Were U.S. troops in Afghanistan complicit in a massacre?

An Irish documentary filmmaker says he has evidence they were -- and he's releasing some of his footage to prevent a coverup.

Published June 15, 2002 7:13PM (EDT)

Irish documentarian Jamie Doran says he has evidence of American complicity in a massacre in Afghanistan, and he's been showing his rough footage to European leaders in the hope of preventing a coverup.

Doran, who worked at the BBC for more than seven years and has made documentaries about human rights abuses throughout the world, screened 20 minutes of his unfinished feature documentary, "Massacre at Mazar," to the European parliament and the German parliament on Wednesday. After witnessing the screening, Andrew McEntee, former head of Amnesty International in the U.K., called for an independent investigation.

Doran has yet to release the footage to the public because he says his eyewitnesses' identities need to be obscured for their own protection. But Doran felt he had to get some of the information out immediately because the mass graves he secretly filmed are in danger of being tampered with, which would make an independent inquiry into his film's allegations of Northern Alliance and American war crimes impossible.

According to Doran, of the approximately 8,000 Taliban prisoners taken after the fall of Kunduz in late November 2001 to Gen. Rashid Dostum, around 5,000 are unaccounted for. He says he's filmed eyewitnesses testifying that many of those prisoners suffocated in the metal containers used to transport them between Qala-I-Zeini fortress and Sherberghan prison, and that Northern Alliance troops fired into the containers, killing and wounding other prisoners. One witness claims that an American officer ordered the bodies dumped in the desert of Dasht-I-Leili, and that living people were taken there as well and executed. Furthermore, Doran says he has witnesses claiming to have seen American special-forces soldiers torturing prisoners who made it to Sherberghan.

In all, six witnesses appear in the film: two truck drivers who drove the trucks filled with corpses and living men to Dasht-I-Leili; a taxi driver who saw the blood-dripping trucks; two soldiers, including one who admits he shot into the containers; and a Northern Alliance general. Doran says other witnesses may be ready to come forward as well.

Doran says that his sources had no agendas and in fact were putting their lives at risk by appearing in the film. He said that one of his collaborators on the film, as well as one of the witnesses, have had their lives threatened.

The Pentagon didn't return calls for comment, but an official was quoted in the U.K. Guardian Thursday saying that "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."

Doran's claim that there is a mass grave in Dasht-I-Leili has been echoed by Physicians for Human Rights, though the group doesn't know anything about American involvement. PHR seconds Doran's demand that the evidence be preserved. "The reconstruction of Afghanistan should include whatever accountability mechanism the Afghans decide to use. Therefore it's urgent that these mass graves are protected, or else they will be disturbed and evidence will not be as credible," says PHR consultant John Heffernan. (Besides the grave near Sherberghan, PHR found a mass grave near Mazar-I-Sharif).

Heffernan was in Afghanistan in January with PHR board member Dr. Jennifer Leaning when they heard rumors about the grave near Sherberghan. Someone from an international NGO told them they were driving by Dasht-I-Leili when "they witnessed three large container trucks backed into a site that was being bulldozed," Heffernan says.

Heffernan and Leaning went to the site and observed "skeletal remains, clothing and a significant odor." Two PHR forensic pathologists later determined the remains were from the previous two or three months.

A month ago, a U.N. investigative team exhumed 15 bodies from the site. Autopsies were performed on three of them; all had suffocated to death. Heffernan says that forensics suggest the area is dense with corpses.

Heffernan says that PHR had speculated that the bodies were of those unaccounted for after the surrender at Kunduz. Doran says the evidence in his film is the missing link connecting the fall of that city and the grave in the desert.

You believe there was a massacre. How did it happen?

First, the history. The Taliban was surrounded at the town of Kunduz. One man, Amir Jhan, agreed to negotiate their surrender. He had fought alongside the Taliban and was trusted by both sides. He was respected even by people like Dotsum. In the process of negotiating the surrender, Jhan counted the number of prisoners. He says there were 8,000. Now there are only 3,015 left. Where are the rest?

Four hundred seventy of the prisoners were suspected al-Qaida members. They were taken to Qala Jangi, and that was where the press focused attention. That's where the prison revolts started and where CIA agent Johnny Spann was killed.

What no one was aware of was that the other 7,500 prisoners were being processed through another fort, Qala-I-Zeini. They were transported to Sherberghan in shipping containers -- one of my witnesses said that 200 to 300 people were loaded into each container. The Taliban were suffocating. They cried out for air. In the film it says the answer came quite swiftly when Northern Alliance soldiers fired into the containers. One witness implicates himself by admitting to shooting into containers and killing prisoners. He was ordered by his commanders.

The containers were loaded onto trucks and moved towards Sherberghan. On that road, a taxi driver saw them in a makeshift gas station. He smelled something horrific and asked the attendant about it. The attendant said look behind you, and he turned around to see blood pouring out of three containers on the back of a truck.

When they arrived, one witness -- another soldier -- talks about how an American officer, on seeing the carnage, told them to get [the bodies] out of the town of Sherberghan. Two drivers who were interviewed separately talk of being forced to take container loads of the dead, wounded and unconscious into the desert of Dasht-I-Leili, where the bodies were taken from the containers. Some of them were alive. One of the drivers described some of them as being perfectly healthy. Others were wounded. They were lined up and summarily shot by machine-gun fire by the Northern Alliance.

Do you have other evidence of American complicity?

Crucially, one of the drivers was asked, "Were there any American soldiers present at Dasht-I-Leili?" He says yes. He was asked, "Do you mean right here where the killing took place?" He says, "Yes, here." He was asked how many, and he says lots of them, 30 to 40. He's saying that 30 to 40 American soldiers were witness on at least one occasion to these events.

Why did you come forward with the footage before your documentary was finished?

There is a mass grave with very many bodies in it at this moment, and I had received the word from Afghanistan that there was possibly tampering going on. By breaking the story, my hope is that this evidence is not removed and that an independent inquiry of some kind can take place. What do innocent people have to fear from an inquiry?

In your documentary, there are allegations that American soldiers tortured Taliban prisoners. When did that happen?

The torture took place after those prisoners that were left arrived at Sherberghan. According to eyewitnesses, these were fairly isolated instances. They included the breaking of necks, the cutting of tongues, the cutting of beards -- a great insult in the Islamic faith -- and the cutting of fingers.

I read that your film also claims that one prisoner had acid poured on him.

Yes, that's an allegation from one of the eyewitnesses.

You said before that some of your witnesses implicated themselves. How did you get them to talk to you?

The most important thing in this is that these witnesses have absolutely nothing to gain. They don't get a single cent and they put themselves in immense danger by agreeing to take part in this.

So what were their motives?

With the soldiers, I spent hours talking to them, negotiating and cajoling. They did not want to do interviews. They were happy to tell me things, they just did not want to do interviews [on camera]. I spent hours persuading them.

As for the drivers, it was perfectly clear from the way they talked and the expressions on their faces: They were frankly disgusted by what they'd been forced to do.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------