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Did the US massacre Taliban?


THE tape begins with a mound of earth and bones. By the end of the 20-minute reel it seems established, almost beyond doubt, that US soldiers oversaw and took part in horrific crimes against humanity during the war in Afghanistan -- including the torture and murder of an estimated 3000 Taliban prisoners.

The film, by Scottish documentary maker Jamie Doran, has already been shown to the German Parliament, the Bundestag, and the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This week it will be viewed by members of Congress and military top brass at the Pentagon in Washington. It won't be easy viewing in the USA.

The war crimes are alleged to have taken place after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan at the end of November last year. The city, which was in the hands of the Taliban, was taken by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, then fighting with the Northern Alliance. Dostum went on to accept the surrender of some 8000 Taliban fighters in the nearby town of Konduz. These Taliban fighters included al-Qaeda, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis.

After the surrender of Konduz, the Taliban prisoners were then taken to a fort at Qaala Zeini, almost halfway between Mazar-i-Sharif and Sheberghan Prison. This is where the story of the massacre begins.

From Qaalia Zeini the Taliban prisoners were loaded onto containers for the last leg of their journey to Sheberghan Prison. Less than half would complete the hot, dusty trek.

Amir Jhan was a local commander who negotiated the surrender. He says he counted 8000 men leaving, but only 3015 arriving. 'Among these 3015,' he says to camera, 'are local Pashtun people from Konduz, Sheberghan, Balkh and Mazar, and many of these aren't even the original people I handed over.'

An Afghan general, whose identity has been disguised, explained what happened on the journey from Zeini to the prison. He tells Doran: 'We worked together, loading and unloading the containers. There were around 200, maybe up to 300 in each. In total, we took about 25 containers from Zeini to Scheberghan.'

The heat was unbearable and the Taliban prisoners began to cry out for air and water. An anonymous Afghan soldier explains how the Northern Alliance catered for their suffering prisoners. 'I hit the containers with bullets to make holes for ventilation,' he said. 'Some of them were killed inside the containers and then we sent them on to Scheberghan.'

The soldier is asked on film: 'You specifically shot holes into containers? Who gave you those orders?'

He replies: 'The commanders ordered me to hit the containers to make holes for ventilation and because of that some of the prisoners were killed.'

The film crew also interviewed a local taxi driver who had stopped at that time at a makeshift petrol station just outside Scheberghan. He tells Doran: 'At the time they were taking prisoners from Qaala Zeini to Scheberghan. I went to fill my car with petrol. I smelled something strange and asked the petrol attendant where the smell was coming from. He said 'look behind you', and there were trucks with containers fixed on them. I was surprised. I saw something very strange. Blood was leaking from the containers -- they were full of dead bodies.'

When the trucks arrived at Scheberghan Prison they were greeted by American forces who had established a command post there to interrogate prisoners. Some 150 US soldiers and CIA officers were at the site. US officers ordered the lorries to leave. One Afghan soldier says on film: 'All the containers were full of holes which were visible. In each container about 150 to 160 had been killed. The Americans told the Scheberghan people to get them outside the city to avoid them being filmed from a satellite.

'Everything was under the control of the American commander. In each container they put 200 or 300 bodies and took them to their destination and buried them. That's all I know. They put them in the desert for the dogs to eat them.'

Two civilians who drove the trucks from Zeini to Scheberghan and then to the desert of Dasht Leili were also interviewed by Doran. 'We collected the prisoners from Qaala Zeini and took them to Scheberghan prison,' one said. 'Many of the prisoners had lost their lives on the journey and at Scheberghan they off-loaded the prisoners who were still alive. But some of the Taliban were injured and others were so weak they were unconscious. We brought them to this place, which is called Dasht Leili, and they were shot.'

The other driver says: 'I am a driver and they commandeered my truck from Mazar city without paying any money. They took my truck and loaded a container onto it and I carried prisoners from Qaala Zeini to Scheberghan and, after that, to Dasht Leili, where they were shot by the soldiers. I made four trips backwards and forwards with prisoners.'

He goes on to say that the commanders of the soldiers doing the shooting were two of General Dostum's highest ranking officers. One is named as Kamal Khan.

Images of the burial site in the desert show human bones and clothing with Pakistani labels. The first driver says: 'We were carrying around 200 in one container and 150 in another. Some of them looked healthy but when we arrived here they were shot.'

The second driver also comments on the health of those who were gunned down. 'Some of them were alive, some of them were injured and the rest were unconscious,' he says.

Doran then asks: 'When you brought the prisoners here, were there any American soldiers with you?'

The driver answers: 'Yes, they were with us.'

Doran: 'Here, at Dasht Leili?'

Driver: 'Yes, here.'

Doran: 'How many Americans were with you?'

Driver: '30 or 40.'

If an estimated 3000 Taliban were buried in the desert, those who remained behind in Scherberghan Prison were said to have fared little better. Conditions were overcrowded, and there were diseases like tuberculosis, but it was the Americans that the Taliban had to fear the most.

One Afghan general tells Doran how Taliban selected for interrogation by American personnel were tortured and summarily executed in barbaric ways. 'I was a witness,' he says. 'They cut their legs, they cut their tongues, they cut their hair and cut their beards. They were Arab prisoners.

'Sometimes they did it for pleasure; they took the prisoners outside and beat them up and then returned them to the prison. But sometimes they were never returned and they disappeared, the prisoner dis appeared. I was there.'

Another soldier confirmed the general's story, adding that he would be prepared to identify American soldiers if given the chance. 'They broke their necks and cut their tongues,' he said. 'The Americans had come to the prison to choose whoever they wanted to send to America. Then they came again after 10 or 15 days to choose some more to deliver to America. Many prisoners were killed. Some of them cried. No-one listened to their cries. No-one cared.'

Another soldier adds: 'I was a witness when an American soldier broke one prisoner's neck and poured acid on others. The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them.'

General Dostum is on record saying that 'If any of my commanders have committed such acts, I will kill them myself.'

One possible motive for the war crimes could be the killing of CIA agent Mike Spann during an uprising by al-Qaeda at the nearby Qaali-i-Janghi fortress shortly before these alleged attrocies.

Andrew McEntee, a former chairman of Amnesty International and a respected human rights lawyer, believes war crimes were committed. He said the confessions and filmed evidence of mass graves made it imperative that an international investigation be launched immediately. He also said that a team of forensic pathologists should be dispatched to investigate.

'(We must) identify who these people are, because their families have a right to know,' he said. 'They have been disappeared involuntarily after being murdered.'

He added: 'There is sufficient credible evidence of crimes committed by Afghans, and Americans as well, where no functioning criminal justice system could choose to ignore it.'

Glaswegian Jamie Doran, who runs the production company Atlantic Celtic Films, said: 'Our six eye-witnesses gave their testimony without being offered one cent. Their lives are at risk for making these statements.

'I showed a short version of the film to the Bundestag and the European Parliament earlier in the week as I had received evidence that the graves were being tampered with.' Suspicions are now mounting that troops under the control of Dostum are trying to remove the corpses and cover up evidence of war crimes.

'International law is about the chain of command,' said Doran. 'That's why Milosevic is on trial in the Hague. Two groups are implicated in these crimes -- troops commanded by Dostum and American soldiers and agents. This film indicates that it was the Americans who were running the operation.

'What is needed right now is an international body drafted in to protect the grave site and the launching of an international inquiry.'

Andre Brie, a member of the German Party of Democratic Socialism in the European Parliament, said, after viewing the film, that he wanted an international commission set up to investigate the 'disturbing' questions raised in the film.

Doran is now finalising a full-length version of the film, to be called Massacre At Mazar. It will be released in the near future.

The Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said Doran's film provided the 'missing link' to the organisation's ongoing investigations into war crimes in the area. Its personnel, seconded to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, has already carried out autopsies on bodies found in Dashlt Leili. PHR doctors suggested the cause of death was suffocation, implying the bodies were buried alive.

PHR is also calling for a full investigation. Its executive director, Leonard Rubenstein said: 'If these sites are not protected an accurate accounting will not be possible.'

The Pentagon has denied the charges made in the film. Major Brad Lowell, of the US Central Command in Florida, which leads US forces in Afghanistan, said allegations of war crimes had been investigated in March and proved to be unfounded. He did, however, admit that 'no formal investigation or anything' had taken place. Lowell also said that there was not enough evidence at the moment from the film 'to start a formal investigation'.

The French Communist Party deputy leader in the European Parliament said he was to ask the International Red Cross to carry out an immediate investigation.

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