A recent visit by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to northern Afghanistan has fanned a dispute over the extent to which the ethnic Pashtun minority there is being targeted for reprisals by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. The UN rights chief says she was shocked by victims' accounts during her tour in early March. But the Afghan interim administration says reports of abuses are widely exaggerated.
Prague, 13 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Reports of violence against northern Afghanistan's minority Pashtun community have appeared in the Western press periodically ever since the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001.
The news reports from correspondents traveling in the area say that the attacks occur as factions that opposed the Taliban have carried out campaigns to disarm the Pashtun in areas the fundamentalist militia once controlled. The north's approximately 1 million Pashtuns enjoyed considerable protection under the Taliban -- a movement which itself was Pashtun-dominated -- and they were often regarded as an enemy by the region's majority ethnic Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek populations.
In late January, "The New York Times" reported that thousands of Pashtuns from the northern provinces of Balkh and Faryab had fled their villages as news spread that ethnic Uzbek and Hazara fighters were looting, raping, and kidnapping, under the guise of disarming Pashtun communities. Some of those fleeing their homes told the newspaper that the goal of the attacks sometimes appeared to be clearing the area of the Pashtuns altogether.
But, as with so many events in Afghanistan, hard facts regarding the number of incidents are difficult to obtain. The north's Pashtun minority is concentrated around the agricultural cities of Kondoz and Balkh, and the reported attacks take place in remote villages visited infrequently by journalists.
That is why many Western observers are now paying close attention to a recent visit to the area by Mary Robinson, the head of the UN High Commission for Human Rights. Robinson traveled to Mazar-i-Sharif, then extended her itinerary to also visit the town of Balkh nearby. The reason for the extension was what she called her "shock" at the number of people who personally told her of violence they had suffered.
Robinson described her trip to reporters yesterday in a press conference in Islamabad. She said that in Mazar-i-Sharif she met with some 30 men who said they were the targets of ethnic-based reprisals. As a result of that meeting, she proceeded to Balkh to talk with several women who said they had been raped in the attacks.
The UN human rights chief told reporters, "the violations were extremely serious. Killings, physical beatings, rape of women, taking animals, 1,000 sheep in one village, looting, taking everything out of houses."
In the wake of Robinson's remarks, the Afghan interim administration said yesterday it is taking "very seriously" any reports of ethnic-based violence in the north. Spokesman Yusuf Nuristani said in Kabul that interim administration chief Hamid Karzai had previously dispatched senior investigators to the region to look into the reports.
But the spokesman also said the central government believes the international media has exaggerated reports of the violence. Nuristani said, "There might be some incidents, some minor incidents, because we are coming out of 23 years of war." He also said that three top commanders in the north -- General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ustad Atta Mohammad, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq -- have promised to prevent any such attacks from occurring.
Some of the northern commanders themselves also have called the reports of ethnic-based violence and people fleeing their homes exaggerated. Dostum told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service recently that the situation in the north is calm.
"We are surprised, too. Sometimes untrue reports get transmitted. There have also been reports that the security is not good in the north, that there is war between people and factions," Dostum said. "I would like to reassure you that the situation in the north is good, and things are becoming calm."
UN refugee officials say they have been receiving sporadic reports of abuses in the north from refugees fleeing to Pakistan over the past several months.
Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, told RFE/RL today that some 60,000 people have crossed or applied to cross the Pakistani border since the start of the year. He said only a small percentage of that total are from the north, but some of those say they are fleeing ethnic attacks.
"Most of [the refugees entering Pakistan] are desperate Afghans fleeing a lack of food in many remote areas in the countryside. Others are people who report attacks by bandits, and some are minority groups, mainly Pashtuns, who say that they feared reports of ethnic violence or themselves may have been persecuted by groups in the north of the country," Kessler said. "But these people who have brought with them reports of ethnic attacks represent the vast minority of those Afghans who have arrived in Pakistan in recent months."
The UNHCR has expressed concern about the reports of ethnically motivated violence to the authorities in Kabul. The agency also has provided transportation assistance to investigators dispatched to the north by the interim administration to help them better assess the problem.
UN human rights chief Robinson called for expanding the multinational force beyond Kabul to help increase security in the country. Speaking in the Afghan capital on 8 March, she said: "I think that the international force that is here must be extended beyond Kabul, and that's very clear when you're here. I'm going to Mazar-i-Sharif on Sunday [10 March], and I know that that's the message that I will be asked to convey, because you cannot have rebuilding of a whole society and security for human rights if you have violence, if you have killings, if you have robberies, if you have looting, if you have women terrified."
Robinson also said that a proposed truth commission in Afghanistan should investigate atrocities committed by all factions -- not just the ousted Taliban. The commission, which has been endorsed by the interim administration, would investigate civilian killings and human rights abuses committed during the country's past two decades of war.