The massacre in Yakaolang follows previous attacks by the Taliban on Hazaras and members of other ethnic minorities in north central Afghanistan. The provinces of Baghlan and Samangan, which lie north of Bamiyan, have seen intermittent fighting between Taliban and United Front forces since 1998. As a means of controlling the civilian population and ensuring that it does not give assistance to the United Front, Taliban forces have frequently resorted to detaining men from villages in the area and holding them for prolonged periods as virtual hostages.16
In May 2000, Taliban forces summarily executed a group of civilian detainees near the Robatak pass, which lies along the road connecting the towns of Tashkurgan and Pul-i Khumri. Until a systematic forensic investigation is carried out, the precise number of those killed cannot be known, but Human Rights Watch has obtained confirmation of thirty-one bodies at the execution site, twenty-six of which have been identified as the bodies of Ismaili Shia Hazara civilians from Baghlan province. Their remains were found to the northeast of the Robatak pass, in an area known as Hazara Mazari, on the border between Baghlan and Samangan provinces. The area was controlled by the Taliban at the time of the executions. There are reported to be as many as three other gravesites near the pass.
All of those who have been identified were detained for four months before being killed; many of them were tortured before they were killed. The men were taken from their homes by Taliban troops between January 5 and January 14, 2000. The facilities at which the men were detained were under the command of Commander Mullah Shahzad Kandahari, who was the Taliban commander of the Khinjan front north of Kabul and who was also reportedly present in Yakaolang when it was held by the Taliban in January 2001.
On January 5, 2000, a Taliban force raided the village cluster of Naikpai, in Doshi district of Baghlan province. The Taliban soldiers came in a convoy of pickup trucks at dawn. They started to round up men from Bakas, Zaighola, and other hamlets in Naikpai, seizing many of them in their houses. A number of those who were arrested were village elders. There were many other people present and virtually the entire population of the village witnessed the arrests. Local residents assumed that the arrests were a warning to deter them from having contacts with United Front forces.17
The house-to-house searches and arrests continued for nine days. While they were underway, the detainees were held at Mullah Shahzad's operational military base at Khinjan. Relatives of the detainees were allowed to visit the base, and were informed of conditions in the facility by the detainees. 18 The men who were detained between approximately January 5 and 10 were subjected to severe beatings with electric cables and were forced to stand outside in sub-zero temperatures and snow. One of those who was later killed near the Robatak pass, Sayyid Tajuddin, who was thirty-eight, suffered frostbite as a result of the exposure following his beating. When the detainees were transferred to Pul-i Khumri, he was admitted to the Textile Factory hospital. Both feet were amputated there, and he was provided with a pair of locally fabricated crutches.19
At the end of the operation, around January 14, all of the detainees were transferred to Pul-i Khumri, where Shahzad maintained his rear base. The detainees were held in the residential quarters attached to the Pul-i Khumri Textile Mill. On or around May 8, the detainees were removed from the facility. When relatives inquired as to their whereabouts they were ordered by the authorities to leave the area. However, a staff member of the facility informed them that the men had been loaded onto a single truck, thought to be a "kalafil" truck of Soviet manufacture, during the evening. The truck was reportedly escorted by a Taliban Toyota pickup.20 The prisoners were later found dead at Hazara Mazari, a journey of approximately one-and-a-half hours from the detention facility. The men are believed to have been shot the same night that they were taken from the facility.
On or around May 18, shepherds from the Robatak pass area reported the presence of bodies to the provincial authorities in Samangan. The mayor of Samangan detailed a party of ten workmen, with an escort of Taliban troops, to locate and bury the bodies at the Hazara Mazari site.
It was apparent from the appearance of the bodies that the detainees had been brought to the execution site with their hands bound behind their backs, and tied together by their forearms in groups of three, according to a worker who assisted in the burials. Twenty-eight of the victims were found lying where had been were shot, face down on the ground. The execution party had made no attempt to remove or cover the bodies.21 The body of another man, identified as Sahib Dad, was found tied to a tree, his arms and legs each tied separately with a length of rope in such a way that his captors would have been able to manipulate them while he was immobilized. 22
The workmen buried the twenty-nine bodies at the Hazara Mazari site. The burial was perfunctory. The bodies were covered with at most thirty centimeters of earth, inadequate to protect them from wild animals. The worker who assisted in the burials described what he saw:
Soon after the workmen returned, word reached Naikpai that some of its people were among the dead. A group of residents went to inspect the gravesites, where they found shallow graves and recognized bits of clothing belonging to their missing relatives. They also found two more bodies at a short distance from the others; the two men had been shot and their bodies were left where they fell.
Since the massacre, the Robatak area has remained under Taliban control. Local human rights researchers visited the site at Hazara Mazari in November 2000 and photographed the remains that were visible from the surface. Some of those photographs are appended to this report.
The actual number of persons killed at Robatak may be much higher that the thirty-one that Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm. Other gravesites have been reported at different locations near the pass. However, the researchers believe that if there were bodies at these sites, they may have been disturbed or moved by Taliban authorities as no remains were visible from the surface.
The motive for the prisoners' killing remains unclear. The killings took place just after the Taliban and the United Front had negotiated an agreement on a prisoner exchange during a summit meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, held under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.24 And during the same time period, United Front forces appear to have attacked and killed Taliban troops in ambushes along the road that runs through the Robatak pass.25
16 Human Rights Watch interviews with researchers who have visited the area, October-December 2000.
17 Such detentions have been common in areas of conflict in the north. Civilians have been detained for extended periods to deter others in the area from supporting the opposition.
18 The detainees also sent letters out in which they expressed their belief that they would be released soon. Interview with a family member of a detainee, Peshawar, Pakistan, January 2001.
21 Interview with a worker who assisted in the burial, Islamabad, Pakistan, December 2000.
22 It appeared that the captors had tried to manipulate Sahib Dad's limbs as if he were a marionette, either before or after he was executed. Interview with a worker who assisted in the burial, Islamabad, Pakistan, December 2000.
24 See "Afghanistan's warring parties agree to prisoner exchange at UN-attended talks," United Nations Department of Public Information (UNDPI), May 10, 2000. The International Committee of the Red Cross was to have overseen the exchange.
25 Interviews conducted in Baghlan and Samagan provinces, July 2000.