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November 1998 Vol. 10, No. 7 (C)




This report documents a massacre of civilians and other serious breaches of international humanitarian law committed in Afghanistan in August 1998. The incident, which occurred in Mazar-i Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, represents one of the single worst examples of killings of civilians in Afghanistan’s twenty-year war. No foreigners or press were allowed in the city or its environs at the time, and only a few humanitarian organizations have been permitted to carry out relief work in the city since the incident. Human Rights Watch is the first international human rights organization to interview survivors who have reached Pakistan in the weeks following the massacre. In the report, we urge the United Nations to undertake an urgent investigation into the massacre and the full range of abuses that took place in Mazar-i Sharif, including 1997 killings of Taliban soldiers in the city that motivated those involved in the subsequent offensive to seek revenge. Human Rights Watch believes that determining the truth about what happened represents the first step toward accountability and may provide a means toward breaking the cycle of revenge killings that continue to characterize the civil war in Afghanistan.


On August 8, 1998, Taliban militia forces captured the city of Mazar-i Sharif in northwest Afghanistan, the only major city controlled by the United Front, the coalition of forces opposed to the Taliban. The fall of Mazar was part of a successful offensive that gave the Taliban control of almost every major city and important significant territory in northern and central Afghanistan. Within the first few hours of seizing control of the city, Taliban troops killed scores of civilians in indiscriminate attacks, shooting noncombatants and suspected combatants alike in residential areas, city street sand markets. Witnesses described it as a "killing frenzy" as the advancing forces shot at "anything that moved." Retreating opposition forces may also have engaged in indiscriminate shooting as they fled the city. Human Rights Watch believes that at least hundreds of civilians were among those killed as the panicked population of Mazar-i Sharif tried to evade the gunfire or escape the city.

In the days that followed, Taliban forces carried out a systematic search for male members of the ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities in the city. The Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shi’a ethnic group, were particularly targeted, in part because of their religious identity. During the house-to-house searches, scores and perhaps hundreds of Hazara men and boys were summarily executed, apparently to ensure that they would be unable to mount any resistance to the Taliban. Also killed were eight Iranian officials at the Iranian consulate in the city and an Iranian journalist. Thousands of men from various ethnic communities were detained first in the overcrowded city jail and then transported to other cities, including Shiberghan, Herat and Qandahar. Most of the prisoners were transported in large container trucks capable of holding one hundred to 150 people. In two known instances, when the trucks reached Shiberghan, some 130 kilometers west of Mazar, nearly all of the men inside had asphyxiated or died of heat stroke inside the closed metal containers. Some prisoners were also transported in smaller trucks. As of late October, some 4,500 men from Mazar remained in detention.

The few international relief groups operating in Mazar had evacuated their staff in the days before the attack on the city.1 On August 16, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), resumed its operations in the city. In late October, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) was permitted to resume its activities. Following the takeover, the Taliban allowed no journalists to travel anywhere in the area.

In the absence of a full-scale investigation, there is no way to know precisely how many were killed in the weeks following the fall of Mazar to the Taliban. Based on interviews with survivors and other informed sources, Human Rights Watch believes that at least 2,000 may have been killed in the city and possibly many more. Manycivilians were also killed in aerial bombardments and rocket attacks as they fled south of the city toward the Alborz mountains. Human Rights Watch is also concerned by persistent reports that women and girls, particularly in certain Hazara neighborhoods of Mazar-i Sharif, were raped and abducted during the Taliban takeover of the city.

The killings of Hazara men and boys appear to have been carried out largely in reprisal for the killing of several thousand Taliban soldiers after a failed attempt by the Taliban to take the city from May to July 1997. Of these, some 2,000 were reportedly summarily executed after capture in Shiberghan and other areas, including areas to which prisoners from Mazar were deported. A number of neighborhoods targeted for searches in Mazar had been among those where resistance by Hizb-i Wahdat troops against the Taliban had begun at that time. Witnesses stated that Taliban conducting the house-to-house searches accused Hazaras in general of killing Taliban troops in 1997 and did not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. In speeches given at mosques throughout Mazar, the Taliban governor, Mulla Manon Niazi, also blamed Hazaras for the 1997 killings.

The Hazaras were also singled out because they are Shi'a. The Taliban are Sunni Muslims and followers of a strict conservative sect that considers the Shi'a to be infidels. During their search operations in Mazar, the Taliban ordered some residents to prove that they were not Shi'a by reciting Sunni prayers. Over a period of several weeks, Governor Niazi made inflammatory speeches against Hazaras in which he ordered them to become Sunnis, leave Afghanistan, or risk being killed.

The Taliban forces that captured Mazar-i Sharif included Pashtuns from Balkh, the province of which Mazar is the capital and the name of a town northwest of Mazar. These Balkh Pashtuns had been members of a militia aligned with the Hizb-i Islami, a largely Pashtun faction that was part of the United Front. Some weeks before the offensive on Mazar, Hizb-i Wahdat forces launched an operation in Balkh to drive Pashtuns from the area so that they would not be able to provide support to the advancing Taliban troops. The Hizb-i Wahdat forces reportedly engaged in widespread rape and looting. The rapes in particular reportedly drove several key commanders among the Balkh Pashtuns to switch sides and help the Taliban. Some were reportedly also unhappy with Hizb-i Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's courting of Shi’a religious leaders. Other commanders were simply bought off. Balkh Pashtuns were among the first troops entering the city and have been identified among the Taliban troops who engaged in indiscriminate shooting on the first day. Balkh Pashtuns also took part in the house-to-house searches and may have acted as informers identifying Hazara neighborhoods and houses. However, witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the search parties also included Taliban officers who were not from local areas and that the Taliban officers separating prisoners at the jail were not Balkh Pashtuns but non-local "mainstream" Taliban — those from Qandahar or other predominantly Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan where many of the senior Taliban leaders are based. The speeches by Governor Niazi also demonstrate an intent at senior levels to target Hazaras. Other witnesses stated that senior Taliban leaders were not only aware of the extent of the killing in Mazar but had decided to allow it to continue for several days before stopping it.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed a number of witnesses who described the abductions of girls and women from neighborhoods in Mazar, including Saidabad, Karte Ariana and Ali Chopan. There are consistent reports as well of a number of incidents of rape; Balkh Pashtuns were identified in some cases. In the weeks after the takeover the Taliban announced the execution of some soldiers who had been responsible for crimes, including rape, during the offensive.


Human Rights Watch conducted the interviews for this report in Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta, Pakistan. The eyewitnesses we spoke to included residents of Mazar-i Sharif who were Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara. The witnesses had lived in different neighborhoods of the city. Some had stayed in the city for several weeks after the Taliban takeover; others had left within a few days. Most had arrived in Pakistan after several weeks of travel inside Afghanistan.

Their testimonies about the events in Mazar-i Sharif from August 8 through early September are consistent in the depiction of the patterns of attack by the advancing Taliban troops, the systematic nature of the search operations, the sorting of prisoners at the jail, and the transport of prisoners. All of those who remained in the city after the first day separately witnessed summary executions of men and boys as they were being taken from their homes or while being transported to the jail. All of them also heard one or more of Governor Niazi's speeches that, while they varied somewhat in content, reflected consistent themes of anti-Shi'ism and revenge for the 1997 killings.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed sources in nongovernmental organizations and in the diplomatic community who have monitored and documented the events in Mazar. Information provided by these sources is consistent with the patterns described by eyewitnesses.


Human Rights Watch urges U.N. human rights monitoring mechanisms, in particular the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, to undertake an investigation into the full range of abuses that took place in Mazar-i Sharif and its environs in August 1998, including indiscriminate shootings and extrajudicial executions of civilians, mass detentions, and abductions and rapes of women. Given that the killings appear to have been carried out in retaliation for the killings of Taliban soldiers, including the summary execution of prisoners, in May 1997, the investigation should also include an exhumation of those mass graves and those of civilians apparently killed in reprisal attacks in Maimaneh and Qizalabad.2

The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights should conduct a thorough investigation of these sites as soon as possible, as recommended by its May 1998 exploratory mission, and should give the issue the highest priority. The team should include forensic experts and sufficient support staff to carry out exhumations of the grave sites and analysis of the remains; staff with field experience in monitoring human rights abuses and interviewing victims and witnesses of atrocities, including torture, rape, and sexual abuse; and legal experts knowledgeable in international human rights and humanitarian law. The team’s reports to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Security Council on its findings and recommendations should be made publicly available.

It is likely that an investigation team may face significant obstacles in carrying out its mandate. It is thus critically important that the international community do everything possible to urge the Taliban to permit such an investigation to go forward. The U.N. secretary-general should use his good offices to facilitate the mission, and all U.N. departments and agencies should lend their logistic support to the mission. The international community should also insist on the following benchmarks for conducting the investigations:

· Guaranteed security for all members of the team conducting the investigations;

· Unrestricted access to the territory and full investigatory rights; the right to travel freely and visit any site, including any suspected or known places of detention; and the right to interview persons freely and in private, using interpreters of their choosing;

· Disclosure of all current places of detention where persons detained in connection with the conflict are being held; disclosure of the names of all individuals detained during the course of the conflict; and their current whereabouts.

1 In fact, few international groups had had any expatriate staff in Mazar since September 1997 because of the precarious security conditions. Fighting between various factions was commonplace, as were incidents of banditry and extortion. The offices of the U.N. were looted in May and September 1997.

2 The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, together with a forensic physician, visited the mass grave sites in December 1997 and recommended in his report to the General Assembly that a thorough investigation of the killings take place. In May 1998, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) sent an exploratory mission to the sites. That team also looked into massacres of civilians by the Taliban in the region of Mazar-i Sharif which took place in July and September 1997 and around Meimaneh in January 1998. On the basis of the team’s report, the UNHCHR had begun to make plans for the investigation when the July offensive put those plans on hold.

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