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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

INSIDE STORY: AFGHANISTAN
ETHNIC CLEANSING

When the Taliban took Mazar-i-Sharif in August, they were bent on revenge.
The radical Sunni militia killed at least 6,000 Shia civilians.
An Asiaweek exclusive

By Michael Winchester


THE CRACK OF RIFLE fire was nothing new for Amirshah. After all, he had been defending the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif against the advancing Taliban for long enough. What worried him was that the rifle fire was coming from behind his position on the western edge of Mazar. From within the city itself. "I drove back into town with a truck full of troops to check it out," the young Shia Muslim recalls. "We heard more shooting and then saw the Taliban. We took cover in the ditches as they attacked and surrounded us."

Amirshah and his men fought until they ran out of ammunition. Then emerged with their hands raised. Their captors ordered them to form a rough line, stepped back and opened fire. Miraculously unscathed, Amirshah (not his real name) says he lay among the bodies of his dead comrades for two full days before crawling into hiding. The fate of his unit was an early harbinger of worse to come. What unfolded in Mazar on Saturday, Aug. 8, and in the days that followed, was slaughter of a scale and brutality without precedent in 20 years of turmoil in Afghanistan. It has brought West Asia face to face with the prospect of wider war and a spreading virus of Shia-Sunni violence.

The truth was slow to reach the outside world. The sole foreign reporter in the city, Iranian Mahmud Saremi, was shot dead with eight diplomats by men the Taliban leadership later described as "renegades." Then, ominously, the radical Sunni militia imposed a news blackout that remains in place across all northern Afghanistan. "Closing down the northern areas is unlike anything I've seen in post-1992 Afghanistan," says an Islamabad-based diplomat. "They're hiding something big."

Or trying to. After weeks on the road, a trickle of refugees from Mazar has been reaching the relative security of Pakistan, hunted, harassed and imprisoned by Taliban soldiers along the way. Their initial accounts were sufficiently harrowing to prompt some international officials to downplay them rather than provide Shia Iran with iron-clad grounds for a punitive war against Afghanistan's extremist Sunni militia. But from interviews with survivors (whose names have been changed) and documents obtained from international aid organizations, Asiaweek has pieced together a broad picture of what took place in Mazar.

Drawn from eyewitness accounts from all the city's racial groups - Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik and Pushtun - that picture is of an officially directed ethnic pogrom in which as many as 6,000 may have been butchered. One senior U.N. official sees "echoes of Srebrenica," the Bosnian "safe-haven" where in July 1995 the Serb military systematically slaughtered thousands of unarmed Muslim males. "Mazar stops short of genocide," he says. "But not far short."

1. Ethnic Cleansing | 2. Treachery and Revenge | 3. Operation Pacification


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