Faizabad – In late December 2009, Afghan human rights activists opened the country’s first war crimes museum on the site of a mass grave, taking a first step towards national reconciliation for victims of atrocities.
At the foot of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains stands a tall, white marble monument and, nearby, the single-storey museum which leading rights advocate Nader Nadery said represents the Afghan public’s demand for justice.
The museum aims to commemorate the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the past four decades of war and revolution that have blighted Afghanistan.
Inside the museum, glass cases display a vast and heartbreaking array of objects found in the mass grave outside Faizabad, capital of remote northeastern Badakhshan province.
Torn pieces of cloth, mangled shoes, rusty handcuffs and small personal belongings such as prayer beads and false teeth bear testimony to lives violently snuffed out and bodies tossed like garbage into a hole in the ground.
Hundreds of photographs, mostly black and white, of teenage boys and elderly men with beards and turbans — and every age in between — adorn the walls.
"The demand from the public for justice led us to establish this human rights victims war museum," Nadery, a senior commissioner with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said at its opening.
"The objective is to make sure the victims are remembered and that war crimes never happen again," he said, adding: "It’s like the Holocaust museum."
Dozens of activists, officials and relatives of the victims gathered for the opening ceremony in late December.
Sima Samar, head of the AIHRC and a nominee for this year’s Nobel peace prize won by US President Barack Obama, told them the monument could remind "passers-by (to) say a prayer for the victims and curse those responsible."
The decision to build the monument followed the discovery here in 2006 of a mass grave containing the remains of more than 300 people.
The victims were murdered in a "systematic mass killing" of people believed to have been opponents of Afghanistan’s communist regime, which took power in 1978, sparking a nationwide armed resistance which lasted 10 years and cost millions of lives, Samar said.
AIHRC has registered more than 100 mass graves, some of them containing up to 1,200 bodies, under a programme launched in 2007, Nadery said.
The atrocities continued in the post-communist era when resistance fighters turned on each other in a bloody power struggle after defeating the Russians, who had invaded the country to protect the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul.
Once again tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives, in fighting and mass killings similar to that in Faizabad, in the 1992-1996 civil war which was concentrated in Kabul, a city that still bears the scars.
The United Nations estimates that more than 80,000 Afghan civilians died in that war.
Despite the presence in the country of international troops following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban — another brutal regime which took over amid the chaos of the 1990s civil war — the crimes did not end, Nadery said.
With the country now in the grip of an Islamic insurgency — and the 113,000 foreign troops fighting under US and NATO command to be boosted in the coming year by another 37,000 — Afghan civilians are still victims of both sides, dying in insurgent attacks and counter-insurgent operations alike.
Thousands of civilians have died in crossfire between militants and security forces since the 2001 invasion. Scores of others have been captured and reportedly tortured by Afghan and foreign forces.
Nearly 1,100 civilians have died in violence in the six months between July and December 2009, according to the latest UN figures, showing a 24 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
The litany of atrocities has prompted rights activists to call for justice.
At the end of 2006 President Hamid Karzai signed a "Peace, Reconciliation and Justice Action Plan" that seeks to establish accountability and could lead to the trial of those responsible for war crimes.
But the South African-style plan for what is called "transitional justice" remains unfulfilled as rights groups accuse the government of "unwillingness" to take action.
"The main reason the government lacks the political willingness to deal with this issue stems from the fact that there are some people within the government who feel threatened by the prospect of having to be accountable for their actions and deal with the past," Nadery said.
The main targets of his concern are the strongmen and former militia commanders accused of war crimes now sharing government with Karzai.
Ignoring warnings from his Western backers, the US, NATO and the UN, Karzai appointed Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a notorious warlord, as his vice president before the August presidential election which he won.
Fahim and other strongmen such as General Abdul Rashid Dostam, military chief of staff of the armed forces and a powerful Uzbek warlord, are accused of committing serious crimes against humanity during Afghanistan’s civil war.
Dostam is accused of killing more than 2,000 Taliban prisoners by packing them into shipping containers to suffocate or by shooting them in groups during the US-led 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban.
Nadery, who has escaped a number of attempts on his life and receives regular death threats, said he remains hopeful those responsible will be called to account for their crimes — sooner or later.
"It will happen," he said. "I’m not sure if it will happen in the coming few years but it certainly needs to happen if Afghanistan ever wants to be a stable country."
Sebghatullah Khaksar, who represents the War Victims Relatives Union, said that as long as the government fails to address the issue of war crimes, demands for justice will intensify.
"They (the perpetrators) should just come forward and say ‘yes we did it, we were stupid’. Then we might forgive them," he said.