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Afghanistan remained one of the world’s most intractable human rights disasters in 1998. The war between the forces of the Taliban, an ultraconservative Islamist movement that has controlled the capital Kabul since 1996, and the coalition of opposition forces known as the United Front (UF) continued to wreak devastation in the north of the country. A bloody offensive that began in July left the Taliban in control of all but parts of central and northeast Afghanistan; during the battle for the city of Mazar-i Sharif, the Taliban massacred civilians belonging principally to the ethnic Shi‘a Hazara minority. Killings of civilians were also reported from Bamiyan, the main city in a predominantly Hazara region of central Afghanistan that fell to the Taliban in September. Afghans living in other Taliban-controlled areas continued to suffer under repressive policies that were particularly harsh on women and minorities. Those in areas controlled by the opposition were subject to abuses also, including extrajudicial killings, rape and arbitrary detention. Large numbers of civilians on both sides were killed in aerial bombardments. Refugees from the country who had fled the fighting and repression numbered between 1.5 and 2 million; the numbers of internally displaced were estimated in the millions.

Human Rights Developments
On August 8, Taliban forces captured the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif. As they entered the city, the Taliban troops opened fire indiscriminately in streets and market areas as panicked civilians attempted to flee. Over the next week, the Taliban conducted house-to-house searches, detaining Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara men and teenage boys and often shooting the Hazaras in the street or in their houses. Thousands were detained in the city jail and an unknown number transported to jails in Herat and Qandahar. Scores of prisoners transported in large container trucks suffocated. At least several hundred bodies, and perhaps many more, were reportedly buried in the desert outside the city. In addition, eight Iranian officials and a journalist were killed in the city. As they attempted to leave the city, Hazara civilians were stopped and taken away to unknown destinations for interrogation. A large number of civilians died in rocket attacks and aerial bombardments as they fled on the main road south of the city. The massacre was believed to have been carried out in large part in reprisal for the massacre of some 2,000 or more surrendered Taliban soldiers during a failed attempt by the Taliban to take Mazar-i Sharif in May 1997.

By October, the Taliban controlled all of Afghanistan’s major cities, imposing in these areas its own strict interpretation of Islam. Edicts governing social behavior were enforced by the Ministry for the Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, whose vigilance squads exacted summary punishment by beating or detaining transgressors. Such abusive practices were more characteristic of the Taliban’s administration in Kabul, where the population is ethnically mixed and less sympathetic to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam than in Qandahar and other areas in the south. There was no freedom of association or freedom of expression in Taliban-controlled areas. Given the deep suspicion that divides the members of the UF and the warlord nature of governance in much of the northern areas, there was little scope for any such freedoms there.

Women were particularly targeted by the virtue and vice squads. They were not allowed to move outside their homes unless completely covered in a head-to-toe garment called a burqa and accompanied by a male relative. Those caught violating these requirements were beaten. As a consequence of these restrictions, women were sometimes unable to seek medical care. With few exceptions, women were not permitted to work. Entire families were driven into destitution as a result.

Another group specifically targeted by the Taliban was the Hazaras, a Shi‘a minority, and to a lesser extent, other non-Pashtun ethnic groups, including Tajiks. Hazaras returning from Iran, where some two million had fled during the 1980s, were detained upon return, transported to Qandahar and jailed. At least 700 were reported to be jailed there in 1998 pending a prolonged screening process designed to identify supporters and members of Hezb-i Wahdat, the Hazara party that is part of the UF. As a consequenceof these detentions and the deteriorating relationship between Iran and the Taliban, repatriation of refugees from Iran virtually stopped in 1998. Tajiks and Hazaras featured prominently among the internally displaced. Beginning in 1996, large numbers of Tajiks had been forcibly relocated from their homes north of Kabul out of fear they might give support and cover to opposition troops trying to move south toward the capital.

Another striking pattern of abuse institutionalized under the Taliban was the public display of summary, corporal punishment. Every Friday, thousands were pressured to witness public executions and punitive amputations in Kabul’s stadium.

As has been the case throughout the war, all parties to the conflict were responsible for violations of international humanitarian law. Over 180 people were killed in a barrage of rocket attacks fired on Kabul by UF commander Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 20-22. Reprisal attacks on civilians, indiscriminate rocketing and shelling of cities, and summary executions of captured prisoners were also reported. It was generally believed that all parties were laying new landmines.





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