By DEXTER FILKINS | Los Angeles Times
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Refugees fleeing an Afghanistan city recently conquered by the Taliban say that troops with the ultra-orthodox religious army slaughtered thousands of civilians when they took the town last month.
The refugees, who are arriving here each day on foot from the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, say Taliban fighters focused exclusively on an ethnic minority known as the Hazaras, picked out by their distinctive Mongolian features.
Many refugees say they fled a city littered with corpses, some of them machine-gunned, others with their throats cut, others blown to pieces by missiles and grenades.
“There were bodies in the streets, in the city, and in the markets,” said Mohammed Rasool, a 42-year-old Hazara shopkeeper who fled with his family and walked for a week to the Pakistani frontier. “All of them were civilians. The ones with weapons fled long ago.”
The refugees’ statements are the first concrete evidence of what happened when Taliban forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif on Aug. 8. The Taliban, which has been fighting a lengthy civil war against the country’s other main ethnic groups, has sealed off the city and barred any independent observers.
Reports of a civilian massacre seem certain to inflame tensions with neighboring Iran, which has deployed more than 200,000 troops on the Afghanistan border since the Taliban admitted that its forces killed eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif last month. Iran shares historic links with the Hazaras, who, like the majority of Iranians, adhere to the Shiite school of Islam. The Taliban, like Afghanistan as a whole, is mostly Sunni Muslim.
An official with the United Nations confirmed this week that the organization has received several credible reports of the massacre of Hazara civilians in Mazar-i-Sharif. Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Islamabad, Pakistan, said as many as 6,000 Hazaras may have been killed by the Taliban last month.
“What the refugees are saying is extremely consistent, and in our view, it is very credible,” Colville said in an interview. “On the first day there was a kind of frenzied killing spree of everybody and anybody that was on the street, including animals.”
Amnesty International in London and Human Rights Watch in New York both have reported the killing of civilians in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Taliban officials said the only people they killed were soldiers.
“There were killings, but no civilians,” Taliban representative Abdul Hakeem Mujahid said in an interview. “Only people fighting the Taliban were killed.”
The reports, if verified, seem likely to further besmirch the reputation of the Taliban, already regarded as an international pariah for its record on human rights. The Taliban, which took control of most of Afghanistan two years ago, has imposed a harsh form of Islamic law that prohibits women from working, studying or walking the streets alone. Public executions and amputations are common, and even such activities as kite-flying and marble-playing are banned.
In more than a dozen interviews, refugees who recently arrived in Pakistan told remarkably similar tales about what happened when Taliban troops shot their way into the city.
Abbas, a 30-year-old mechanic who uses only one name, said he was working in his shop about 10 a.m. when 15 pickup trucks full of Taliban soldiers rumbled down his street. One of the Taliban fighters summoned the Hazara male elders of the Lachapan neighborhood to a nearby Shiite mosque. When about 30 men gathered in front of the mosque, the Taliban gunners opened fire, he said.
“I saw the old people get shot, and I ran,” Abbas said, “After that, everybody was trying to escape.”
The shooting went on for five hours, he said. As he darted down the alleys and back streets of Mazar-i-Sharif, Abbas said, he passed dozens of bodies of fellow Hazaras.
“The Taliban didn’t touch the other people–the Uzbeks or the Tajiks,” Abbas said, referring to two other minorities that live in Mazar-i-Sharif. “They only killed the Hazaras.”
The Taliban, whose members are mainly ethnic Pushtuns, and the Hazaras have been battling one another since the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989.
In 1996, the Taliban took control of the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, while the Hazaras and other minorities held onto the northern territories around Mazar-i-Sharif. In May, a force of several hundred Taliban soldiers briefly took control of Mazar-i-Sharif but was nearly wiped out by an army of Hazaras.
Some of the Hazaras speculated that, when the Taliban soldiers entered Mazar-i-Sharif last month, they were seeking revenge. The refugees said that, on the first day, the Taliban soldiers went on a rampage of shooting, firing on any Hazara in sight. With the regular Hazara army already evacuated, that left only civilians, they said.
“They killed children, ladies, everyone,” said a 38-year-old engineer who declined to give his name because he feared reprisals against himself and family members still in Afghanistan.
The engineer, a Hazara from the Mazar-i-Sharif neighborhood of Ali Chopan, said, “When the Taliban entered the village, they went after everyone who looked like a Hazara.”
He said he gathered his wife and four children and rushed to the home of a Pushtun friend. When Taliban troops came looking for Hazaras, his friend told them none were there. The family hid in the friend’s home for 20 days, listening to the gunfire and screams outside.
“I am very grateful to my friend,” he said, seated with his family on the floor of a Peshawar home where he has been staying.
Among the corpses, he recalled passing on his way out of town was that of the local shoeshine man. His throat had been slit. But most of the bodies were unrecognizable, he said.
“After a few days, you can’t tell who they are,” he said. “The dogs had begun to eat them.”
While denying that Taliban troops committed any atrocities, Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, conceded that the situation was chaotic when his forces entered Mazar-i-Sharif.
“This was a war situation,” Mujahid said.
Some of the refugees reported seeing women and children being shot, but most said the Taliban soldiers focused on finding men. Some said the Taliban fighters were so obsessed with finding Hazara men that they lifted the veils of many women.
Some Hazara women claimed that they were able to save the males of their families. When Taliban troops arrested her four sons, a woman named Zuhrah said she convinced them that they were ethnic Tajiks.
“They were shouting, ‘We will kill them! We will kill them! We will kill them!’ ” Zuhrah said. “I held the Koran and said, ‘Please release them.’ ”
Zuhrah and her four sons made the 15-day trek on foot out of Afghanistan, eating grass along the way. They are now sharing a house with 25 other refugees that was provided by a Hazara who fled Afghanistan two years ago.
Like most of the refugees, Zurah said she wasn’t sure what she and her family would do. She is old, exhausted, and out of money, and she is wearing the only clothes she owns.
One thing she and her family are sure of: As long as the Taliban is in Mazar-i-Sharif, they won’t be going home.