Starved, hurt and buried alive in Afghanistan

Kandahar, Afghanistan - In a shaded courtyard with blazing flowers, Taliban foot soldier Sardar Mohammad numbly recounted his tale - of prisoners sealed in containers without food or water, and injured fighters buried alive in the desert.

After enduring three months of hunger, cold and squalor in northern Afghanistan's horrific Shibergan prison, the soft-spoken fighter said he was released in February only to be re-detained in the capital before even reaching his home. He was among dozens freed last week under an agreement reached between authorities in his home province of Kandahar and officials in Kabul.

Mohammad's claims could not be independently verified. But his account was lent credence by the discovery of a mass grave in a northern Afghan desert containing the remains of hundreds of men - likely Taliban prisoners killed by their northern alliance captors.

Mohammad, 23, grew up on the outskirts of this southern city, among the barren hills, dusty plains and bleak, mud-walled villages that were the birthplace of the hardline Islamic militia.

When the US-led offensive began last October, Mohammad, inspired by Muslim leaders who declared the fight a jihad, or holy war, joined the effort to resist the "foreign attackers".

He was flown to the north, where he said he was among the thousands of Taliban fighters caught in Kunduz during a November siege by the US-backed northern alliance.

As US bombs tore up Taliban positions, militia leaders negotiated a surrender with the Afghan alliance. But while up to 6 000 foot soldiers were taken into custody, senior Taliban leaders were spirited away to safey in neighbouring countries, according to Mohammad. He did not specify who escaped or where they went, but insisted it was with the assistance of northern alliance commanders.

When the remaining fighters surrendered, Mohammad said their captors took their shoes, turbans, money and guns, tied their hands behind their backs, and took them to the nearby desert. There, he said, eight of the injured were tossed into a ditch and buried alive with rocks and sand.

"They were crying out to God," he said, his eyes moistening as he sat wrapped in a checked scarf and dark turban at the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Kandahar. "This I saw with my own eyes."

For three days the captives waited in the desert without food or water until trucks arrived to take them to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

"Along the way we could see springs, but they didn't stop to give us water," he said.

When they arrived, they were packed into sealed shipping containers - 150 people to a container, he said. Through a crack, they paid one of the drivers 45 000 Pakistani rupees (about R8 250) - to cut holes in the container for air and give them water to drink through a hose.

The next day, the containers were loaded onto more trucks and driven to Shibergan, a facility accommodating more than 2 700 prisoners but only meant to hold 200. Finally unloaded into cramped cells, Mohammad said he and his friends counted more than 1 000 people between them who did not survive the five-day ordeal.

Still the agony continued at Shibergan.

"We were hungry, thirsty. There was no water to wash," he said. "We all wanted to die rather than stay in this prison." The Red Cross is now feeding prisoners at Shibergan.

In February, he said he was told he was being released with about 150 others under an amnesty granted in honour of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.

"We were so happy, we were crying," he said.

But northern officials only drove him as far as Kabul, where he was locked up again, he said.

Mohammad did not know why he was redetained - he thought commanders in Kabul were hoping to ransom some of the captives. But a spokesperson for Kandahar provincial Governor Gul Agha, who helped negotiate his release, said Kabul officials wanted to screen the prisoners themselves before allowing them to return home.

On Wednesday, another 600 ethnic Pashtuns, mostly from southern Afghanistan, were released from the Shibergan prison and driven to Kabul. About 300 Pakistanis are also waiting to be released.

Humanitarian workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, could not confirm all of Mohammad's account, but said they had heard reports of widespread abuses, including Taliban prisoners suffocating to death in containers.

Investigations by the US-based Physicians for Human Rights also indicate the men found in the mass grave near Mazar-e-Sharif may have died after they surrendered to the northern alliance.

Now safely with his family, Mohammad says he has no regrets about joining what he still considers a holy war. But he is bitter about the thousands still languishing in prisons across the country, while their leaders remain in safety.

"If the government wants peace and stability in Afghanistan, they must release these people," he said. - Sapa-AP

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