On January 7, Taliban forces began advancing on Yakaolang from Bamiyan in a bid to recapture the district. Moving westwards, they established their rear base at Feroz Bahar, east of the center of town, from which they launched three main thrusts. The first attack met with stiff resistance on the hill to the east of Dar-i Ali, a valley in which a number of villages are clustered. The Taliban forces were compelled to retreat and call for reinforcements after losing some thirty of their men. The second attack, which contained the main column of troops, was held up at Surkh Kotal, near Zulflucht, for about four hours until the Hizb-i Wahdat forces retreated. After breaking through the defensive line at Surkh Kotal, the Taliban proceeded to Nayak, the district center, without further resistance, reaching it on the morning of January 8. A witness described the Taliban advance:7
Upon reaching the district center, the Taliban organized eleven search parties. They were each allocated a sector of central Yakaolang and moved from house to house within their respective sectors, rounding up male occupants. The search party allocated to Dar-i Ali commandeered twelve horses and so was able to travel extensively through the valley, only part of which is accessible by road.
Another witness described the Taliban's capture of the district and the search operations in Dar-i Ali. He first learned of the Taliban advance when Hizb-i Wahdat troops stationed near his office informed him that a helicopter had landed at Feroz Bahar, and that they believed a Taliban attack was imminent. Between midnight and 3:00 a.m. there was heavy fighting all around the area. When there was a lull in the fighting at 3:00 a.m., the witness fled to Dar-i Ali. After about 8:00 a.m., the fighting stopped. At approximately 3:00 p.m., he went to a friend's house that was nearby and asked if he could wait there. The family told him that the Taliban were conducting searches and that it would not be safe. After leaving his friend's house, the witness encountered a group of Taliban troops who ordered him to join a crowd of men who were being herded towards a local aid agency.
The witness saw three bodies lying in front of the aid agency. The Taliban soldiers said that they were men who had tried to run away. 8 The witness described what happened next:
According to other witnesses, the detainees were herded to the office of a relief agency located in Nayak, where most were later executed.
As reports of detentions and killings began to circulate through the district, groups of village elders sought meetings with Taliban commanders to ensure the security of their communities. According to a witness:
The following is his account of what the elders told him:
According to the same witness, the elders subsequently met with Khalili, but he refused to stop fighting. Fearful of further conflict, the witness said, many local residents started to leave the area.
On at least two occasions, the Taliban killed delegations of Hazara elders who had attempted to intercede with them. On January 9, elders of Kata Khana gathered to meet with the Taliban. The Taliban arrested the entire group and killed everyone except two neighborhood leaders. In another case, the elders of Bed Mushkin village met with the Taliban to discuss security for the area. All were killed except one.11
The main execution site in Yakaolang appears to have been outside the relief agency in Nayak where the detainees from Dar-i Ali were killed. Witnesses also reported seeing piles of bodies in four other locations in and around Nayak: outside the district hospital, in the ravine behind the mosque in the old bazaar area, outside the prayer hall of Mindayak village, and at Qala Arbab Hassan. Of these, the largest pile of bodies was at Qala Arbab Hassan. Other killings were reported from neighborhoods in areas surrounding the district center, including outside the leprosy and tuberculosis clinics. A witness who visited Yakaolang district four weeks after the incident inspected one of the mass graves at Bed Mushkin village, in which twenty-six bodies had been found. One of the bodies was that of a seventeen-year-old boy, Mir Ali, much of whose skin had been removed either prior to or after his death.12 In a separate case, seven men were shot dead at the Zarin crossroad near the leprosy clinic in Yakaolang.13
Eyewitnesses reported that personnel of the Center for Cooperation on Afghanistan (CCA), a local aid agency-identified as Sayyid Sarwar and Sayyid Talib-were among the civilians rounded up in Dar-i Ali and executed outside the relief agency office. Other staff members of relief agencies were identified among those killed. These included a driver named Daoud who was working for a international humanitarian agency; a man named Qasim who worked as an assistant in the leprosy clinic; and Sayyid Ibrahim and a man named Tahsili, both of whom worked in the district hospital and were staff members of a local assistance organization. Witnesses reported seeing a Land Cruiser and a Russian-made jeep in the possession of the Taliban, both of which belonged to the Yakaolang offices of humanitarian aid organizations.14
Several staff members of another local leprosy clinic were also identified among those killed: Sayyid Yakut, a gardener from the village of Kata Khana, near the center of Yakaolang district; a man named Taqi, a carpenter, from Akhundan village; Gul Agha, son of Mahmood, of Sarasiab village; and Sayyid Mahdi, son of Burki, a watchman, also from Sarasiab. One of the center's leprosy patients, Sayyid Amir of Panj-o-ak village, was also reported killed.
Taliban forces were only able to remain in Yakaolang for two weeks, before being driven out of the district again on January 23. While retreating north through the Dar-i Shikari valley, on or about January 20, a convoy of Taliban forces encountered a group of Hazara herders at Tala Burfak. Apparently frustrated that their path was blocked by the Hazaras' herds, some of the Taliban fired gunshots at the group, killing three of them on the spot.15
The armed conflict in Yakaolang and the abuses committed in the district by the Taliban resulted in massive internal displacement. Humanitarian aid workers estimate that thousands of persons from Yakaolang took refuge in Panjao and Lal districts, the Tarpuch sub-district of Balkhob district, the Kashan valley in Kohistanat district, and Dar-i Chasht in Lower Yakaolang district.
7 Interview with witness, Kabul, January 2001.
8 Interview with witness, Kabul, January 2001. The three men were later identified as Eid Mohammad and two other shopkeepers from Ab-i Sherum village of neighbouring Behsud district, who had traveled to Yakaolang to purchase hides. All three were reportedly stopped and shot dead on the road outside the aid agency. Interviews with witnesses, Yakaolang, February 2001.
9 Interview with witness, Kabul, January 2001.
10 Jan Agha was one of the few Sunni, non-Hazara, residents in Nayak.
11 Interviews with witnesses, Kabul, January 2001.
12 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a witness, February 2001.
13 Interviews with witnesses to the shooting, Yakaolang, February 2001.
14 Interviews with witnesses, Kabul, January 21-27, 2001.
15 According to one report, a local commander who had recently allied with the Taliban stopped the convoy at his checkpost in Tala Burfak and detained seven of the Taliban soldiers on murder charges. Human Rights Watch has been unable to ascertain whether the soldiers are still being held and whether action has been taken against them.