By Brian Murphy
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Each stab of the shovel brings up more disturbing finds: skulls, bones covered by bits of clothing, clumps of hair.
When United Nations investigators resume inquiries, perhaps as early as next month, this pit in a corner of a vast stone quarry may reveal an important part of a wider story of alleged atrocities by the Taliban — and also by the U.S.-backed alliance that toppled them.
The pit, about six miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif, was used by the Taliban as a mass grave for members of the Hazara minority who were systemically killed after the northern city fell in 1998, Hazara leaders allege.
Hazara leaders claim their group, who make up about 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population, suffered the worst atrocities at the hands of the Taliban. They claim as many as 15,000 Hazara were killed in a religious-motivated slaughter in Mazar-e-Sharif and other parts of the country.
There is no independent source available to measure Hazara claims. The Taliban prevented international investigations in Afghanistan, but the new U.N.-brokered interim government has promised full access to inquiries.
Asma Jehangir, a U.N. special investigator, said she hopes to begin work in Afghanistan next month. The U.N. Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, is expecting a report by late March from its special investigator for Afghanistan, Kamal Hossain.
The Hazara claims, Jehangir noted, are just a piece of a complex web of battlefield atrocities, ethnic reprisals and revenge slayings.
The United Nations and other rights groups have cited accusations aimed at anti-Taliban forces, including the alleged execution of as many as 2,000 Taliban in 1997 in Mazar-e-Sharif and the killings of about 100 retreating Taliban fighters in November.
More recently, forces of warlord Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, have been accused of persecuting ethnic Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan. Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group in the south, were the backbone of the Taliban.
Jehangir said existing evidence gives some credibility to Hazara claims of a directed campaign by Taliban death squads.
"Ethnic reprisals have been going on everywhere," she said. "But there are some indications that it was much more serious when the Taliban took over (Mazar-e-Sharif), and the Hazara may have been among the main targets."
The evidence appears to fit with witness accounts.
They claim that Taliban soldiers spent days in September 1998 tossing bodies — mostly men but also some women and children — into a pit about 20 feet on its sides and 16 feet deep. Hazara leaders believe the site could contain hundreds of bodies.
"The smell was horrible," said Jahn Mohammad, 17, an ethnic Tajik who worked at the quarry. "The Taliban left after some days, and we came and covered the bodies. It was impossible to count them. The pit was very full."
Another Tajik, a 22-year-old farmer named Nasir, said the Taliban brought the dead piled on a flatbed truck and "just threw the bodies into the pit one by one."
"The Taliban saw me and didn’t bother me because I am Tajik," said Nasir, who goes by one name as do many Afghans. "It was clear they were after Hazara."
Golum Abbas Akhlaki, the political chief of the main Hazara group, Hezb-e-Wahadat, plunged a shovel into the loose soil. Each scoop turned up bits of human remains.
"When we dig up the entire area, then we will know the real count," he said. "It will be a big number, I am sure of that."
Akhlaki has identified other alleged Hazara mass graves around Mazar-e-Sharif: a trench where he claims about 50 Hazara men were executed by firing squad and a farmer’s field that he says holds up to 100 bodies.
At each site, bones, clothing and personal items such as mirrors and combs were visible or resting just below the surface.
Akhlaki claims the Taliban did not bury all their victims, saying wild dogs and other animals tore some corpses apart.
Abdul Gol, a 60-year-old Hazara, said he witnessed Taliban gunmen rounding up Hazara young men. "They were all killed. The Taliban shot them and left the bodies. We were afraid to come out and bury the bodies. Dogs were fighting over them."
Near the Mazar-e-Sharif airport, a few dozen people have moved back to the ruins of Qizilabad, a Hazara village that once had about 750 families. Villagers claim the Taliban conducted house-to-house searches in 1998 and killed at least 70 young men before looting the homes and mosques.
Most of the villagers fled to Iran or Pakistan, said Mohammad Ismail, 60, who returned last month.
"These graves contain eight, nine, 10 bodies each," said Ismail, standing before a row of more than a dozen mounds. "We just put the dead in big holes before leaving."
In one of the looted mosques — stripped of even the electrical wiring — the walls are covered with the names of Taliban militiamen who apparently took part in the attack.
"Goodbye, Shiites. Long live the Taliban," one message said.
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