After last year’s release of a ‘death list’ containing almost 5000 names of men who ‘disappeared’ in the late 1970s, another list is to be publicly available soon, this time listing 671 men who were forcibly disappeared during the civil war in Kabul in the mid-1990s. The document was put together, at the time, by a human rights group seeking to help the families, and will now be part of a digital database by the Afghanistan Documentation Project, containing documents related to war crimes and human rights violations committed in Afghanistan since 1978. The list features the names of some of those captured by the various rival militia forces during the intense fighting that engulfed the Afghan capital after May 1992 and includes students, labourers, merchants and civil servants. AAN guest author Patricia Gossman* has sifted through the list and considers the tenacity of the phenomenon of disappearances in Afghanistan and how powerful the publication of the names of the disappeared can be.Victim Record Form: this man's says that he was 45 years old when he disappeared. It also says: "Kidnapped in the way from Dasht-e Barchi to Down Town when he was going to take his coupon ration." Photo: taken from a 336 pages-catalogue with victim record forms shown to AAN
When, in September 2013, a list emerged of nearly 5000 people who had been forcibly disappeared in 1978 and 1979 by Afghanistan’s first two communist PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) governments, it was the first confirmation for many families of what had happened to their relatives. It meant that, decades after their relatives had disappeared, they could finally hold mourning ceremonies. The so-called ‘death list’, which AAN discussed here, had come into the hands of the Netherlands police in the course of their investigation of a former PDPA head of intelligence who had fled Afghanistan shortly after the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992. (1) As AAN noted, the 4785 names on the list – all men who were taken into custody between 1978 and 1979 and, with rare exceptions, killed – represent only a fraction of those forcibly disappeared in this period. The list includes only people taken from Kabul and surrounding areas; perhaps tens of thousands met a similar fate across the country. Afghans at home and in the diaspora responded by creating a Facebook page, “5000 Victims”, accessible here. The page does not contain a lot of detail about the victims – most entries contain only a photograph and a brief identification – yet it represents one of the few efforts by Afghans both inside and outside the country to publicly memorialise the victims of this period of the war.
Now, another list is soon to be publicly available. The 1992-1995 list is much shorter than the PDPA death list. It features 671 victims who were detained or abducted by various rival militia forces during the intense fighting that followed the capture of Kabul by mujahedin and militia forces in April 1992. Unlike the PDPA list, this is not an official, bureaucratic record of those detained and killed by the state. In the mid-1990s, the government functioned as a shifting coalition of militias and also participated in the brutal fight for control of the city. It is not, therefore, a list compiled by the perpetrators, as the PDPA list was. Rather, these names were gathered piecemeal by activists who were trying to help families and document the abuses of the time. The human rights organisation which put the list together has requested anonymity. During those difficult years in the mid-1990s, it collected information from families in Kabul who were trying to find out what had happened to relatives who had gone missing. (2) The list is a record of lives lost, an attempt, at the time, to put names and faces to the ever-growing numbers of those who disappeared. The list, along with the rest of the organisation’s archives, is now being digitised in the Afghanistan Documentation Project database. (3) This will be a fully searchable and publicly accessible database of documents relating to human rights violations and war crimes committed in Afghanistan since 1978.
Victims of a shifting conflict
The victims listed are all men, most aged 18-50, although there was also an 80-year-old man detained from the grounds of Kabul University in 1992. All were from Kabul, but in some cases the abductions took place elsewhere, such as Ghazni or Maidanshahr. At this time, Kabul was fragmented by conflict, fought over by militias organised largely on sectarian grounds, which made it dangerous to cross a frontline into neighbourhoods controlled by militias from a different ethnic group. This list happens to have a majority of Hazara victims, although it also includes Tajiks and a few Pashtuns. Another list from the same time, but from a different area of Kabul, would have shown a different mix, as every single community was affected by the fighting.
The brief descriptions of the disappearances give a snapshot of the way the war was developing. Those from 1992 reflect the nasty conflict which broke out in west Kabul between the Hazara Hezb-e Wahdat mujahedin faction and the predominantly Pashtun Ittihad-e Islami. “Kidnapped from Dasht-e Barchi by Ittihad” reads one entry; “member of Ittihad, captive, disappeared” reports another. In 1993, a good number of the cases related to the fighting in west Kabul, particularly the assault on the Afshar neighbourhood in February 1993, which ended in massacre and mass abduction; “Disappeared in Afshar during the fighting between Ittihad and Wahdat” is a recurrent entry. By 1995, there are entries about victims who disappeared from contested places like Deh Afghanan during fighting between Jombesh and the Islamic State of Afghanistan government (by this point, mainly composed of Shura-ye Nazar and Ittihad-e Islami). Beginning in March 1995, the Taleban start to appear in entries, such as “kidnapped from Doghabad when Taleban entered Kabul,” and “arrested during fighting between Taleban and Government.” (4)
In many cases, the abductions seem to have been opportunistic: the victims were taken while on their way to work, to the hospital or to get food, targeted because they were the wrong ethnicity and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. While the names of the commanders who detained the men appear in many of the cases, in others the listing includes only “taken by unknown persons.” Several entries include references to local peace missions trying to intervene with commanders to secure releases. Some of the victims are heart-breakingly young: the 14-year-old kidnapped by a Shura-ye Nazar commander in Doghabad in west Kabul in April 1995, the 17-year-old known detained by Ittihad-e Islami in Paghman in February 1994. The entries also provide details about the lives of the victims. In some cases, the names of fathers and spouses are included; often the number of dependents is listed. In about half the cases there is a photograph. In every case, the fate of the victim is unknown, even though the families sometimes knew where their relative was being held. One entry concerning a 35-year-old shopkeeper, for example, reads:
Kidnapped on 03/16/1995 by Taleban forces and shifted to Logar. He is being detained in the Care International hospital building in Logar now. His family has made many applications for his release. Had no positive result.
Documented patterns in abductions and ‘disappearances’
All these individual stories formed part of wider patterns of abductions and tit-for-tat killings, as documented by other human rights organisations. According to Human Rights Watch, these patterns emerged as early as May 1992. (See the HRW report here.) The Afghanistan Justice Project’s 1978-2001 war crimes report also provides context for a period when militias, particularly in west Kabul, targeted people solely based on ethnicity:
In June 1992, conflict broke out between Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami, headquartered in Paghman, west of Kabul, and Hizb-e Wahdat. In the course of the fighting, Ittihad and Hizb-e Wahdat forces abducted combatants and civilians, executing many and ‘disappearing’ others who were also apparently executed, perhaps after first being detained for their potential exchange value.
The United Nations Conflict Mapping Report also details the abuses of the time:
In many cases, civilians and combatants detained by armed factions were never released, nor were their bodies ever discovered. The number of persons who ‘disappeared’ during the 1995–96 period in Kabul alone reportedly runs at least into the hundreds, but there has been no official effort by any of the faction leaders to account for the ‘disappeared.’ They are presumed to be victims of summary execution.
The power of publicly naming the ‘disappeared’
It is not unusual for ‘death lists’ to emerge years – even decades – after the killings took place. In November 2013, just after the publication of the PDPA list, the Argentine government announced the discovery of a trove of documents relating to the country’s ‘Dirty War’ (1976-1983). Between 10,000 and 30,000 people are believed to have disappeared during that period – dumped in mass graves or thrown from military aircrafts into the sea. The list, discovered in the basement of the air force headquarters, includes 331 actors, musicians, writers and journalists who were targeted by Argentina’s military regime. (See The New York Times report on the discovery here.)
This newest Afghan list, which fills some 330 pages, two entries to a page, also brings to mind the Nunca Mas (Never Again) report published by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas) in 1984. (5) The Nunca Mas report included 50,000 pages of depositions from witnesses and relatives – a length one could easily imagine for Afghanistan, if such an effort ever became possible – and continues to provide important evidence in prosecutions now taking place, some 40 years after the killings. The Argentine National Commission’s observations on the destructive nature of disappearances apply equally to Afghanistan:
It is a feature of the disappearance syndrome that the stability and structure of the family of the person who disappears is profoundly affected. The arrest (generally carried out in the presence of the family or of people connected to the family); the anxious search for news at public offices, law courts, police stations and military garrisons; the hope that some information will arrive, the fantasy of a bereavement that is never confirmed; these are factors that destabilize a family group just as much as the individual members. Behind each disappearance, there is often a family that is destroyed or dismembered, and always a family that is assaulted in what is most intimate: its right to privacy, to the security of its members, and to respect for the profoundly affectionate relations that are the reason for its existence. (Nunca Mas, “The family as victim,” for full report see here.)
In Argentina, it was the persistence of family members in pursuing information about what had happened – despite a government-issued amnesty for the perpetrators – which finally spurred Argentina’s courts to hold ‘truth trials’ aimed at discovering the details of the arrests and executions. The pursuit of justice in Argentina could be said to have begun in 1977 with the efforts of the mothers of the disappeared, standing at the Plaza de Mayo, a busy square in the centre of Buenos Aires, simply holding photographs of their missing children – an act that, at the time, could get them arrested and ‘disappeared’ as well.
Images can be powerful. A website dedicated to prisoners killed in the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge regime, has nothing but photographs, most captioned only as ‘unidentified prisoner’. The 114 photos on the site (seen here) form part of a collection of over 8,000 photographs displayed by the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, located within the former prison grounds. Perhaps eventually Afghanistan’s “5000 victims” Facebook page could evolve into something like this.
Will other Afghan lists emerge?
Reading through the 1992-1995 list, one is aware that there must be more lists of the disappeared, from this period and others. As AAN has noted (see here), references to other lists from the earliest period of the war point to the possibility that more death lists may yet emerge. Or they could still be produced; many Afghans know what happened in their neighbourhoods and could compile lists of those they know disappeared. While disappearances as a widespread phenomenon characterised the 1978-79 period, other types of abuses also came to the fore under the Soviet occupation, including long imprisonment, torture and executions after summary trials. And yet few ‘lists’ or other documentation from this time have materialised, even though the 1980-1992 era (Soviet occupation and immediate post-withdrawal period), like the 1978-79 period, is no longer particularly controversial. The mid-1990s period is still sensitive, however. That those who documented disappearances during this time should want anonymity is no surprise; many of the commanders and leaders who oversaw these crimes remain influential.
The phenomenon of disappearances continues to this day. In its January 2013 report on the torture of ‘conflict-related’ detainees, UNAMA said it had received “multiple reports” from “sources within the criminal justice system, defence lawyers, legal aid providers and other credible sources” of individuals who, after having been arrested by the Afghan National Police in Kandahar between September 2011 to October 2012, ‘disappeared’ from public record (see also here). It had details of 81 individuals who had allegedly disappeared: “Multiple sources shared concerns with UNAMA that some detainees may have been killed while in police custody.” (6)
And what, finally, is the value in such lists of the disappeared, even if they never become evidence in a trial? Official lists, first of all, may provide closure for families who have waited years for confirmation of a loved one’s death, as happened with publication of the “5000″. Yet even unofficial lists of the disappeared serve a purpose as well. I once interviewed a farmer in Punjab, India, whose son had been forcibly disappeared in 1990. He had pointed at his son’s name in a published report I had written: “I know my son was probably killed,” he told me. “But now the world knows who did it.”
*Patricia Gossman is working with Human Rights Watch as senior researcher on Afghanistan and has worked on rights issues in Afghanistan for more than 20 years. With Sari Kouvo, she is the author of the AAN report, “Tell Us How This Ends: Transitional Justice and Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan” (June 2013).
(1) Amanullah Osman died shortly before he could be arrested by the Dutch authorities.
(2) Human Rights Watch discussed the list in Blood Stained Hands: Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity (July 2005).
(3) The Afghanistan Documentation Project is the product of a partnership between the War Crimes Research Office and the Pence Law Library of the American University Washington College of Law and the U.S. Institute of Peace. It was established to collect and create a fully searchable and publicly accessible database of documents regarding human rights and humanitarian law violations committed in Afghanistan since 1978. The main purpose of the project is to make the information available and easily searchable for human rights activists, civil society groups, transitional justice advocates, lawyers, policy analysts, and scholars – whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
(4) Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili was the deputy of Hezb-e Wahdat at the time, while Ittihad-e Islami was led by current presidential candidate Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf. Jombesh was led by current vice-presidential candidate General Abdul Rashid Dostum. The late Vice President Marshal Fahim was then head of intelligence for Shura-ye Nezar and the Islamic State of Afghanistan.
(5) The report was a summary of the thousands of pages of testimony and evidence gathered by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.
(6) UNAMA’s report Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody: One Year On (January 2013) found some of the worst torture taking place in Kandahar, both in police and NDS facilities. Its 2014 report is due out soon.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020