Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

The Past is Here to Stay: Listening to Afghan Voices on Justice and Reconciliation

Sari Kouvo 6 min

The abuses and violations suffered by Afghans during the conflicts are all but forgotten, and although pragmatic about what is possible in the current security environment, Afghans seem to view reconciliation and justice as intimately linked. AAN’s Sari Kouvo takes a look at recent publications by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) documenting Afghan opinions about reconciliation and justice and discusses recent civil society conferences focusing on transitional justice and the situation of victims of war crimes.

Accountability and other ways of dealing with past violations are today viewed as an integral part of sustainable transitions and peace deals, but not so in Afghanistan. The dominant view among Afghan and international policy makers seem to be that the truth (knowing what Afghans have suffered during the conflict) and accountability is either irrelevant or can only further destabilise the situation. Recent AREU reports and civil society conferences suggest the opposite: Knowing the truth about what has happened to disappeared family members and getting recognition for war time suffering would go some way to rebuilding public confidence in the government and in the current peace process. Ensuring accountability for war crimes and removing alleged perpetrators from positions of power would go even further.
The civil society efforts for truth-seeking and justice continue. Over the past month, the Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG) has organized regional conferences to discuss networking between victims of war crimes. Next week a conference covering the eastern region will be organized in Jalalabad, earlier this autumn, conferences were organised in Mazar-i Sharif and in Herat. The conferences have brought together representatives of victims’ organizations, civil society and government to discuss interest in a national victims’ network. The regional conferences were preceded by a national conference (Kabul, March 2011, see AAN’s reporting about it here). One of the organisers of the Mazar conference noted that what struck him was that some of the victims had emphasized that they would be ready to forgive the perpetrators, if they acknowledged their crimes. In his experience, victims usually demand accountability and view few alternatives to this. When talking to one of the organizers of the Herat conference, AAN was told that the victims at this conference emphasized that telling the truth about what had happened during the conflict was a sort of memorialisation and that it could also serve as a tool to ensure that the atrocities committed during the conflict would not be repeated.

Earlier this year, a similar road show for justice was organized by Afghanistan Watch, as it sought to discuss its documentation of mass graves with victims in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul (for more information, see here). These conferences provided the opportunity to discuss specific massacres and what it means to live with the memory of massacres and what it means to live in proximity with a mass grave. The conference had, tells one of the organizers, provided an opportunity for sharing of knowledge and facts, but also expressions of solidarity between victims.

Conferences do not change the world. If they did, Afghanistan would be a transformed place by now. However, what they have done – and continue to do – is enable a coming together of those Afghans who have established civil society organizations which deal with issues of justice and human rights, also with those who have begun mobilizing around specific incidents or war crimes or the situation of victims in general. These are opportunities for them to vent their grievances and get new ideas about what can be done.

The recent ‘Legacies of Conflict’ publications by Emily Winterbotham and a team of Afghan field researchers of the AREU show that experiences and memories of war crimes ranging from illegal detention, torture and killings to mass displacements and massacres are ever present in Afghan communities (to read the reports, click here). The reports based on extensive qualitative interviews in urban and rural communities in Bamian, Ghazni and Kabul show that Afghans, regardless of their level of education or current situation, reflect on how the past affects the present and on the need to balance reconciliation with justice.

What struck me when reading the reports was the extent of the violations that Afghans have suffered and how this suffering remains present in their daily lives. Or as noted by one of the AREU respondents, a man from Shakardara:

‘I went crazy because my father was killed here. My brother became a martyr here. My young daughter was also martyred here. One of my nine-year-old boys was killed here. In total, I lost six people. If you lost six people at once would your mind be ok? They were all killed and were martyred during the Taliban time’.

A man from Dara-i Ali shared similar sentiments:

‘I can say that the after effects of the conflicts exist in our body as a disease does and some of these effects still remain in our hearts. When a violation affects the heart, a person is dead just like a withered flower. Since the time Karzai has become king, everything has gone well. But this withering has not left our hearts’.

The AREU reports do provide some interesting examples of how communities themselves has dealt with the legacies of violations, for example, through perpetrators asking for forgiveness and their apology being accepted. However, in general, the reports show that Afghans view their leaders (and leaders of other countries) as responsible for what they have suffered and, thus, also responsible for coming up with solutions. There are variations between the different case studies as what solutions would be possible and acceptable. For example, respondents in Bamian were weary about giving emphasis to accountability, it was important, but as Bamian remains relatively calm, keeping stability was a priority. Respondents in Ghazni, were more prone to emphasize accountability, they already had no security so they might as well try for justice.

The reports also do show considerable support for finding out the truth and investigating past – and present – war crimes. Especially people living with memories of disappeared family members and friends emphasized the need to know, as this would provide them with some form of closure. As Reza, a male respondent in Dara-i-Ali, put it, ‘[w]hen you bury a dead member of your family or your friend’s corpse, your heart will be calm and consoled. But if he has disappeared, it is a very harsh situation. We are still looking and waiting for them’.

The reports also showed that people were ready to forgive, but that that forgiveness was linked to perpetrators recognizing their crimes and publicly and sincerely asking for forgiveness. The government’s legitimacy could also be restored by it removing alleged perpetrators if war crimes from positions of power. One of the male respondents from Ghazni City summed up the widespread desire to remove criminals from power:

‘If the government doesn’t discharge criminals from their posts, war and other problems will never end in the country. If there is not a strong and powerful government a country can’t advance and rebuild and the war and other problems between people won’t end. Currently, there are no honest people in the government who work for the people and instead they use their power for their own benefit’.

Some Afghan television, radio and print media has also addressed issues of transitional justice, interestingly, most of these programs have closed down. For example, Killid radio has had a program called ‘City with no response’ that told and investigated victims’ stories. The program was closed down a few months ago, and now transitional justice issues are instead integrated into other daily programs. Ariana television had a program called ‘War stories’ which was also closed down a few months ago as funding to the program was cut. Shamshad television had earlier a program called ‘Who is responsible’, the name of the program changed later to ‘Mother’, but it continued to document especially women’s victims’ stories. Funding for this program ended about half a year ago. Saba television used to have roundtables about transitional justice as part of its program called ‘Intersection’, but this program has also been cut because of funding constraints. However, Hasht-e Sobh, an Afghan daily newspaper, continues to print victims’ stories on a daily basis.

Three recent stories from Hasht-e Sobh are a story told by a man whose brother was disabled by a mine explosion during the years of the Soviet occupation. The man emphasizes that conflict has left no corner of Afghanistan untouched and that it has turned ‘good’ lives bad (see here). Another story told by a man whose brother was disabled after having been shot by Soviet forces. The man explained that he and his family had been caught in the line of fire between Soviet and Mujahidin forces, when escaping the man’s brother was shot. He survived but with serious injuries in both his legs and in one of his arm and he has been living with constant pain ever since (see here). Another story is told by a mother whose daughter died in a rocket attack during the civil war. The daughter had gone to buy food in the market and when she did not return the family started worrying and looking for her. They then learnt about the rocket attack and finally found the girl’s body in the morgue. The mother describes how ‘the world turned over’ on her when she saw the dead body of her daughter (seehere).

The past is ever present in Afghanistan – and the demands for justice remain strong, although often carefully voiced. Some of my Afghan friends did express anger when they heard about the indictments of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Libya, criticizing the international community for taking on war criminals elsewhere, but never in Afghanistan. Without going into the nitty-gritty of the ICC’s engagement in Libya or its preliminary analysis in Afghanistan, I do understand their concerns: From the perspectives of Afghans interested in justice issues and having learnt about the ICC or about the United Nation’s or the European Union’s principled stands on accountability and justice, the lack of attention to these issues in Afghanistan must be very hard to understand. Or as a friend recently pointed out, the atrocities of the Afghan civil war, daily, indiscriminate bombings of Kabul that killed thousands of civilians, happened at the same time as the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. Rwanda and former Yugoslavia has had their war crimes tribunals, but Afghanistan has seen no justice.


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