Rights & Freedoms

Commemoration in the Basement: Kabul’s hidden war victims museum (2)


Abbas Ahmadzai in front of the memory box for his 'disappeared' and later confirmed killed father and uncle at AHRDO's Kabul war victims museum. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

With the Afghanistan Centre for Memories and Dialogue, a new museum dedicated to the victims of the Afghan wars of the last four decades and their families has opened in Kabul in February this year. It was initially supposed to be housed in the capital’s landmark Behzad cinema but now is confined to a provisional venue. In a follow-up to AAN’s first report on the museum (“Peace in The Air, But Where Is Justice? Efforts to get transitional justice on the table”) that looked at the absence of the subject of justice from the current effort to find a peace deal for Afghanistan, AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at how internal politicking and lack of international support had the museum ending up in a basement in this reportage. (*)

“This is my father. I was about six months old when they took him away.” Abbas Ahmadzai is a bulky Pashtun of forty years from Logar province with a short stubbly beard. He points to an old portrait photograph that is printed on a board in Kabul’s museum for the victims of Afghanistan’s wars over the past forty years, which opened on 14 February this year. 

Ahmadzai does not know why the intelligence service of the communist regime (1) that had come to power about a year earlier, in April 1978, decided to arrest not only his father Zarkhan but also his uncle Gulab. Did they speak derisively about the new regime, or had they been too religious for the fiercely atheist regime? There were many reasons at that time for the regime to declare someone enemy of the state, as it soon provoked armed, though initially mostly spontaneous, resistance and saw enemies everywhere.

“My father was a nurse, my uncle a simple farmer. And of my uncle there is even not a photo anymore,” he says and starts crying. “For a long time, we did not know what happened to them. Only after 35 years we learned they were killed.”

The memory box for Zarkhan and Gulab Ahmadzai at the AHRDO war victims museum in Kabul. Photo: Hadi Morawej (AHRDO).

Both names were on a list the general prosecutor of the Netherlands had received during the course of an investigation against an Afghan man who had received asylum there; later, other Afghans recognised him as the head of the intelligence service’s interrogation department (AAN reporting here). (The man died two weeks before his planned arrest.) The list had the names of 4,758 people arrested in 1978 and 1979. Next to the names were their professions, places of birth and the “crimes” the government accused them of. All were enemies of the state, divided into categories: “rebel,” “Muslim Brother,” “Maoist,” “Royalist,” follower of deposed and killed President Daud or of Sufi leader Sebghatullah Mujaddedi (AAN obituary here), who had just declared jihad against the government, or “counter revolutionary,” for members of a rival faction of the ruling party, the radical leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The list confirmed the deaths of the people mentioned on it. Now it has been turned into a frieze that snakes along the walls of the museum, and Abbas Ahmadzai was one of the dependents of the war victims who had been invited to its opening. 

In front of the tableaus summarising the stories of victims and their surviving family members, Nik Mohammed Sharif is sitting at a rough wooden table. There are rusty chains used in Kabul’s notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison. Sharif who is from Khewa in eastern Afghanistan and is called “Doctor” by everyone because he had initially studied medicine before becoming a human rights activists, is reading aloud the narrative of his incarceration and first interrogation from a few handwritten pages. “First they took my oldest brother Dawood. Then me and the other brothers. First they beat me with a cable.” Suddenly, Nik Mohammad Sharif jump up, grabs a piece of cable that is thicker than a finger,  and hits the table with it. The smash makes people standing around cringe. Some audibly moan. “‘Tell us names!’ I did not say anything. Then they fixed electrodes on me. The torture went on for hours…” They were twelve brothers, Nik Mohammed Sharif says, enough for a football team, which they indeed were. A display cases shows a blurred coloured photo from 1977: some of the Baradaran, “the brothers,” as the team was known, in their green-white striped jerseys, all with big jet-black hair and most of them with moustaches. “Six of us did not survive,” says Sharif.

Behind a divider, the exhibition turns to the time of the mujahedin rule and their factional wars, between 1992 and 1996. During that time, Afghanistan’s cities were destroyed, those that had survived the Soviet occupation relatively unharmed. This was particularly the case in Kabul. Of the part of the city in which the museum now found its domicile, Karta-ye Chahar, only ruins were left when the Taleban took over in 1996. The streets were lined with charred and chopped off tree trunks, dirty children were playing on the rubble, and those families that had not fled were living in basements.

In the third part of the exhibition, reflecting the time of the Taleban regime (1996–2001 in Kabul, though differing in other parts of the country) and the period after its demise, there is a large glass vitrine filled with colourful but torn and charred clothes and shoes. They belonged to the victims of the 23 July 2016 terrorist attack against a mainly Hazara demonstration for better electricity supply to their area of origin, the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan. It reminds one vividly of an installation in Berlin’s Jewish Museum, a memorial for the holocaust of the European Jews: a pile of shoes of Jewish children sent into the gas chambers in the Nazi extermination camps in Eastern Europe.

The July 2016 attack occurred not far from where the museum now is; 80 people died and more than 200 were in the first big attack the Afghan branch of the Islamic State (Daesh) took responsibility for. When everyone had taken seats in the museum’s conference room after the opening tour of the exhibits, a young man got up and told about his fiancée, Nafisa Bahar, who was killed that day. He only was able to identify her by the engagement ring he had given her six months earlier. It was found on her hand that had been severed from her body by the explosion.

Hadi Marifat was also among the demonstrators that day but remained unharmed physically. The sympathetic man with his wavy long black hair is one of the creators of the museum. Still a teenager when the Taleban were toppled, he engaged in activities for human rights and democracy in Afghanistan. This is also the name of his organisation: Afghanistan Organisation for Human Rights and Democracy (AHRDO). Marifat and his AHRDO colleagues had worked on the museum project, officially the Afghanistan Centre for Memory and Dialogue (ACMD), for eight years. Financed by the Open Society Foundation and the German Bosch Foundation, the team interviewed hundreds of family members of victims of the atrocities committed under the PDPA, mujahedin and Taleban regimes and of the on-going post-2001 war. Then family members were asked to donate something the killed had owned or would have loved. These were stored in so-called memory boxes. Over 300 items were donated over the years. Abbas Ahmadsai had brought a simple brown shalwar kamis his father once had worn. 

Outwardly, this Kabul venue of memory for Afghan war victims cannot compete with the large, architectonically superb museum in Berlin. In addition, it is located in the basement of a two-story building in Kabul’s west. No signboard points it out, and before entering one is searched by an armed guard. Furthermore, the museum is a provisional arrangement in a rented house. As a matter of fact, a permanent building for the museum, and an outstanding one, had already been designated: the former Behzad cinema in Chendawol in the centre of Old Kabul. Inactive and dilapidated as a result of the wars, and later a victim of the influx of mobile phones, laptops and other film-viewing gadgets, it was not only a key cultural centre of pre-war Kabul but was also architectonically rare, one of once four building countrywide in what Mustafa Nouri of Aga Khan Development Network in Kabul calls the “Italian modernist style.”

Kabul’s shahrwali – the mayor’s office – had already assigned the building for the project, Marifat told AAN. Only the signature of then President Hamed Karzai was missing, and he refused it. Karzai did not want to enrage the warlords associated with his government, who were imposed on him by the US government in the first years after its military anti-Taleban intervention in which those strongmen had been the local allies. They refuse to this day to admit that they also committed human rights abuses and war crimes during their fight against the Soviet occupation and during the subsequent factional wars and do not allow any grain of dust to smudge the self-styled immaculate picture of their resistance struggle. Ismail Khan, the former regional strongman of Herat, had told him personally that he had urged Karzai not to allow the museum to be established, Marifat says. 

That it was not beyond use was shown in 2012 when the cinema became the venue for a performance that was part of a worldwide leading art exhibition, the Kassel (Germany) Documenta 13, which included art projects featuring Afghanistan (see AAN guest dispatch here; and a photo here). 

Despite these odds, the exhibits in the provisional Kabul museums and dialogue centre emanate the same strong message as the museum in Berlin or Tuol Sleng, the memorial for the millions slain by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

A jihad and a war victims museum in Herat

AHRDO’s museum in Kabul is neither the only nor the first of its kind, aiming at memorialising the loss of life and destruction over four decades of war. A stark contrast, both aesthetically and conceptionally, is the Manzar-e Jihad in Herat, sponsored by Ismail Khan, provincial governor of Herat (1992–95 and 2001–04). Located in Bagh-e Mellat (Garden of the Nation), it was erected on a site where, according to the Afghanistan Justice Project, a mass grave from the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s regime’s first period (1978-79) has been found.

Another form of public memorialisation: picture of late Ahmad Shah Massud on a rickshaw in Herat (2019). Photos: Thomas Ruttig
Another form of public memorialisation: picture of late Ahmad Shah Massud on a rickshaw in Herat (2019). Photos: Thomas Ruttig

Overlooking the city from a hill, the museum is a polygonal structure; its outer marble walls are adorned with thousands of names of commanders, mujahedin and civilians killed in the jihad – the fight against the Soviets between 1979 and 1989. It resembles a place of worship, and indeed visitors must wear plastic covers over their shoes, almost as in a mosque.

The names are not only from Herat or wider western Afghanistan, of which the city is the regional centre the guide – a serene young man with sharp facial features and a neatly trimmed short beard wearing camouflage uniform – explains. During the whole tour, he does not smile once or lay down his Kalashnikov rifle. “No, I was not in the jihad,” he says. “I was young then.”

The memorial is embedded in a park with almond trees and rose bushes; on this grey February afternoon, it is too early to for them to bloom. There, a colleague of the guide, in the same style of outfit and armed as well, is clipping the roses for their spring growth. Between the greenery, weapons are on display, from old-fashioned heavy machine guns and recoilless guns to a Soviet attack helicopter complete with large-calibre rotating machine cannons under its wings and a whole MIG fighter plane. The only civilian visible is the ticket seller, an old man in a skull cap who slowly shuffles to his booth upon our arrival.

The military outlook of the place continues inside. There, a large collection of weapons, grenades and mines used both by the attackers and the attacked (and somewhat unrelated, some from earlier wars, against the British) fill vitrine after vitrine. Then, the exhibition turns into a large gallery of honour for those who sacrificed their lives to drive out the Soviet occupiers. The largest portraits, all painted, are of famous commanders, from Ustad Zabihullah, a former school teacher who was Atta Muhammad’s predecessor as head Jamiat leader in Balkh province, to Abdul Haq who, a few months before 9/11 and the US-led intervention, went into Taleban-ruled Afghanistan to incite an uprising and was caught and hanged. Also, portraits of ex-President Hamed Karzai’s father Abdul Ahad, assassinated by the Taleban in Pakistan in 1999, and Ismail Khan’s son Mir Wais Sediq are on display, the latter although he was killed only in 2004 in fighting between Ismail Khan loyalists and pro-Karzai groups after his father’s removal from Herat. These are followed by a large collection of photos of different shapes and sizes of foot soldiers and civilians. They are not called victims but shahidan (martyrs).

Finally, a spiral staircase leads to the highlight of the show, a diorama depicting scenes from the war of resistance and atrocities committed by the Soviets and the Khalqis. In one scene what the museum’s organisers have called “enlightened Muslims” are massacred on a site named Bagh-e Faramuz Khan. and thrown in a mass grave. Translating as Faramuz Khan’s Garden, the original site at the western edges of Herat city had been added to a military installation by an earlier government and turned by the Khalqi regime into a notorious interrogation centre. “From there, many people did not return” according to Abdul Qader Rahimi, regional director for western Afghanistan of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Other scenes show the March 1979 Herat uprising against the Khalqi government, rural women helping the fighters with hiding weapons and, finally, a withdrawing column of the Soviet army. No word can be found about the factional wars that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the Najibullah government three days later in which the mujahedin, in the eyes of many Afghans, lost their resistance aura.

The exhibition has a strong taste of personality cult. It is not only sponsored by but is also centred around the person of Ismail Khan, who styled himself as the amir – resistance leader – of western Afghanistan during and after the jihad. He also claims to have led the 1979 Herat uprising during which, being a captain in the government army (hence his original title Turan Ismail), he switched to the mujahedin. Research shows, however, that most of the uprising was spontaneous and there was not a single supreme leader. A large installation of wax figures in the museum shows him standing up alone among the other mujahedin leaders cowering next to him and receiving his guidance. 

Ismail Khan’s jihad museum is part of the officially permitted memorialisation of the jihad. Others memorials include the tombs of Ahmad Shah Massud in his native Panjshir Valley or the central chowks (junctions) in Kabul named after him, that of Abdul Haq (who also has a memorial in Logar where he was captured) and of Abdul Ali Mazari. In Kabul, there is a large mine and weapons museum established by mine-clearing NGOs. Smaller memorials dot the countryside all over Afghanistan, such as the simple metal plaques for Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur in Paktia (allegedly killed by Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami) or the many destroyed Soviet tanks along rural roadsides, now turned into children’s playgrounds or sometimes used more practically. For many years, an entire pile of tanks and armoured personnel carriers served as a bridgehead for a destroyed river crossing in Jabl al-Seraj, north of Kabul.

Memorial for mujahedin leaders Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur in Paktia, assassinated in Zurmat (Paktia) in inter-factional fighting in 1993. Photo: Thomas Ruttig
Memorial for mujahedin leaders Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur in Paktia, assassinated in Zurmat (Paktia) in inter-factional fighting in 1993. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

Those memorials that do not glorify just one party – and ignore their victims – have it much more difficult. Hence the long struggle to establish the Kabul ACMD which, almost symbolically, is housed hidden in a basement. Or Herat’s second memorial, a little museum in the lobby of the city’s Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission office. It also has a photo gallery and exhibits, like a Soviet field telephone used by the Khalqi intelligence to torture prisoners, as AIHRC regional director Abdul Qader Rahimi explains. It also contains a large collection of often-unique printed material, from Soviet propaganda posters to mujahedin publications that still await systematic scrutiny. In any country, it would attract researchers but, as Rahimi says, his organisation lacks funding to support this or a better display. This should have been part of the Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan Action Plan, a three-year action plan focused on transitional justice that expired before most of its actions could be implemented, another failure of the ruling elites and donor countries to honour all victims of Afghanistan’s wars of the last five decades.

The international community’s absence

At the opening of AHRDO’s war victims museum in Kabul. Photo: Hadi Morawej (AHRDO).

Apart from the UN, no diplomats attended the museum’s opening. “We invited all the European embassies and those of Japan and South Korea,” Marifat said with a little smile. “Only the Danes and the British apologised.” The museum might be outside the limited sphere in which diplomats are allowed to travel in Kabul. But their absence also reflects that, despite some support particularly immediately after the Taleban regime had been ousted, transitional justice was too often too easily pushed into the background by political considerations. Many Afghans still remember UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s dictum that one could either have peace or justice, and diplomats’ warnings to “not rock the boat” in which Karzai and the warlords sat in a less-than-stable coalition. This allowed members of the Afghan parliament – from the few former leftists to the many Islamic conservatives and Islamists – to award themselves an amnesty for war crimes and human rights violation in 2008. The National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law – better known as the ‘amnesty law’ – came into force two years later(AAN analysis here). As a result, after a vehement start, with the 2005 “A Call for Justice” report of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in which thousands of Afghan respondents rejected blanket impunity, the ambitious Transitional Justice Action Plan faded into oblivion and remained largely unimplemented. Even now, it is difficult to publicly commemorate war victims who were not killed by Afghan and Soviet communists. AIHRC head Sima Samar, who is attending the opening and has supported the project, fears that, again, human rights might be relegated to backstage during the on-going US-Taleban talks to end the Afghan war.

When UNAMA’s human rights chief Richard Bennett, a New Zealander, remarks during his speech, which so far has sounded a bit too official, that there is an empty display box at the end of the tour through the museum, Samar smiles. “Someone noticed,” she seems to think. Bennett comments that he hopes the box will remain empty. But the changes his wish may come true are small: Outside the memorial the war is ongoing. It is now creating more victims – civilians and military – than any other war worldwide.

Edited by Ehsan Qaane, Kate Clark and Sari Kouvo.

(*) This reportage appeared first in German in Tageszeitung (Berlin) on 25 February 2019 under the title “Kriegsmuseum in Afghanistan eröffnet: Die Vitrinen von Kabul,” link here. This version has been slightly edited and the part about Herat been added.

(1) Abbas Ahmadzai called the intelligence service “KhAD” (Khedamat-e Ettela’at-e Daulati, State Information Service), a name that has become generic for the intelligence services of subsequent Afghan governments. Even currently, the post-2001 National Directorate for Security (NDS) is often referred to colloquially as “KhAD.” Actually, the intelligence service at the time of his father’s and uncle’s ‘disappearing’ was called AGSA (De Afghanistan de Gato Satunki Edara, the Administration for the Protection of the Interests of Afghanistan).

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms