Convoy of Death

by Andy Worthington

On Sunday, November 25, 2001, after the fall of the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, the Taliban’s last stronghold, a large convoy of Taliban soldiers — at least 4,500, but possibly as many as 7,000 — made their way from Kunduz to Yerghanek where they surrendered to General Dostrom, a leader of the US-backed Northern Alliance. Hundreds of civilian refugees who were caught up in the chaos and fleeing the fighting also made this trek. Little did they know the grisly fate that awaited them.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of people flooding out of the city, Dostum was obliged to keep thousands of them marooned in the desert while transportation was arranged over the next few days. While the vast crowds of fighters and civilians were disarmed, Dostum’s men recruited drivers to go to Qala Zeini, where those transported from Yerghanek were transferred into containers for the last stage of a journey to Sheberghan, a prison camp.

As soon as the Northern Alliance soldiers began stripping them of their turbans and vests, tying their hands behind their backs and transferring them to the containers, some of the prisoners realized that Dostum was planning to kill them. Since 1997, containers had been used as cheap and convenient killing machines, leaving the containers in the summer sun in order to suffocate those inside.

According to one of the drivers, a few hours after the convoy had set off from Qala Zeini, the prisoners started pounding on the sides of the containers, shouting, “We’re dying. Give us water! We are human, not animals.” He said that he and other drivers punctured holes in the walls and passed through bottles of water, but added that those who were caught doing this were punished. These gestures, however, were not enough to prevent large numbers of the prisoners from suffocating as the convoy crawled towards Sheberghan. When the trucks arrived and the doors of the containers were finally opened, most were disturbingly silent. One of the drivers recalled, “They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish.”

Several weeks passed before news of the massacre began to seep out. Human rights organizations called for an investigation, focusing not only on the convoys, but also on claims that the dead and wounded had been buried in mass graves at Dasht-i-Leili, an expanse of waste land on the outskirts of Sheberghan.

The graves were subjected to intense scrutiny over the next few months, as representatives of Physicians for Human Rights, and Bill Hegland investigated them. Both confirmed that a massacre had taken place, but, no official inquiry took place. Newsweek reported that the UN confirmed that the findings were “sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation,” but also noted that advisers warned against proceeding with the case, citing its “political sensitivity.”
It was left to film-maker Jamie Doran, in his documentary Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, to present a series of explosive claims, which remain unanswered. Doran concluded that up to 3,000 men were killed in the convoys. Eye-witnesses he interviewed claimed that while Americans didn’t have any prior knowledge of the massacre, when confronted with the corpses of several hundred men, “The Americans told the Sheberghan people to get them outside the city before they were filmed by satellite.” One of the convoy drivers said that he was accompanied by 30-40 American soldiers when he brought wounded men to Dasht-i-Leili, who were then shot and buried.

As James Risen explained in a New York Times article, “American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation,” which was “sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups,” because Dostum “was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001.” He also reported that these officials added that, in the years after the massacre, the US was “worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official,” and explained how attempts to investigate the allegations had been rebuffed by senior FBI officials, and, in particular, by senior officials in the Defense Department, including, apparently, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, after “[s]omebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime,” said, “we are not going to be going after him for that.”

The most telling anecdote was provided by Dell Spry, formerly the FBI’s senior representative at Guantánamo, who “heard accounts of the deaths from agents he supervised there.” As Risen described it, “Separately, 10 or so prisoners brought from Afghanistan reported that they had been ‘stacked like cordwood’ in shipping containers and had to lick the perspiration off one another to survive,” and “told similar accounts of suffocations and shootings.”

The story does not end with the massacre. No more than 70 of the many thousands of prisoners held at Sheberghan ended up in Guantán-amo. Some of the others were released while others “disappeared” under dubious circumstances.

Part of their story is brought to light by Jamie Doran who spoke to other witnesses who said that Amer-icans were responsible for murders and disappearances at the prison. An Alliance soldier told him that a US soldier murdered a Taliban prisoner in order to frighten the others into talking, and explained, “The Americans did whatever they wanted; we had no power to stop them. Everything was under the control of the American commander,” and an Alliance general said he saw US soldiers stabbing prisoners in the leg and cutting their tongues. “Sometimes, it looked as if they were doing it for pleasure. They would take a prisoner outside, beat him up and return him to the jail,” he said. “But sometimes, they were never returned and they disappeared.”

Whether an investigation will ever occur remains unclear. The Associated Press reported that the Pentagon had ruled out renewed calls for an investigation. However, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama indicated that he might be willing to support an investigation into the massacre.

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