Prisoners of Pul-e-Charkhi
Nearly 100 inmates were left in Pul-e-Charkhi after the Parcham regime in January 1980 released 2,700 inmates of the Khalqi period. But after the February uprisings the new regime started arresting people. The number was on the increase, and the increase was an indication of opposition to the regime. At the time of my transfer in January 1983, Pul-e-Charkhi had the highest number of prisoners, about thirty thousand, held at any one time. In the new Pul-e-Charkhi prison, before all the cellblocks were ready for use, about 250 inmates were accommodated in each main hall. Each hall was about 320 square meters in space. Between 180 and 200 inmates were quartered in two-level wooden beds in a hall. Probably more than ten thousand additional prisoners were held in detention centers outside Pul-e-Charkhi in Kabul and provincial capitals. The total figure—forty thousand—is terribly excessive for a regime that, as noted, had about 2.5 million people under its direct control. The upkeep of so many persons under strict conditions was bound to be troublesome.
Of the Pul-e-Charkhi inmates, the majority were from the Kabul province. Among them were also members of the official party who had committed nonpolitical crimes. Women inmates were confined in part of cellblock number three and in the detention centers in Sadarat and Shashdarak. Their total number is unknown, but they must have been a sizable number to go on a hunger strike in 1982. The Pul-e-Charkhi inmates ranged in age from twelve to eighty-six years old. Some were blind. Inmates suffering from various illnesses, even tuberculosis, lived with the others. During the two years of 1980 and 1981 alone from hall number 248, in which 250 inmates had been placed, 4 died of tuberculosis. An inmate with leprosy also lived with the others in cellblock number three in 1984. Some inmates were considered mad because “they were indifferent to food and water; many among them would always laugh while others sometimes would weep, and would have waste material in their trousers.” In 1981, in one hall containing 250 inmates, 12 such inmates were officially listed as “mad” but were not released. Pul-e-Charkhi had two clinics, but until 1983 the one in cellblock number two was in reality a resting place for imprisoned party culprits or for inmates who had paid bribes to stay there.
Inmates faced a painful situation regarding the basic necessities of life—food and toilets. While criminal inmates in cellblock number four were allowed to provide their own food, an important concession, political prisoners were dependent on the authorities. There were, however, canteens in almost every block where out-of-date cans of fish from the Soviet Union and a few other basic items of food were sold. This was because the food in the Pul-e-Charkhi was much poorer and more insufficient than the food given to the inmates in the detention centers in Kabul. This in itself would not have been a problem had the food been given purely as food. It was not. The inside of the thick bread baked in the Russian-made bakery was unbaked, but its outer skin had plenty of dust and sand. The cooked rice had plenty of sand, and the watery soup sometimes had pieces of cooked mice and always many flies. Although the food improved as a result of a hunger strike in 1982, in 1983 I saw a piece of cooked mouse in a soup pot. More agonizing was an incident before the hunger strike when some substance was mingled with the food to cause diarrhea. The inmates, who lacked antidiarrhea medication, were permitted to use the toilets—few in number anyway—outside their halls only at fixed times. The inmates thus had to use plastic bags as toilets in their living quarters. This situation—which deteriorated still further after the execution of inmates—resulted on 1 May 1982 in a prisoners’ strike, the greatest in the history of Afghanistan.
The hunger strike was triggered when a teapot of hot water was given to a sick inmate by a friend who worked in the only workshop set up in cellblock number two. A guard beat both of the prisoners—standard punishment for minor infractions. Scuffles followed, but this time the enraged fellow inmates of the sick inmate drove the guard away from their hall and began a hunger strike. By evening, inmates of the whole cellblock number two had joined the strike and locked the iron gates of their halls. No amount of pleading by the authorities—something the officials had never done before—could soften the attitude of the inmates, who issued a statement demanding that their conditions be improved to meet international standards. But the authorities rejected the demands as “illegal.” By then Soviet advisers were in command, and the army had encircled the cellblock. On the fourth day of the strike (24 May 1982), the inmates were overcome by commandos, who cut through the iron bars on the windows. By then, because of hunger, most inmates had grown weak. While most discontinued the strike, others persisted in it for two weeks, despite threats from the authorities. Three inmates—Mohammad Osman, Mohammad Qaseem, and Abdul Rahman—died. Various types of punishment were accorded to the striking inmates throughout the year. For instance, about 600 inmates were forced into a hall in cellblock number 3 where formerly 250 had been quartered.
What most disturbed the inmates and society was the execution of prisoners. The actual number executed in the Khalqi and Parchami periods will never be known. Execution was related to the degree of opposition to the regime. In the Parchami period the inmates sentenced to death were not told of the decision of the court. Those inmates who were sentenced to death were not executed immediately but after a long time. KhAD persuaded a number of such inmates to spy for it, insinuating that their lives might thus be spared, but they were still executed. Periodically, inmates sentenced to death were taken out at night, apparently for purposes other than execution. During the years 1983 and 1984, each week between six hundred and seven hundred inmates would be taken from cellblocks number two and one. Some would be transferred to the cellblocks controlled by Sarindoy, a number would be taken back to the headquarters of KhAD, and the rest would be executed. The cellblocks were soon to be filled with new inmates. The biggest execution operation was the one carried out on 23 December 1983, when from 350 to 400 inmates were picked up for execution from half past five in the evening until one o’clock the next morning, mainly from cellblock number 1, where I had been held. In a little over four years (until May 1984), between 16,500 and 17,000 inmates were taken out for execution to places in Dasht-e-Chamtala beyond Khair Khana to the north of the city.