It was an unforgettable five minutes. "They forced all the men to line up in crouching positions in the field just outside the town and then opened up with their machine guns from behind," recalls Abdul Latif, a bearded Afghan traffic policeman. "Then they spread out through the town gunning down all the remaining men they could find."
Mr. Latif, now living in western Pakistan, is one of the few male survivors of a Soviet-ordered massacre of more than 1,000 people last April in Kerala, a small riverside town in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
According to Mr. Latif and other survivors, some 200 Afghan soldiers and policemen, together with 20 Soviet advisers, cold-bloodedly machine-gunned almost the entire male population of the town.
Afghan soldiers had accused the townspeople of collaborating with anti-government Muslim "mujahideen" fighters hidden in the surrounding pine-forested mountains, eyewitnesses say. The shooting was ordered by a dark-blond, green-eyed Russian officer who wore an Afghan uniform without rank insignia.
"You can be sure that next year's potato crop will be a good one." Using words to that effect, a senior Soviet military adviser looked on as the town's wailing women folk struggled vainly to push past a cordon of soldiers toward the bodies of their slaughtered husbands, brothers, and sons. Survivors say that as they watched, an army bulldozer plowed the bodies into the soft earth of an open field.
The April 20, 1979, shooting of an estimated 1,170 unarmed males from Kerala, including boys in their early teens, is the first reported case of a mass scale military reprisal against Afghanistan's civilian population since the fighting began almost two years ago. Numerous rumors of mass shootings have previously circulated among antigovernment groups, but no corroborating, eyewitness evidence has up till now been forthcoming.
The massacre took place before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in force at the end of last year. It occurred under the regime of President Nur Muhammad Taraki and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, when the Soviet presence was beginning to build up. And far more people were killed in this Afghan massacre than when the entire male population of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, was slaughtered during World War II by the Nazis or when American troops killed civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in March, 1968.
Almost 10 months later, with rumors of the massacre filtering down from western Pakistan's mountainous but fertile Bajaur region in the restricted tribal areas bordering Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, this reporter with three others (Nicholas Proffitt of Newsweek, Kare Verte of Norway's Morgenbladet , Rauli Virtanen of Finland's Helsingin Sanomat) sought to verify the reports.
Kerala lies on the banks of a small tributary just before it forks into the Kunar River in a broad cultivated valley of wheat fields at the foot of the rising snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains. As the crow flies, the small town of mud and stone houses lies only 12 miles northwest of the ancient mule track that leads from Pakistan into Afghanistan through the Raghnai Pass.
Now almost deserted by its almost 5,000 Pushtun inhabitants, Kerala is under Soviet-Afghan military control. But with the regime's soldiers hardly daring to move into the countryside unless accompanied by heavy air support, anti-government forces firmly hold the surrounding hills.
We hoped to at least catch a glimpse of Kerala from the mountains overlooking the Kunar River. But our attempts to slip into eastern Afghanistan in the company of armed Mujahideen guides were twice foiled by Pakistani authorities who adamantly refused to allow us to trek across the rocky Raghnai Pass. On both occasions, we were escorted back by rifle-carrying police.
But among the more than 33,000 Afghan refugees who have converged on the verdant terraced valleys and scattered smoking villages of Bajaur in Northwest Frontier Province, we discovered some 400 families, survivors of the Kerala massacre.
Sharing accommodations with local armed tribesmen and relatives, or living in Spartan government dwellings, many of these families consist only of destitute black-shawled women and dirt-caked children.
Barely 200 of their menfolk survived the killings, they say. Some of them had been absent from the town when the soldiers had arrived, others had succeeded in running the military gauntlet and escaping execution.
Overall corroboration of testimonies by the survivors, many of whom live miles apart, confirms the magnitude of the killings -- although the exact number of victims must remain an estimate. There is a general consensus also that the mass slaughter was ordered by the Soviet advisers, some of who were known by sight to the people of Kerala.
According to the accounts of these survivors and eyewitnesses, what happened is as follows:
On April 20, last year, an Islamic holy Friday, a column of 30 tanks and a number of armored personnel carriers (APCs) from nearby military garrisons, rolled into Kerala. The day before, there had been heavy fighting between the rebels and government forces. With many townspeople still at home, the vehicles took up position around Kerala with their guns facing the center of the town.
"All the men were ordered to come to a giant Jirgam (meeting) to discuss the rebel fighting in the area," explains Mr. Latif. "None of the men were armed. The women and children were herded into the mosque. There they could hear and see everything that was going on."
To illustrate his description, Mr. Latif hastily draws a map of Kerala on a piece of paper showing its houses, its mosque, the tank and APC positions, as well as the field where the men had assembled. With the vast majority of Kerala's male population gathered in one spot, the Soviet advisers and Afghan officiers began to loudly berate them for aiding and abetting the mujahideen.
"The government soldiers were very annoyed about the mujahideen attacks," said Khalil Ullah, a teacher wearing a stained black jacket over his grey pajama suit. "They knew very well that we had been secretly giving the mujahideen food , ammunition, shelter, and money."
Another teacher, Abdul Hadi, who had managed to slip away after being told by Afghan soldiers that they would all be executed, added: "They were particularly angry because the governor of Kunar had previously called on us all to take up arms against the rbels, but we flatly refused."
With tanks blocking the riverside part of the field, the soldiers pointed their AK-47 automatic rifles at the men and demanded that they shout pro-communist slogans.
"They wanted them to cry 'Hooray for the regime!'" said Mr. Latif who had helplessly watched the proceedings from nearby. "But instead they all shouted 'Allah o Akbar'm (God is the greatest)."
Further incensed, the soldiers roughly shoved the men into line. An army officer moved forward to take photographs of the assembly. "They wanted to prove that the men of Kerala were supporters of the mujahideen and therefore had to die," explained Mr. Latif.
Nabi Madez Khan, a short and stocky schoolboy who lost his father, uncle, and four cousins in the massacre, describes what happened in the final minutes.
"I accompanied my father to the field to the meeting," says Nabi, standing in front of a large gathering of anti-regime Afghans outside the Bajaur refugee headquarters. Many of the refugees carry guns. Nabi, with his brown woolen chitrali cap perched on the back of his closely cropped hair, looks younger than his 18 years.
"People were afraid and knew that something was going to happen. Some of the men tried to join the women and the children in the mosque, but they were turned back at gunpoint."
A military helicopter suddenly emerged from beyond the river and hovered in a stationary position above the field. The senior Soviet adviser on the ground conversed rapidly by field radio wht the helicopter. "I became scared and wanted to leave," says Nabi. "I tried to ask the commandant (Russian adviser) if I could go, but he ignored me."
Nabi then turned and started to hurry away toward the Mosque. He looked back several times. Abrubtly, the helicopter swooped away. Orders were shouted and the townsmen were sharply told by the soldiers to crouch down facing the tanks. Behind them stood the armed Afghan soldiers with their guns pointing forward. Several Soviet advisers including the senior officer placed themselves to the rear. Then the shooting started.
"I as running but turned to look back," says Nabi. "I saw everything. The soldiers were firing their guns and the men were falling to the ground. I could not see my father."
In the confusion, the youth made his way to the mosque without being noticed by the swarm of armed guards who were intently watching the shooting.
A few women quickly handed him female clothes to hide in. Several other men also slipped in and tried to disguise themselves in dark chadors (veils).
The firing only lasted five minutes. When the women saw their men being executed, they began screaming and flailing their arms. They ran forward holding up holy Korans in their hands for the soldiers to see and pleaded for mercy. They tried to push their way through to the bodies but were warned back by the guards who shot into the air.
Within minutes, the bulldozer appeared on the scene. It began plowing the bodies into the field. Survivors said that some of those buried were still alive and moving. Several women noticed the army photographer taking more pictures.
Bibi Rakhara, a wizened, unveiled woman lost her husband, four brothers, one son, and two nephews in the slaughter. Dejectedly she stands outside a stone building in Bajaur with her nine remaining children at her side. Her face taught with emotion, she describes the massacre. "When the shooting started, we could see our men falling. We had known what wes going to happen. We wanted to reach them to touch them but the soldiers stopped us."
Soldiers then fanned out into the village tracking down the remaining men. Some entered the mosque and tore away the veils of suspects. Three or four men were discovered and were dragged screaming down to the field where they were shot.
Only a few escaped. "I was in my house when I heard the shooting," says one man gesturing toward the Afghan mountains beyond the ridge. "I could hear the women screaming and realized what was happening, so I ran." Near the river, he hid among the trees.
Mr. Latif, the traffic policeman, also was fortunate to survive. But as a government official, he was assumed to be loyal to the Khalq (People's Party) communist regime of Kabul. Three days later, however, he too had fled across the border.
Within hours groups of tearful women and children as well as a handfull of stunned male survivors emerged. Together this particular group -- 15 men, 30 women, and 20 children crossed the Kunar River by boat and then walked four days to Pakistan.
"It was a tragic sight," explains a Pakistani Army major. "I watched all these wretched women and children gradually trickle over a period of days into Bajaur. They were all weeping. There was hardly a man among them."