Report — From the September 2014 issue

Kandahar’s Mystery Executions

Are the Afghan police using torture to achieve peace?

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The first bodies were found early in the morning, after the call to prayer, in the tall reeds abutting the southern edge of Kandahar city. One was lying faceup, lower lip split, stab wounds to the face and stomach, a hole where the left eye had been. The second, a few yards away, had brown-black mottled skin and burnt hair. The third body’s neck was partially sawed through, and the face bore the same pattern of black scarring and singed hair. All three were handcuffed.

The next day, in Subdistrict 7, a working-class area to the north of the city, a shopkeeper discovered a corpse in a canal. A report by the United Nations noted: “Head riddled with bullets and was smashed completely.” Two days later, at Mirwais hospital, Kandahar’s main health center, two bodies came in without any visible marks except a small hole, apparently made with a drill bit, in each of the skulls.

A recruiting poster in a window at police headquarters in Kandahar, April 30, 2014. Photographs by Victor J. Blue

A recruiting poster in a window at police headquarters in Kandahar, April 30, 2014. Photographs by Victor J. Blue

By the end of that week, early last October, ten bodies had surfaced around the city. By the following week, the count had swelled to nearly forty across Kandahar province. Because of smashed teeth and missing noses, eyes, or heads, many could not be identified. On October 17, a local television program claimed that “civilians are mysteriously killed in the province on a daily basis,” and aired an interview with Sahebzada Nalan, an official with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “Complaints of the people are received every day,” he said. “People say their brother, uncle, or relative have been kidnapped or are missing. They come here and complain, scream, and cry.” An Afghan journalist launched an investigation, but stopped when he began receiving threatening phone calls. By month’s end, local media had gone silent on the story.

I learned of it from a twenty-five-year-old worker at a demining NGO whom I’ll call Noor Atal. (The names of the victims, their family members, and the Afghan civilians who helped me report this article have been changed for their safety.) We met in November, a month after the first bodies were reported. As it neared dark, Atal brought me to a firewood yard on the outskirts of town where his brother had worked. The yard lay across the street from a row of small huts, most of which were selling bicycle tires and chains by the light of kerosene lamps. The shopkeepers there all repeated the same story: close to dinnertime one evening in early October, a green Humvee pulled up in front of the yard. Moments later, it drove away, and Atal’s brother and a second worker were gone. A few hundred feet down the road, it stopped again. An imam at the local mosque was crossing the street when someone called to him from inside the vehicle. He approached and was pulled inside the Humvee.

The imam’s brother, whom I’ll call Janan, went to the nearest police checkpoint, then to police headquarters in his precinct and in the next one over, but they wouldn’t give him any answers. Atal searched too, canvassing police stations, calling the governor’s office. After five or six days, police from a neighboring district called and said, “we found your brother,” after a village elder had stumbled across him lying in the grass. When Atal reached the station, he saw his brother’s body, which was missing an eye. Janan’s search also came to an end: his brother’s body turned up at the local hospital, bearing wounds that doctors described as consistent with “massive electrocution.”

The father of a boy taken by police in Kandahar, April 24, 2014. The man petitioned for information and was told to stop his search under threat of death. Weeks later he received an anonymous phone call telling him of the location of his son’s body.

The father of a boy taken by police in Kandahar, April 24, 2014. The man petitioned for information and was told to stop his search under threat of death. Weeks later he received an anonymous phone call telling him of the location of his son’s body.

After an official inquiry, the police ruled the killings unexplained. Atal felt he could say nothing. “If I argued,” he said, “they’d kill me.” The family had already seen its share of suffering: they had fled rural Kandahar years before because the Taliban had killed another brother, a teenager accused of being an American spy. Since this most recent death, Atal’s mother has become withdrawn, shunning relatives and keeping her house dark for the Eid holiday. Atal cannot get the image of his brother’s face, with its empty eye socket, out of his mind, and sometimes he finds himself snapping awake at night. But he keeps this to himself, and his neighbors avoid the subject. Every few weeks, though, another body turns up.

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’s article “Welcome to Free Syria” appeared in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His book No Good Men Among the Living was published in April by Metropolitan.

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  • constitutionalive

    ISIS et co. are smarter yet than A-Q, their chief competitor; they compete in the arab world for control & power, using Fundamentalism & Nationalism as a tool to assert uber-domination. They seek to be a ruling elite. The mini-’holocausts’ they systematically execute are beyond ethnic cleansing; they are more akin to Nazi-party purges to assert absolute control and domination. The horrors at the ground level are insignificant to the ISIS leaders who ride the coattails of revenge/vengeance for the abuses and corruptions of governments who do not respect/uphold Human rights and who neglect, mismanage or defraud Development programmes while selling un-sustainability to the highest bidder among Industry & R&D monied interests. Perhaps a human tragedy here or there resulting from unethical corporate activities leaving a toxic good-bye present as they make a quick exit lest they be held legally/financially/politically culpable. Then there are the natural environmental negative impacts such as drought or floods, which preempt planting crops or destroy what was budding forth. Politics and Finance/Economics in countries where HR/Democracy/Justice/Development/Sustainability/Resilience [Resurrgence Ecology] are the enemies of stabillity and peace and the abhorrent bad bad neighbours from which their collateral damage pours forth on all around, and barely-alive Refugees limp forth seeking a breath, a crust, and a sip of water, a bit of humanitarian compassion, and if fortunate, the healing hands of caring medical professional volunteers, as they struggle for a place to stand and struggle to survive. Billions of dollars are expended to preempt such disasters with food aid and democracy supports; but, such efforts are uncoordinated and unevenly focused, due to underfunding and lack of a strategic plan written too systematically get all the jobs needed done in appropriate order to be effective and successful. Corruption takes a bite out of aid and development as well, further eroding timely success. As socioeconomic and geopolitical interests clash, Conflicts arise and spill over throughout a region, thriving on criminal activities of town-by-town murders, rapes, theft, as they travel and battling any armed groups for weapons as they pillage. Armed Conflicts then cause displacement migrations of those fleeing ahead of the terror and slaughters. Development ravaged for terror group campaign supplies are abandoned, agricultural essentials wilt & rot, animals killed or left to die. Simultaneously, Billions are spent on weapons, guns, and military paraphernalia; weapons to fight the travelling terror, weapons to quell the related uprisings, guns to fight, guns to control, guns to deter, …and the terror campaign targets that deterrence as they march on, battling any law enforcement, collecting a superfluous gun hoard, which is excess baggage to a ‘terrorist on the move’ but as expendables they are trade-for-cash with other terrorists/criminal interests. Thus, a post-development-failure terror campaign is a self-sustaining-traveling-machine, a “society-eater”, so to speak. However, the manufacturers, suppliers, dealers of the international illegal arms trade thrive, and paramilitaries flourish. Guns beget Conflict, Conflict begets more and better gunds and paraphernalia, …and soon, genocide, rape, orphans, refugees, humanitarian disaster, …war ["conflict Resolution" not being a standard protocol but an afterthought, there are no standing pre-prepared, pre-solved, plans which could be readily deployed at the first indication of trouble; procrastination due to lack of desire to 'get involved' because getting involved costs money. Ironically, the costs of properly funded development and involvement/conflict resolution up front in a timely way is exponentially smaller than the costs of waiting until the trouble overflows into other societies and is a major economic disruption force for ill.]. Weapons proliferation becomes a global problem very quickly in any conflict because along with crime, illegal arms trade, comes the dangers of escalation and wmd including chemical, and bbiological, and nuclear weapons, and the global endangerment of their storage, transport and deployment.
    All of the aforementioned being said, one would expect that funding the appropriate programmes, preemptions, including the UN, would go without question or argument.

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