Dasht-i-Leili massacre

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Picture of a mass grave from the Dasht-e-Leili massacre, published by the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights.

The Dasht-i-Leili massacre occurred in December 2001 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan when 250 to 2,000 Taliban prisoners were shot and/or suffocated to death in metal shipping containers while being transferred by Junbish-i Milli soldiers under the supervision of forces loyal to General Rashid Dostum[1][2][3] from Kunduz to Sheberghan prison in Afghanistan. The site of the graves is believed to be in the Dasht-e Leili desert just west of Sheberghan, in the Jowzjan Province.[4][5] [6] [7]

Some of the prisoners were survivors of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi in Mazar-i-Sharif. In 2009, Dostum denied the accusations.[8][9][10] According to all sources, many of the prisoners died from suffocation inside the containers, and some witnesses claimed that those who survived were shot. The dead were buried in a mass grave under the authority of Commander Kamal.[citation needed]

The allegations have been investigated since 2002 by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). PHR conducted two forensic missions to the site under the auspices of the United Nations in 2002.[11] In 2008, PHR reported that the grave had been tampered with.[12]

Controversy over responsibility and scale[edit]

In late 2001, around 8,000 Taliban fighters, including Chechens, and Uzbeks as well as suspected members of al-Qaeda, surrendered to the Junbish-i Milli faction of Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan, after the siege of Kunduz. Several hundred of the prisoners, among them American John Walker Lindh, came to be held in Qala-i-Jangi, a fort near Mazar-i-Sharif, where they staged a bloody uprising which took several days to quell. The remaining 7,500 were loaded onto containers for transport to Sheberghan prison, a journey that in some cases took several days.[13] Human rights advocates say hundreds or thousands of them went missing.[citation needed]

In late 2001, Carlotta Gall, Jamie Doran and Newsweek began reporting rumors that Dostum's forces, who were fighting the Taliban alongside the US Special Forces, intentionally suffocated as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners in container trucks in an incident that has become known as the Dasht-i-Leili massacre.[8][9][13][14][15][16][17]

The first allegations that dozens of prisoners had suffocated in the containers appeared in a December 2001 article in The New York Times.[18] A 2002 documentary named Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death by Jamie Doran produced testimony from eyewitnesses alleging hundreds or even thousands of prisoners had died, either during transport in the containers or being shot and dumped in the Dasht-i-Leili desert after arriving at the hopelessly overcrowded Sheberghan prison. Witnesses presented in the documentary also alleged that wounded and unconscious survivors of the container transports had been executed in the desert in the presence of U.S. soldiers. Doran's documentary, which was viewed by the European and German parliaments, caused widespread concern in Europe and among human rights advocates. It was not reported on in the United States mass media.[19]

Allegations of American involvement were disputed by Robert Young Pelton, who had been in the area reporting for National Geographic and CNN. Pelton also said the number of prisoners who suffocated in the containers was roughly 250, a far smaller number than alleged in Doran's documentary. He claims he saw US medics treating some of the prisoners. He says some of the bodies may be victims of the Taliban or of Malik's executions in the 1990s.[20]

In 2016, Dostum spoke to Ronan Farrow, reluctantly admitting that local commanders had loaded prisoners from the uprising at Qala-i-Jangi into multiple containers and that American forces had been present. Dostum denied that either he or the Americans murdered the prisoners and would not directly say whether he had ordered the commanders to do this nor whether witnesses were later killed.[21]

Subsequent investigations[edit]

Dasht-i-Leili massacre is located in Afghanistan
Dasht-i-Leili massacre
Location of the Dasht-i-Leili pits (36°39′24.17″N 65°42′20.71″E / 36.6567139°N 65.7057528°E / 36.6567139; 65.7057528) near Sheberghan, Afghanistan
Approximate location of pits, just west of Sheberghan on the road to Andkhoy. Based on article from Physicians for Human Rights[5]

In 2002, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) led an investigation of alleged mass gravesites at Mazar.[22][23] A UN forensic team found fifteen recently deceased bodies in a six-yard trial trench dug at a 1-acre (4,000 m2) grave site and performed an autopsy on three of them, concluding that they had been the victims of homicide, the cause of death being consistent with suffocation, as described by the eyewitness reports featured in Doran's film.[24] A major Newsweek article on the massacre appeared in August 2002, raising questions about America's responsibility for the war crimes committed by its allies. It quoted Aziz ur Rahman Razekh, director of the Afghan Organization of Human Rights, asserting "with confidence" that "more than a thousand people died in the containers."[13]

The 2002 Newsweek article stated that "death by container" – locking prisoners in containers and leaving them to die in them – had been an established method of mass execution in Afghanistan for some years. As the containers were sealed, the prisoners began suffering from lack of air soon after being locked in them. According to witnesses in Doran's documentary, air holes were shot into the sides of some containers, killing several of those inside. Newsweek reported that drivers were punished for giving water to the prisoners, or punching holes into the containers. Survivors of the container transports, interviewed by Newsweek, recalled that after 24 hours the bound prisoners were so thirsty that they resorted to licking the sweat of each other's bodies. Some bit into the bodies of fellow prisoners. In the containers of these survivors, only 20 to 40 prisoners of an original 150 or more were still alive when the containers arrived at their destination.[13]

Further investigation of the mass grave sites were impeded by Rashid Dostum's continuing military control over the area and due to intimidation.[25] Physicians for Human Rights have claimed that the Bush administration consistently refused to respond to PHR's calls for investigation.[26] In 2008, the United States Defense Department and State Department released documentation per a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Raymond that indicated that 1500-2000 people were killed at Dasht-i-Leili.[1][27]

Ahmed Rashid wrote in 2008 that the prisoners were "stuffed in like sardines, 250 or more per container, so that the prisoners' knees were against their chests".[28] According to Rashid, only a handful survived in each of the thirty containers and UN officials reported that just six out of an original 220 survived in one of the containers.[28] The dead were buried by bulldozers in pits in the desert.[28] Rashid called the massacre "the most outrageous and brutal human rights violation of the entire war", which had occurred "despite the presence of US SOF in the region."[28]

American probe[edit]

On 10 July 2009, an article on the massacre by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen appeared in The New York Times.[1] Risen stated that human rights groups' estimates of the total number of victims "ranged from several hundred to several thousand" and that U.S. officials had "repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode".[1] Questioned about the article by Anderson Cooper of CNN during a trip to Africa, United States President Barack Obama was reported to have "ordered national security officials to look into allegations that the Bush administration resisted efforts to investigate a CIA-backed Afghan warlord over the killings of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001."[29][30]

Excerpts from Doran's documentary Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death were broadcast on Democracy Now! on 13 July 2009, with images from the documentary shown on the programme's website.[24] The programme, which featured James Risen and Susannah Sirkin, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights, claimed that "at least 2,000" prisoners of war had perished in the massacre.[24] Sirkin confirmed the claims made in Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death that eyewitnesses who had come forward with information on the incident had been tortured and killed, and stated that a FOIA document showed that the "U.S. government and, apparently, intelligence agency – it's a three-letter word that’s redacted of an intelligence branch of the U.S. government in the FOIA – they knew and reported that eyewitnesses to this massacre had been killed and tortured."[24]

Risen commented in the programme that in writing his article he "tried not to get caught up in something that I think in the past has slowed down some of the efforts by journalists to look into this. I think in the past one of the mistakes some journalists made was to try and prove a direct involvement by the U.S. personnel in the massacre itself. I frankly don't believe that any U.S. military personnel were involved in the massacre. And, you know, U.S. Special Forces troops who were traveling with Dostum have long maintained that they knew nothing about this. And, you know, so I tried not to go down that road." He added that "the investigation should focus rather on what happened afterwards in the Bush administration."[24]

A New York Times editorial on 14 July 2009 called the Bush administration's refusal to investigate a "sordid legacy".[31] Noting that Dostum was "on the C.I.A. payroll and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in the early days of the war", the editorial asked President Obama to "order a full investigation into the massacre. The site must be guarded and witnesses protected."[31] Edward S. Herman, writing in Z Magazine, commented that this renewed interest by The New York Times in the massacre, after a 7-year silence on the matter, was rather late in coming and coincided with Dostum's restoration to a position of power in Afghanistan prior to the August 2009 elections, in a move that the U.S. administration disapproved of.[19] Herman said that The New York Times had essentially looked whichever way the current U.S. administration had wanted it to look for the best part of a decade, and that this was also "part of the sordid legacy of the New York Times."[19]

On 17 July 2009, in an article published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Dostum, recently reappointed to his government job by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, again described Doran's film as a "fake story", saying that the whole number of prisoners of war captured by his troops was less than the number Doran's film claimed had been killed, and denying there could have been any abuse of prisoners.[8] Dostum's column was sharply criticised by human rights groups.[9] In a rebuttal published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in parallel to Dostum's piece, Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International and a human rights investigator in Afghanistan in 2002, stated that "investigations carried out shortly after the alleged killings by highly experienced and respected forensic analysts from Physicians for Human Rights established the presence of recently deceased human remains at Dasht-e Leili and suggested that they were the victims of homicide."[9][10]

In December 2009 Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) renewed its call for the Obama administration’s Department of Justice to investigate why the Bush administration impeded an FBI criminal probe in the wake of the 10 July 2009 front-page article in The New York Times. On 26 December 2009, the Asian Tribune published the full transcript of a video interview given by the officials of Physicians for Human Rights, detailing nearly eight years of advocacy and investigation.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Risen, James (10 July 2009). "U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.'s Died". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 26 August 2019. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  2. ^ Gall, Carlotta (May 2002). "Study Hints at Mass Killing of the Taliban". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  3. ^ "The Truth About Dasht-i-Leili". The New York Times. 14 July 2009. Archived from the original on 20 January 2017. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  4. ^ "Starved, hurt and buried alive in Afghanistan". Independent Online. 2 May 2002. Archived from the original on 7 August 2009. Retrieved 7 August 2009.
  5. ^ a b Dasht-e-Leili Photos; Sheberghan Prison and Pit Locations at Dasht-e-Leili Archived 3 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Physicians for Human Rights, Retrieved 19 February 2012
  6. ^ "Opinion EDITORIAL The Truth About Dasht-i-Leili". New York Times. 13 July 2009.
  7. ^ "Assessments and Documentation in Afghanistan | Assessments in Afghanistan: Dasht-e-Leili". Physicians for Human Rights. Physicians for Human Rights.
  8. ^ a b c "It Is Impossible Prisoners Were Abused". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Archived from the original on 1 August 2009. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d Oppel, Rich (18 July 2009). "Afghan Warlord Denies Links to '01 Killings". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 30 October 2016. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  10. ^ a b Saman Zia-Zarifi. "A Response To General Dostum". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Archived from the original on 1 August 2009. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
  11. ^ Physicians for Human Rights, Preliminary Assessment of Alleged Mass Gravesites in the Area of Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan (Amended) Archived 15 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine (pdf), 2002. Report amended 12 December 2008; the original 2002 report is still available from Physicians for Human Rights on request Archived 20 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ Heidi Vogt,"UN confirms Afghan mass grave site disturbed," USA Today, 12 December 2008.
  13. ^ a b c d "The Death Convoy Of Afghanistan". Newsweek. 25 August 2002. Archived from the original on 4 May 2018. Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  14. ^ "PHR Activities and Investigations Concerning the Mass Gravesite at Dasht-e-Leili Near Sheberghan, Afghanistan". Physicians for Human Rights. Archived from the original on 15 June 2009. Retrieved 7 July 2009.
  15. ^ Filkins, Dexter; Gall, Carlotta (23 November 2001). "A Nation challenged: Siege; Fierce Fighting Erupts Near Kunduz, Despite Surrender Deal". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 15 October 2014. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  16. ^ Oppel Jr, Richard A. (8 August 2009). "Afghan Leader Courts the Warlord Vote". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 25 December 2017. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  17. ^ Gall, Carlotta; Landler, Mark (5 January 2002). "A Nation challenged: The captives; Prison Packed With Taliban Raises Concern". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 15 October 2014. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  18. ^ Gall, Carlotta (11 December 2001). "Witnesses Recount Taliban Dying While Held Captive". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 18 July 2009. Retrieved 1 May 2010.
  19. ^ a b c Herman, Edward S. (September 2009). "The Times Remembers the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre". Z Magazine. Retrieved 7 September 2009.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 26 August 2004. Retrieved 26 August 2004.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^ Farrow, Ronan (May 2018). War On Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (Kindle ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. ASIN B078ZKXM76.
  22. ^ "Report: Preliminary Assessment of Alleged Mass Gravesites". 19 July 2004. Archived from the original on 19 July 2004.
  23. ^ Smith, James F. "NY Times probe cites PHR's Afghan work" Archived 15 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine in The Boston Globe (10 July 2009). Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  24. ^ a b c d e Staff (13 July 2009). Obama Calls for Probe into 2001 Massacre of at Least 2,000 Suspected Taliban POWs by US-Backed Afghan Warlord Archived 5 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Democracy Now!
  25. ^ John F. Burns, "Political Realities Impeding Full Inquiry Into Afghan Atrocity, The New York Times", 29 August 2002.
  26. ^ War Crimes and the White House: The Bush Administration's Cover-Up of the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre on YouTube, Physicians for Human Rights
  27. ^ "A Mass Grave In Afghanistan Raises Questions" Archived 29 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine on National Public Radio (23 July 2009). Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  28. ^ a b c d Rashid, Ahmed (2009). Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (revised ed.). pp. 93–94. ISBN 978-0-14-311557-1.
  29. ^ Anderson Cooper (12 July 2009). "Obama orders review of alleged slayings of Taliban in Bush era". CNN. Archived from the original on 17 July 2009. Retrieved 14 July 2009. President Obama has ordered national security officials to look into allegations that the Bush administration resisted efforts to investigate a CIA-backed Afghan warlord over the killings of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001.
  30. ^ Andy Worthington (14 July 2009). "The Convoy of Death: Will Obama Investigate the Afghan Massacre of November 2001". Foreign Policy Journal. Archived from the original on 22 July 2009. Retrieved 14 July 2009.
  31. ^ a b "The Truth About Dasht-i-Leili". The New York Times. 14 July 2009. Archived from the original on 14 May 2013. Retrieved 1 May 2010.
  32. ^ "Brutal massacre of white flag-bearing Taliban surrendees under US watch: No criminal probe yet". Archived from the original on 2 January 2010. Retrieved 26 December 2009.

External links[edit]