brain sizes: Einstein's and women's
johnknight at usa.com
Mon Aug 19 03:27:33 EST 2002
The following disgusting story is the best we can expect out of letting jews
remain in this Christian nation.
The Death Convoy of Afghanistan
Witness reports and the probing of a mass grave point to war crimes. Does
the United States have any responsibility for the atrocities of its allies?
A NEWSWEEK investigation
By Babak Dehghanpisheh, John Barry and Roy Gutman
Aug. 26 issue - Trudging over the moonscape of Dasht-e Leili, a
desolate expanse of low rolling hills in northern Afghanistan, Bill Haglund
spotted clues half-buried in the gray-beige sand. Strings of prayer beads. A
woolen skullcap. A few shoes. Those remnants, along with track marks and
blade scrapes left by a bulldozer, suggested that Haglund had found what he
was looking for. Then he came across a human tibia, three sets of pelvic
bones and some ribs.
MASS GRAVES are not always easy to spot, though trained
investigators know the signs. "You look for disturbance of the earth,
differences in the vegetation, areas that have been machined over," says
Haglund, a forensic anthropologist and pioneer in the field of "human-rights
archeology." At Dasht-e Leili, a 15-minute drive from the Northern Alliance
prison at Sheber-ghan, scavenging animals had brought the evidence to the
surface. Some of the gnawed bones were old and bleached, but some were from
bodies so recently buried the bones still carried tissue. The area of
bulldozer activity-roughly an acre-suggested burials on a large scale. A
stray surgical glove also caught Haglund's eye. Such gloves are often used
by people handling corpses, and could be evidence, Haglund thought, of "a
modicum of planning."
Haglund was in Dasht-e Leili on more than a hunch. In January, two
investigators from the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights had argued
their way into the nearby Sheberghan prison. What they saw shocked them.
More than 3,000 Taliban prisoners-who had surrendered to the victorious
Northern Alliance forces at the fall of Konduz in late November-were
crammed, sick and starving, into a facility with room for only 800. The
Northern Alliance commander of the prison acknowledged the charnel-house
conditions, but pleaded that he had no money. He begged the PHR to send food
and supplies, and to ask the United Nations to dig a well so the prisoners
could drink unpolluted water.
STORIES OF MASS GRAVES
But stories of a deeper horror came from the prisoners themselves.
However awful their conditions, they were the lucky ones. They were alive.
Many hundreds of their comrades, they said, had been killed on the journey
to Sheberghan from Konduz by being stuffed into sealed cargo containers and
left to asphyxiate. Local aid workers and Afghan officials quietly confirmed
that they had heard the same stories. They confirmed, too, persistent
reports about the disposal of many of the dead in mass graves at Dasht-e
That's when Haglund, a veteran of similar investigations in Rwanda,
Sri Lanka, the Balkans and other scenes of atrocity, was called in. Standing
at what he reckoned from the 'dozer tracks was an edge of the grave site, he
pushed a long, hollow probe deep into the compacted sand. Then he sniffed.
The acrid smell reeking up the shaft was unmistakable. Haglund and local
laborers later dug down; at five feet, they came upon a layer of decomposing
corpses, lying pressed together in a row. They dug a trial trench about six
yards long, and in that -short length found 15 corpses. "They were
relatively fresh bodies: the flesh was still on the bones," Haglund recalls.
"They were scantily clad, which was consistent with reports that [before
they died] they had been in a very hot place." Some had their hands tied.
Haglund brought up three of the corpses, and a colleague conducted autopsies
in a tent. The victims were all young men, and their bodies showed "no overt
trauma"-no gunshot wounds, no blows from blunt instruments. This, too,
Hag-lund says, is "consistent" with the survivors' stories of death by
How many are buried at Dasht-e Leili? Haglund won't speculate. "The
only thing we know is that it's a very large site," says a U.N. official
privy to the investigation, and there was "a high density of bodies in the
trial trench." Other sources who have investigated the killings aren't
surprised. "I can say with confidence that more than a thousand people died
in the containers," says Aziz ur Rahman Razekh, director of the Afghan
Organization of Human Rights. NEWSWEEK's extensive inquiries of prisoners,
truckdrivers, Afghan militiamen and local villagers-including interviews
with survivors who licked and chewed each other's skin to stay alive-suggest
also that many hundreds of people died.
The dead of Dasht-e Leili-and the horrific manner of their
killing-are one of the dirty little secrets of the Afghan war. The episode
is more than just another atrocity in a land that has seen many. The
killings illustrate the problems America will face if it opts to fight wars
by proxy, as the United States did in Afghanistan, using small numbers of
U.S. Special Forces calling in air power to support local fighters on the
ground. It also raises questions about the responsibility Americans have for
the conduct of allies who may have no -interest in applying protections of
the Geneva Conventions. The benefit in fighting a proxy-style war in
Afghanistan was victory on the cheap-cheap, at any rate, in American blood.
The cost, NEWSWEEK's investigation has established, is that American forces
were working intimately with "allies" who committed what could well qualify
as war crimes.
Nothing that NEWSWEEK learned suggests that American forces had
advance knowledge of the killings, witnessed the prisoners being stuffed
into the unventilated trucks or were in a position to prevent that. They
were in the area of the prison at the time the containers were delivered,
although probably not when they were opened. The small group of Special
Forces soldiers were more focused at the time on prison security, and
preventing an uprising such as the bloody outbreak that had happened days
earlier in the prison fort at Qala Jangi. The soldiers surely heard stories
of deaths in the containers, but may have thought them exaggerated. They
also may have believed that the dead were war casualties, or wounded
prisoners who, among thousands of their comrades, simply didn't survive the
rugged journey from the surrender point to the prison. But it's also true
that Pentagon spokesmen have obfuscated when faced with questions on the
subject. Officials across the administration did not respond to repeated
requests by NEWSWEEK for a detailed accounting of U.S. activities in the
Konduz, Mazar-e Sharif and Sheberghan areas at the time in question, and
Defense Department spokespersons have made statements that are false.
Questions can be raised, as well, about international agencies. How
seriously has the United Nations pursued investigations of what happened at
Sheberghan? The reports of atrocity come at a time when the international
community is desperately trying to bring stability to Afghanistan.
Well-meaning officials may be wondering if a full-scale investigation might
set off a new round of Afghan slaughter. Would it be worth it? A
confidential U.N. memorandum, parts of which were made available to
NEWSWEEK, says that the findings of investigations into the Dasht-e Leili
graves "are sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation."
It says that based on "information collected," the site "contains bodies of
Taliban POW's who died of suffocation during transfer from Konduz to
Sheberghan." A witness quoted in the report puts the death toll at 960. Yet
the re-port also raises urgent questions. "Considering the political
sensitivity of this case and related protection concerns, it is strongly
recommended that all activities relevant to this case be brought to a halt
until a decision is made concerning the final goal of the exercise: criminal
trial, truth commission, other, etc."
Newsweek International August 26 Issue
. International Editions Front Page
. Cover Story: The Death Convoy of Afghanistan
. Special Section: World Cup 2002
. World View: The Nature of Human Nature
. Letter From America: Go Yeast, Young Man!
. International Periscope
. International Perspectives
. International Mail Call
The militia leader whose forces allegedly carried out the killings is
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Afghanistan's most ruthless and effective
warlords. Dostum's spokesperson, Faizullah Zaki, told NEWSWEEK that many
people did die of suffocation. But he put the total number at "between 100
and 120 people, a few from each container," and said that some of them "were
seriously injured and died en route." He suggested that the uprising at Qala
Jangi prison, just three days earlier, might have affected their treatment.
"If the incident at Qala Jangi hadn't happened, it's possible that the
prisoners would have been transferred more peacefully. There would have been
less irregularities," he said, adding: "They suffocated. Died, not killed.
Nobody killed anybody." Zaki also said that General Dostum was not in the
place where the prisoners were loaded into containers. "The technical
details of the transfer were left to lower-level commanders," he said,
adding that "there was a handful of American soldiers that didn't leave
[Dostum's] side" during the period in question.
The close involvement of American soldiers with General Dostum can
only make an investigation all the more sensitive. "The issue nobody wants
to discuss is the involvement of U.S. forces," says Jennifer Leaning,
professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the pair of
Physicians for Human Rights investigators who pushed their way into
Sheberghan. "U.S. forces were in the area at the time. What did the U.S.
know, and when and -where-and what did they do about it?"
The Taliban and Qaeda forces at Konduz surrendered in a negotiated
deal that took two to three days to hammer out. According to Shams-ul-Haq
(Shamuk) Naseri, a mid-level Northern Alliance commander who was present,
the talks were held in the presence of three American intelligence officers
and a dozen or more Special Forces soldiers. Northern Alliance commanders,
including General Dostum, agreed to relatively generous conditions: The
Afghan fighters would be allowed to go home to their villages. Most of the
Pakistanis could also return home after the Americans picked out suspected
Qaeda operatives. Arabs and other foreign fighters would be turned over to
the United Nations or some other international organization. According to
another Afghan present at the talks, Said Vasiqullah Sadat, the Taliban
representatives insisted that their men surrender to General Dostum, because
they figured he was the least likely to seek revenge for past killings. The
surrender would formally start on Sunday, Nov. 25-to give time for the
Taliban leaders to sell the deal to their forces in Konduz.
The day after negotiations ended, roughly 400 hard-core fighters
made a break for it anyway, fleeing west. But the vast majority of fighters
trapped in Konduz surrendered "like sheep," according to Naseri. "One went
and the rest followed." The agreed site for the actual surrender was
Yerganak, a desert spot about five miles west of Konduz. Most of the top
Taliban and foreign commanders drove out, and their vehicles were promptly
confiscated by the Northern Alliance. The rest walked. Four checkpoints had
been set up at Yerganak to disarm the fighters and load them onto whatever
vehicles were available: pickups, big-wheeled, open-topped Russian Kamaz
trucks, even some container trucks. But the numbers streaming out of Konduz
overwhelmed the facilities, and most of those surrendering waited three or
four days in the desert.
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Dostum and another Northern Alliance commander, Atta Mohammed, were
at Yerganak to monitor the surrender. So were dozens of American Special
Forces troops, according to U.S. and Afghan participants. Some of the
Special Forces teams were zipping around the area on four-wheeler
motorcycles; Dostum was filmed at the time enjoying a ride on the back of
one. The Americans provided much of the food and water given to the waiting
masses. But they were there primarily to provide credible muscle, a message
that was reinforced by the frequent appearance of U.S. bombers streaking
At about this time, soldiers from Dostum's militia arrived at a
container depot on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif, about 100 miles to the
west, and recruited a driver we'll call Mohammed, a bearded man in his
mid-40s. (NEWSWEEK has changed the names of several witnesses in this report
to lessen the chance of reprisals.) Mohammed was told that his container
truck was needed to ship captive Taliban fighters to Sheberghan prison. He
was to pick them up that evening at the old fort in Qala Zeini, which lies
on the road between Mazar-e Sharif and Sheberghan. The road actually passes
through the fort: one gate in, one gate out.
Mohammed arrived at Qala Zeini about 7 that evening. Several other
container trucks were already waiting inside the fort. So were about 150
soldiers, all Afghans. At about 9, the prisoners-a mix of Afghans,
Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens-arrived from Yerganak in open trucks and
pickups. Soldiers ordered the prisoners down from the trucks and stripped
them of their turbans, caps and vests. Then they herded the captives into
the containers, as many as 200 to a truck. The fighters realized they were
not going home, as promised. "F-k Shamuk Naseri," one driver recalls a
prisoner's screaming. "He betrayed us." The doors of the container trucks
The prisoners probably realized their fate. "Death by container" has
been a cheap means of mass murder used by both the Taliban and the Northern
Alliance for at -least five years. Abandoned freight
containers-international standard size, 40 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet-litter
the roads of Afghanistan, rusting reminders of the many tons of aid that
have poured into the country over the past 20 years. It was reputedly a
savage Uzbek general named Malik Pahlawan who first saw the container's
potential as a killing machine in 1997. After a Taliban assault on Mazar-e
Sharif had been repulsed, Pahlawan-according to a subsequent U.N.
report-killed some 1,250 Taliban by leaving them in containers in the desert
sun. When the containers were opened, it was found the inmates had been
grilled black. When the Taliban took Mazar-e Sharif in 1998, they in turn
killed several hundred enemies in thesame fashion.
'WE'RE DYING. GIVE US WATER!'
In the case of the Taliban prisoners from Konduz, the November
temperatures weren't hot enough to blacken them. But after a few hours, they
started beating on the sides of their overstuffed cells. "We're dying. Give
us water!" some shouted. "We are human, not animals." Mohammed used a hammer
and spike to bang holes in his container, until one of Dostum's soldiers
heard the banging and angrily demanded to know what he was doing. Mohammed
said that he was sealing holes to prevent the prisoners' escape.
After the soldier had gone, one of the prisoners in the container
stuck his face close to one of the holes. "Are you a Muslim?" he asked.
"Yes," Mohammed replied. "Look at my tongue," said the prisoner, and stuck
it out. It was cracked from dehydration. Mohammed filled a two-liter Fanta
bottle with water and passed it in through the hole. He also pushed in 10
pieces of bread, all he had. "Thank Allah you are a Muslim," the prisoner
Some of the other drivers NEWSWEEK has traced say they, too, tried
to help. One described how he also poked holes in his container and tried to
bring water to the prisoners. But Dostum's soldiers spotted him, and five of
them gave him a beating with their rifle butts. Mohammed saw the beating and
spent the rest of the night inside his locked cab.
Someone else saw a similar scene at Qala Zeini, and tried to send a
warning. In December, Abdullah was in the settlement of Langar Khaneh, which
is close to the fort of Qala Zeini. When the gates of Qala Zeini were closed
for a day and a half, and traffic diverted through Langar Khaneh, Abdullah's
curiosity was aroused. He made his way over to the fort and peered inside.
As he watched, four container trucks were driven into the fort. Not long
after, prisoners arrived in pickups and Kamaz trucks, he says. Soldiers in
the fort-Dostum's men, Abdullah says-proceeded to tie up the prisoners with
their own turbans.
Those who didn't move fast enough or who tried to resist were
beaten. Most prisoners, says Abdullah, were bound around their upper arms
and blindfolded, but some were hogtied. Unruly prisoners were grabbed by
hand and foot and swung into the containers on their bellies. When the
containers were full, they were locked. Abdullah was in no doubt what he was
witnessing. "The only purpose was to kill the prisoners," he says.
Wondering whom he could alert to these preparations, Abdullah
recalled an acquaintance who was working with the American forces based in
Mazar. He was Said Vasiqullah Sadat, who was at the surrender negotiations
and served as a translator for the Americans. Abdullah says that he told
Vasiqullah what was happening, and he says Vasiqullah responded: "We will
act." The next day, Abdullah said, a group of Americans arrived at Qala
Zeini in two dust-colored pickups. But the containers were gone, and-says
Abdullah-the Americans turned around and drove back to Mazar.
Vasiqullah is cautious when asked about this version of events. He
says that on the fourth day of the surrender at Yerganak-Nov. 28-he headed
back to Mazar with several cars full of American soldiers. Some of these
were billeting in Atta Mohammed's headquarters in Mazar. Vasiqullah confirms
that he "soon" heard about prisoners' being transferred into containers at
Qala Zeini. But he will not confirm that he heard this from the witness from
Langar Khaneh. Nor will he confirm that he passed the news on to the
Americans he was working with. "The Americans were distracted at this time,"
he says. The uprising at the Qala Jangi prison in Mazar-e Sharif-in which
CIA operative Mike Spann was killed and the American John Walker Lindh was
discovered-had occurred on Nov. 25. "Many of them were taking care of
arrangements for shipping Mike Spann's body out of Mazar airport." But, says
Vasiqullah, the containers could not have remained a secret for long. "I
think the Americans found out soon," he says. "They were at Sheberghan
prison from the beginning."
At 11 a.m. on Nov. 29, according to the driver Mohammed, a convoy of
13 container trucks set out from Qala Zeini. Each driver had soldiers in the
cab beside him. A driver we'll call Ghassan, who had picked up his load of
human cargo at a concrete bridge 31 miles west of Mazar-e Sharif, was also
on the move around this time. He recalls that some in his container were
alive, and beating on the sides. "They just want water ... Keep driving," he
By the time the trucks arrived at Sheberghan prison, many were
ominously quiet. Mohammed was the driver of the second truck in line, but he
got down from his cab and walked into the prison courtyard as the doors of
the lead truck were opened. Of the 200 or so who had been loaded into the
sealed container not quite 24 hours before, none had survived. "They opened
the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish," says Mohammed. "All
their clothes were ripped and wet. "
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Mohammed says all 176 prisoners inside his truck survived because he
had disobeyed orders and punched holes in the sides. (His account is
supported by other witnesses.) He and others also say that no Americans were
present when the trucks in his convoy were opened.
$750 FOR AN AIR HOLE
The following day, Nov. 30, a fresh convoy of seven trucks arrived at
Sheberghan. The day after, Dec. 1, brought a third convoy-also seven trucks.
NEWSWEEK has traced drivers from both later convoys. Their recollections are
that most of those containers contained many dead bodies. But not all. The
inmates of one truck in those convoys passed about 45,000 Pakistani rupees
(about $750) to the driver through a crack in the floor as a bribe to cut
air holes and spray in water through a hose. All 150 inmates survived. In at
least one container, the prisoners themselves managed to rip holes in the
wooden floor, and all of them survived.
Abdul, a 28-year-old pashtun, is one who lived. NEWSWEEK interviewed
him in Sheberghan prison. He recalls that his container was packed to the
breaking point. After nearly 24 hours without water, Abdul says, the
prisoners were so desperate with thirst that they began licking the sweat
off each other's bodies. Some prisoners began to lose their reason and
started biting those around them. Abdul's was one of the containers in the
third convoy to Sheberghan: by the time they reached the prison, he says,
only 20 to 30 in his container were alive.
Other survivors now in Sheberghan tell almost identical stories. One
20-year-old was shoved into a fully packed container. After about eight
hours, he thinks, the prisoners began kicking the sides of the container and
shouting for air and water. None came. Some of the prisoners began using
their turbans to soak and drink the sweat off each other's bodies. After a
few more hours many of the prisoners started going crazy and bit each other'
s fingertips, arms and legs. Anything to get moisture. By the time they
reached Sheberghan, the young man says, only about 40 in his container were
PACKED 'LIKE CATTLE'
For some, the agony in the containers was intensified because they
were tied up. This appears to have been a fate reserved for Pakistani-and
perhaps other non-Afghan-prisoners. Mahmood, 20, says he surrendered at
Konduz along with 1,500 other Pakistanis. All were bound hand and foot
either with their own turbans or with strips ripped from their clothing, he
says. Then they were packed in container trucks "like cattle," he says. He
reckons that about 100 people died in his container.
The drivers remain tormented by what they took part in. "Why weren't
there any United Nations people there to see the dead bodies?" asks one.
"Why wasn't anything being done?" Another driver shook uncontrollably as he
spoke with NEWSWEEK.
The convoys of the dead and dying, along with many truckloads of
living prisoners, seem to have arrived at Sheberghan for perhaps 10 days.
Prying eyes were kept away. The Red Cross, learning of the arrivals of
prisoners from Konduz, applied on-Nov. 29 to get into Sheberghan. Dostum's
commander at the prison promised that access would be granted within 24
hours. In fact, it was not until Dec. 10 that the Red Cross got into the
prison. By then, most of the bodies had probably been buried. (Dostum's
spokesman denies that access was blocked by prison officials.)
There were witnesses near the burial site who noticed unusual
activity. The hamlet of Lab-e Jar is about half a mile east of the grave
site. On several nights in the first half of December, Dostum's soldiers
forbade the villagers to leave their homes. Most of the villagers are now
too frightened to talk. "Bodies have been buried there for years," says one.
"You know what happened. I know what happened. But nothing is going to
change if we talk about it." Still, NEWSWEEK found some who were willing to
say what they saw. One man, 49, claims that around the first week in
December, Dostum's soldiers blocked the dirt road running past Dasht-e Leili
for several days. "No cars, no donkey carts, not even pedestrians were
allowed to go down the road," he says. He personally saw four or five
container trucks at the burial site, he says. When U.N. investigators talked
with the people of Lab-e Jar in May, two residents told of seeing bulldozers
at work on the site around the middle of December.
A widening circle of organizations and individuals know, in broad
terms, what happened after the fall of Konduz. The Red Cross has questioned
survivors and compiled a report about the events; top officials at the Red
Cross's Geneva headquarters have met to discuss, inconclusively, what to do
next. A pair of U.N. investigators were present when Haglund dug his trial
trench across the Dasht-e Leili grave site. After questioning local
witnesses, they, too, compiled a report. Two U.N. entities-the Assistance
Mission to Afghanistan and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights-have
also been mulling what to do. "You have to understand, you're dealing with a
potentially explosive issue here," says a Red Cross official in Afghanistan,
explaining why he was hesitant to discuss the matter. Until now, anyway, the
American military has not conducted a full-fledged investigation, nor has it
been asked to participate in one by other agencies. U.N. sources say that
their inquiries have not implicated U.S. forces. Publicly, the Pentagon has
kept its distance. At the end of January, Department of Defense officials
were told (by the PHR) of the discovery of what appeared to be a recent mass
grave. In late February, officials at the Pentagon and the State Department
were given confidential copies of the first formal report compiled by
Haglund and his colleagues at the PHR. Consistently, however, the Pentagon
has responded that Central Command investigated and found that U.S. troops
know nothing of any killings-that the Pentagon indeed has no reason to
believe there were killings. In June, DOD spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said
that Central Command had questioned individually the forces in Af-ghanistan
"several months ago": "Central Command looked into it and found no evidence
of participation or knowledge or presence. Our guys weren't there, didn't
watch and didn't know about it-if indeed anything like that happened." A DOD
statement a week later was emphatic: "No US troops were present anywhere
near that site in November. US troops were present in the December/January
timeframe when the mass graves were discovered."
But is that entirely true? The American unit most directly involved
was the 595 A-team, part of the Fifth Special Forces Group based at Fort
Campbell, Ky. The leader of the dozen-man 595 was Capt. Mark D. Nutsch.
Throughout the Afghanistan operation, the Pentagon insisted that reporters
identify Special Forces personnel by their first names only, claiming this
was necessary to protect their families back home from possible terrorist
reprisals. But the Army waived that concern in April, when-at the
instigation of his Army superiors-the Kansas state Legislature passed a
resolution of both houses honoring Captain Nutsch, a 33-year-old native of
Kansas. Nutsch's wife, Amy, and their baby daughter, Kaija, born while
Nutsch was in Afghanistan, were present at the very public ceremony.
Contacted recently by NEWSWEEK about the container deaths, Nutsch said he
did not want to discuss them.
The Special Forces A-teams were the shock troops of the U.S. assault
on the Taliban. They were the crucial link between the Northern Alliance
militia on the ground and U.S. firepower in the air. Attached to each A-team
in the Afghan campaign was at least one Air Force Special Operations soldier
called a combat air controller. It was the high-precision airstrikes called
in by those CACs that destroyed the Taliban forces. Each A-team was assigned
to a specific local commander, and 595's assignment was to work with General
595's role in the Afghan conflict made them legends to the wider
public. Heloed into Afghanistan, like the rest of the teams, in a Special
Forces Chinook, they met up with Dostum on Oct. 19 at his headquarters at
Darra-e Suf in the mountain fastnesses south of Mazar-e Sharif. It was the
595 unit that famously carried out its missions on horseback; it was
snippets from Nutsch's dispatches that a euphoric Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld took to reading at his press briefings. Invigorated -by American
air power-and lubricated by the money distributed lavishly to wavering
locals by the CIA paramilitaries-Dostum and his fellow Northern Alliance
commanders swept north out of the mountains. The climax of the brief
campaign began on Nov. 4, when the Northern Alliance launched a
three-pronged assault on the major city in the north, Mazar-e Sharif,
orchestrated and micromanaged by an assembly of Special Forces, including
595 members had been with Dostum at the surrender negotiations, and
then again at the actual surrender at Yerganak. As a consequence they were
not with their CIA colleagues, Mike Spann and Dave Tyson, when that pair
went to Qala Jangi prison to question the fresh batch of Qaeda and Taliban
hard-liners who had arrived there after the abortive breakout from Konduz.
The 595 commander, Nutsch, felt bitter about Spann's death. "This was a guy
we considered part of our unit," he told Robert Young Pelton, a reporter
working for CNN and National Geographic Adventure. "If we had been there,
Mike's death would not have happened."
Over the three days that the first convoys of dead were arriving at
Sheberghan, Special Forces troops were in the area. There was also a
separate, four-man U.S. intelligence team, in combat gear, at the prison
doing first selections of Qaeda suspects for further questioning. According
to Pelton, a swashbuckling freelancer who specializes in writing about
dangerous places, Special Forces soldiers were mainly concerned about
security at the prison. At the same time the containers of dead were
arriving, many truckloads of living prisoners were also streaming in: On the
evening of Dec. 1, for instance, a container arrived bearing the 86
survivors from Qala Jangi. One of them was John Walker Lindh. It was the 595
team's medic, Bill, who first treated Lindh. Pelton believed at the time,
and still does, that the dead from container trucks numbered "40-some odd"
and were mostly people who died of wounds suffered in the siege of Konduz.
"When I was with 595, we went over this time and again," says Pelton. "What
happened is that these people basically died because they were wounded." A
senior Defense Department official, speaking to NEWSWEEK on background, said
the Pentagon asked the commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group to look
into the reports of container deaths. That commander, Col. John Mulholland,
reported back that the A-team knew that numbers, perhaps even large numbers,
of Taliban prisoners had died on the journey to Sheberghan. But the Special
Forces believed that these deaths had occurred from wounds or disease.
news-week put this account to Colonel Mulholland through the public-affairs
office of the Special Operations Command, but got no response by the time
NEWSWEEK went to press.
For the Red Cross, the killings at Sheberghan represented an
agonizing dilemma. The organization's code of operating out of the public
eye-a trade-off that allows them access to places no one else is allowed to
go, and enables them to provide aid to people in the most difficult
circumstances-inhibited its officials from going public with what they
heard. "We approached the ICRC more than two months ago to look into this,
and they showed no interest," says Aziz ur Rahman Razekh of the Afghan
Organization of Human Rights. "We got a frosty reception."
In fact, the Red Cross was concerned from the start about the fate
of prisoners turning up at Sheberghan. The Taliban's surrender of the
northern towns was an extended process; and the first dribble of prisoners
from Konduz-captured on its outskirts-began to arrive at Sheberghan on Nov.
22-23. The ICRC office in Mazar-e Sharif learned of these arrivals; and on
Nov. 29, a small team sought entry to Sheberghan prison. They were turned
away. Asked about this now, an ICRC official says: "The authorities did not
want us there." (Dostum's spokesman denies that prison officials refused
Not until Dec. 10 did the Red Cross manage to talk their way into
Sheberghan to interview the new prisoners. They swiftly heard about the
horrors of the containers. When NEWSWEEK first approached a Red Cross
official to ask about the treatment of prisoners from Konduz, his immediate
response was: "I can't talk about containers." Told of the stories that
prisoners in Sheberghan had already given to news-week, he responded in some
anguish: "If you're hearing stories about containers now, what do you think
we were hearing about then?"
Apparently caught between outrage and its own code of secrecy, the
Red Cross may have sought to stir attention to Sheberghan indirectly. In
mid-January John Heffernan and Jennifer Leaning of the PHR met by chance in
Kabul with two Red Cross officials-one a senior official based in ICRC
headquarters in Geneva. The Geneva official told them that the Red Cross
had, they recall her saying, "grave concerns" about the treatment of
prisoners by U.S. forces and their allies; and she urged them that this
topic was "worth exploring." That was why the PHR pair went up to
Sheberghan. At the start of May, the PHR-frustrated by a lack of response in
either Kabul or Washington to their private briefings on Haglund's
discoveries at Dasht-e Leili-issued a report describing his findings. The
Red Cross chimed in, producing for reporters-this was at the Red Cross
Kandahar office-a survivor from one of the containers: Sardar Mohammed, 23,
from Kandahar. Mohammed reckoned, he said, that they had been packed 150 to
a container. And he claimed that he and his fellow survivors had tallied up
more 1,000 who had not survived the ordeal.
It may not be easy for Americans to summon much sympathy for Taliban
or Qaeda prisoners. But the rules of war cannot be applied selectively.
There is no real moral justification for the pain and destruction of combat
if it is not to defend the rule of law. The line is tough to hold even in a
conventional conflict. In a proxy war, it's much more difficult. The dead at
Dasht-e Leili are proof of that.
With Donatella Lorch in Washington, Karen Breslau in San Francisco and
Stryker McGuire in London
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