By Tahera Rahmani and Fazl ur Rahman
We are back in the dark ages as human rights violations occur every single day in Afghanistan with the Taliban in power. A week has passed since the beginning of the Taliban’s battle against the group’s disgruntled only Hazara commander in Balkhab and its just bad news that is coming out from the province of Sar-e-Pul. Also, with the lack of communication facilities, journalists have not been able to report the gory details of the ground reality.
However, the most horrific piece of information trickling out of Balkhab is the ruthless killing of local civilians by the Taliban. Some locals, who are already dealing with economic and social crisis, managed to flee to neighboring provinces and have been displaced.
So, what’s the ground update?
The Taliban have reportedly arrested, punished, and killed civilians. After capturing the district center and surrounding areas, the members of the group burned people’s houses as retaliation for suffering casualties at the hands of the opposing forces. They have also started house-to-house searches in the district and areas captured by the Taliban.
Although the Taliban have completely closed communication routes, internet and telephone lines in Sar-e-Pul province and specifically in Balkhab district, the list of people killed by the Taliban in Balkhab-Sar-e-Pul has been shared by local sources with the media. According to the list, more than 50 civilians have been killed, of whom 36 have been buried so far. The list adds that 22 other bodies were found in some villages of Balkhab, but have not yet been identified. According to sources, the bodies that have been buried so far were with the help of local elders and with the written permission of the Taliban governor. However, they were buried with insults, humiliation and without any honor.
The Taliban has previously too been charged with war crimes in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. However, even now, the group denies any civilian casualties in Balkhab. According to political experts, if the Taliban are true to their claim, they should allow reporters and independent international media to access Balkhab district and not interrupt the internet and phone lines of the province.
How did it start?
Mawlawi Mahdi was the only Hazara commander among the Taliban, who was appointed after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, as the group’s intelligence chief in Bamyan province. However, after a few months, he was removed from this position and appointed as the Deputy Minister of the Taliban’s ministry of Urban Development, a position which he did not accept and went to Balkhab.
The Taliban, then, sent several delegations to Balkhab to appease Mahdi, and Mahdi shared his demands and criticisms with them. Mahdi says that the Hazaras and Shiites of Afghanistan are being ignored by the Taliban and the Taliban is trying to eliminate the Shiites of the country. Mahdi said that during his negotiations with the Taliban delegations, he called for more attention to Shiites and Hazaras. He had made it clear that the Hazaras have no role in the Taliban government structure and that their presence in the government should be increased.
But as it turned out, the outcome of the talks and the visit of these delegations was not acceptable to both the sides, and the Taliban sent thousands of well-equipped fighters from various provinces to Sar-e-Pul to end Mahdi’s opposition, and last Thursday, June 23, the Taliban launched attacks from several positions on Mahdi’s forces in Balkhab.
The Taliban have been accused of establishing a “one-ethnic and one-party” government and physically purging and removing other ethnic groups from the government structure in Afghanistan. The group has previously arrested and disarmed a number of other non-Pashtun commanders, including Makhdoom Alem, the group’s Uzbek commander, and Qari Wakil, the Tajik Taliban commander. Similarly, there have been previous reports of dissatisfaction of another Taliban Uzbek commander from the group’s behavior, Salahuddin Ayoubi.
It should be added that a few days ago, the Sikhs of Afghanistan, who had been repeatedly attacked by the Taliban in the past and recently by IS-K, left the country en masse.
What were the reactions from the international community? There has been a massive uproar internationally regarding the Taliban’s war crimes against civilians in Balkhab.
- UNAMA said that it is following up on the reports from Balkhab and expressed concerns over the attacks on civilians, allegations of human rights violations, property damages and displacements due to clashes in Balkhab district.
- The human rights watch of Afghanistan confirmed the Taliban killing of civilians in Balkhab and said that they should stop their punishment and other war crimes and respect the IHL.
- Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director for human rights watch, said that the Taliban forces carried out executions of several detainees in retaliation for armed resistance in Balkhab. She added that Taliban should cease all such collective punishments and other war crimes and hold their forces accountable.
- The UN special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennett said that extrajudicial killings, civilian displacement, property destruction and other human rights abuses and internet cut and denial of access to media and HR monitors are underway in Balkhab district. He asked all parties of the conflict to respect IHRL and IHL.
What is the situation on ground? The reports of killing and torture of civilians by the Taliban in Balkhab district of Sar-e-Pul province have provoked widespread reactions on ground. Afghans across the world have started a social media campaign in reaction to the Taliban war crimes in the district. They are publicizing images, videos and reports of torture and killings of civilians and destroying their houses by the Taliban on social media using hashtags like #StopHazaraGenocide and #HelpBalkhab. However, these campaigns have not put a stop to the killings and torture of civilians and daily reports of the horrific crimes continue to pour in.
- The World Hazara council in a statement expressed concern about the situation in Balkhab and called on the international community and organizations to take immediate action.
- Afghanistan independent Human rights commission expressed concerns over killings of civilians in Balkhab district and increase in human rights violations by Taliban during conflicts across the country.
- Mohammad Karim Khalili, leader of the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, also reacted to the civilian killings in Balkhab district and called it a crime against humanity.
- The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) said that “terrorist (Taliban) have started killing civilians in occupied areas of Balkhab, as they did in parts of Panjshir and Baghlan. NRF added that negligence and silence by the international community is sending the wrong message to the Taliban that genocide will be tolerated.
- Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent Hazara leader, said that the Taliban committed crimes against humanity after entering Balkhab, massacring civilians, setting fire to homes and displacing defenseless and oppressed people in the mountains and valleys. He also called on international human rights organizations to set up a fact-finding mission to investigate war crimes against the people of Balkhab as soon as possible.
The other side: Although reports of torture and killings by the Taliban in Balkhab district are appalling and shocking, the plight of displaced people in the district should not be overlooked, which is another facet of the conflict. In a situation when the people of Afghanistan are in extreme economic poverty after the Taliban came to power, a large number of residents of Balkhab and surrounding districts have moved to Bamiyan districts without shelter, water and food. According to local sources in Bamiyan, about 1,500 families have taken refuge in Yakawlang district and are in dire situation. Recently a social media campaign was launched to raise funds for the Balkhab war refugees.
Zoom out: Although legally and in principle, the responsibility for protecting civilians in any conflict, as well as protecting war refugees, rests with the ruling group in Kabul, but with regard to the Taliban’s head of the judiciary system announcement that any resistance against the Taliban regime is resistance to Sharia, which is in turn another dangerous label for committing atrocities, we cannot have any hope from this group. In such a situation, what matters most is that the widespread condemnations are not affecting the Taliban and it is the responsibility of the international community to act as soon as possible to address the situation of the displaced people and stop the Taliban from killing more people inside Balkhab, in order to prevent further catastrophe.
All that has been mentioned above is a part of the events in Balkhab, which have reached the media with the help of local sources despite the inactivity of telecommunication networks and Internet in this province. Undoubtedly, with the passage of time and access to more resources within the province, other untold narratives from Balkhab will emerge and reveal the events that have taken place in this district.