There are days when Afghanistan’s sadness becomes overwhelming. For us, the Afghan National Victims’ Day was such a day. AAN Senior Analyst Sari Kouvo and Political Researcher Obaid Ali participated in the Afghan National Victims’ Day demonstration and commemoration.
Around forty women and men have already gathered when we early Friday morning arrived at Kabul’s Shar-i Now park where the National Victims’ Day* demonstration was to begin. Waiting for the demonstration to begin, we talked to a group of the older women. Their stories were poured over us: One woman told us how her life had been good till one day during the civil war her husband did not come home and that since then she and her children had been ‘hardly surviving’. Another woman explained how her husband had been killed during the Taliban regime and her son had been disabled, she pointed at her bare feet in plastic sandals and said ‘It is cold and I cannot even afford socks’ and ‘we won’t have wood for the winter’. Most of the women were widowed or they have lost children in the conflict. When we asked an old woman how she had coped with the loss of her husband and children, she answered ‘we have to’, and then showed us her scarred arms. She was cutting herself, exchanging one pain for another.
When a few hundred people had gathered, the demonstration began. During the short walk from Shar-i Now Park towards the Zanbaq Square close to the UNAMA Compound, the demonstrators are chanting slogans ‘Our standard is justice, our aim is justice, our message is justice, we support truth, truth, truth’. And they called for truth, an end to dishonesty and inhumanity. However, besides the riot police guiding the demonstration and a few small children hurrying to their work as newspaper sellers there was nobody watching the demonstration. With all the attention Afghanistan is getting, its many victims do not have much of an audience, and their messages, consistently raised for years by now, just do not seem to attract the attention of Afghan and international decision- and policy-makers.
After the demonstration, the demonstrators were driven in buses to Pul-i Charkhi, at the outskirts of Kabul. The buses stopped at the Pul-i Charkhi mass grave site: An old trench, marked with a few flags at the middle of a dusty field in between a mountain, a new road construction and a small mud hut community. As has been reported by the Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP), thousands of the dissidents to the Khalq leadership’s ‘reform’ agenda were detained in Pul-i Charkhi prison and an unknown number of these were executed and dumped in the trench. One of the participants of the commemoration ceremony, a teacher, told us that he believes that one of his colleagues was buried here. He explained that his colleague had been detained – and then executed – because he had been praying. We asked him, whether commemoration was important and what he, as a teacher, believed was important to ensure that the young generation learns the truth about the conflict. ‘Documentation and truth-telling’ he told us. According to him, many of Afghanistan’s youth, only learn about the conflict from the perspective of the faction that their fathers and families have belonged to. They learn a biased history – one that often makes hatred part of their heritage.
At the commemoration ceremony, victims from different parts of Afghanistan told what they or their families had suffered: A man spoke about his arrest and the torture he suffered under the Communist regime in Kunduz province and that he some of his fellow prisoners ended up in this – or similar mass graves. A woman spoke about how her husband, when he was only 20 years old and a student at the Engineering Faculty at Kabul University, had been arrested by the Communist regime and disappeared. She had not heard from her husband since the arrest, and believed that he was buried in one of the mass graves. A representative from the Ministry of Defense also attended the ceremony, and spoke with conviction about his own and his losses during the conflict. However, here again the audience was missing, besides the participants in the demonstration – and a few contractors from the nearby road construction – few had ventured out to the Pul-i Charkhi mass grave. There was one exception though, national media was there. Several Afghan television and radio channels and also some print media had come to Pul-i Charkhi and reported from the event.
The National Victims’ Day events touched us. And, maybe, a demonstration and sharing painful memories will provide at least some recourse for those who have lost their loved ones. However, a day of remembrance, symbolic gestures of acknowledgement, will only go so far and may also backlash if there are no real attempts to help the victims to uncover the truth and to provide remedy.
*Establishing 10 December, International Human Rights Day, as National Victims Day in Afghanistan is one of the few steps undertaken by the Afghan government to implement its Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation. According to the outcome documents of the Kabul Conference, an updated version of the Action Plan that takes into account the recommendations of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) documentation report should be re-adopted.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020