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The Victims’ Jirga, a daylong event held in Kabul on Sunday, soon degenerated into one long howl of pain.
What was striking about the stories of the dozens of victims present was how remarkably similar they were. Through 30 years of war, through multiple changes of government, the torture, mutilation and death continued. Victims and perpetrators may have switched places; names and faces may have changed, but tactics varied little.
“My sons, my sons, you were my dignity, you were my treasure. I am like a butterfly on your grave. Who has done this? Why?” keened an elderly woman, whose husband and two children were killed in a rocket attack during the civil war. She had grabbed the microphone and was loath to part with it, even after repeated gentle hints from the podium.
The organizers — the 24-member Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG) — tried to separate the victims’ reports into time segments — victims of the Communist regime, victims of the mujaheddin, victims of the Taliban, victims of the latest twisted epoch in Afghan history, that we used to call “democratization.”
There is plenty of blame to go around. All ethnic and political groups have been implicated in atrocities. Tajik and Pashtun forces under Abdul Rassol Sayyaf ‘s Ittihad-e-Islami massacred hundreds of civilians in Afshar, in 1993; Hazara troops under the Hezb-e-Wahdat faction went on a rampage in the north in 1997, killing Taliban. The Taliban, in turn, carried out a revenge massacre of Hazaras in mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. Uzbek troops under General Abdul Rashid Dostum killed thousands of Taliban prisoners in the north, in 2001.
This does not reflect the countless individual acts of cruelty that one group or another carried out during the long years of conflict.
But it all began to blur after the first few tales of barbarism.
A young man told of his experience during the Afshar massacre, in 1993. More than 700 Hazaras were reported killed, according to the Human Rights Watch Report “Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity,” released in 2005.
The speaker described how both his arms were broken, and kerosene was poured on his head and set alight, because he refused to spit on a portrait of Ayatollah Khomenei. Most Hazara belong to the Shia school of Islam something, that provokes the ire of the Sunni majority.
“I was loaded onto a truck and stacked with others, like firewood,” he said.
Dr. Sharif, one of the victims present, told of how his nine brothers were butchered during the Communist era – five at the hands of the regime of Noor Mohammad Taraki, four others by Hezb-e-Islami, the faction under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Their crime — being from Nangahar province, which was proving difficult for the government to subdue. Sharif himself was imprisoned and tortured, but he somehow managed to survive.
“Now Hezb-e-Islami is part of the government,” he said bitterly. “The Minister of the Economy is a leader of Hezb-e-Islami. I have to see the men who killed my brothers speaking on television, from a position of power.”
According to its organizers, the Victims’ Jirga was designed to give voice to those who had suffered during the decades of war.
The National Consultative Peace Jirga, scheduled for later this month, was “inappropriate” said Engineer Akhtar, a member of the TJGC. “It will destroy the rights of the victims,” he said. “The government is going ahead without any consultation, while our research shows that 60 percent of Afghans were victims of the fighting.”
Even that figure might be modest, said a young man in the audience.
“We are all victims,” he said.
Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Right Commission (AIHRC), tied the government’s search for peace to the concept of transitional justice — which, according to the events organizers, “seeks recognition for victims and to promote possibilities for peace, reconciliation and democracy.”
“No peace can be sustainable without considering the voices of those who have suffered,” said Nadery.
But after hours spent steeped in the bitterness and grief of the victims, one wonders whether Afghanistan is ready to put the past behind it. The event seemed designed more to roil emotions than to soothe them.
“There is no contradiction between peace and justice,” insisted Nadery. “The past should not be forgotten. It should serve as a lesson for future generations.”
Justice, however, is a remote possibility in Afghanistan, where some of those who figure most prominently on the lists of human rights violators, according to the AIHRC, Human Rights Watch, and other bodies, are sitting in the government and making policy.
In 2007, the parliament, which is dominated by such groups, passed a law granting the mujaheddin immunity from prosecution for any acts committed during the decades of war. The Amnesty Bill, as it is known, was quietly signed into law in 2008, but became widely known only in early 2010.
The TJCG is calling for the Amnesty Law to be repealed.
“The government of Afghanistan does not have the right to usurp the rights of victims,” wrote the TJCG in a statement released to the press in advance of Sunday’s event. “Only the victims have the right to forgive perpetrators. But the state has a duty to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious rights violations such as disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings.”
Instead, the government seems intent on putting all of that behind it. The armed faction of Hezb-e-Islami is proposing a peace agreement with the government, and the Peace Jirga will try and devise a framework for reconciliation with the Taliban and other armed groups.
But what is needed, according to Dr. Sharif, is not reconciliation between the opposition and the government; first, he points out, we need reconciliation between the victims and their torturers.
“Nobody has even come to apologize,” he fumed. “It is in our tradition that people can live together after one side recognizes their fault. But that has not happened here.”
Dr. Sharif paused and shook his head.
“If only someone would come to me and say ‘I am sorry.’”