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13. Genocide Throughout the Country

The claim of the Soviet Union that it dispatched its “limited contingent” to repulse foreign aggression proved groundless after the uprising of February 1980, when its war machine began to kill not only the mujahideen but also defenseless civilians throughout the country. Frustrated by the tough resistance and their inability to suppress it expeditiously, the Soviets embarked on a program of genocide.

Genocide is a term that social scientists have defined in different ways, just as they have defined other social terms differently. This is not surprising, because definitions restrict, encase, and distort concepts. Definitions also change with the passage of time as historical developments add new dimensions to social concepts. Also, social scientists with different backgrounds and outlooks delimit terms by defining them in their own ways. Yet definitions are the necessary conceptual constructions by which people communicate and scientists proceed with the formulation and organization of knowledge. The more precise definitions and generalizations are, the better is the state of knowledge.

People have perpetrated genocide from time immemorial. It was, however, during World War II, when it was committed on a massive scale, that the term genocide was coined and became the subject of scholarly study, as F. Chalk and K. Jonassohn have described and evaluated in detail in The History and Sociology of Genocide (1990). In a pioneering work, Raphael Lemkin described genocide as the coordinated and planned annihilation of a national, religious, or racial group by actions aimed at undermining the foundation essential to the survival of the group as a group.[1] Lemkin’s work, composed with a view to illustrating the Nazi theory and practice of the extermination of the Jews and the Gypsies, underlined his statement about genocide. But the Holocaust is unique in history. Lemkin’s work partly influenced the United Nations to consider first in 1946 and then in 1948 the issue of preventing and punishing genocide. Calling genocide a “crime under international law,” the United Nations in its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, considered the following acts punishable: genocide; conspiracy to commit genocide; direct and public incitement to commit genocide; attempt to commit genocide; and complicity in genocide. But the United Nations, as a “club of sovereign states” and under pressure from the Communist bloc countries, adopted as its final resolution a compromise definition that excluded state victimization of groups of people on political grounds. In the United Nations’ definition, genocide “means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”[2] Political groups are excluded from this definition.

Excluding political groups from the definition of genocide is like excluding political history from history. Such a definition excludes activities without which history is incomprehensible, especially in an age of totalitarian states and nation-states. War can also be understood in terms of the state, because “war is not a licence to kill, but an obligation to kill for reasons of state.”[3] It is this all-embracing nature of the state that has made political genocide and, consequently, human rights important aspects of history in modern times, when the perpetrator of genocide is predominantly the state. That is why, although the United Nations’ definition marked a milestone in international law, and although it is the only internationally accepted one, it is of little use to scholars.[4] Because not one of the genocidal killings committed since the adoption of this resolution has been covered by it,[5] “it has never had any practical effect.”[6] It has thus been left to scholars to provide a precise definition of genocide, a full survey of which is to be found in the Chalk and Jonassohn’s work.

Rather than enumerate definitions of genocide, I will describe the empirically based categories about which students of genocide are close to consensus. These are retributive genocide, which is based on the desire for revenge; institutional genocide, which is frequently incidental to military conquest; utilitarian genocide, which is motivated by the desire for material gain; monopolistic genocide, which originates in the desire to monopolize power; and ideological genocide, which is motivated by the desire to impose a particular notion of salvation or purification on an entire society.[7] Chalk and Jonassohn have combined these categories into a master definition: “Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.”[8]

For genocide to happen, there must be certain preconditions. Foremost among them is a national culture that does not place a high value on human life. A totalitarian society, with its assumed superior ideology, is also a precondition for genocidal acts.[9] In addition, members of the dominant society must perceive their potential victims as less than fully human: as “pagans,” “savages,” “uncouth barbarians,” “unbelievers,” “effete degenerates,” “ritual outlaws,” “racial inferiors,” “class antagonists,” “counterrevolutionaries,” and so on.[10] In themselves, these conditions are not enough for the perpetrators to commit genocide. To do that—that is, to commit genocide—the perpetrators need a strong, centralized authority and bureaucratic organization as well as pathological individuals and criminals. Also required is a campaign of vilification and dehumanization of the victims by the perpetrators, who are usually new states or new regimes attempting to impose conformity to a new ideology and its model of society.[11]

Features of Genocide in Afghanistan

The Afghans are among the latest victims of genocide by a superpower. Large numbers of Afghans were killed to suppress resistance to the army of the Soviet Union, which wished to vindicate its client regime and realize its goal in Afghanistan. Thus, the mass killing was political.

Incidents of the mass killing of noncombatant civilians were observed in the summer of 1980, when the mujahideen frustrated the invaders in their program of speedy conquest. Three considerations prompted the invading army to resort to indiscriminate mass killing outside battle zones. Unable to locate the elusive mujahideen, the wrath of the invading army fell on civilians as well, punishing them for their support of the mujahideen. The mujahideen had to be detached from the people. As guerrilla fighters, they could not be a viable force without the support of local populations. Hence, the Soviets felt it necessary to suppress defenseless civilians by killing them indiscriminately, by compelling them to flee abroad, and by destroying their crops and means of irrigation, the basis of their livelihood.[12] The dropping of booby traps from the air, the planting of mines, and the use of chemical substances, though not on a wide scale, were also meant to serve the same purpose. Also, since the Soviets did not increase the number of their troops above around 120,000 at any one time, they undertook military operations in an effort to ensure speedy submission: hence the wide use of aerial weapons, in particular helicopter gunships or the kind of inaccurate weapons that cannot discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. However, although the total number of the victims of genocide was high, it was not high in each separate incident.

A common feature of the Soviet program of total war was retributive mass killing, which was their means of repaying tough resistance. For example, in revenge for the killing by the mujahideen of three Russian soldiers, the commander brother of the fallen captain led his commando unit into the city of Tashqurghan in April 1982 and razed the city, killing at least two hundred of its defenseless civilians.[13] A third consideration in the mass killing was the necessity of silencing the mujahideen before the Afghan issue attracted too much international support. On the one hand, the authorities prevented the entry into Afghanistan of foreign mass media personnel; on the other, it branded the freedom fighters as “bandits” and “robbers,” claiming that they “had sold their body and soul to the American dollars, the Pakistani rupees, and the British pounds.” Soldiers of the invading army branded the mujahideen as dushman (enemy) as well as basmachis (anti-Russian Muslim freedom fighters of Bukhara). This branding was intended to justify the extermination of the mujahideen because as “robbers” they were the disturbers of peace and social order. Another aspect of the genocide was the killing of civilians while praying in mosques, performing wedding or funeral ceremonies, forming sizable groups for any civil purpose, or engaging in the customs and conventions that constitute the Afghan social fabric. It would appear strange to think that the Soviets were unable to comprehend that these were peaceful and civic gatherings. The frequency of such killing made the Afghans believe that the Russians were barbarians (wahshi). The acts of genocide were the work of the Soviets, and as guides or collaborators the Parchamis as well as some Khalqis played the role of accomplices.

Because Afghanistan has long been a crossroad, famous conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur Lane, Babur, Nadir Shah Afshar, and the British have invaded it, but the Soviet invaders have surpassed all in the systematic killing of its people and the destruction of their land. They did so at a time when nations had never been so loud in support of peace, and never so loud in opposition to war. Among the governments of the world, the Soviet government was the loudest in all this, as well as in its trumpeting of the rights of the toiling people, an instance of truly Orwellian doublespeak. It is thus fitting to cite a few historical facts about the Russians to convey a view of their national culture.

Russia at a Glance

The Russians are latecomers to the fold of civilization. Until the late tenth century they worshiped Mother Earth, but their principal deity was Perun, god of thunder and lightning. The Slavs lived in southern Russia in what is now the Ukraine with its capital city, Kiev, whose Grand Prince Vladmir decided in 988, for reasons both pragmatic and spiritual, to impose the Orthodox form of Christianity on his subjects. According to one chronicle, “He directed that the idols should be overthrown and that some should be cut to pieces and others burned with fire. He thus ordered that Perun should be bound to a horse’s tail and dragged…to the river. He appointed twelve men to beat the idols with sticks.” Vladmir accepted Christianity from the Greek Orthodox empire of Byzantium, not Rome. No split had yet occurred between the two branches of the church, the Latin West and the Greek East. Only much later would it become apparent what a fateful choice Vladmir had made, one partly responsible for cutting Russia off from the dynamics of Western Christendom, in particular from the great Renaissance movement of artistic and intellectual activity. Besides, the Christianity introduced in Russia was a religion of forgiveness, not of tolerance, at least not of other religions. Orthodox Christianity taught Russia that it held the “one truth,” for truth, like God, could only be one. The Renaissance of Western Europe eroded a similar doctrine held by the Roman Catholic church, but nothing of the sort took place in Russia.

Russia’s political organization, in addition to being of recent origin, was not organized by the Russians themselves but by Scandinavians, who, in the middle of the ninth century, were invited to rule the major Russian city of the north, Novgorod. The very notion of a “Russian state” appeared only in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The Scandinavian-Slav rule revolved around the combination of war and commerce that was the hallmark of the first few centuries of Russia’s history. In the centuries that followed, Russia failed to create a society where order resulted from the self-governing behavior of its own citizens. Russia’s rulers were absolute monarchs, particularly after 1547 when Ivan the Terrible was crowned tsar. Ivan’s new position corresponded with a belief that Moscow, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1543, was the Third Rome and the last. This belief enabled the tsar to make himself still more absolute by concentrating religious and secular power. In Russia only a few hundred aristocratic families (the boyars), reputedly of foreign origin, dominated the rest of the people, with no middle class in between. Before the advent of the Scandinavians, the Russians were divided into freemen and slaves; After the Scandinavians arrived, the slaves remained as the dregs of society. Slaves were originally prisoners of war; later anyone could become so by birth or voluntary agreement. Warfare was the most important form of commerce, and the principal product was slaves.

The tsar ruled in absolute fashion with the help of his secret police, organized as early as 1565. This period followed the Mongol Yoke, an interim of about two and a half centuries (1240-1480) in which the Golden Horde Mongols mastered Russia after they had ended its flourishing period that had begun after its baptism. Russia’s pyramidal society was reformed for the first time in 1861, when about forty million serfs were legally freed from bondage by an edict of the tsar following Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War in 1854. The serfs were neither efficient tillers of land nor efficient soldiers in battle. Why should they work hard and die for others? More significant was the reform when the tsar, after Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1904-5, introduced a parliamentary democracy that lasted until 1917. In February 1917 the tsar abdicated because of the insurmountable pressures generated by Russia’s inability to cope with the problems resulting from her participation in World War I; the liberal government that then assumed power was ousted in October 1917 by the Bolsheviks.[14]

In the period before the end of tsardom, Russia had excelled in cultural, not political, achievements; under the Bolsheviks, it was set on the path toward communism, a new experiment in history. But the idea behind the society’s reorganization was old. The communist idea was monolithic (as opposed to pluralist): it emphasized the validity of only one truth, that is, communism. The idea was the same as that of Orthodox Christianity, which Vladmir had chosen for Russia over nine hundred years earlier. However, whereas Russian Orthodox Christianity was a religion of forgiveness, not of tolerance, communism was a creed neither of forgiveness nor of tolerance. Besides, not only the groups ordering the society but every individual in it had to believe in the truth and act on it. The Soviet state, which was the most totalitarian state ever devised, was assigned the task of translating the truth into reality. To achieve this end, this totalitarian state applied all the persuasive and coercive means that it could muster. Among the means was the secret police (first Cheka and later the KGB), which soon became virtually omnipotent and ubiquitous. On the road to the unapproachable goal, it committed many crimes, among which was the genocide of the 1930s; no other state in history has ever perpetrated violence against its own people on such a scale. It also tried to implant abroad by deceit and violence the “truth” of communism, of which Afghanistan is the most recent example.

Problems Relating to Genocide in Afghanistan

For reasons already stated, it is impossible to give a complete account of the Soviet army’s mass killing in Afghanistan. Here I will describe only the tip of the iceberg. Also, I cannot pretend that my descriptions are precise or thorough, because the witnesses whom I interviewed in the course of my inquiry often either had no direct access to the event in question or did not know the whole story in question. In the present case, I have, where possible, compared the observations of various witnesses and other sources to try to arrive at a reasonably accurate account of the events in question. Nonetheless, figures must be understood to be approximate, unless stated otherwise. Despite these qualifications, the information here does indicate the dimensions of the genocide undertaken by the Soviets.

The period under study has not been covered in a substantial way by non-Afghan writers, with the exception of Edward Girardet, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor who visited certain areas from 1979 to 1982.[15] The most thorough records are the result of joint research by Jerry Laber and Barnet Rubin, but they start with events mainly in 1984. Their works, particularly A Report from Helsinki Watch and A Nation Is Dying, are monuments of Soviet brutality in Afghanistan. The Russians in particular should read them to know what kind of people their leaders and the military actually are. I have used relevant sections of the final report of the International Afghanistan Hearing. The hearing, held in Oslo in March 1983, is based on the accounts of Afghan witnesses and non-Afghan experts.

Indiscriminate mass killing of the civilians by the Soviet soldiers dates from the invasion, although, as already noted, until the February uprising the Soviets did not initiate military operations. Thereafter they undertook major operations, and in none did they confine themselves to battles with the combatants. Indeed, the Soviet soldiers failed throughout to conduct themselves with proper discipline, showing themselves to be ill trained and unconcerned with observing the laws of war. Since hostilities invoke the instinct to kill, whether for an ulterior motive or in self-defense, combatants often do not confine themselves only to military targets, as recommended by the international conventions agreed to by member countries of the United Nations. But to kill civilians indiscriminately, deliberately, and as a matter of policy; to destroy their sources of livelihood; to force them to flee abroad; to do so without provocation on the part of the civilians, all in an effort to punish them for their support of combatant compatriots in conditions under which the state of war does not officially exist—this constitutes a crime, a crime defined at Nürnberg as “devastation not justified by military necessity.”[16] Wars have laws, and as one commentator has put it, the laws of war have as their objective that “the ravages of war should be mitigated as far as possible by prohibiting needless cruelties, and other acts that spread death and destruction and are not reasonably related to the conduct of hostilities.”[17] The Soviet soldiers did not observe such laws. On the contrary, they carried on the undeclared war of their rulers in Afghanistan, indiscriminately killing civilians, individually and in groups, and devastating their land for military and nonmilitary reasons alike, visiting on them a terrible variety of unmitigated cruelties.

Early Instances of Genocide

Major operations were underway in the countryside in early June 1980, although they had started much earlier. In late May 1980, during an operation in Ghazni Province, at least thirty villagers were massacred. Because of a battle between the mujahideen and the invading army, these villagers had taken refuge in a subterranean canal (karez) in Waghiz near Shilgir. The Soviet army poisoned them with chemical agents of an unknown sort. New operations targeted the districts around Kabul. During the first week of June 1980 heavy guns and mortars were fired from the Begram military base toward villages in Kohdaman, Gul Dara, and Farza valleys. Later, targets as far away as the valleys of Nijrao and Ghorband were shelled from the same base. At the same time, the first-mentioned valleys also became the targets of bombings, followed by operations in which ground forces destroyed houses and orchards and killed “many people.” The operations had been undertaken without warning or provocation. During the first two weeks of July 1980, from fifty to sixty villages in districts around Kabul were either wholly or partially destroyed. On 10 July 1980, as a result of a clash between the mujahideen and the invading force in Qarabagh near Kabul, the Soviets killed civilians in such numbers that their bodies lay strewn about the area for days. The remaining inhabitants started to leave for Kabul, but the authorities prevented them from doing so.

During the last week of July 1980 helicopter gunships fired rockets into the town of Islamabad and the villages of Sabrabad, Shamaram, and the small valley of Salao in the upper part of the Alishang Valley in Laghman Province, destroying them either wholly or partly. They were bombed for being considered the hideouts of mujahideen. The massacre in Turani (Nurani?) village and the city of Baghlan in late July 1980 was a case of revenge. A group of Soviet soldiers in tanks was ambushed by the mujahideen after they had searched houses in Turani village close to Baghlan on 28 July 1980. The next day the invading army bombarded the village and, entering the city, killed anyone who happened to be there. About fifty people were killed, and their bodies could be seen scattered about.

In October 1980 Soviet soldiers brought a bigger calamity on the people of Baghlan. Having lost men in fighting with the mujahideen in parts of the provinces of Baghlan and Qunduz, the Soviets turned on the people of the city of Baghlan in revenge. First they searched houses and denuded them of valuables. Then they brought to one place those people whom they had rounded up in the course of the house searches. Having separated out the party members, they shot the rest, dumping their bodies in pits dug with their machines. Some claimed that five hundred people were killed, but this seems an exaggeration. This deliberate massacre was reminiscent of the Keralay tragedy in Kunar Province in 1979 and of the killings in Merv in Turkmenistan 120 years earlier. Following the counsel of a Soviet adviser, the Khalqi governor of Kunar Province massacred more than 620 people of the town of Keralay to intimidate the rest to submit. In Merv the Russians had massacred more than six hundred Turkomen with a view to intimidating the recalcitrants to desist from opposition.

In late July 1980 the Soviets bombarded the Dai Mierdad district in the province of Ghazni so much that the destruction of human and animal lives and property was said to be beyond calculation. Many houses and villages were destroyed, and the survivors found it difficult to dispose of the dead bodies, which lay unburied for days. At about the same time, as many as five hundred people were killed in bombardments in a few villages (names unknown) close to Maidan; the number may be inflated. But at this time helicopter gunships were seen flying almost every minute over the city of Kabul, most of them heading toward the west, where casualties during the two weeks of July and August were said to be beyond calculation. My diary for 3 July 1980 reads in part: “In this way the defenseless, tyrannized people, women, the old, and children alike, fell like leaves in the autumn in their own homes, mosques, hamlets, and villages. The operations were so ruthless that an Afghan regiment in Maidan clashed with the Russians until the regiment was recalled to Kabul.”

As a result of these operations, the regime considered Kabul to be safe. It was an illusion. Within the first week of August the city was besieged. The mujahideen wrested Qal’a-e-Qazi, a huge village in the western suburbs of Kabul, from the regime’s control and destroyed the military post in the midst of the town of Dasht-e-Barchi. Likewise,the mujahideen destroyed the ancestral house of Karmal along with the houses and property of other party members in Shewaki and Kamari in the eastern suburbs. They also wrested the surrounding villages from the regime’s control. On 7 August the villages were bombed and many people killed. The survivors took refuge in Kabul.

In mid-August guns were fired from Mehtarlam, the provincial capital of Laghman, toward villages believed to be hideouts of mujahideen. By now this had become a standard way of dealing with the situation. On 19 August 1980, after tanks were landed by helicopters on some hills in the valley of Ali Shang, villages nearby were shelled. Not much later the trees of Karinj, a hilly area close to the Alishang town from where the mujahideen had fired on the Soviets, were burned with some chemical substances. On 6 September 1980 the mujahideen destroyed two tanks and a number of other vehicles after they had been separated from the convoy and headed toward the village of Shakarman in the Ali Shang valley of Laghman. In revenge, the following night scores of villages, including Deva, Ganjawan, and the town of Maskura, were shelled and a number of people killed or injured. A greater calamity befell the city of Herat when, on 16 August 1980, a part of the city was shelled. Until then, except for the governor’s headquarters the rest of the city was out of the regime’s control. It was said that three thousand people were killed in the attack. This was the most grievous attack on Herat since the one in March 1979, when approximately 25,000 persons were killed. During the present attack Soviet soldiers looted shops, particularly those selling the gold and silver products for which Herat is famous. The Soviet army then withdrew to its bases in Shindand.

The massacre that the invading army committed in Kandahar at almost the same time as that in Herat was no less atrocious. Guided by Parchamis, Soviet armored units searched houses in villages far from and close to the city of Kandahar. In places clashes occurred with losses to both sides, including the destruction of many tanks. This was more than the Russians could digest, and in revenge they visited a pogrom on the people of the city of Kandahar. This incident began when the invading army, stationing their tanks and other vehicles on high mounds, shelled for hours many villages in the distant Nagahan district. Confident that the opposition had been suppressed, they descended on the villages and orchards to loot goods and pick up fruit. The mujahideen, who had been in their hideouts, fell on them, killing many on the spot and also those fleeing. The remainder of the Soviet soldiers fled to the city, where they, in company with the Soviet force stationed near it, killed many people, including women and children, in revenge for those they had lost in Nagahan. The massacre disturbed party leaders, including Majid Sarbiland (chief of the Kandahar zone), Aslam Watanjar, and Saleh Mohammad Zeray, who were there at the time. They asked the Soviet commander to dissuade the soldiers from committing excesses. The commander replied, in effect, “You do your business, and we will do our business.” Zeray and Sarbiland were from Kandahar, and their failure to save the people of their province from their own comrades lowered their standing still further, even among their own relatives; their predicament resembled that of the governor Sher Ali Khan a century earlier, when he, in opposition to his family and his people, served the interests of the British in opposition to the interests of the people of Kandahar.

In mid-October 1980 an armored unit was dispatched to Laghman, where the mujahideen increased their activity in the pleasant weather of the winter. Except for an encounter in the lower part of the valley in Chardihi, no opposition was offered. But near Shamangal in the upper part of Alishang Valley three mujahideen resisted before they were caught. One was doused with gasoline and set afire. The Soviet soldiers, concluding that all people of the area were dushman (enemy), began to kill the villagers along both banks of the river. In the course of house searches for weapons and draft dodgers, they also seized valuables. The draft dodgers had already fled to the mountains. The number of casualties was said to be between 350 and 1,200. For days dead bodies lay about the region, and the survivors were unable to cope with the terrible burial problems. The Kaftarmala massacre close to the village of Deva was swift as well as surprising. A number of nomads, arriving at the area in a truck for the purpose of spending the winter, were welcomed by their relatives and locals. All together they formed a big gathering. Soon helicopter gunships were hovering over them; assuming that the nomads were enemies, the Soviets fired into the group, killing eight and wounding scores of others.

Mass Killings in Civic Gatherings and the Kidnapping of Women

The Soviets considered any gathering of Afghans, no matter for what purpose, potentially hostile. Gatherings of the people, whether for wedding or funeral services or for prayer in mosques, were common features of the Afghan society. Strong social bonds, characteristic of the society, required such functions, which were attended by hundreds of people, whether or not invited. But such gatherings were now fraught with danger. The Russians, brought up in a different social environment, were ignorant of the social conventions or simply intended to terrorize the Afghans. At any rate, helicopter gunships would fire rockets on men, women, and children in groups. They did this so frequently all over the country that it is impossible to describe all of the events. Perhaps the biggest gathering they hit was in the Ganjabad village of the Bala Buluk district of Farah Province. In mid-September 1980 hundreds of villagers were convivially celebrating wedding ceremonies in the village. Suddenly they were hit with rockets fired from a group of helicopter gunships. About 150 were killed and scores of others wounded, some of whom were brought to Kabul for treatment. In August 1981, as a result of a two-hour attack by four helicopter gunships on a wedding party in the village of Jalrez in the upper part of the Maidan Valley, 30 people were killed and 75 wounded.[18]

While military operations in the country were going on, women were abducted. While flying in the country in search of mujahideen, helicopters would land in fields where women were spotted. While Afghan women do mainly domestic chores, they also work in fields assisting their husbands or performing tasks by themselves. The women were now exposed to the Russians, who kidnapped them with helicopters. By November 1980 a number of such incidents had taken place in various parts of the country, including Laghman and Kama.

In the city of Kabul, too, the Russians kidnapped women, taking them away in tanks and other vehicles, especially after dark. Such incidents happened mainly in the areas of Darul Aman and Khair Khana, near the Soviet garrisons. At times such acts were committed even during the day. KhAD agents also did the same. Small groups of them would pick up young women in the streets, apparently to question them but in reality to satisfy their lust: in the name of security, they had the power to commit excesses. Likewise, in the name of security the security men were involved in creating insecurity, looting shops and stores and breaking into houses while patrolling during the curfew hours at night.

The kidnapping of women disturbed families with young daughters. The incidents were sporadic and infrequent, since the Soviet officers censored the suspected soldiers; nevertheless, the Afghans were still alarmed. In fact, all families with young sons and daughters were alarmed. The former were, as already noted, hunted for military service, and the latter could be stained for life. Of the former, many fled abroad, while the latter became a painful problem for their families. Kabul’s inhabitants became conspicuous for a high proportion of children, the elderly, and women. At stake now was their honor, about which the Afghans are sensitive.

Killing along the Roads

One result of the military operations was an increase in the number of military posts, mainly in provincial capitals, their surrounding districts, and along the main roads, which the Soviets manned. For example,by December 1980 about forty posts had been set up along the main Kabul-Jalalabad road. The Kabul-Kandahar road was left unguarded, while the road passing through Salang was guarded very tightly. Obviously, this differential protection demonstrated the Soviet intention to pacify the land by establishing control over the main arteries and also by undertaking military operations. Hoping to reduce the number of attacks on the posts, the Soviets abandoned, although not completely, their practice of unprovoked shelling of the inhabited areas. But if the mujahideen fired at either the military posts or Soviet troops elsewhere, the invading forces adopted scorched-earth tactics. Tanks and helicopter gunships would furiously shell targets in regions from which shots had been fired. Often other areas were also shelled at random. For example, on or about 18 December 1980 a group of mujahideen somewhere near Alishang town in Laghman destroyed a Soviet tank with an officer in it. In retaliation the town of Alishang, the nearby village of Barzay, and the town of Islamabad were bombed. In Barzay alone sixteen persons perished.

The assailants did not bother about who and how many would be killed by their rocket attacks. To deal with the elusive mujahideen, the Soviets intended to frighten the civilians, who would then pressure the mujahideen not to attack the invaders. If the mujahideen disregarded the people’s requests, they would be estranged from them. If they accepted their request, the regime would increase the posts, which, along with other measures, would lead to the pacification of the country. On requests from the locals the mujahideen often desisted from attacking the invaders, but the Soviets still massacred civilians. Apparently, their mission was to loot and kill in order to establish the regime.

The Soviet strategy made the mujahideen cautious, but it was impossible for them to remain spectators. This would have been the end of their mission. Encounters were still common, and retaliations, whether by the Russians or the regime’s forces, became widespread. The mobile mujahideen could anticipate retaliation and escape. It is impossible to give even an estimate of the number of civilians killed in the clashes, which were sporadic and irregular. The frequency of notes on the subject in my diary is depressing to read.

As a by-product of the policy of guarding the main roads, a disaster of a different kind befell the people. Of the main roads, the roads of Kabul-Jalalabad, Kabul-Gardez (via Logar), and Kabul-Hairatan (via Salang) were especially important, since the first two lead to Pakistan and the latter to the Soviet Union. Among other things, control over the first two meant some control over the movements of the mujahideen as well as the materiel and weapons they brought from Pakistan; control over the last meant the maintenance of undisturbed transportation between Kabul and the Soviet border. As already noted, along the Kabul-Jalalabad road about forty military posts had been manned by the Soviets. To control the roads, the Soviets had to ensure that the districts through which they passed were clear of mujahideen. The two roads leading to Salang and Gardez passed through densely populated districts. It was hazardous to set up military posts along these roads like those along the Kabul-Jalalabad road. Instead, the Soviets chose either to bomb villages close to the roads or shell them by guns and submachine guns from tanks stationed on mounds. The bombing of these villages was comparable to the bombing of the districts around cities, particularly Kabul. The attacks on Logar, which suffered more than any other district, will be described in the next chapter. An unknown number of men, women, and children either perished or moved out of their homes because they lived near roads, the outward symbol of civilization.

This was, however, not the end of the plight of the inhabitants of the areas. Even before the major operations had begun, the plan for making the main roads safe was on the agenda. For some time in July 1980 a major military force destroyed houses, orchards, and other constructions as well as trees along both sides of the Logar road. Helicopter gunships hovered over the ground force. Whatever lay within about 150 meters on both flanks of the road was scheduled to be destroyed. The idea was to make the military convoys on the roads safe from rocket attacks by the mujahideen, who often concealed themselves in nearby villages. How precisely the order was carried out is difficult to determine. The setting up of permanent posts along the Logar road was risky; instead, expeditions were undertaken frequently. The destruction must have been tremendous, since in some places the road passed close to main villages. In mid-December groups of tanks were stationed here and there along the road, and the nearby villages were searched. The plight of the people affected by this act can be guessed from the reaction of an old man who lost an apple tree near his home in Mohammad Agha. After his pleas with the regime men failed to be effective, the old man leaned on a wall, looked to the heavens, and cried, “Oh God, where are you? Do you not see?” For a devout old Muslim to utter such words, he must have been at the height of despair. But he was lucky to have lost only his tree, not his life. Many others in his district lost their lives. On one day alone, 9 October 1980, the Russians killed forty pedestrians along the Logar road in an effort to make the road safe for their convoys.

Similar measures were taken to secure the road going through Shamali. The bazaars of Qarabagh and Saray Khoja through which the road passed were burned, and houses and villages near the road were destroyed. Huge trees on both sides of the road, which had pleasantly distinguished it from those in the rest of the country, were felled. But the manning of roads by groups of Russian soldiers created new sorts of problems that were staggering to the Afghans.

The incidents happened along the Salang and Jalalabad roads, which were, unlike all other roads, manned by Soviet soldiers. Instead of maintaining the security of the road for which they had been commissioned, the Russians began looting passengers and even killing them. For a brief time they looted consignments from trucks passing along these two roads, the busiest in the country; they would then sell the stolen goods, as well as a wide variety of state goods in their possession, to other drivers at low prices at gunpoint. They would also force the drivers to sell them marijuana (chars). Most drivers provided the soldiers with the drug with a view to making them addicts. Judging from the frequency of exchange, the number of the addicts must have been considerable. But at times this trade led to violence. A group of Soviet soldiers had been taking marijuana somewhere near the Wood Factory in Samarkhel to the east of Jalalabad. In August 1980 a soldier intended to enter a house near the factory to steal either marijuana or money. When stopped at the door, he suspected a trap and began firing at random at the inhabitants. All but one member of the family died in the initial assault, and the sole survivor died later in the hospital. It was said that to hush up the story the authorities arranged to do away with him. Party activists gave out that the tragedy was the work of the “rebels.”

More serious were the incidents when Soviet soldiers fired at passenger buses without provocation. Apparently they were killing human beings for the fun of it or for revenge on innocent passengers for the men they might have lost elsewhere. Such tragedies were many. In December 1980 eleven persons died and many others wounded in an attack along the Jalalabad road; drivers refused to drive on the road for two days thereafter. Earlier (8 November 1980) two bus drivers close to the Salang Tunnel were killed for no apparent reason. Drivers protested to the Ministry of the Interior and refused to drive for days. In Ounduz, Soviet soldiers walked across the flat rooftops of the houses at night and fired through the openings at the people inside for no apparent reason. The common Afghans called the Russians barbarians (wahshi).

Despite all the killings, the Soviets failed to establish control over the roads. Frequently the roads leading to Kabul were closed. On such occasions the city was deprived of the essentials of life, food and fuel. Along these as well as along other roads, armed mujahideen also checked transport vehicles. In certain places they operated within sight of the Soviets without being molested. Close to Kabul beyond Khair Khana the mujahideen checked transport vehicles. The Soviets and the mujahideen had accepted a modus vivendi.

It is now time to survey the Soviet operations in areas visited by foreigners during the period covered by this work. Pal Hougen, chair of the Norwegian Committee for Afghanistan, states that three of his fellow countrymen who had visited Afghanistan in the summer of 1980 “brought home pictorial documentation of bombarded farms, destroyed villages and the destruction of Kamdesh, the central town in Nuristan. Much of what I had heard and read was not to be believed, even [though they] were reliable persons and journalists.” He then made two trips himself in the summer of 1981 and 1982, the first to the upper part of the Kunar Valley, and the second to the town of Bashgul in the same valley.

During my two visits, I had to admit that the reports were true. I did not only see ruined dwellings, observe terror bombing myself, but I found a society where all ordinary functions were disturbed, even the basic ones: the production of food, the supplies from outside of salt, sugar and tea—other items of trade as I mentioned. The infrastructure in this society was broken down, not [torn] into pieces, for no single piece of the former modest modernization was [left] intact, there was no trade, no school, no medical care, the water supplies were disturbed, the irrigation system severely harmed.[19]

Hougen states that the people of Bashgul “were still living in the mountains, unable to go back to their farm and cultivate their soil.…It was dangerous for men and cattle to stroll around the passes, and passes as well as the forests had every day and every week to be systematically examined for small booby-traps-butterflies [small antipersonnel bombs shaped somewhat like butterflies].” If these people returned to their homes, they were bombed without provocation. Hougen writes, “Two days after, when part of the population had returned, the town was attacked from the air and set on fire. The result was that the entire population of the town and of the neighboring districts emigrated to Pakistan, a total of 3,000 people.”[20]

Hougen describes a fellow Norwegian’s experience in Kandahar Province in 1981: “In the autumn [of] that year, he stayed in the outskirts of Kandahar where he daily experienced air attacks, bombing and mining of civilian dwellings.” The situation in the province of Paktia was no better. Hougen comments on the experience of a nurse who stayed in a village in Paktia for three weeks in September 1982: “She reported about air attacks a year earlier which had ruined 50 percent of the houses, how the villages on the plains had been attacked by tanks—in units with 200 and 400 tanks—and the houses had been destroyed. According to her accounts, the attacks were entirely directed against the civilian population.”[21] The people of the Jaghori district of the Ghazni province had dug bunkers to save themselves from the hazards of bombardment. According to Tone A. Odegaard and Jame Reitan, two Norwegian women who stayed with them for a week in September 1982:

They [the Hazara inhabitants of the Jaghori district] are accustomed to air attacks and every family had their own shelters—one for each person—dug as small holes outside the house, as they [Vietnamese] did it in Vietnam. All children were instructed how to behave when the next attack would come and how they should escape for the mountains after [the] attack. There can be no doubt that the air attacks were aimed at the civilian population and took place regularly.[22]

One of the most striking descriptions comes from Nicolas Danziger, a British lecturer in art history and one of the authors of A Report from Helsinki Watch. In describing “this image of Hiroshima in Herat,” Danziger writes:

We went along the asphalt road from Iran to Herat. The desert on the Iranian side was absolutely covered in track marks, the hooves of horses, of camels, footmarks, bicycle marks,—you name it. By the time it was about nine o’clock in the morning, there were people in droves, a man with a camel; he had lost all his family, and all his possessions were on top of the camel. There were some young boys who had been orphaned. Then there were some numerous donkeys with women riding on them with their husbands next to them. All of these people were on their way to Iran. I stayed in a village where they claimed there had been 5,000 inhabitants. There remained one building intact in the whole village. I did not see more than ten inhabitants there. To destroy this place the bombers came from Russia. And there were craters everywhere, even where there were no buildings, so there was no pretense about, “we are trying to hit the mujahideen.” It was a complete blitz. All the way from there on into Herat there was no one living there, absolutely no one. The town that I stayed in, Hauz Karbas, looks like Hiroshima. And there had been tremendous amounts of vineyards there, and they were just reduced to gray dust. It really sums up everything that exists in Afghanistan to-day.[23]


1. Quoted in Chalk and Jonassohn, Genocide, 8. [BACK]

2. Ibid., 10. For the text of the Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 29 December 1948, see ibid., 44-49. [BACK]

3. T. Taylor, quoted in Wasserstrom, “Laws of War,” 495. [BACK]

4. Chalk and Jonassohn, Genocide, 10. [BACK]

5. Ibid., 11. [BACK]

6. Ibid. [BACK]

7. R. Smith, quoted in Chalk and Jonassohn, Genocide, 22. [BACK]

8. Ibid., 23. [BACK]

9. Horowitz, quoted in Chalk and Jonassohn, Genocide, 14. [BACK]

10. For details, see Carlton, War and Ideology. [BACK]

11. Horowitz, quoted in Chalk and Jonassohn, Genocide, 13. [BACK]

12. The intensity of the Soviet military operations is suggested by the number of Afghans who fled abroad. By the middle of 1981 about 2 million Afghans had fled to Pakistan alone. By the end of 1984 the figure had exceeded 3 million. In 1991 the total number of Afghan refugees abroad was estimated to be 5,670,000. (See Azari, “Afghan Refugees”: Humanitarian Assistance Program, 4.) A more recent study indicates that by the end of 1981, 2.3 million Afghans had fled to Pakistan alone. The total number of refugees is calculated to be “more than 3 million in Pakistan and as many as 3 million others in Iran” (Ruiz, Left Out in the Cold, 2, 3). More Afghans fled to Pakistan than to Iran. Afghans fled to Iran from the three western provinces of Herat, Farah, and Nimroz; Afghans from the rest of the country, especially the eastern frontier provinces, took refuge in Pakistan. This explains why the Pashtuns constitute the highest percentage (85 percent) of the refugee population in Pakistan (Sliwinski, “Afghanistan 1978-87,” 18). The total figure for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran are official and therefore cannot be considered accurate; still, Afghan refugees are clearly the world’s largest group in absolute terms as well as in proportion to the total number of Afghans, who numbered 15.5 million before the invasion.

Period To Pakistan To Iran To other destinations
Source: Amstutz, Afghanistan, 224
Through 1978 18,000 ? ?
Through 1979 389,000 ? ?
Through 1980 1,232,000 250,000 ?
Through 1981 2,500,000 ? ?
Through 1982 2,700,000 500,000 ?
Through 1983 2,900,000 650,000 ?
Through 1984 3,200,000 850,000 70,000

13. A Soviet Tajik deserter quoted in Laber and Rubin, A Nation Is Dying, 18. According to the soldier, “When the drunk commander found out that his brother and three soldiers were killed by mujahideen, he took the whole commando unit at night. He went to the village and butchered, slaughtered all the village[rs]. They cut off the heads and killed perhaps 2,000 people.” To terrorize the people, the officers of the invading army also ordered the brutal killing of individuals. In 1983 they assembled the people of the village of Babyan in Logar; they then singled out Qazi Fatih, a retired judge who looked like a mulla. They tied him to a tank, then dragged him behind it at high speed. The Qazi was smashed to pieces in front of the villagers. See Alam, “Violation of Human Rights,” 7. [BACK]

14. Carmichael, History of Russia; Lourie, Predicting Russia’s Future. [BACK]

15. Girardet, Afghanistan. [BACK]

16. Wasserstrom, “Laws of War,” 484. [BACK]

17. T. Taylor, quoted in Wasserstrom, “Laws of War,” 484. [BACK]

18. Laber and Rubin, Helsinki Watch, 53. [BACK]

19. For details, see International Afghanistan Hearing, 173. [BACK]

20. Ibid., 174. [BACK]

21. Ibid., 175. [BACK]

22. Ibid., 176. [BACK]

23. Laber and Rubin, Helsinki Watch, 23. [BACK]

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