Taliban troops entered the western outskirts of Mazar-i Sharif at about 9:30 a.m. on August 8. Residents reported hearing firing from the west from the early morning; many stated that they assumed that fighting had broken out between various factions within the United Front and that they did not realize that the Taliban had reached the city until they saw their characteristic black turbans and white flags. The firing continued until about 1:00 p.m. One witness described it as a "killing frenzy." Although several witnesses reported seeing bodies of Hizb-i Wahdat fighters in some locations, from the descriptions provided by survivors it is clear that many of those killed were noncombatants. One witness who passed through a market area on her way home saw that among those killed were a boy who had been selling bread from a cart, a woman who she was told had been on her way to a social gathering, and a man who had been grinding wheat. Many merchants in the bazaar were reportedly killed as the Taliban moved through the streets shooting at random. In some cases the Taliban used machine guns mounted on jeeps to fire continuously into the streets. A witness who watched from the roof of a shop described the scene of panic in the city:
From the roof I could see smoke coming from the west. I came out of my shop and went to the customs area from where I could see people fleeing from the west. It was chaos. People were running and being hit by cars trying to leave, market stalls were overturned. I heard oneman say, Its hailing, because of the bullets. I went home and from the windows I could hear shouting and see white flags on the cars.8
A woman described the killing of her thirteen-year-old son:
He was working in a carpet factory and was shot on the first day near Rouza-e Mubarak [the shrine in the center of Mazar]. Some people came and told me he had been taken to the hospital. They said that before he died he said, "We came to Mazar [from Kabul] to survive and now I am going to die. Who will support the family?" I did not even see him. I did not want to leave because of him, but we had to leave.
A man who was in the bazaar when the Taliban entered the city hid in a friend's house from which he could see the Taliban come into the bazaar.
At about 4:00 p.m. I saw someone running and another man pulling a cart. A Datsun full of Taliban came down the street, and the soldier inside shot the man who was running and then went after the second man and shot him, too.
Human Rights Watch obtained testimony from a number of other residents who witnessed indiscriminate and arbitrary shooting by the Taliban. A merchant stated that he was in the bazaar when the shooting started. He was with a cousin, and when they saw people running they decided to run as well. The cousin was shot in the leg and could not walk. Unable to carry him, the merchant left him and continued on to his home. He later learned that the Taliban had killed his cousin. A moneychanger witnessed the killing of two of his neighbors as they stood in the street. He had gone upstairs in his house and was watching out the window as the Taliban cars passed. His two neighbors were standing in front of their house when two of the Taliban cars stopped and the soldiers inside shot the two men.
Searches and Summary Executions
The shooting, which had been nearly continuous since 10:30 a.m., had largely ceased by midday on August 8, and except for sporadic outbreaks of gunfire, the city fell silent. Later that day and continuing for at least several days after, Taliban forces began house-to-house searches for male members of the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek communities. On the basis of information apparently provided by local Pashtun forces or other informers, they targeted predominantly Hazara neighborhoods and in some cases knew beforehand which houses belonged to Hazaras. They were also looking for weapons. Witnesses testified that the soldiers specifically demanded to know if there were Hazaras present in the houses and asked residents to point out Hazara houses. Residents who could speak Pashto, or who did not look Hazara, or who could prove that they were not from Mazar could sometimes convince the Taliban not to search the house. Those conducting the searches included regular Taliban forces as well as Balkh Pashtuns.
In some cases the detained male members of the families were beaten or shot on the spot. Some had their throats slit. In other cases they were taken to assembly points from which they were transported by truck or other vehicle to the city jail. While most of those killed were Hazara, Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of witnesses who saw or knew of executions of Tajik and Uzbek men as well.
A Tajik man who was detained on August 10 provided this description:
I lived in Karte Bokhti. On the third day the Taliban surrounded the streets and searched every house looking for Hazaras. They were asking, "Where are the Hazara houses?" Therewas only one near us. There were four young Hazara men in the house, including a friend who was visiting and a young man who was doing some work at the house. The Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in the neighborhood were also all arrested. We were all put into trucks, but the four Hazaras hands were tied very tight and they were taken elsewhere. There were two other Hazara boys in our truck. When we stopped near the customs area, the two Hazaras were taken off and told to go to the square behind the customs area. A Taliban soldier pushed them and then shot them both in the head. I was told later that the four others were taken to Takhaneya Mahdia and shot there. They were all workers, not fighters. They were all nineteen to twenty years old.
He was held overnight with other Tajiks and Uzbeks in a place behind the customs area. The next day he and the others were taken to the jail. After he was released, he saw another victim of a summary execution, this time a Tajik.
I saw that a young Tajik boy had been killedthe Taliban soldier was still standing there, and the father was crying, Why have you killed my son? We are Tajiks. The Talib responded, Why didnt you say so? and the father said, Did you ask that I could answer?
One witness recounted that on August 13 or 14 the Taliban came to his house and stated that they were looking for Hazaras. The witness was himself Hazara and was hiding a Hazara family in his house at that time. A neighbor who could speak Pashto told the Taliban that there were no Hazaras there, and as soon as they heard Pashto, they left. Fearing that he might still be identified, the witness went to a predominantly Sunni neighborhood, but residents there warned him not to stay there. In his own neighborhood, a Taliban supporter who owed the witness a favor also warned him to leave, and other neighbors expressed fear that his presence there would endanger the whole neighborhood. As a result, he decided to leave for Pakistan with his family.
Another witness told Human Rights Watch that he was arrested on the evening of the first day as he was moving about the city checking on relatives. As he passed a truck filled with men who had been arrested, the Taliban called out for him to come to them. He was put into the truck and when it was filled they drove toward the jail.
I was afraid they were going to shoot me. So when we reached Sarake Dostum I threw myself out of the truck. Five or six other men threw themselves out after me. I landed on the right side of the road where there was a mosque. I ran into the mosque and began to wash as if I was preparing to pray. The other men all landed on the left side of the road and were shot there in the street. I stayed inside the mosque for more than an hour and left with the others when they finished their prayers.
He did not return to his home but stayed with friends. About a week after the Taliban had come he heard that they had said that Hazaras who were not fighters could return to their homes. Two families he knew went back and the men were arrested that day.
A seventeen-year-old boy who was trying to reach his house at about noon on the first day saw three Hazaras standing at the eastern gate of Rouza Sharif. He stated that seven or eight Taliban stepped out of a Toyota Hilux and shot the three men in the head. The boy, his mother, and his siblings left the Karte Ariana neighborhood the next day for the mountains.
Another witness who lived in the Karte Ariana neighborhood stated that the Taliban came to their house on the second day. In this case the Taliban were local Pashtuns from Chohar Bolak working under a commander named Mulla Baradar. The witnesss husband and daughters were hiding in the basement.
There were about five or six of them. They broke the television and demanded weapons andcommunications equipment. I told them that we only had one Kalashnikov, and I gave it to them and they left. Five minutes later they came back and said, "You are Hazara. Give us your husband." I told them he was not at home. I was yelling at them, and they did not search the house. Then we all left.
A woman who lived in Kamaz camp, where persons who had fled Kabul and other cities were living, stated that a large number of Taliban came searching for men at the camp the first day. Most of the men were beaten and then taken away, but some were shot on the spot.
From one tent they took six boys. They were all seventeen, eighteen, or twenty years old. They just shot them dead in front of the tent. The bodies lay there for four days until the women could finally bury them.
A medical student testified that the Taliban also searched the hospital looking for Hazaras.
I saw two Hazara boys, one about thirteen years old and one about twenty. One had a broken arm. The Taliban wanted to take them away, but the director intervened. But they came back the next day and took them.
One witness stated that he saw bodies that had been left in the citys cemeteries.
We passed by the cemetery at Dasht-e-Shour. The cemetery is along the main road. There are also shops along the road. These shops were built with the dirt taken in the same area. So there are many holes left along the road. All these holes were filled with bodies.
As he was preparing to leave Mazar he witnessed one execution.
The morning we left, with one friend, in Darvazeye Taj-Korghan, it was around 7:00 a.m., a few shops were open. We saw one Hazara porter moving flour and rice for someone. Some Taliban were having breakfast in the Arefan hotel. They saw him and shot him immediately. The owner of the flour and rice was frightened. One Talib told him, Take your belongings and go. This man was a Hazara. Along the way the Taliban were looking for Hazaras. Soldiers asked me if I were Hazara. My friend said, He is not Hazara, he is Pushtun. They believed him and did not stop us.
Witnesses also reported seeing bodies in a number of areas in the city, some with their hands tied behind their backs with their turbans. A large number were reportedly taken to some of the citys cemeteries. One man told Human Rights Watch that he accompanied a neighbor who was searching for the body of her husband who had been taken away the first night. After looking at twenty bodies they stopped because she said she could not look anymore. When relatives attempted to retrieve bodies or bury the dead, they were stopped by the Taliban, who told them that the bodies had to lie on the streets "until the dogs ate them," as had happened to Taliban soldiers killed in the city in 1997. Dozens of civilians were reportedly executed at the tomb of a Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who was killed while in Taliban custody in 1995. Although some residents buried bodies in secret, most bodies remained on the street for several days until the smell and the fear of health problems persuaded Taliban officials to permit burials.
In the Jail
According to witnesses who had been detained there, the central jail in Mazar-i Sharif has only one well for drinking water and two toilets. After the Taliban arrived in Mazar they reportedly released some hundreds of prisoners held in the jail and began to fill it with men arrested during their search operations. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that the jail quickly became extremely crowded: there were so many in the jail that there wasno room for anyone to lie down.
As the Taliban were detaining men throughout the city, relatives of the detainees, women and children for the most part, gathered outside the jail and outside the governor's headquarters to plead for the release of relatives. In some cases they waited all day in the heat without receiving any information. Witnesses reported that Taliban troops surrounding the jail would occasionally beat those gathered there with whips.9 Children were occasionally allowed in to bring food to their relatives, but no other visitors were permitted to speak with the detainees.
A Tajik witness who was detained told Human Rights Watch:
Some of the prisoners were beaten, mostly Hazaras. They were tied up and made to lie face down and then the Taliban would beat them with cables. The Taliban were telling everyone to surrender their arms and tell them where they could find Hazaras. They said, "If you hand over a Hazara, we will let you go."
He was held for three days. Taliban officials at the jail, who were reportedly all non-local "mainstream" Taliban, separated the prisoners on the basis of ethnicity; Hazaras and other Shi'as were kept on one side, Uzbeks and Tajiks on the other. Some detainees were forced to help identify members of different ethnic groups. In some cases the authorities required the detainees to prove that they were Sunni by reciting a Sunni prayer. Many of the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, and the few Pashtuns there were released after someone came and vouched for them.
As the jail filled, large numbers of prisoners were transferred to other prisons in Afghanistan, principally in Shiberghan, Herat and Qandahar. The vehicles used to transport the prisoners were large metal container trucks which were twenty to forty feet in length. Witnesses estimated that the large trucks could hold between one hundred and 150 people packed closely together. At least thirty-five truckloads of prisoners were reportedly transferred from the prison in Mazar. One witness who was detained for several days stated that on at least one occasion, Governor Niazi personally oversaw the process of selecting prisoners for transfer. Another witness reported seeing many such trucks leaving the jail.
I saw containers coming out of the jail every day, several times a day. They were these big Iranian containers, twenty or forty feet long. I saw them regularly because the house we lived in is near the jail. They filled them with people they arrested and left the city.
A Tajik man who had been detained in the prison at the time described how the prisoners were ordered into the trucks:
As the jail filled up they would bring container trucks. It is hard to say exactly who was being put in. They were going to put me in, but I yelled, I am old and Tajikwhat are you doing? It was very hot. People were already very thirsty. They put them inside and closed the doors. It was clear they would not survive ten minutes. I saw this happen once. There were maybe 120 to 150 men inside.
In at least two instances, nearly all of the prisoners inside the trucks died of asphyxiation in the crowded conditions and desert heat by the time the trucks reached Shiberghan, a three-hour drive from Mazar. One witness saw the trucks in Shiberghan:
In Shiberghan, they brought three containers to Bandare-i Ankhoï, close to the jail. When they opened the door of one truck, only three persons were alive. About 300 were dead. The three were taken to the jail. I could see all this from [where I was sitting]. This was seven days after the takeover. The containers were about twenty feet long. ... I know that there were many dead bodies because the Taliban asked [someone I know] and three Turkmens to go with them to Dasht-e-Leili [a desert site outside Shiberghan]. The Taliban did not want to touch the bodies so the porters took the bodies out of the containers.
From the testimony obtained by Human Rights Watch, it is not clear whether the deaths of the prisoners inside the trucks were intentional. Many other trucks did transport at least the majority of their prisoners without such a result. At the same time, the use of container trucks to punish or kill prisoners reportedly has several precedents in Afghanistan.10 Even if the killings were not intentional, the crowded conditions and extreme heat amounted to cruel and inhumane treatment under customary international humanitarian law, even for those prisoners that survived.
9 These whips, which are either those used for controlling donkeys and horses or are refitted lengths of cable, are used by the Taliban's religious police of the Ministry for the Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice to exact punishment of persons who commit transgressions of the strict dress code or other edicts.
10 Abdul-Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, head of the Pashtun faction Ittihad-i Islami, reportedly killed Hazara prisoners by locking them in a metal container and then building a fire around it. Malik reportedly dumped a container of Taliban prisoners in the Amu Darya river. While the facts in each case are difficult if not impossible to confirm, such reports have widespread currency, and the events described are treated as precedents and reasons for revenge.