11 September 2001>News Stories>Beyond an Eye for an Eye

Beyond an Eye for an Eye
Kevin Sullivan . Washington Post . 15 December

Dol Agha, 28, who was accused of being an informant for anti-Taliban rebels, had his right hand and left foot amputated by the Taliban in Kabul stadium in 1999.

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 15 To the left, Dol Agha saw his two best friends, unconscious and bleeding in the back of a Taliban pickup truck in the middle of the soccer field. To the right, he saw their severed right hands and severed left feet, tossed onto the grass before a crowd at Kabul Stadium.

Ahead, Agha saw what was to come. Taliban soldiers were laughing with a doctor whose face was hidden under a hood. In his hand he held the scalpel he had used to butcher Agha's friends, a pair of brothers. Agha shuffled toward him in leg irons, pushed by the muzzles of AK-47 assault rifles, accused falsely, he said of being an informant for anti-Taliban rebels.

"I could only think about my wife and children," Agha recalled this week. "I could see their faces. How would I support them? How would they live?"

Agha arrived at the center of the soccer field. It was June 1999, a Friday afternoon, the time when the Taliban held its weekly executions and amputations in the stadium. He was forced to lie on his back. A soldier sat on him to hold him down.

Someone pulled off his left shoe. The hooded doctor pushed up his sleeve. He heard the crowd screaming for the Taliban to show him mercy. Then he felt an injection of anesthetic go into his arm, and he remembers hearing soldiers laughing before everything went black.

Agha is one of hundreds of Afghans whose limbs were amputated under the Taliban's fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. The mutilations were a regular show, a Friday afternoon bloodletting that punished crimes from petty theft to murder, tended to keep the population in line and showcased a Taliban code of justice that even staunch Muslims could barely fathom.

"To cut hands and to cut feet is not justice," said Alberto Cairo, an Italian who has lived in Kabul for 12 years running an orthopedic rehabilitation program for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Although most of the clinic's business comes from land-mine victims, Cairo said his office has fitted prosthetics for at least 150 people who lost feet or hands in the stadium. The number of others who never came for help is impossible to know, he said.

"Even cutting off a finger, I can't conceive," Cairo said. "But to amputate a hand this way is to really destroy a life completely. You should see these people when they come in. They are so ashamed. Not only are they disabled, but they have to be ashamed for the rest of their lives."

Sitting on a worn red carpet in his mud-walled home, Agha, 28, said his life has reached a sad equilibrium since he woke up in a hospital room 2 years ago and realized that his hand and foot were gone.

He was a taxi driver before that, but he no longer feels safe driving with just his left hand the one with which he reaches out to shake a visitor's hand. So, he is unemployed.

He sold most of his possessions and some family property in the northern Panjshir Valley to support his wife and seven children. He still has difficulty walking with his artificial foot, and the wound where his leg was cut has never healed properly. He is still taking medication to treat sore spots that are clearly infected.

But, despite his losses, he said he takes some comfort in knowing that he outlived the Taliban.

"They say they did this in the name of Islam, but they did not," he said, pushing up the sleeve of his heavy sweater to reveal the stump of his wrist. "They were terrorists. If they were not, the whole world would not be fighting with them. What they did had nothing to do with the Koran they worked against the Koran. I am a Muslim and I believe in the prophet Muhammad. But they had no right to do this to me. I committed no crime."

Agha said he was arrested by the Taliban in early summer 1999, when he and four friends walked into the hills near Kabul to have a picnic. Afghans love the mulberries that grow near here, and they commonly go on outings to pick them when they ripen. But that day, he said, they happened on a group of Taliban fighters who arrested them and charged them with spying for the Northern Alliance, the rebel group that fought the Taliban for five years before routing them from Kabul last month.

Agha said he and his friends were taken to the Taliban defense ministry, where they were beaten severely and kept in a shipping container for 17 days. A trial followed, in which the judge asked only one question: "Where are you from?" When Agha answered that he was originally from the Panjshir, a Northern Alliance stronghold, he was convicted, along with his four companions, of treason. Within a few hours, they were taken to the soccer stadium.

"They did this to hundreds of people," Agha said, cradling a young son in his good arm. "There were no real trials. No justice, no reason. It was just terror."

The Taliban based its system of justice on its reading of the Koran, which contains language calling for punishing thieves by cutting off their right hands.

"Yes, that is written in the Koran, but this was wrong," said Mohammed, deputy director of the main military hospital here, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. "There are many things written in the Koran, but in the century we are living in, this should not be done. Maybe 1,000 years ago, but not now."

Mohammed, a plastic surgeon, said he and other doctors asked the Taliban for permission to attempt reattachments of the severed limbs. But he said permission was always denied. Instead, the Taliban either buried the limbs or dangled them in public places as a warning to others. In one infamous photo here, a young Taliban soldier is shown walking with three severed hands slung over his shoulder, dangling by strings attached to their fingers. The Taliban's only nod to mercy was the use of anesthesia.

The doctors involved in the amputations remain anonymous. Cairo said it is clear that trained medical personnel performed the amputations because they were done precisely: The limbs were severed neatly at the wrist and ankle joints, often with a flap of skin left intact to cover the wound.

Mohammed denied involvement by doctors from his hospital, which the Taliban military controlled from 1996 until last month. Asked how any doctor could be persuaded to participate, Cairo replied, "Bastards you can find everywhere."

In the wake of the Taliban's demise, officials chosen to form Afghanistan's interim government have pledged to create a judicial system, which they will have to do virtually from scratch. For the past five years, the Taliban based justice on a severe interpretation of the Koran, paying almost no attention to evidence of guilt or innocence.

Those arbitrary decisions were often accompanied by confusion. Longtime residents recall a case in which a murder suspect was about to be killed by the victim's brother on the soccer field, following common Taliban practice of letting a relative perform the execution. The executioner asked to see the killer's face one last time. But when the hood was lifted, the wrong man was under it. The execution had to be postponed until the right prisoner was found.

Abdul Ahmad, a carpetmaker who can no longer work because the Taliban cut off his right hand, was serving in the Afghan army when the Taliban overran Kabul in September 1996. Rubbing the stump at the end of his right arm, Ahmad sat on a carpet in his small, cold house and recalled what came next.

Many Afghan soldiers in the army of then-president Burhanuddin Rabbani and his famed defense minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, later a rebel leader, simply laid down their weapons and surrendered. Ahmad said he handed over his Kalashnikov rifle and a walkie-talkie to a Taliban commander, who immediately jailed him, saying he was still loyal to Rabbani and Massoud.

For three months, he was beaten regularly in a cell at the national security ministry. He escaped, but 2 years later he was caught again. For eight days, he was brutally tortured. He said his hands were tied behind his head, then his captors forcibly bent his legs until his feet were also behind his head, where they were tied. He said he was kept in that contorted position for days, while Taliban soldiers beat him with a thick stick.

"I felt like they were breaking my body in half," said Ahmad, 30, a father of three whose sad eyes and worn features make him look at least a decade older.

He said he and four other men were eventually brought before a judge who asked no questions and simply forced them to affix their fingerprints to some documents, which they were not allowed to read. It was 2 p.m. on Friday, showtime at the soccer stadium.

Ahmad said he and the other men were driven to the stadium. He said that when he heard the crowd, he knew what was coming. He heard soldiers around him speaking Urdu, the main language of Pakistan, and he knew he was in the hands of foreigners who had come to serve with the Taliban, and they were known to be some of its most vicious members.

Each of the other four men was taken to the center of the field. Ahmad remained hooded and could not see them. "I heard them scream, and then there was no more sound," he said.

When his turn came, he said, "I cried out to them, 'I am from Afghanistan. I am from Kabul. I didn't do anything wrong. You are my people. How can you do this to your own people?'"

There was no reply, except the butt of a gun in his face. The Taliban forced him to the ground. One soldier sat on his face. Two on his chest. One on his legs. Then he felt the injection of anesthesia in his arm, and his world went dark.