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Afghanistan: Ethnically-Motivated Abuses Against Civilians
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder
October 2001

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The Aftermath

Ethnic tensions in Afghanistan have been exacerbated by nearly a decade of conflict between armed factions rooted in different ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. Human Rights Watch has reported on widespread and serious violations of international human rights by all sides in the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan. As the country heads into a period that may involve realignment and large-scale conflict between the warring parties, the potential for ethnically-motivated violence against civilians is likely to rise as well.

Northern and central Afghanistan are areas of particular concern. There is a possibility of continued attacks by Taliban forces on ethnic minorities in these areas, particularly those suspected of being sympathetic to the opposition United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance. The prospect of a violent end to Taliban rule also creates a risk of reprisals by opposition forces against communities seen as having supported the Taliban.

Afghanistan's demographics have fluctuated over the years as a result of refugee flows, but ethnic Pashtuns are presently thought to account for about 38 percent of the total population and constitute a large majority in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Hazaras, who are Shi'a Muslim and account for 19 percent of the total population, predominate in central Afghanistan, a region known as the Hazarajat.

In northern Afghanistan, ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks - 25 percent and 6 percent of the total population, respectively - are interspersed with Pashtun communities resettled there in the late nineteenth century, as well as with more recent Pashtun migrants.

Although the Taliban's rapid military expansion through central and northern Afghanistan between 1996 and 1998 entailed coopting ethnic Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek militia commanders, the Taliban's power is concentrated in the southern, largely Pashtun city of Kandahar and the predominantly Pashtun provinces surrounding it. The three major parties in the United Front - Jamiat-i Islami, Junbish, and Hizb-i Wahdat - draw their support from Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras respectively.

Many observers fear that Mazar-i Sharif, the major city of north-central Afghanistan, and surrounding rural areas could be a flashpoint. It has already seen large-scale massacres by both sides. In May 1997, United Front forces then controlling the city killed an estimated 3,000 Taliban prisoners. In August 1998, after the Taliban retook the city, they retaliated, killing an almost equal number of mostly Hazara civilians. While those killings were largely in reprisal for the 1997 massacre, there was also a sectarian element: Mullah Manon Niazi, the governor installed by the Taliban, delivered public speeches in which he termed the Hazaras "infidels" and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Sunni Islam or leave Afghanistan. Hundreds of civilians fled south toward Hazarajat, amid rocket fire and aerial bombardment.

While none of the major armed factions in Afghanistan have a clean record on the treatment of civilians in areas under their control, the Taliban have exhibited a consistent pattern of persecuting ethnic and religious minorities whom they view as contesting their rule. In August 2001, Human Rights Watch interviewed ethnic Hazara and Uzbek refugees in Pakistan who had fled reprisal killings and the destruction of their homes by Taliban forces. Their experiences point to the vulnerability of Afghan minorities - at risk from the consequences of armed conflict between the United Front and the Taliban in their home districts, and facing an uncertain future as refugees.

Armed conflict and reprisals

During August and September 1998, Taliban forces captured Mazar-i Sharif and most of the Hazarajat region to its south. Despite the apprehensions of Hazarajat residents, the transition there resulted in far fewer civilian casualties than in Mazar. Some observers attributed this to an alliance that was forged with the Taliban by Hujjat-al-Islam Sayyid Mohammad Akbari, a Shi'a Muslim from Hazarajat and the leader of a Hizb-i Wahdat faction, underscoring both the importance of local leadership and the ease with which alliances shift.

Even after the Taliban victories, an arc of territory on the northern and western margins of Hazarajat remained under the control of the Shi'a Hazara parties Hizb-i Wahdat and Harakat-i Islami, both of which are members of the United Front.

This enclave has more recently been a springboard for attempts by Hizb-i Wahdat and the allied forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, to recover territory to the south and north respectively. To date, the two factions have had limited success in retaining territory that they have captured, and the cost of their failed offensives has been largely borne by local Hazara and Uzbek civilians, who have been subjected to ruthless collective punishment by the Taliban.

Control of Yakaolang district, in Bamiyan province, shifted four times between December 2000 and mid-2001, with large-scale reprisals exacted against civilians and civilian property on two occasions. Hizb-i Wahdat forces, moving south, occupied Yakaolang in December 2000. The Taliban recaptured the district on January 8, 2001, and held it for two weeks, during which they detained and summarily executed about 170 male Hazara civilians. (Details of the massacre can be found in the Human Rights Watch's February 2001 report "Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan").

When the Taliban returned in early May, most of the valley's population fled in advance of their forces to the surrounding hills, though the men returned to irrigate their fields, feed their livestock, and bring flour and other essential items back to their families. According to a witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch in August, Taliban forces looted shops in the bazaar after retaking the area and carried out isolated killings of civilians.

On June 5, Hizb-i Wahdat recaptured Yakaolang, ending the Taliban's month-long occupation of the district. After retreating, Taliban forces countered with a series of air raids in which their planes bombarded Nayak, the administrative center of Yakaolang, damaging the district hospital and an aid agency office. Hizb-i Wahdat again retreated, and the Taliban entered Nayak on June 10. The Taliban's official Bakhtar Information Agency reported in June that Mullah Dadaullah, a Kabul-based Taliban commander implicated in previous abuses against civilians, was in charge of what it termed the "mopping up operation" in Yakaolang.

Over a two-day period, Dadaullah's troops burned about 4,500 houses, 500 shops, and public buildings in Nayak, Dara Ali, and other villages in central Yakaolang. Among the buildings destroyed in the fires were a medical clinic in Nayak, whose burnt out shell is visible in video footage obtained by Human Rights Watch, as well as twelve mosques and prayer halls, and the main madrassa, or Islamic seminary, in Dara Ali.

The Taliban withdrew from central Yakaolang after occupying it for one week. One resident of Yakaolang, who had fled south to Panjao district in early May, returned to his home village of Zarsang after the withdrawal. He told Human Rights Watch simply, "There was nothing left."

As the Taliban troops retreated, they continued to burn villages and to detain and kill civilians in villages along the main road running through eastern Yakaolang and the western part of Bamiyan district, as well as in the side valleys of western Bamiyan. At the time, western Bamiyan had already been under the continuous control of the Taliban for nearly two months, suggesting that the attacks in the district were either a form of collective punishment of Hazaras or an attempt to destroy the economic base of a region considered supportive of the opposition.

A clear pattern of abuses emerges from the testimony of refugees from western Bamiyan, beginning with an assault by Taliban forces on villages at the entrance to each valley, using tanks or pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on them. The Taliban approach was followed in each case by the mass flight of able-bodied civilians to the hills, where many had already been encamped since the takeover of the area by the Taliban in early May. The Taliban forces then proceeded into the valleys, burning homes, shops, and mosques, and detaining or killing those civilians - often the elderly or infirm - who remained behind. Some civilians were also killed while trying to escape.

Several refugees described witnessing the subsequent movement of ethnic Pashtun pastoralists into the valleys, and the grazing of large herds of sheep on their farmlands. "They brought sheep and put them in the fields, and they ate all our wheat," said one witness from Shahidan. Such encroachment is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits the destruction of agricultural areas, crops, or other objects that are indispensable to the survival of civilians.

Among the towns in western Bamiyan that sustained extensive damage was Qarghanatu. Moving upland from Qarghanatu to the villages of Aubol and Sar-e Qazu, Taliban troops began set fire to homes, bazaars, and mosques, using firewood and diesel fuel that residents had stored to heat their houses and operate generators. "All of the homes were burned," said a refugee from Sar-e Qazu. "People who had the power to leave - young men and women - fled. Old men and children who couldn't escape were all killed. At night, I came down and buried the people with my hands. Most of the dead bodies [in Sar-e Qazu] were found in the mosque, but some were found around and inside their homes."

Proceeding east toward central Bamiyan, the Taliban entered the Shahidan valley. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the troops burned all of the houses and mosques in the villages of Nal Shira, Ladu Bala, Ladu Paeen, and Ghulghulamak, as well as tents in the adjacent summer pastures to which many families had fled in May, after the Taliban recaptured Shahidan. About twenty civilians were killed in Shahidan itself, while up to sixty others were taken to central Bamiyan in the Taliban's pickup trucks. According to an aid worker in the area, about eight of the detainees were later executed, while the others were released after a period of forced labor.

"Some [displaced] people had been coming down from the mountains to plant," said one of the witnesses. "The sixty people who were picked up were watering their fields, and looking after their animals."

To the north of Bamiyan, in Balkh province, similar reprisals were carried out by Taliban forces against ethnic Uzbek civilians in Zari district. After a week-long occupation by General Dostum's forces, Zari reverted to Taliban control in late May 2001. While most civilians fled to the hills south of central Zari, many of those who remained or who returned are reported to have been killed by Taliban forces reoccupying the district.

Human Rights Watch has also gathered accounts from refugees of arrests of civilians who returned to Zari and their transportation as prisoners to Kandahar, and of burnings of homes in the district. Zari continues to be a contested area, having changed hands twice during September; it is presently under Taliban control.

Abuses by United Front forces in the conflict areas of central Afghanistan chiefly appear to involve forcing civilians, despite their very limited resources, to feed their troops. In the Foladi valley, during late March, Hizb-i Wahdat reportedly fired at the Taliban from positions in the villages, a tactic that may have fueled the subsequent Taliban reprisals against civilians in the area.

"Some of the Wahdat troops came at night to our village and were firing at the Taliban's posts," a refugee from Foladi said. "The Taliban obliged us to leave our houses - they came to our houses and said if we didn't leave after one night we would be killed. They said we were supporting Wahdat."

Both Hizb-i Wahdat and the Taliban are understood to have conscripted civilians, although Hizb-i Wahdat appears to have had considerably less success in compelling local civilians to comply. Refugees from the north cited the large sums of money that they had to pay to avoid conscription as a major factor motivating their decision to flee their homes, when interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The net effect of the Taliban campaign in central and eastern Yakaolang and in western Bamiyan has been to render these areas uninhabitable. With their homes destroyed and without access to their crops, most civilians have remained in the upland areas of Yakaolang or Bamiyan, or fled to the neighboring districts of Panjao, Besud, and Dara-i Suf. According to date released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), as of late September there were about 60,000 internally displaced persons in Bamiyan province. Without access to food aid, many are reportedly facing starvation. Others with the means to cover the costs of the journey have sought refuge in Pakistan and Iran.