Afghanistan's new war crimes museum punts on still-powerful warlords
A war crimes museum in northeastern Afghanistan documents the past three decades of atrocities. But it displays little about perpetrators who remain influential today.
He was a very tall man who wore outsized shoes and blue clothes. Sayed Husain taught history and prayed at the mosque, and for that he was thrown into jail in 1979. Educated people like him were the first to be rounded up when the communists came to power in 1978, kicking off Afghanistan's three decades of turmoil.Skip to next paragraph
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It wasn't until recently that Husaini's sister, Masooma, found those shoes among the remains of hundreds of people in a mass grave in northeastern Afghanistan, helping to close a dark chapter for the family.
At the mass grave site here in Faizabad sits Afghanistan's first war crimes museum, which opened in December. It has three small wings, one for each decade of bloodshed. The ‘80s wing is lined with framed photos of those who were buried with Husain, and a glass case with their unearthed effects: keys, prayer beads, a gold tooth, coins, a lime-green comb caked with dirt. The other two wings are emptier, highlighting the trouble Afghanistan faces in coming to terms with atrocities committed by those still jockeying for power.
Some of the perpetrators who came after the communists – warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – were not as soundly defeated. Mr. Dostum remains an ally of the government, delivering many thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai from his ethnic Uzbek followers. Mr. Hekmatyar, meanwhile, is now negotiating with the Karzai government after years of fighting alongside the Taliban.
"The situation in Afghanistan is still not fit to build such kinds of museums where the people come, and it's explained that this is [the victim of] Dostum or this is [the victim of] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, because the security situation is not good," says Haq Dad Sharifi, the media representative for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) office in Faizabad. "We collect the information and give it to the government. If the government has the power, they can do something with the information."
Even if the museum mainly highlights the war crimes that are safest to discuss, it still marks one of the first attempts to raise the issue and spark a conversation.
Visitors sometimes come to Sharifi's office in Faizabad asking why the atrocity happened. The office educates them about Afghanistan history as well as current rights to "make sure it doesn't happen again."
Burying the past
Not everyone agrees that focusing on history's dark corners should be a top priority – including the top official in Faizabad.