Waiting to die

The Northern Alliance confirms that foreign Taliban forces massacred Afghans who tried to surrender. So there's little hope for peace talks.

Published November 20, 2001 9:08PM (EST)

The stalemate in Kunduz continued Tuesday, as Taliban forces, many of them foreigners, rebuffed assorted peace initiatives, and Northern Alliance soldiers failed to mount a direct, decisive assault.

The slow procession of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek refugees from the front line around Khanabad and Kunduz continued unabated on Tuesday. In fact, it seemed that the numbers of people on the Kunduz-to-Taloqan road had sharply increased compared to the last six or seven days of the stalemated conflict in northern Afghanistan.

Also Tuesday, local Northern Alliance commander Gen. Daoud Khan confirmed a story told repeatedly by refugees: that foreign Taliban forces had massacred Afghan Taliban defectors as they tried to cross over to the Northern Alliance side.

"More than 470 Talibs who wanted to defect were killed by the foreign Taliban. Most of them were Pashtuns," Khan told reporters. When pressed about the time and locations of the killings, Khan said that 300 defectors were killed at Imam Sahib near Khanabad Nov. 16, and an additional 140 were killed at the Khanabad airstrip. Although similar independent reports have been made by refugees coming from Kunduz and Khanabad in recent days, and have been widely reported, none of the events Khan described can be easily verified at this point.

But clearly the regional situation remains violent and unstable, intensifying the refugee exodus. Entire extended families, with their belongings piled carefully onto donkeys, materialized out of the freezing mist and bitter cold Tuesday, politely stopped to answer a few questions, then continued on in complete silence. It was a terrible day to be going anywhere.

One family, on the road roughly 10 miles west of Taloqan, had strapped their infant son to the back of their donkey, holding him in place with blocks of wood.

Many told variations on the same basic story. "When a Tajik or an Uzbek looks a foreign Talib in the eyes, they kill him," said Toza Gul, a driver, in a narrative that was equal parts hatred and fear. Gul said that the Taliban had ordered him to leave Khanabad, a town midway between Kunduz and Taloqan, because he is an ethnic Tajik, while the Taliban is mainly Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Many Northern Alliance fighters are also Tajiks, a fact that made Gul's life in Khanabad very difficult, so he decided to cut his losses and leave for Taloqan with his family.

There have also been widely varying estimates of the number of foreign Taliban fighters holed up in Kunduz. Almost nothing can be confirmed, but the consensus among Northern Alliance commanders is that retreating Taliban forces from Mazar-e-Sharif and Taloqan have converged on the strategic northern town, bringing with up to 5,000 foreign Taliban -- Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechnyan, Chinese Chinese and even Burmese Muslims, who flooded into Afghanistan to take part in the severe religious movement.

Unlike the local Afghans, who always have the option of defecting to the winning team, the foreign elements within the Taliban can expect only summary execution from the Northern Alliance if they are captured. Both sides in the conflict have routinely executed prisoners, of course, but many of the dead Taliban fighters identified in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif have been foreigners, and some of them were killed savagely.

The Northern Alliance peace program for Kunduz has been to try to convince Taliban commanders to defect with their men. While this approach has met with a certain degree of success among Afghan Taliban, it has left thousands of foreign fighters stranded in Kunduz with nothing to look forward to except martyrdom.

"I'm not optimistic that the foreigners in the Taliban will surrender," Gen. Khan said Tuesday morning, at a surreal, badly translated 45-minute press conference at his Taloqan compound, where he briefed reporters on the situation in Kunduz. "If there is no result of our (peace) effort, then fighting war is essential."

Khan estimated that more than 1,000 Taliban had surrendered, and thousands more had fled, since Northern Alliance forces surrounded Kunduz more than a week ago. Evidence for at least some defections was not that hard to find, as Khan's garden was full of men in black turbans who described themselves as former Taliban commanders. At least one Northern Alliance fighter was seen embracing a former Taliban fighter in a gesture of peace.

One older man with a scarred face, Saif Rakhman, said that he brought over 500 fighters on Monday night. But shortly afterward, he seemed to grow very upset, then stamped his feet and demanded dollars in exchange for his interview.

That underscored the difficulty in reporting from Kunduz and its environs: Refugees and self-described defectors appear willing to say virtually anything, for a price. Taliban commanders who have defected are asking to be paid to give on camera interviews. The desperate are becoming media-savvy, and it's almost impossible to confirm the various accounts of massacres and ethnic cleansing with any degree of certainty.

Meanwhile, Western reporters are growing more edgy since Monday's killing of four journalists in a multi-car convoy on the dangerous Jalalabad-to-Kabul road. Security is a growing concern. Everyone says northern Afghanistan is safer than the south, but the mood may be souring. Some reporters have begun to investigate safe passage out of the region, but there are reports that guides are charging up to $1,000 to escort foreigners to a safety that it seems impossible for anyone to guarantee.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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