Secret History?

Overseas documentary alleges war crimes in Afghanistan.

Adam Porter

A portrait of Yasser Arafat lies among the ruins of a Palestinian radio and television station after it was torn down by the Israeli army.
Did Northern Alliance troops massacre 4,000 men in Afghanistan last November? Yes, according to a documentary recently completed by Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran. Witnesses in the film say the massacre was committed under the watch of U.S. soldiers.

Massacre at Mazar describes how approximately 7,500 men, allegedly Taliban troops, surrendered after the battle of Kunduz in November 2001. The men were packed into sealed shipping containers and taken to Sheberghan prison, a jail then under U.S. control in the northwestern part of the country. Of the 7,500 captured, about 4,000 are now missing.

According to witnesses in the film, those 4,000 were executed by Northern Alliance troops as they were being transported or as they arrived at the prison. The men were then buried in the desert—with the knowledge and complicity of some 30 to 40 U.S. soldiers.

Sheer determination initially led Doran to Mazar and the massacre. There was intense fighting around Kunduz at the end of November, and Doran and his four-person film crew fought to reach the war’s actual front line. “We had to make our point pretty forcefully,” he says. After he was taken to false frontline trenches, Doran told his guides, “ ‘Look, this … [is] a fucking tourist trap. Show me the real thing.’ ”

“They take us to another ‘front line’ where there is nothing going on,” he says, “so I repeat myself. ‘This is the fucking Hilton hotel.’ The Northern Alliance soldiers were sitting around smoking cigarettes. So they move us to another trench 300 meters ahead. That was the front line. We could see the Taliban troops.”

“The rest of the journalists, the ones you saw on TV, well, they must have been—how can I say this—at a different front line.”

As Doran explains it, “Just under 8,000 men surrendered at Kunduz, [and] they were taken to Qala-I-Janghi, a fortress near Mazar. 300 were spirited away by Pakistani Intelligence services, the ISI; some [were] Uzbeks, some Tajiks. … So, somewhere in the region of 7,223 men were still there. … Basically, the Northern Alliance commanders in Qaala-I-Janghi counted the men leaving [the fortress] and then counted the men arriving in Sheberghan. 7,223 left; around 3,000 arrived.”

One witness, a truck driver, said he and others were forced to take hundreds of the captured men, many of whom were still alive, into the desert. “The captured men—some of whom were not fighters at all, but were rounded up because of their ethnicity—were packed into sea containers and stuck on the back of lorries,” Doran says. “Many of them were left sealed in the heat. One of our witnesses said when they heard the cries of the men asking for air they just shot into the containers, live rounds. He admits doing it. Another witness, a taxi driver, stopped at a petrol station and said he smelt something awful. The guy from the petrol station said, ‘Look at that container parked behind you.’ Blood and goo were leaking out of the container.”

Footage from the film showed large areas of compact red sand dotted with traces of bones, including jawbones, skulls, and pieces of army clothing.

The Pentagon denied the claims immediately after the documentary was shown in Europe in June. A spokesman said it had looked into allegations “a few months ago, when allegations first surfaced,” and found no evidence of U.S. participation in or knowledge of the massacre.

Yet Doran’s evidence is overwhelming. “The witnesses claimed that the 4,000 or so men were executed and buried in mass graves in a place called Dasht Leile near Qala-I-Janghi. We went and filmed there. They were also definite that around 30 to 40 American soldiers were there at the time.”

Two groups, the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights, have also reported finding a mass grave in the area. Both exhumed bodies from the site; forensic examination revealed all had died of suffocation. Both have recommended investigations.

The film has been shown around Europe. Rush footage was played to members of both the European Union and the United Nations, prompting immediate calls for a war crimes investigation. Now Channel 5, a national TV station, has agreed to show the film in the United Kingdom. Scotland’s Daily Herald reported that members of the U.S. Congress and military were also going to view the film in late June. But the story, like the corpses of the men, remains buried, long after the atrocities took place.

Doran is most worried at the prospect of someone tampering with the graves. “Whilst the politicians are doing nothing, the crime scenes can be tampered with,” he says. “The mass graves we filmed are just sitting there. The six witnesses we have, including guys who say they shot some of the men and the Northern Alliance commander and general who alerted us to the massacres, are all vulnerable.” Some of the those witnesses have received death threats, he says.

“It is illegal under the Geneva Convention not to investigate allegations like this. Yet no one shows any sign of doing so. That is the real story.”

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