Since the Taliban were ousted, 86 mass graves have been uncovered in Afghanistan — their occupants the victims of torture and murder. Fariba Nawa went in search of her uncle — a professor who dared to teach
By Fariba Nawa
February 24, 2008
Sunday Times Magazine (UK)
We were in territory off limits to civilians. The Afghan army Jeep suddenly braked after a 20-minute ride through unpaved roads on the outskirts of Kabul. The ministry-of-defence spokesman started to point into a shallow ditch. I braced myself. Mina Wali, an Afghan-American woman who had also journeyed from the United States, anxiously exited the vehicle. I wasn’t brave enough to go first; I wanted to see her reaction before I looked where he was pointing.
We were at one of Afghanistan’s newly uncovered mass graves in search of skeletons from nearly 30 years ago, dumped there when I was just six years old. Wali’s father and my paternal uncle were two of the tens of thousands imprisoned by Afghan authorities during the communist regime – 1978 to 1992 – who were never seen again. We called them gomshoda, or the disappeared. Since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, 86 mass graves have been dug up, though the authorities seem to know little about who was buried in them. Most have been discovered unintentionally, as a result of workers digging to erect new buildings as part of the extensive reconstruction of the country.
Wali and I had chosen to begin our search at a grave near the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison, where many of these prisoners were taken – a desert outpost used for target-shooting by the Afghan military. Human bones had begun to surface as workers dug on the site. But as nobody was willing to start the process of identifying the bodies, the digging had stopped.
There were two human bones inside the ditch, probably from the thigh and back Strewn next to them were lapis-coloured pieces of fabric and a pair of black, close-toed plastic shoes. Poor Afghan men wore this type of shoe. The wind had blown empty plastic water bottles on top of the ditch near mounds of fresh dirt.
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Wali crouched near the ditch and sobbed. I held back my tears. Stories I had heard over the past 29 years about how the disappeared were executed and some buried alive in this desert raced through my mind. I was standing on ghosts who held on to secrets of torture and atrocities. We sensed our relatives were among them. I had met Wali while reporting on Afghan-Americans who had returned to Afghanistan to do good – she had built a school – and we discovered both of us had family who had been missing from the communist era. Now, here we were.
My quest was to find out what had happened to my uncle – his death has scarred my family – and to come face to face with the man who sealed his fate. It proved to be an uncomfortable but revelatory journey.
I had warm memories of my uncle, Fazel Ahmed Ahrary. He was balding, always reading something or playing with his daughter, Ariya, his favourite. Sometime in spring 1979, a couple of months after the mujaheddin uprising in Herat, I remember my father telling us his brother had been imprisoned. It was the first time I saw my father weep. He knew his brother wasn’t coming back. But Fazel Ahmed’s wife and children refused to believe it. They searched for him for the next three years and then emigrated to the US, with no answers but still hoping he was alive. Last year I told Aunt Roufa, who lives in Hawaii, of my interest in continuing their search and she was enthusiastic: perhaps individuals who had information but had been too scared to talk in the past would be willing to open up now.
The key to unlocking those secrets of the past was held by Assadullah Sarwary, the head of the Afghan secret police in 1978 and 1979, the time at which most people disappeared. There are no reliable statistics, but from nearly every large family in the Afghan diaspora, from Britain to the US, at least one member was jailed during that period. On documents that list names of prisoners who didn’t come back, it is Sarwary’s signature. Today he is the only representative of the communist regime in prison in Kabul on charges of mass murder. Many of his colleagues are either dead, in the West, or rising to the ranks again in today’s western-backed Afghan government. An Afghan court sentenced him to death in February 2006, but human-rights groups and the United Nations objected to the trial, calling it unfair. He has pleaded not guilty and appealed against the sentence. He’s waiting for the Afghan Supreme Court to grant him a military trial because he was in the air force.
The fact that so many linked to the past regime are still in power and that the country is enmeshed in a new war doesn’t bode well for justice. People are still afraid to talk. “There’s a culture of fear. People from each era are still in power, which prevents civilians from coming forward with proof against past criminals. People don’t trust the system,” said Rahimullah Rameh, a lawyer who investigates war crimes for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
My uncle was my father’s younger brother – there were five brothers and three sisters – and came from a family of intellectuals and writers from the city of Herat. But Fazel Ahmed was the star. He won a scholarship to study pharmacy in France and then became the head of the pharmacy faculty at Kabul University. He was known among the family as a bookworm, quiet, honest and warm. His marriage was arranged to a cousin, Roufa Ahrary, a poet and teacher, and they had four sons and a daughter. In 1978, when Soviet-backed Afghan revolutionaries staged a coup against President Daud Khan, my uncle was at the height of his career and uninvolved in politics.
But Afghanistan rapidly destabilised after the coup as the American-backed mujaheddin began a fierce guerrilla war against the communists. Kabul University was the hub of political activity, with daily demonstrations against capitalism and imperialism and seminars discussing Marx, Lenin and Mao. But there were tensions among the Afghan communists. There were three communist parties: Khalq, the party in power; Parcham, a more elitist, intellectual party backed by the Soviets; and the Maoists, supported by China, who were outlawed but met in secret. The Khalq party did not accept the other two and imprisoned their more influential members. Punishment of the Maoists was more severe, usually execution, while some in Parcham were spared because of Soviet support. The Khalq formed a strong secret police called Agsa, which Sarwary ran, similar to the East German Stasi.
Students and professors disappeared by the hundreds from the university. My uncle, who was not a member of any party, was demoted from his job as the head of the faculty.
Before visiting that dreadful graveside, I had begun my quest at Kabul University, at the faculty of pharmacy where his students and the classmates who studied with him in France are now professors. Fazel Ahmed’s younger sister Nafisa Masomi and two of my cousins went with me. There, one of his colleagues, Qamaruddin Saifi, and two of his students, Nasim Siddiqi and Hassan Frotan, agreed to talk.
My uncle was a different personality at the university – vivacious and vocal. He stayed behind the scenes politically, but attended various leftist meetings and discussed political crises with his colleagues. The problem was that some of his closest contacts were Maoists, and they were on the government’s hit list. Saifi said the head of the faculty at that time was in the Khalq party, and informed him and several others to stop interacting with Maoists. Saifi listened, but apparently Fazel Ahmed continued talking to these Maoist friends. This could have been the reason he was jailed: guilt by association.
Siddiqi stayed quiet for most of the meeting with us, but said that he kept his mouth shut then and he was even scared to talk now. Frotan, a handsome man in a suit, said he was the last person in the department to see my uncle. Frotan noticed the infamous government black car with tinted windows outside their faculty – the Russian-made vehicle took prisoners who didn’t return. Then he saw Fazel Ahmed, wearing his sheepskin hat and a black suit, walking down with a bureaucrat. “He gave his briefcase to somebody and told them to give it to his wife and our eyes met. I was standing downstairs, too afraid to say anything, as he was being escorted down by another man. The colour in his face was gone. He knew where he was going. He went without any resistance,” Frotan recalled.
Fazel Ahmed Ahrary disappeared at 43 and was never seen again. “We asked the head of the faculty after the regime changed [nine months on] what happened to our professor,” Frotan said. “He knew because he was in the Khalq party, but he wasn’t a killer. He said sadly, ‘Mr Ahrary died under torture. He never made it out of the interrogation room.’ We didn’t ask any more questions.”
I made Frotan repeat “died under torture” a few times before I could digest it. The others in the room tried to share happier memories of my uncle, but I had the answer and I wasn’t going to let it go. Where can I find this head of the faculty? What kind of torture? Who did it? I threw these questions at Frotan and he stared back blankly and shook his head. All he could give was the name of the head of the faculty: Hossain Hilali.
It was the same name that Saifi and Murad Ali Roshandel, another colleague who lives in Germany but has returned to teach in the pharmacy faculty in Kabul, had mentioned earlier in a separate interview. Roshandel said Hilali had warned him to stay away from the Maoists, and that Hilali had seen Roshandel’s and my uncle’s names on a list of professors who were to be arrested. But from the 12 professors at the faculty, my uncle was the only one who was arrested and disappeared. I had to find Hilali if he was alive.
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My companion, Wali, had endured a longer and more painful search than I was experiencing.
She was also keen I meet Sarwary and confront the man she believed had ordered the execution of her father. Now 47, she is from my Afghan diaspora community in the San Francisco Bay area, the largest population of Afghans in the United States. She’s here to find her father, Shah Wali, nicknamed “Pilot”, or his remains.
He was a high-profile air-force pilot in charge of Bagram air base, where western troops are now stationed. One night in 1978, in front of his family, authorities showed up at their holiday home in Jalalabad and took him in his pyjamas. Wali was 17 and newly engaged. Her mother was crying and Wali was shaking as he was being taken, but he told them to be brave. That was the last time Wali saw her father.
In her Kabul home, Wali brought out her photo albums. The first photograph was of her father, a striking man with a moustache and smiling eyes. Wali is the mother of three grown children, but she reverts to childlike innocence when she speaks about her dad. He was her hero and as the only daughter, she was his princess.
Two months after the famous pilot was jailed, he sent his family a letter asking for cigarettes and medicine. For the next year, Wali wore black and talked to influential members of the government to release her father.
The same day that Wali and I visited the mass grave, we went to Pul-e-Charkhi. I shivered when I saw the structure inside – four-storey, grey triangular buildings with small, barred windows and stone walls riddled with bullets. It holds 4,000 inmates, including criminals and political prisoners, and despite laws against torture now, authorities still do it, according to inmates. On October 7, 2007, 15 people were killed by a firing squad, the first executions announced during the current president Hamid Karzai’s leadership.
Wali held up her father’s photograph to all the guards in the hope that one might remember him from 29 years ago. The guards who were present at that time seemed uncomfortable, but one of them said that at night they heard moans from the back yards of the prison, which they believed were the restless spirits of the past.
There had been an amnesty in 1979. Families lined up at Pul-e-Charkhi to see who made it out alive after two years of arrests. Wali stood behind the prison door from 8am until 8pm while inmates were driven out in buses and freed. “It was like a zoo,” she said. But her father was not among them. Instead she saw her maternal uncle Ehsan Pattan, the former King Zahir Shah’s royal pilot, who had also been jailed. He told his niece her father was no longer in the prison. Wali left Afghanistan shortly after that. Later, Pattan escaped into exile, but his experiences in Pul-e-Charkhi have turned the 70-year-old into a temperamental and distressed man. He was the last to see Wali’s father, but he has not disclosed details of their time together in prison with Wali yet. “I didn’t want her to suffer.”
The communists took him prisoner on charges of plotting a royal counter-coup, which he denied. Before he was taken to Pul-e-Charkhi, he was holed up with 1,000 men at the ministry of defence for five days. There he watched soldiers throw five men into a well alive and pile dirt on top of them. Pattan says Sarwary, who used to be his student in flight school, came in with a friend, now a member of the Afghan parliament, and called the names of 15 members of the Afghan royal family. Then Pattan heard numerous shots fired in the parking lot of the ministry. All 15 were reported dead, he said.
Eighteen buses carried the prisoners from the ministry to Pul-e-Charkhi, where Pattan spent two years. After two months in a cell, Pattan said in an unaffected tone, Sarwary interrogated and tortured him inside the prison. Wires were clipped to his toes and electric shocks zapped through his body. “He asked how I was planning to bring the king back, what were my plans with Shah Wali [Wali’s father]. He hit me and broke my ribs and two of my teeth.”
After a year, Shah Wali was brought to Pattan’s cell, where they spent three nights, and the brothers-in-law swapped stories. Shah Wali had also been tortured. Pattan said that on the third night, Said Mohammad Gulabzoy, a key Khalq member, called 12 inmates, including Shah Wali, to be taken to the desert target range, the killing fields. “He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t forget your God.’”
Pattan thinks he was saved because he wasn’t important enough to kill. Shah Wali was more powerful and high-ranking. Pattan said he had gone from a celebrated pilot to a security guard in the US, but he has put the past behind him. Yet he would like to see justice against Sarwary. “They should try him again fairly and then execute him in front of the victims’ families.”
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But how to reach Sarwary? I spread the word to friends who were connected to the Afghan government that I wanted to interview him. I was told it would be impossible because he was on death row and those inmates were not allowed to be interviewed. But connections can override most rules in Afghanistan. A friend introduced me to a man who knew Sarwary and would be able to get me inside his cell. He took me to the prosecutor handling Sarwary’s case and got permission for the interview.
When I saw him, I felt a surge of anger. But I held back and told myself I had to hear his side of the story. He said the only reason he agreed to see me was because of our mutual acquaintance.
Sarwary’s conditions in jail are a lot more pleasant than those of inmates of the communist times. He’s not in Pul-e-Charkhi but in a temporary cell in police headquarters in the centre of Kabul, where prisoners awaiting trials and sentencing are held. His room mirrored an average Afghan bedroom, with a bed, red mat, a TV, Thermoses of tea and plates of cookies and candies – except there were bars on the window. He wore traditional Afghan garb, loose trousers and a long tunic, and a turquoise ring. His neatly trimmed beard is the same colour as his salt-and- pepper hair. Papers and books were stacked near his bedside. At 66, Sarwary has spent a total of 17 years in prison. His adult life is a cycle of coups and incarcerations in various Soviet-backed regimes, in which he befriended powerful leaders and then became their enemy.
He greeted me with normal Afghan customs of hospitality, offered tea and began his soliloquy as if he had shared his biography numerous times. Animated at times and subdued at others, he never lost his air of confidence, the absolute conviction that he’s innocent. Sarwary was last captured by the mujaheddin in 1992, and the mujaheddin leader Ahmad Shah Massoud kept him in his private prison until he was handed over to Karzai’s administration.
Sarwary spent several years in the Soviet Union training to be a pilot and intelligence officer. He became enraptured with communism. “I had never seen that kind of order and organisation. They were civilised and we were backward.”
When he returned to Afghanistan, he was responsible for 100 planes and 1,500 officers, but that didn’t last long. He teamed up with King Zahir Shah’s cousin Mohammad Daud Khan to overthrow the monarchy in 1973. But while Daud Khan became president, he threw Sarwary in prison for eight months for insubordination. While Daud was pro-Soviet, Sarwary believed he didn’t go far enough in implementing socialism.
Sarwary came from what he claims was a landowning family in Ghazni province, and he was angry with the injustice to the landless poor. He studied Marx and Lenin and believed in communism, but says Afghans can never truly be communists. “We can’t separate ourselves from nationalism, so none of us were really communists.”
His role in the 1978 coup was instrumental – he was friends with Nur Mohammad Taraki, the first communist president, and with Hafizullah Amin, a key member of Khalq who later became prime minister and then president. As head of the secret police, Sarwary claimed he simply arrested people – 1,100 – and those who accuse him of torture and murder are lying. His agency used phone-tapping and informants to capture “enemies”. “I didn’t have the power to kill or order killings. All the evidence against me is false.”
I looked him in the eye and asked him what had happened to those who disappeared. He said Amin, who was assassinated in 1979, was responsible for most of the killings – and the rest of those in power who would know are also dead.
“Did you know Fazel Ahmed Ahrary?” I asked. He paused for a minute and shook his head. I told Sarwary he was my uncle and had disappeared. Do you know where those who disappeared are buried?
“I don’t know anything. If I killed anyone, slaughter me,” he answered angrily, motioning a knife cutting his throat. I knew then that I would not get any information I needed from him. Our meeting ended cordially, with him agreeing to be photographed on my mobile phone. Cameras were not allowed inside the prison, but nobody searched me.
Sarwary’s most faithful ally is Gulabzoy, who was minister of telecommunications when he was chief of Agsa. But while Sarwary anticipates life or death, Gulabzoy makes big decisions in the lower house of the parliament. He visits Sarwary every week and attests that his friend is wrongly accused. “He’s honest, patriotic and gullible – those are his weaknesses,” Gulabzoy said, on the lawn of his two-storey house in Kabul. Most witnesses against Sarwary say Gulabzoy was guilty of the same crimes, but he played his cards better politically.
After 13 years in prison, Sarwary was given the right to a trial in late 2005, and video tapes from the day of the sentencing in Kabul show a mob in the courtroom anxiously waiting to hear the judge read the death penalty. Sarwary had no defence lawyer and sat there calmly as he was sentenced to death. Representatives from human-rights groups, including the UN, attended part of the trial and said international standards of due process and fairness were ignored.
There’s no law against war crimes in Afghanistan, and some legal experts believe it would be better to try Sarwary in the Hague, because Afghanistan’s judicial system is not ready for such cases. Three other Afghans have been indicted for war crimes outside the country – one man from the mujaheddin era in Britain, and two from the communist times in Holland.
Meanwhile, the culture ministry has set up a commission to try to decide what to do with the mass graves. A UN official told me it’s best if families do not get their hopes up that the remains will be identified. According to the ministry of defence, there are no Afghan forensic experts who can do the job and it’s too expensive.
But for Wali and me, the efforts of the commission are not enough. Wali wants to unite all the victims’ families to build a memorial, similar to the Vietnam wall, commemorating those who disappeared, and some relatives are writing books and documenting their stories in hopes of finding closure. I continue my search – for Hossain Hilali, the former director of the faculty of pharmacy, and for others who might have a clue as to what happened to my uncle. Hilali might be in Munich, but numerous internet searches and calls to Afghans there turned up nothing.
The answers I found raised even more questions, and the selective memories of those who were there at the time were too subjective to point to any reliable truth. The trail leading to my uncle has gone cold, but no matter in which direction it leads, the ending is death.
Now I had to share what I knew with those closest to him. My father took the news in his stride when I went back to California to tell him. At 77, his memory is going, but he remembers every detail I told him about my journey and he retells it to all of our guests in an attempt to grasp its reality. I kept delaying the call to Aunt Roufa, my uncle’s wife, and when I did call, I avoided the subject for an hour until finally she asked. With many disclaimers that
it could be false, I told her that he may have died under torture.
“I never heard this before. I feel his pain. I think he didn’t have any tolerance for suffering. None of us in the family do,” she said, grappling for an explanation.
I suggested having a memorial service for him, to give him a peaceful rest, but she said no. “I prefer that he has disappeared and not to know. I don’t want to see a body. I don’t know what I would do if I found out he’s dead for sure.”
When I hung up the phone, I burst into tears finally, not because my uncle was dead, but because I had opened up old wounds. I knew that at the other end, in her apartment in Honolulu, Aunt Roufa was alone and in pain.