Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Obama Calls For Facts On Mass Killing Of Taliban At Sheberghan

U.S. President Barack Obama says he is collecting facts about the killing of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners in November 2001, reportedly by fighters of a U.S.-backed warlord in northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Obama says he only recently became aware that the incident has never been properly investigated.

Speaking in an interview with CNN, Obama said he has called on his national-security team to collect facts about the case. Obama said he would make a decision on whether to move forward with a detailed investigation once all available facts are gathered.

"There are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that we have to know about that," Obama said.

Undermine Support

Obama's remarks follow an investigative report in "The New York Times" on July 10 which claims the Bush administration repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the killings because Dostum was on the payroll of the CIA and because Dostum's militia forces were working closely with U.S. Special Forces against the Taliban.

Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ryder, who is with the Pentagon's Public Affairs Office, told RFE/RL that "the Department of Defense looked into this alleged incident and found no evidence of U.S. military participation, presence or knowledge. Our forces weren't there, didn't watch, and didn't know about it."

He said the Defense Department is carrying out Obama's request to pull together all available information about the incident.

"The New York Times" report also said the Bush administration was concerned that a war-crimes investigation could undermine support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Dostum -- a key ally in the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance against the Taliban -- later became a defense official in Karzai's transitional and elected governments.

Dostum has been living in exile in Turkey since last year, when he was accused of threatening a political opponent at gunpoint. But the war-crime allegations have taken on renewed urgency because Karzai recently reinstated Dostum to his defense post.

Nadir Nadiri, a member of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan there is no doubt that a major war crime was committed near the town of Sheberghan in late 2001.

"It is clear that a huge crime had occurred here. A large number of war prisoners were killed. Their bodies were found buried," Nadiri said. "Preliminary investigations have proven that a crime took place. There is no room for doubt about that.

"The second important point in this case is to identify those who were involved in this crime. Some [Afghan] people are accused. It is also said that U.S. troops were stationed close to where the incident took place could also be seen as being complicit. It is very important for gaining the trust of Afghan people, for building trust between the public and Afghanistan's government, to investigate this where possible."

Mass Grave

Indeed, as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners are thought to have died inside closed metal shipping containers after surrendering to Dostum's militia.

They were being transported to a prison near Sheberghan and reportedly were not given food or water for up to three days. Witnesses say many of the men suffocated, and that others were killed when guards shot into the containers.

Their bodies are said to have been buried in a mass grave at Dasht-e Laili, just outside of Sheberghan.

Dostum has said that any deaths of the Taliban prisoners were unintentional. He also has said that only 200 Taliban died while being transported to Sheberghan, mostly from combat injuries or disease.

Sam Zia Zarifi, now the Asia program director for Amnesty International, was a researcher for Human Rights Watch who investigated the mass grave at Dasht-i Laili shortly after the collapse of the Taliban regime. Zarifi told RFE/RL his personal experience is that both the United States and the United Nations had discouraged investigations there.

"This incident is only one of many in Afghanistan that deserve to be investigated," Zarifi said. "Physicians for Human Rights [an independent, U.S.-based nongovernmental organization] certainly tried to do an investigation. The U.S. initially, and at some point Lakhdar Brahimi, who was then in charge of the UN [Assistance Mission in Afghanistan], greatly discouraged it because General Dostum was a significant political actor."

Evidence Destroyed

Zarifi says he thinks much of the evidence at the mass grave has been destroyed since then.

"In early 2002, when the team from Human Rights Watch that I was on was there, you could just drive up to Dasht-i Laili and see [the mass grave]. The ground had been recently dug up and there were remains of clothing and bones coming to the surface," Zarifi said.

"Human Rights Watch, along with other organizations, alerted both the United Nations and the Afghan government about the importance of this site. The decision was taken at that time by the UN, as well as the militaries, not to secure the site. I wouldn't be surprised at all if somebody who was worried about what could be discovered from that site has gone back and dug everything up," he said.

The group that discovered the mass grave -- Physicians for Human Rights -- also has documented how the site was destroyed. But that group's deputy director, Susannah Sirkin, tells RFE/RL she thinks there is still evidence to be found there.

"Physicians for Human Rights documented about a year ago that there seemed to be a large hole in the area where we have recorded this grave. We now have satellite imagery that shows large apparent earth moving equipment on the site in the summer of 2006. Some of the evidence has clearly been destroyed," Sirkin says.

"One of the things that needs to happen immediately is for President Karzai, with the support of ISAF, to secure that site and make sure that nothing further is done there. We believe there is a lot of evidence that will always remain at a site. And we want to find out who ordered this removal and where the earth was taken," she says.


Zarifi describes the actions of the international community in the case as "shameful."

"The international community knew exactly what it should have protected and why. And it didn't do so at all," he says. "We do know there were American handlers with General Dostum at General Dostum's headquarters. So there is absolutely a need for the U.S. military and the U.S. government to find out what its forces were doing."

In fact, Zarifi says, allegations of U.S. complicity that have appeared in Western documentary films about the massacre are reason enough for Obama to call for a full investigation.

"Another major theme of the allegations was that CIA handlers who were working with General Dostum at the time were somehow involved in this massacre. We could never confirm that," Zarifi says. "Among the issues that were a mystery to us were whether the Americans who were with General Dostum were Special Forces or with the CIA or another branch of the [U.S.] government.

"We did try to see if Americans were directly involved with the massacre. We couldn't verify it simply because of lack of information. I don't want to draw too much of a conclusion from that one way or the other. It is certainly worthy of an investigation."

The West Rediscovers Russian Folk Art

Russian folk art has never been much collected in Western Europe.

But now, there are signs it is drawing greater interest, including in the Western antique market.

One measure is an exhibit concluded last month at Pushkin House, London. Entitled "Carved And Colored Village Art From Tsarist Lands," it filled the rooms of the old Georgian mansion in Bloomsbury Square with traditional peasant art collected from as far north as the Arctic Circle to as far south as the mountains of Daghestan.

Among the largest objects present were the elaborately carved wooden panels that traditionally framed the windows of Russian rural homes, from peasants' cottages to rich merchants' log-built estates.

The frames, known as "window surrounds," drew on sources ranging from pre-Christian animism to Russian folklore, as well as from the baroque and art nouveau movements, to give the Russian countryside an unmistakable look of its own.

A wide variety of other types of folk art common in tsarist Russia was also on display. It included carved and colored stands used for spinning, known as distaffs, chests, cradles, tables, textiles, and spoon boxes -- a box up to a meter high for storing spoons used with ritual hospitality soups in Daghestan,

New To The West

Much of the art is little known -- and has been little seen -- outside of its homeland.

Robert Chenciner, an independent expert on the former Soviet Union who organized the exhibit, says the last time so much folk art from the former Russian Empire was shown in the United Kingdom was at the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901.

That, Chenciner notes, was when Western publics were just beginning to learn about the distant eastern ends of Europe and become interested in its ethnic art.

"This art was discovered by the West only in the early 1900s as rail and roads improved and academics and romantics took voyages of discovery through pre-industrial Europe," he says. "They brought back enthusiastic reports of rich folk craft being produced in time-locked villages."

But the growing Western interest was cut short when the Iron Curtain came down after World War II. That happened before the Western art world could acquire any major collections of Eastern Europe's folk art or develop any body of literature about it.

Many of the larger pieces for the Pushkin House exhibit came from British antiques dealer John Cornall, who has collected tsarist-era folk art since it began coming out of the former Soviet republics with the collapse of communism.

Cornall says the window surrounds, which are salvaged from old buildings by Russian dealers, are now beginning to be appreciated by the Western antique and interior design markets.

He says the most common use for the window surrounds in the West is to turn them into fanciful mirrors for home interiors:

"When I first sort of showed a few to people in England, most people regarded them as stunning," Cornall says. "A lot of them, because I think they are coming from quite far east into Russia, have this bright blue paint on them which has sort of gone very dry and crackled and it is a very attractive color. People like that."

Popular In Russia

Russian woodwork can be either colored or left plain and designs may be carved or painted upon them. The designs often contain a wealth of symbolism.

Among popular motifs were grapevines symbolizing the prosperity and wealth of the house, lions symbolizing protection, and the mythological "Sirin" bird symbolizing the joy of life. The Sirin is an ancient symbol of heaven and water whose cult survived into the Christian epoch and became linked to earthly happiness.

Window surrounds from the Urals and Western Siberia
Talented woodworkers and painters not only decorated their own homes but traditionally took to the road looking for commissions. Hundreds of master painters each year traveled along the major routes, stopping at regular points where they could meet and be hired by customers.

The best examples of this folk art are well preserved in state collections in parts of Russia today. Pieces are kept in museums and, sometimes, entire houses have been moved to outdoor museums. Some of these outdoor museums are now popular stops on package tours, including boat tours from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

...But Is It Enough?

But in many other areas of Russia, old houses are entirely neglected.

One is the region around Tomsk, where a once-rich concentration of elaborately decorated log homes has been left to fall apart with time.

Olga Sevan of Russian Institute for Cultural Research says that in 1980 there were about 2,800 wooden houses in Tomsk which could be considered as monuments. But by 2003 there were only half as many, and 70 percent of those were in extremely poor condition.

The houses are echoes of a time when folk art reached a peak of popularity among country builders during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their fate now likely hinges upon how much new public interest can be generated in them.

Chenciner says that one of the main goals of the exhibit at Pushkin House was to raise appreciation in the West of Russia's folk art and thereby encourage local governments to attach greater value to preserving what is left.

The art has already proven to be a lucrative tourist draw in northwest Russia. The question now is how much that business can be extended in time to more remote areas as well.