Warlord's men commit rape in revenge against Taliban
BALKH, Afghanistan—In a country where women have long lived in the shadows, rape is an especially potent political weapon. To this, the women of northern Afghanistan can attest - at least those who dare speak publicly.
The ouster of the Taliban by the US-backed Northern Alliance did not stop the use of rape as a way to demoralize and dominate. But what has changed since the fall is the identity of the victims, now mostly Pashtun families and displaced people living in camps, the losers following the defeat of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
The crime is perpetrated, say victims and aid workers, by the men who answer to warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance commander whose 3,000-man army, Junbish-e-Millie, now rules much of the country's north.
Most women are too afraid and ashamed to talk about being raped. But, Nazu, a Pashtun mother of 10, was willing to describe what happened to her, and to her girls.
It was, she said, a little over a month ago. She had put her children to bed when five heavily armed Junbish soldiers burst into their modest compound in Balkh, 12 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Over the next eight hours, she said, one soldier held her crippled husband, Jamaludin, at gunpoint as the others took her three oldest girls into the room and raped them repeatedly - first Fatima, 14, then Bibi Aisha, 12, and then Bibi Amena, 10. Then they came for Nazu.
"The soldier pointed a gun at me. He told me I was a Pashtun," Nazu, 40, said as she and her daughters crouched against the dusty wall of their home, faces partially hidden behind scarves, their eyes lowered.
"I was afraid. I could not resist. I am a woman, and they had guns. I could not stop them."
Officials deny attacks; local police powerless
Pashtun leaders and foreign aid workers say the assault on Nazu and her daughters is only one example in a horrifying trend.
Pashtuns, an ethnic group that made up the bulk of the Taliban, say Junbish soldiers have committed rape as part of their reprisals against the people they blame for the regime's oppressive rule.
Pashtun families in Balkh have not been the only victims. Three weeks ago, Junbish soldiers, who rule much of northern Afghanistan, rampaged through the outskirts of Dawlatabad, 20 miles north of Mazar-e-Sharif. Nur Mohammad, a local Pashtun leader, said 30 houses were attacked.
"Women were assaulted, but none of them will talk to you," he said.
At the Sakhi camp for displaced people outside Mazar-e-Sharif, armed Junbish have raped dozens of women since the Taliban left last November, local and foreign aid workers say.
"This is a problem that needs to be investigated," said one, on the condition he not be named.
The trouble is that foreign aid agencies depend on the local commanders - Dostum, ethnic Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, and ethnic Tajik leader Ustad Atta Mohammad - to do their jobs. Borders, roads, warehouses, even the buildings foreign organizations rent, are all under the control of the warlords.
Dostum's security officers routinely harass anyone who appears to be asking too many of the wrong questions.
Meanwhile, General Shakh Zoda, a Dostum aide, denied that Junbish soldiers had assaulted civilians. Mohammad Isa Eftekhari, the government-appointed police chief for Mazar-e-Sharif and the surrounding area, also told the Globe he had no knowledge of any attacks on civilians.
In this atmosphere of denial, local police are powerless to do anything. The police force in the town of Balkh numbers 110 men; the Junbish have more than 700 armed men in the town.
"If someone told you about a terrible crime the Junbish committed, what guarantees of protection could you give them?" asked one Afghan who works for a foreign aid organization. "We can't do anything because we have no power."
Amir Hamza, the ethnic Tajik police chief of Balkh, agreed.
"Junbish commanders protect their soldiers from us," he said.
He said it was likely that many more Pashtun women had been raped, but they were afraid to tell anyone. "It is also possible that some women do not want to discuss this crime with anyone. They are ashamed."
Threatened and ashamed, victims remain silent
Rape has been used as a weapon of terror in other wars throughout history, most recently in the Balkans. In Kosovo, ethnic Albanian women who were raped by Serb soldiers were evicted when their families found out.
One of the bloodiest and most violent chapters in recent Afghan history occurred when Taliban fighters captured Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998. In a few days more civilians were killed, and murdered and raped, than at any time in the previous 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
Now, like then, women who are victims of assault are pressured to be silent. Even with the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban rule, the culture of oppression is slow to change. Especially in the north, women are expected to stay at home and never speak to strangers.
"Many times the Junbish committed these crimes, but Pashtun women have pride and they cannot tell people," said one villager.
Pashtun families make easy targets because the Junbish disarmed many of them when Dostum's troops, assisted by US special forces who continue to accompany the warlord everywhere, drove out the Taliban.
"The Junbish see a home, and they know there are Pashtuns living there, and they go inside and rape the women and threaten the men not to talk about it," said Amir Jan, the leader of the Pashtun community in the Balkh area. "They know no one can do anything about it."
Nazu was also afraid to speak out, and for good reason. The day after the soldiers assaulted her and her daughters, the soldiers came back and told the terror-stricken family that if they repeated this story to anyone, they would die. Jamaludin went to the police anyway, but he was told that they could not do anything.
It was Nazu's neighbor Safi Nubi who tried to get the police to investigate the assault on Nazu and her daughters. They arrested one man but set him free soon after. One of the assailants on Jamaludin's family lives nearby and still roams freely with the Junbish. Also because of this, Nubi said, many more women who have been raped are afraid to come forward.
"If Junbish soldiers commit a crime, the Junbish is very strong," Nubi said as tears welled in his eyes. "The police cannot do anything. These people are afraid. They think that the Junbish will kill them."
Jamaludin said he was too ashamed to take his wife and children to the hospital after the assault. When the government in Kabul sent a woman doctor to Balkh 20 days ago, he considered taking them, but he did not have any money; the soldiers had stolen it.
"We aren't feeling very well," said Nazu as she nursed her infant girl. "It is shameful for us to explain."
Her daughters looked on. It was hard to say whether the 10-year-old, Bibi Amena, understood what had happened to her. It was Fatima, 14, who spoke, revealing a young face covered in scars.
"Please help us," Fatima said, "and take care of us."
(Note: Afghans use various spellings for Afghan names in the Latin alphabet. In the Globe story that ran on Sept. 5, 2011, the spellings of Afghan names were updated to reflect a commonly used standard.)