Photographic proof of a mass grave in Dasht-i-Leili, Afghanistan in a Physician for Human Rights photo published in the New York Times July 10.

Photographic proof of a mass grave in Dasht-i-Leili, Afghanistan in a Physician for Human Rights photo published in the New York Times July 10.

On Friday, in the New York Times, James Risen resuscitated a story that some commentators — myself included — presumed had dropped off the radar, never to be heard of again. The story concerns the massacre of at least 1,500 prisoners in northern Afghanistan at the end of November 2001, after the fall of the city of Kunduz, the Taliban’s last stronghold, and is known, to those who recall it, as the “Convoy of Death,” because those who died suffocated in vast numbers, or died as a result of gunshot wounds, while being transported in container trucks to a prison at Sheberghan run by General Rashid Dostum, a leader of the US-backed Northern Alliance.

In my book The Guantánamo Files, I devoted a chapter to the “Convoy of Death,” which includes the following passages, reproduced here to establish a context for the massacre, based on descriptions from survivors, and from those who covered the story at the time, or who investigated it afterwards:

On Sunday, November 25, 2001, as the uprising began in Qala-i-Janghi [a fortress in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where several hundred prisoners — mainly foreign Taliban recruits — died during another massacre, discussed in Chapter Two of The Guantánamo Files, and also here], a far larger group of Taliban soldiers — at least 4,500, but possibly as many as 7,000 — made their way from Kunduz to Yerghanek, five miles west of the city, where they surrendered to General Dostum. What no one either knew or cared about, however, was that among the surrendering soldiers were hundreds of civilians who had been caught up in the chaos or who were fleeing the hard-core al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters making a last stand in Kunduz itself.

Very few of those who made their way to Yerghanek — 70 at most — were eventually transferred to Guantánamo. Of these, only a handful have spoken about their experiences, and none were in the first convoys that set off for Sheberghan on the Sunday. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people flooding out of the city, Dostum was obliged to keep thousands of them marooned in the desert while they arranged additional transportation over the next few days. As a result, neither the men from Tipton [the so-called “Tipton Three — Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul — whose story was the focus of Michael Winterbottom’s film “The Road To Guantánamo”] nor the others who ended up in Guantánamo — including Abdul Rahman, a 25-year old shopkeeper from Kunduz, and Mohammed Saghir, a 49-year old woodcutter from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province [whose stories, like those of the “Tipton Three,” are included in Chapter Three of The Guantánamo Files] — had any inkling of the grisly fate that awaited them.

While the vast crowds of fighters and civilians were disarmed, Dostum’s men recruited drivers to go to Qala Zeini, an old fort on the road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Sheberghan, where those transported from Yerghanek were transferred into containers for the last stage of the journey to Sheberghan. One of the drivers, who was in the fort when a convoy of prisoners arrived that evening, said that, as soon as the Northern Alliance soldiers began stripping them of their turbans and vests, tying their hands behind their backs and transferring them to the containers, some of the prisoners — those who were familiar with recent Afghan history — realized that Dostum was planning to kill them. Since 1997, when a brutal Uzbek general had first seen the viability of containers as cheap and convenient killing machines, murdering 1,250 Taliban soldiers by leaving them in containers in the summer sun, they had become a familiar weapon of Afghan warfare. When the Taliban took Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, they disposed of their conquered enemies in the same fashion.

According to one of the drivers, a few hours after the convoy had set off from Qala Zeini, the prisoners started pounding on the sides of the containers, shouting, “We’re dying. Give us water! We are human, not animals.” He said that he and other drivers punctured holes in the walls and passed through bottles of water, but added that those who were caught doing this were punished. Even these gestures, however, were not enough to prevent large numbers of the prisoners from suffocating as the convoy crawled towards Sheberghan. When the first trucks pulled up at the prison and the doors of the containers were opened, most were disturbingly silent. One of the drivers recalled, “They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish.” […]

Several weeks passed before the first of the prisoners in Sheberghan [who were held in hideously overcrowded conditions] were transferred to American custody, but in the meantime, as news of the massacre began to seep out, human rights organizations again called for an investigation [after fruitless calls for an investigation of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre], focusing not only on the convoys, but also on claims that the dead and wounded had been buried in mass graves at Dasht-i-Leili, an expanse of waste land on the outskirts of Sheberghan. The graves were subjected to intense scrutiny over the next few months, as representatives of Physicians for Human Rights, and Bill Hegland, a pioneer in the field of “human rights archaeology,” investigated them. Both confirmed that a massacre had taken place, but, as with Qala-i-Janghi, no official inquiry took place. Newsweek reported that the UN confirmed that the findings were “sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation,” but also noted that advisers warned against proceeding with the case, citing its “political sensitivity.”

It was left to film-maker Jamie Doran, in his documentary “Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death” [available below, via Google Video], to present a series of explosive claims, which remain unanswered. Doran, who concluded that up to 3,000 men were killed in the convoys, sought out eye-witnesses to explain what had happened. While no one claimed that the Americans had any prior knowledge of the massacre, an Afghan soldier said that, when confronted with the corpses of several hundred men, “The Americans told the Sheberghan people to get them outside the city before they were filmed by satellite.” He also visited Dasht-i-Leili with a driver who said that he was accompanied by 30-40 American soldiers when he brought wounded men to the site, who were then shot and buried.

As James Risen explained in the New York Times article on Saturday, “American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation,” which was “sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups,” because Dostum “was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001.” He also reported that these officials added that, in the years after the massacre, the US was “worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official,” and explained how attempts to investigate the allegations had been rebuffed by a senior FBI official, and, in particular, by senior officials in the Defense Department, including, apparently, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, after “[s]omebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime,” said, “we are not going to be going after him for that.”