War Crimes in Afghanistan?

From the recent U.S. military operation in Afghanistan have come several allegations of human rights violations. Two independent groups made the allegations: the Boston-based organization, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and the independent filmmaker, Jamie Doran. The accusations have been broken into three separate, but still related events. The question now: did it really happen, and was the United States involved?

The first infringement was brought to the world's attention by the Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran, with the release of his documentary, Massacre at Mazar, to a European audience. Doran's film follows the fate of Taliban soldiers captured after surrendering at the battle at Kunduz in late 2001. According to the documentary, roughly 7,500 prisoners were captured, but only half of that number made it to the prison. Doran goes on to state that roughly 1,000 soldiers were put into sealed containers and left in the desert heat as they were transported to prison. Many died either of suffocation or the extreme temperatures inside of the containers. Reportedly, the rest of the 4,000 missing soldiers were executed in the dessert during the transport to prison. In the film, one witness states that he saw the soldiers rounded up and packed into the airtight containers, some of which were left to stand in the intense sun. Another man tells that he heard the prisoners in the containers crying for air, and so soldiers shot weapons at the containers to make air holes (In These Times, August 2nd, 2002).

The second allegation, a report of a mass grave in Afghanistan near Sheberghan Prison, was mentioned in Doran's film. It was brought under scrutiny, however, by the organization, PHR. PHR was founded in order to promote health by protecting human rights, using their medical training to investigate human rights violations. PHR did find a mass grave near the prison, which it divided into nine separate sites. While most of these sites contained human remains, almost all of the bodies were from previous wars in the area and massacres performed during the peak of the Taliban power. One site, however, did contain human remains that appear to have been placed there in late 2001. Eyewitnesses in the area claim to have seen several large trucks back up to the site, and then proceed to dump bodies. In late April 2002, PHR sent two forensic experts to the United Nations to investigate the mass graves. The preliminary exhumation report, released on May 7th of this year, point the probable cause of death as asphyxiation. If further investigation proves this preliminary report to be true, it would provide strong evidence to support the claims made by Doran in his documentary. PHR and Doran have both called for the immediate protection of this site by the United States and the Afghanistan governments until a complete investigation can be performed. To date, however, such requests have been denied (The Economist, August 24th, 2002 and www.phrusa.org).

The third human rights violation is by far the best documented of the three. In early 2002, PHR visited Sheberghan Prison while conducting prison inspections. The purpose of these inspections is to certify that prisons are following international standards and law in the treatment of prisoners of war: proper nourishment, adequate medical attention, and protection from the elements. During their visit, there were approximately 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners residing in the complex; Sheberghan was designed to hold a maximum of 1,000 prisoners. Aided by the overcrowding and a lack of a good diet, jaundice and other such diseases ran unchecked. The prison hadn’t received medical supplies in months. Finally, PHR conducted the visit during the winter and found that the only protection from the elements the prisoners had received were blankets issued to each of the inmates. These were barely enough, considering that many of the rooms of the prison were open to the outdoors, and some even lacked ceilings. These conditions were ameliorated to an extent when the International Committee of the Red Cross helped to lower the number of prisoners to around 1,500, much closer to 1,000 person design limit. Even with this decrease in prisoners, Sheberghan Prison is in great need of medical supplies and care for it inmates (www.phrusa.org).

So what is the world doing about these accusations? The answer appears to be not much. Doran’s film was released in Europe earlier this year, much to the shock of the European governments, and the U.S. Congress was scheduled to see the documentary in July (In These Times, August 2nd, 2002). As is apparent by the lack of media coverage, not much came of its viewing, and the documentary was never broadcasted to the public by American media. PHR, after six months of campaigning to the U.S. government, has still not received the protection of the graves. This protection is imperative in order to keep individuals from tampering with the contents of the site until an in-depth analysis can be made, and all the bodies in the site accounted for. It did receive a boost when, on September 19th, the United Nations authorized an official investigation into the mass grave near Sheberghan Prison (www.phrusa.org). At the same time, the United States has pushed forward in its attempts to seek immunity from prosecution of war crimes committed during peace keeping operations, and other countries are agreeing to the United States’ terms (The New York Times, November 2nd). As mentioned before, the conditions at the prison have improved, but are nowhere near done. The United States, however, has denied responsibility for the prison since its departure earlier in the year. The question is no longer, did this happen, it is instead, why?

This page is copyright © 2002, C. T. Evans and A. Yates.
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu