier can make it through the first 10 minutes in the hands of the enemy, he stands a fair chance of staying alive on a more permanent basis. In the terrible battles of the Pacific islands in the Second World War, the ferocity of the Japanese defence, and their brutal attitude towards prisoners, led to numerous examples of American troops shooting surrendering soldiers of the Imperial Army. The fact that many of the surrenders were false, a tactic now outlawed by the Geneva protocols, helped to harden US attitudes towards putative prisoners of war.

It took us until Bosnia and Rwanda to show any willingness to implement the Geneva protocols. Our governments were shamed into action. But there is now a greater awareness of humanitarian law and responsibilities than at any time in history. And, at Kunduz, there are cameras circling on the edges of the siege. The world will eventually discover what happens. The reported discovery of up to 600 bodies in Mazar-i-Sharif has already heightened the suspicions of the media and human rights investigators.

Also, the besieging army is acting as a partner of Western powers who have proclaimed loudly that they are fighting for universal values, not least among these the rule of law. That is why this siege is such a defining moment. I heard a television presenter ask the other night why men who showed no mercy to their opponents and who flew airliners into buildings should benefit from the Geneva Conventions. In other words, why not allow the lot of them to be killed? But don't forget that we granted a fair trial to the men accused of murdering six million Jews. There were many who wanted the German leaders shot on sight, but humanity is undoubtedly the better off for having followed the process of law.

The simple answer is to recognise why we have the Geneva protocols in the first place. The specific protections arose out of the horrendous abuses inflicted by the Nazis and their Japanese allies. The protocols are a statement of our difference and, in that sense, transcend even the realm of law. They are documents of the human spirit, our best way forward out of genocide and barbarism.

The coalition must use whatever pressure it can to insist that the Northern Alliance does not embark on a rampage in Kunduz. It is, in the most fundamental sense imaginable, a choice about the kind of world in which we want to live.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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