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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.

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"Whenever some organization is going to have projects here or open an office here, they should focus on the culture – social and religious – of the people, not just focus on the bad things," says Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, governor of Badakhshan Province. He added that he didn't know much about the museum; he recently replaced the previous governor who backed it.

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The Afghan government has given mixed messages over war crimes. Kabul passed a 2005 law to remove war criminals from power, ignored it, then quietly passed a 2007 law granting amnesty to all belligerents.

June’s peace jirga – or gathering of leaders to discuss how to deal with insurgents – worried human rights groups that it would encourage the government to pursue peace at the cost of justice. The delegates decided to only exclude from future peace negotiations those militants who were foreign or tied to foreign extremists.

"I wish there was a strong state and hard political will for justice in the country. I'm not looking [exclusively] for criminal justice, but some kind of healing process," says Sima Simar, chairperson for the AIHRC.

Ms. Simar says that her group will build more memorials to victims; it just opened one in Herat. She denies that AIHRC would shy away from highlighting the victims of current warlords: "For us, crime is crime, it doesn't matter who did it."

Closure for victims

For the families of the victims found in Faizabad's mass grave, the museum has given answers about the past and a renewed sense of sorrow.

Husaini remembers going to visit her brother in jail as a girl, bringing food for a family meal. He wasn't there. The guards told her that Husain had been transferred to Kabul. But later, when a rival faction came to power and emptied the Kabul prisons, Husain was still missing.

Hundreds of families around Faizabad came to believe the rumors that their loved ones had been thrown into the raging Kokcha River. But nobody could be sure until a builder discovered the mass grave in 2007 and the human rights commission began excavation work.

"It's good to know about their grave, at least we know where they are," says Husaini. "But it refreshes all our sorrow."

She says she isn't looking for justice because no one has the ability to give it and it won't bring her brother back. Other relatives of victims, however, come to see Sharifi in the Faizabad office looking for justice.

"We advise people that these things happened to everyone, but we are trying to make sure it doesn't happen in the future," says Sharifi. "They accept this because they don't have any other way.”