JPRI Critique Vol. XIX No. 8 (November 2013)
Afghanistan’s Disappeared: Tens of Thousands Still Missing
by Fariba Nawa
My uncle Fazel Ahmed Ahrary’s loss 34 years ago shook the foundations of my family. He was the star of our extended literary clan with French degrees in pharmacy, a love of books, and a soothing, inviting personality. He didn’t die with dignity. He disappeared for 34 years and then appeared on a death list this year.
Last month, I framed a 1970s sepia photograph of my uncle, and I gazed at it for hours. He’s balding in a suit and tie with a book in his hand. This week, after three decades, my family laid him to rest.
On September 18th, Dutch authorities who have been investigating Afghans residing in Holland for war crimes released a list of nearly 5,000 Afghans who had disappeared, then were tortured and killed at the hands of Afghan communists in 1978 and 1979, the beginning of Afghanistan’s 35-year war. My uncle’s name was on the list.
This is just a fraction of the disappeared. The Soviets and Afghan communists imprisoned and executed tens of thousands during their 11-year reign.
Dutch detectives gathered the list from various sources, including a former Afghan communist interrogator who died of a heart attack in Holland last year. He was the only suspect they had enough evidence to take to trial, but he died before they could arrest him.
Dozens more Afghans with blood on their hands in Europe and the United States have sought asylum without paying for their crimes. One reason the Dutch released the list was to give families like mine closure. It also was to encourage eyewitnesses who have survived torture and cruel punishment under any regimes in Afghanistan over the past 35 years to come forward.
With warlords running for 2014 Afghan presidential elections again and the Taliban’s imminent return to Afghanistan, there’s little possibility of justice in our native country anytime soon. In the last 12 years since the United States ousted the Taliban, there has been no truth and reconciliation commission, as in Rwanda or the Balkans. Afghan government officials, some of whom also are guilty of war crimes themselves, tell us to forgive and forget.
The only hope families like mine have for accountability is through the developed world’s legal system and The Hague. We had buried our hopes for justice without burying our lost loved ones until the release of the death list. This notorious list, which enumerates the deceased names, occupations and crimes they’re accused of, has awakened the ghosts of the past and motivated many of us to demand justice again.
The largest Afghan community in the United States lives in the Bay Area, and most of these families fled Afghanistan three decades ago, often because one of their members had been killed or gone missing. We were the educated elites, but now we’re a diaspora with open wounds. Several memorial services have been held in mosques and private homes, and the most recent was last Sunday at Cal State East Bay. The younger generation of Afghans from nearly all ethnicities and religious sects united to read poetry, pray, and tell stories of their lost fathers, who were pilots, educators and clerics. Many in the audience, including myself, shed tears.
Humah Bargzie Talai, one of the presenters, was 5 years old when her father disappeared in Kandahar. “He said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ when he left the house, but he never came back.”
My family already knew Uncle Fazel Ahmed, my father’s younger brother, had died. He was the dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Kabul University, a French-educated intellectual married with five children, who harmed no one. The Afghan secret police came to his work and drove away in a Russian-made car in 1979. That was the last time he was seen alive.
In 2007, while I was living and working in Kabul, I decided to find out what had happened to him. Mass graves were being uncovered at that time during reconstruction projects. Construction workers building schools and roads uncovered human bones and skeletons. I sat in the ditches of one grave, picked up a human femur and wondered if it was my uncle’s. After three months of investigation, his former students, who now teach at Kabul University, revealed that my uncle had died under torture. The man who turned him into the secret police lives in Munich, Germany, free and fed.
I cannot forgive and forget because the corruption and cycle of violence will continue. Without justice, no country has had peace. Without accountability, Afghans will continue to die because dictators, warlords and ideologues will kill as the world looks away.
Fariba Nawa, an award-winning Afghan-American journalist, is the author of Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan (Harper Perennial, 2011). She lived and reported from Afghanistan from 2002 to 2007, and witnessed the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. She has also reported from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, and Germany. Her work has appeared in the Sunday Times of London, Newsday, Mother Jones, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor and numerous other publications. She also reports for radio, including National Public Radio, and is the author of the groundbreaking report, Afghanistan, Inc., and a contributor to Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands, edited by Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews (Harvard University Press, 2012). She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.