This week some Afghan families have finally been able to hold a fateha (mourning ceremony) for fathers, brothers and sons who disappeared more than thirty years ago. Evidence of the fate of their relatives came with the publication by the Dutch prosecutor’s office of a list of almost 5000 people killed during the first 20 months of communist rule, following the 1978 coup d’etat. But as AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark reports, these 5000 were only a fraction of the total number who were forcibly disappeared during this period or killed in subsequent phases of the war. There is still a long way to go in terms of dealing with the legacy of the horrors of the last thirty years. (With input by Thomas Ruttig.)
It is heart-breaking to read through the ‘death list’ (1) – whether the photocopied Dari original or the nicely transliterated and typed English version. The list gives the names of 4785 people who were detained and killed in 1978 and 1979, with their professions, places of birth and ‘crimes’. They were schoolchildren, students, teachers, mullahs, policemen, farmers, nomads, the owner of a laundry business, a man working in the tourism department, a clockmaker. They were condemned as rebel, counter-revolutionary, Ikhwani, Maoist, royalist, Khomeinist, follower of President Muhammad Daud (himself murdered in the coup) or of Sufi leader Muhammad Ibrahim Mojaddedi.
These are the names of some of those who were forcibly disappeared by the post-coup d’etat governments of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, both from the Khalq faction of the newly empowered communist party. (For the first two months of the regime, before it also became an ‘enemy of the revolution’, the Parcham wing of the party was also involved in the purges.)* Afghanistan’s new rulers found enemies everywhere, including in its own ranks, and immediately launched a pre-emptive wave of arrests and secret executions, detaining individuals and indeed whole families, including children, whom they thought threatened the new regime. This initial purge was followed by a radical reform programme, described in the Afghanistan Justice Project’s 1978-2001 war crimes report as “poorly planned and ruthlessly imposed”, which provoked widespread, largely spontaneous rebellion. The state struck back ineptly and brutally at their ever-multiplying enemies, both actual and perceived.
Torture of detainees was routine and death came, both from disease in the overcrowded jails and from secret executions. The ratio of the dead to survivors appears to have been very high. A teacher from Nangrahar, for example, told this author he was the only one twenty or so detainees from his district to come out or prison alive:
“In our cell, there were some 15 or 20 people. Every night, people would be taken out to be killed and new prisoners would come in. I remember some of the people’s names, but most I’ve forgotten… If [the guards] came at 9 o’clock at night and said to someone, you’re going to be released, he used to pray. He knew he was going to die. When they came for you during the day, we knew it was for torture.”
The publication of the death list by the Dutch is the first publicly available evidence of the fate of some of those who were forcibly disappeared in 1978 and 1979. Forced disappearance – detaining and executing someone without informing their families – is a crime against humanity. The effect of not knowing is long-lasting and deeply traumatic, as a friend explained in an interview conducted a few years ago:
“There was a knock at the door and my mother opened it and they forced their way in, breaking Afghan, Muslim, human taboos. They woke two of my brothers and took them away. One was still at school, the other at university. Even now, it’s very bad. I believe they are dead, but my mother still thinks her children might be alive. In our life, this is our deepest hope. Some of the mothers are still waiting, thinking their children might be in Russia. And even after all this time, we want the bodies, we’ll want them until we die, especially my mother.”
The origins of the list
The list, published by the Dutch prosecutor’s office on 17 September 2013 and re-published by Hasht-e Sobh and the Independent Afghan Human Rights Commission, was part of evidence gathered in a war crimes investigation by Dutch police and prosecutors concerning an Afghan man referred to as ‘Amanullah O’, who had sought asylum in the Netherlands in 1993. He had been chief of the Interrogation Department of the Afghan Intelligence agency, then called AGSA(2), and had died two weeks before he was due to be arrested by the Dutch police. A year later, the prosecutor’s office decided to release the list because: “The close relatives of the deceased in this case have the right to know the truth about the circumstances of the disappearance and the final fate of their loved ones as well as the outcome of the Dutch investigation.”
It is actually one of several death lists which were released in 1979 and 1980 by leaders who sought to tarnish the reputation of their predecessors and justify their own seizures of power. Lists were released both by Amin, after he overthrew and murdered his comrade and mentor, Taraki, in September 1979, and by Babrak Kamal, from the Parcham wing of the party, who was installed as president by the Soviet Union after their invasion and killing of Amin, in December 1979.
The Dutch say the list they have published was given to a British politician, Lord Nicholas Bethell, by the then chief of Afghan intelligence, Ghulam Faruq Yaqubi in 1989 and refers to those killed by the state in 1978 and 1979. This list was referred to in an early Amnesty International report on Afghanistan and reported on in 1989. The reason for handing it over to a western politician lay in the desire of the Afghan government (installed by the USSR in 1980 and still ruling in 1989) to justify the Soviet intervention by, in the words of the New York Times “revealing some of the brutality of previous leaders.” It was, it said, part of a broader strategy by the Najibullah government to disavow its past: “By representing itself as regretful about past excesses and eager to build a democratic, Islamic state, Mr Najibullah and his ruling People’s Democratic Party hope to carve a place for themselves.”
Only a fraction of those who were disappeared
The 4785 names on the Dutch prosecutor’s list are just a fraction, then, of those who were forcibly disappeared (and also appear to include only men). An attempt to get a sense of the actual scale of the purges was undertaken in the United Nations Conflict Mapping Report, an account of war crimes (1978-2001) based on open source documentation that was briefly published and subsequently suppressed in 2005. On the numbers of disappeared, it said:
“When Hafizullah Amin took full power after killing Taraki in September 1979, the Ministry of the Interior announced that it would publish the names of twelve thousand people who had died in Kabul jails since April 1978. The list was never published, however. According to Dupree, ‘The Amin regime attempted to place blame for the repressions on Taraki by announcing a list of 12,000 persons executed prior to September 15… The announcements stopped abruptly after about half the names had been released, because 10,000 demonstrators in front of the Ministry of the Interior demanded more details, and the government feared an outbreak of violence.’”
The UN Mapping Report also quotes UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan in 1986, Professor Felix Ermacora, regarding the testimony of a former member of the Ministry of Planning in Afghanistan, who had been instructed in February 1980 (ie after the Soviet invasion) to register all missing persons on the basis of information from relatives and friends:
“In three weeks over 25,000 persons between the ages of 18 and 60 had been registered. The missing persons were well educated and included medical doctors, government officials, military or religious people. An analysis was ordered by the minister in charge. In the view of the witness, well over 27,000 persons would have been registered missing if the registration procedure had not been stopped when it was discovered that the number of missing persons was much higher than foreseen.”
As the UN Mapping Report notes, these are only the figures for Kabul. Many more Afghans have been killed by the state across the country. The Mapping Report quotes the French scholar, Olivier Roy who estimates that “In all, between 50,000 and 100,000 people disappeared… Partial inquiries have been made but the story of this wave of repression has yet to be written.”
The Dutch prosecutor’s publication of this list has given some Afghan families the chance to hold a fateha for a long-lost father or brother or son. The accounts of those who found the names of their relatives testify to the importance – and the heartbreak – of finally knowing what happened. One man, Milad Mawj, writing on the Facebook site, 5000 victims, described finding his father’s name:
“… for a second, I felt that my father was alive. Then scenes of killing and the torturing of AGSA’s victims came to my mind’s eye and I heard the sounds of bullets, crying, pain and screaming of those whose eyes were closed with white cloth and were killed with bulldozers and bullets in the dark nights. I remembered my father smiling with kindness and his concern for me and my future. I cried and cried and I shouted, ‘Daddy jan, do not be concerned about my future. I finished school, I graduated from university, I got a job in the government, I am married and have children. But my children are always asking where their grandfather is and I need to tell them now that you are among the lists of the dead.’”(3)
Others have not been so lucky. The friend whose two brothers disappeared (whose mother died last year) said he found the names of a brother-in-law and a close friend on the list, but his brothers, like most of the 40 or so people who disappeared from his small village to the north of Kabul, were not there and have yet to be accounted for. Then there are those who lost relatives in later stages of the war who are asking: “Why is no-one speaking about our victims?”(4)
The purges of the 1978 coup-makers were undoubtedly the ‘original sin’ of the Afghan war. It was bloodletting not even understandable as perpetrated by victims turned oppressors and it set off fresh cycles of violence which continue to this day. However, war crimes did not end with the fall of Amin. The wholesale slaughter of the enemies of the state ended, but the new government continued to use torture routinely and carried out executions (although now after summary verdicts from the Revolutionary Courts). It was then in the countryside that atrocities blossomed as Soviet and Afghan forces bombed villages and killed countless civilians in their attempt to wipe out resistance. All governments since the 1978 coup and many armed groups have practiced torture. Most have carried out summary executions and massacres and indiscriminate bombing or indeed the deliberate targeting of civilians.
There is an irony, then, in the decision of the Jihadi Council, summoned by President Karzai, to hold two days of national mourning and build a memorial mosque and minaret for the victims of the Khalqis when some of the council’s number have also been accused of war crimes. And what to make of the Taleban decrying the communists for their “great cruelty and brutality” and presenting themselves as victims and heroes when they themselves kill Afghan civilians every day?
One moving account by Nushin Arbabzadah describes finding her uncle’s name on the death list; her final comment seems relevant here:
“I learned a lesson today – that without facts being established, there’s no freedom from the prison of history. Without justice, there’s no chance for peace.”
The difficulty for a nation in confronting its violent past cannot be underestimated, yet as a major report by AAN on transitional justice and the prospects for peace in Afghanistan noted, it is necessary:
“… the length and complexity of the Afghanistan conflict have complicated peace efforts, feeding conflicting narratives about the war and the identities of its victims, villains and heroes. Many Afghans know only what they have directly experienced and not what people in other areas of the country have suffered. It is for these reasons that documenting and telling the truth about the conflict are crucial if Afghanistan is ever to break the cycles of violence that have defined the last 35 years.”
(1) Testimony given by families and detainees who survived supports the contention that this is a list of those killed in detention. Copies of signed orders for the transfer of more than 600 detainees between AGSA and the prisons which have been scanned and posted by the Dutch, corroborate the details on the main list.
One man on the list who actually survived is Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, listed as number 1582, a lecturer from Paghman and an Ikhwani (and at the time, still using his birth name, Abdul Rassul, before he changed it on Arab advice to Abdul Rabb Rasul.) According to the UN Mapping Report (citing Olivier Roy), he was the only Islamist prisoner who was not executed. He was related to Amin on his mother’s side and the president is said to have personally intervened to spare him.
* After Parcham took over as a result of the Soviet invasion, the new leaders released a large number of political prisoners from Pul-e Charkhi in January 1980.
(2) AGSA derives from the Pashto, De Afghanistan de Gato Satelo Edara (Department for the Protection of Afghanistan’s Interests).
(3) Here are a flavour of some of the postings:
Nushin Arbabzadah in The Guardian:
“For years, we kept hoping. There was always a new spotting. ‘I swear I saw Baqir Jaan with my own eyes. He has been forced to serve as a soldier, guarding a border post,’ said one family friend about my disappeared uncle. ‘I have it from reliable sources that he is alive and in Siberia. The Soviets are keeping an Afghan prisoners’ camp there,’ said an acquaintance. We kept hoping because we are human and that’s all we can do when regimes take away our loved ones, making them disappear.
“There were sometimes grand humanitarian gestures. Amnesties would be announced. My grandma would dress in white and start cooking a festive meal. We would embark in cars, drive to Pul-e Charkhi, stand there for hours in dust and heat and there would be no sign of him. The food would remain unserved but we kept hoping, next year maybe. We decided not leave Afghanistan, despite the car bombs and rockets, just in case he was still alive. What if he is released and there’s no one to pick him up? Suspicion then turned inwards, with family members accusing each other of having murdered him because the government denied involvement. Rifts were created that have lasted until now.”
Khalid Mirzamir (posted on the Facebook site, ‘5000 Victims’:
“For the first time, after 33 years waiting, I heard that my dear father was executed at night just because he was a teacher. Mawlawi Mirza Amir was kidnapped from the Panjsheer Peshghor school by the communists. When he was killed, I was an 8 month old baby still in my mother womb. I only heard stories of my father from my mother and relatives. I was waiting for the day he would come and I would feel the arms of my father round me Sometimes I was saying to myself that I would find the head of AGSA and ask him where is my father? However, today’s list of victims left me hopeless forever. I know that my father will never come back. The hands of these murderers of 5000 victims are not only tainted with the blood of those victims but also our blood because they made our lives dark when they took our family members from us.”
(4) One man, for example, posted:
“My mother used to say I was a one year old baby in the cradle when my father, who was a student in Mazar-e Sharif, came to the village to be with his son on his first birthday. Mujahideen were informed that a student had come back to village and in midnight they came to kill my father but my father escaped. My uncle who was a school student and my grandfather who was a farmer were killed instead; their only crime was that their son/brother was a university student. The crimes of AGSA are no different from the crimes of the mujahideen and Taleban.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020