In Afghanistan, things are often more complicated than they look like at the first glance. Some armed fighting, for example, is motivated by local conflicts. But there are always people who are interested to present this as ‘Taleban’-driven. Our guest author Bette Dam*, a Dutch journalist, pleads for more accuracy in reporting such incidents.
On New Year’s Day, six Afghans were beheaded in a village in Uruzgan province. Horrible news. The boys were young, some of them only 18 years old.
The New York Times was quick with the conclusion: the Taleban were behind it. They killed the men ‘because of their alliance with the Karzai government’. AFP told their readers they were killed ‘by the Taleban’, because of ‘spying’ for the Afghan government. Xinhua made it even more clear: the six beheaded Afghans were ‘ex-colleges’ from the Taleban who killed them. A Belgian newspaper presented the story like this: ‘A group of moderate Taleban held a meeting in a house and a terrorist Taleban-group came and beheaded them’, as provincial police commander Juma Gul told the journalist.
My first text message to an Afghan I work with in Tarinkot about what happened with the six victims was answered with: ‘Those people were madrassa Taleban’. For me that didn’t explain anything; my experience is that you have to press a bit. Often the conflicts in the province seem too complex for the Afghans to take the effort to explain them to Westerners. Others find it much easier to blame the Taleban for everything and get away with it. Besides that, especially the young Afghans I work with feel sometimes ashamed to speak about differences between their tribal leaders.
But I’ve been working with this Afghan colleague for two years and I know I can try it again. So I did. ‘But who was interested in killing them?’, I texted, in the hope to get names of tribal leaders who had an enmity between each other, or maybe something else. And again I got an unclear answer: ‘The Taleban killed among each other’. I felt something uncommon was going on; most of the time he is more direct. So I tried ‘Why did they do that then? Is it rivalry between groups? Were the two groups both from Tarinkot?’ It took a while… and then he replied that he talked to the leader of the jail who arrested four of the killers, and he told him the reason: ‘To be honest – they fought about a boy friend’.
After talking to the governor and an aid worker in Tarinkot I got it confirmed. The fights for sex with a boy ended up in the newspaper as a clash between Taleban ‘who become more strong in the province’, as one newspaper added.
The governor was clear: ‘No, it’s not extremist Taleban, they were not fighters, just students. We are researching it’, he said, ‘but yes, the idea is that it was about a boyfriend’.
The aid worker started laughing uncomfortable when I asked him the same question. ‘How can I explain to you what happened’, he tried. ‘Is it a Taleban-fight? ’, I asked. He quickly denied. ‘No fighters, no Taleban, it has nothing to do with that.’ Then he found how to put it: ‘Here we have a habit of… they fought about misusing a boy for love’.
So, what happened according to my sources, was as follows: In a village ten kilometer west of Tarinkot, the fight started amongst three small madrassas. Two of them, the governor explained, are for adults. The other one is for boys under 18. Two adult groups wanted to take a ‘boyfriend’ from the children’s madrassa but a disagreement started between them. In the night, one adult group attacked the other adult group. They first killed their targets (some of them were sleeping, others were studying) and after that they beheaded them. ‘For Tarinkot, this is also very unusual”, the aid worker said.
It is the second time in a few weeks that media write about ‘Taleban’ responsible for certain killings while there seems to be a different reality. The latest suicide attack in Dehrawod in November – where 13 people got killed (see our blog about this incident here) – was also about two local groups who had a rivalry amongst each other for years now.
Especially these days, when thousands of American soldiers prepare themselves for ‘war’ in Afghanistan, it is important for the media to take the lead and ask the question: What is really going on in Afghanistan? Is there ‘increasing Taleban influence’ and where? What is the real background of local conflicts? Who exactly is the enemy the soldiers are going to fight? At the same time it is not sufficient to use Afghanistan’s complexity as a pretext for superficial reporting: As it is shown here, the background of incidents like the one in the Tarinkot madrassa can be discovered relatively easily, with a bit of patience and leaving behind the black-and-white picture about the Taleban. This way, the public gets to know what Afghanistan really is about and what the soldiers stand for when they depart to the country any time soon.
* Bette Dam is a freelance journalist based in the Netherlands, traveling regularly to Afghanistan, in particular to Uruzgan. She is the author of the book ‘Expeditie Uruzgan: De weg van Hamid Karzai naar het paleis’ (Expedition Uruzgan: Hamid Karzai’s way into his palace, Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam and Antwerpen 2009).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020