ASHEVILLE GLOBAL REPORT, No. 179, June 20-26, 2002
Title: “Documentary Implicates U.S. Troops in Taliban Prisoner Deaths”
Compiled by: Kendra Sarvadi
IN THESE TIMES, Sept 2, 2002
Title: “Secret History?”
Author: Adam Porter
Faculty Evaluator: Maureen Buckley Ph.D., Ray Castro Ph.D.
Student Researcher: Tara Spreng, Emilio Licea
A documentary entitled Massacre at Mazar released in 2002 by Scottish film producer, Jamie Doran, implicates U.S. troops in the torturing and deaths of approximately 3,000 men from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
Doran’s documentary follows the finding of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), that concluded that there was evidence of the disposal of human remains at two mass gravesites near Mazar-i-Sharif. In the documentary, two witnesses claim that they were forced to drive into the desert with hundreds of Taliban prisoners who were held in sealed cargo containers. The witnesses alleged that the orders came from a local U.S. commander. Prisoners, who had not yet suffocated to death inside the vans, were shot by Northern Alliance gunmen, while 30 to 40 U.S. soldiers stood watching.
Irfan Azgar Ali, a survivor of the trip, informed the London Guardian newspaper, “They crammed us into sealed shipping containers. We had no water for 20 hours. We banged on the side of the container. There was no air and it was very hot. There were 300 of us in my container. By the time we arrived in Sheberghan, only 10 of us were alive.” One Afghani truck driver, forced to drive the containers, says the prisoners began to beg for air. “Northern Alliance commanders told us to stop the trucks and we came down,” he said. “After that, they shot into the containers to make air holes. Blood came pouring out. They were screaming inside.” Another driver in the convoy estimated that an average of 150 to 160 people died in each container. When the containers were unlocked at Sheberghan, the bodies of the dead tumbled out. Another witness states they observed a U.S. soldier break an Afghani prisoner’s neck and pour acid on others.
In addition to bodies of Taliban prisoners, the filmmakers allege that thousands of Afghanis, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens, and Tajiks may also be buried there.
Afghani warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the man whose forces allegedly carried out the killings, admits there were only 200 such deaths and that the prisoners died before the transfer.
One Northern Alliance soldier who spoke to Doran claims that U.S. troops masterminded a cover-up. The soldier informed Doran, “The Americans told the Sheberghan people to get rid of them [the bodies] before satellite pictures could be taken.” One witness told the London Guardian that an U.S. Special Forces vehicle was parked at the scene as bulldozers buried the dead. Doran’s footage showed areas of compacted red sand, apparently caked with blood, as well as “clothing, bits of skull, matted hair, jaws, femurs, and ribs jutting out of the sand, despite a sloppy attempt to remove evidence after the fact” (Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun, 2/9/03). Additionally, bullet casings littered the site, offering a grim testimony that some Taliban prisoners, who were still alive, were executed before being dumped in the desert. United Nations (UN) and human rights officials have found the grave, but have not estimated the number of bodies it contains.
Says Doran, “I took the footage to the European Parliament because … I have a great fear that the graves may be tampered with. I had to take it to the highest level in Europe.” According to the Glasgow Herald (December 19, 2002), Doran stated “They’re hiding behind a wall of secrecy, hoping this story will go away, but it won’t.” Doran also feared for the safety of the witnesses, two of whom have subsequently been murdered. Doran’s key researcher, Najibullah Quarishi, was almost beaten to death in an unsuccessful attempt to gain a copy of incriminating footage.
The screening of the film at the European Parliament prompted calls for an international commission to investigate the charges. Andrew McEntree, former chairman of Amnesty International, said that “very credible evidence” in the documentary needed to be investigated. McEntree said that he believed that war crimes had been committed not only under international law, but also under U.S. law.
A Pentagon spokesman denied the allegations, “U.S. Central Command looked into it…when allegations first surfaced that there were graves discovered in the area of Sheberghan prison. They looked into it and did not substantiate any knowledge, presence, or participation of U.S. service members.” A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Berlin also rejected the allegations made in the documentary saying, “The claims are completely false that American soldiers were involved in the torture, execution, and disappearance of Taliban prisoners. In no way did U.S. troops participate or witness any human rights violations.” But in a statement to United Press International wire service (August 29, 2002), Doran said, “It is beyond doubt that a number of American soldiers were at Sheberghan Prison. Either they walked around blindfolded with earmuffs for eight days or they saw what was going on.”
UPDATE BY ADAM PORTER: The situation in Afghanistan has changed little since the U.S. appointed government of Hamid Kharzai came to power. The situation in Mazar is likewise. Opium production, the main source of income for deputy defense minister Rachid Dostum, alleged architect of the slaughter in Mazar, has increased by 1847% (UN figures) and the feared Ministry of Virtue and Vice has been restarted. Women are not permitted to wear make up in public and the Taliban have staged a comeback in the southeast of the country killing a number of Kharzai’s troops. Dostum’s men have been involved in a variety of `clashes` with other warlords in the north.
As far as the massacre in Mazar goes little has happened on the ground, except some of the witnesses are dead and some bodies have been exhumed and dumped elsewhere. The film made by Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran and his excellent team at Atlantic Films has been shown on mainstream television in the UK.
Doran’s film is still tugging at the sleeves of the powerful. Now shown in 14 countries on television he was, at last, able to show the documentary to the Italian and German parliaments in December 2002. On January 15th 2003 he was also able to get the film shown to members of the British Parliament. As a result, quietly, the United Nations has agreed to undertake an investigation into the incident. How far that investigation will go is anyone’s guess.