Documenting the Massacre in Mazar

A documentary film by Scottish filmmaker Jamie Doran titled "Massacre at Mazar" offers eyewitness testimony and film footage of human remains and mass graves of what may be damning evidence of mass killings at Sherberghan and Mazar-I-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan.

The massacre allegedly took place in November 2001, when Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance took control of Kunduz, and accepted the surrender of about 8,000 Taliban fighters that included al-Qaeda, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis. Almost 500 suspected al-Qaeda members were taken to the Qala Jangi prison fortress (where a revolt would eventually leave one CIA agent dead and make John Walker Lindh a household name), while the remainder of the prisoners -- about 7,500 -- were loaded in containers and transported to the Qala-I-Zeini fortress, almost halfway between Mazar-i-Sharif and Sherberghan Prison. Human rights advocates say that close to 5,000 of the original 8,000 are missing.

Eyewitnesses in Doran's film claim that many of the prisoners may have suffocated in the nearly airless shipping containers en route to their destinations. Others were shot when Northern Alliance soldiers fired into the containers to create air holes. And their bodies may have been buried in mass graves.

Doran -- who has not released his film to the public in order to protect the identities of eyewitnesses -- recently showed 20 minutes of his film to members of the German parliament June 12 and to the members of the European parliament and press on June 13. The screening drew a prompt response from human rights activists, including Andrew McEntee, former Amnesty International UK chair, who demanded an independent investigation. French Euro MP Francis Wurtz said he would address the massacre at a parliament meeting this month, while his other colleagues said they would enlist the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross to conduct an investigation.

Doran, a veteran BBC filmmaker, says "Massacre at Mazar" includes key testimony from various eyewitnesses who offer compelling evidence of a human rights tragedy, including:

-- an Afghan general who explains how he helped unload and load "around 200, maybe up to 300 [prisoners] in each" container.

-- an anonymous Afghan soldier who says he "hit the containers with bullets to make holes for ventilation. Some of them were killed inside the containers and then we sent them on to Sherberghan." When asked who gave the order, he said "the commanders ordered me to hit the containers to make holes for ventilation and because of that some of the prisoners were killed."

-- a local taxi driver who says he "smelled something strange" when he stopped for gas. "I asked the petrol attendant where the smell was coming from. He said 'Look behind you,' and there were trucks with containers fixed on them ... Blood was leaking from the containers -- they were full of dead bodies."

-- two civilian drivers who say they drove trucks of men to Dasht Leili, "where [the prisoners] were shot." A driver tells Doran that there were American soldiers present at Dasht Leili. "How many Americans were with you?" Doran asks. The driver replies, "30 or 40."

-- an Afghan soldier who claims to have been present "when an American soldier broke one prisoner's neck and poured acid on others. The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them."

Doran's film -- and the allegations of mass killings -- has received extensive media coverage in Europe, but is getting little attention in the U.S. The lack of reaction, says Doran, puts the safety of the graves in jeopardy with each passing day.

The U.S. military is denying any knowledge of or involvement in a massacre.

A Pentagon official was quoted by the Guardian (U.K.) as saying that "the U.S. Central Command looked into it a few months ago, when allegations first surfaced when there were graves discovered in the area of Sherberghan prison. They looked into it and did not substantiate any knowledge, presence or participation of U.S. service members." Pentagon spokesman Marin Corps Lt. Col. Dave Lapan told reporters that he considered the allegations of torture to be "highly suspect."

"Our service members don't participate in torture of any type," said Lapan.

Doran is skeptical about the Pentagon's position.

"Military is about chain of command," he says, "and the question is who was running the show? Was it the Afghans or the Americans? If you've ever seen Western forces alongside foreign forces, there's never a question about who's in charge." Doran says even if there is no conclusive evidence of direct American participation, the U.S. troops are still responsible for tragedies that occur under their watch. "[I]f they're going to be involved, they need to answer for this. By law," he says.

While the extent of U.S. participation is still debatable, the evidence pointing to mass-scale executions is piling up.

Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights sent an investigative team in January and a forensics team to Afghanistan the following month. "We spoke to an NGO staff person who was an eyewitness to three large container trucks being backed into Sherberghan, which was being bulldozed," PHR consultant John Heffernan says. "There he saw a number of Northern Alliance soldiers, holding their arms up to their noses, indicating a bad smell."

"There was certainly evidence of skeletal remains and clothing and bulldozer tracks," he says. PHR's forensics experts were later "able to conduct a thorough assessment -- without exhuming the bodies -- that these were fresh remains." The organization compiled a report on their findings from two alleged mass graves and submitted it to the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense and British government officials. They also sent a letter to President Karzai. "Our main focus was the protection of the sites so that the evidence yielded was not destroyed," says Heffernan. "We didn't get any response from the people in the States or in England."

In May, the U.N. exhumed 15 bodies and performed autopsies on three from a test trench. They concluded that the three had died from suffocation and that the victims were ethnically Pashtun, indicating that they were more than likely Taliban. But the U.N. has not released any statement or announced a course of action.

However, the human rights groups who are committed to taking action may be getting in the way of justice, as well.

"I've noticed in the last week, a rivalry kicking in," says Doran, who has been contacted by several government officials, human rights groups and NGOs. They're each claiming,"'We want to do the grave,' 'No, we want to do the grave.' Yet none of them are ensuring the safety (of the graves)," says an angry and frustrated Doran.

Heffernan agrees there is an urgent need for immediate action, be it exhuming the graves or ensuring their protection.

"PHR thinks it's essential that an accountability mechanism be a truth commission or a tribunal," he says. "Whatever will facilitate reconciliation and recovery so that this stuff doesn't happen again."

Genevieve Roja is an associate editor at AlterNet.

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