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Drama highlights Afghan war crimes

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Bamiyan

The schizophrenic prisoner on stage
The performance is set in front of what remains of the Bamiyan Buddha caves

A blood-curdling scream rings out over the Bamiyan valley as the man in the white mask, his hands tied with red wire, tries to free himself from the voices in his head which speak of death and of torture.

The backdrop to the play is what's left of the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taleban in 2001.

The schizophrenic prisoner acting on stage is battling the ghosts of those who were killed with scant regard for their human rights.

The open-air theatre audience knows the pain of losing husbands and fathers - when the Taleban came to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan they were brutal and ruthless.

'Revenge?'

Surrounding him are hunks of meat split by an axe and an AK-47 wound in barbed wire.

Musa Sultani
Most of the victims, especially women, spoke out about their desire for justice to be done with regard to the past
Musa Sultani, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission

He is tied to seven chairs each containing a jar of blood to represent the victims of war crimes and human rights abuses.

In the play, an adaptation of a Northern Ireland story on reconciliation, the character is desperate to know what the ghosts want - knowledge or information, justice or peace.

"Do you want revenge?" he screams again, and it's a question ringing in the ears of those watching.

How do millions of Afghans come to terms with all the terrible things that happened in nearly three decades of war when an insurgency is raging and those responsible are still free and in positions of power?

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations is backing the touring theatre project which is designed to start people thinking about how to deal with their own ghosts.

But the UN is in a difficult position in Afghanistan when it comes to human rights.

It has produced a document which highlights, from contemporary records, all the various war crimes and abuses through the Soviet occupation and the civil war of the early 1990s at the time of the Taleban.

Audience at the Bamiyan performance
Many of the audience were themselves victims of abuses

But it has not been published because, the UN says, the Afghan government believes it will do more harm than good.

Many of those named as responsible in its hundreds of pages are in positions of power in Afghanistan today - some are even members of parliament.

Naming and shaming them, the argument goes, puts the country's fragile democracy at risk.

Meanwhile, those in the audience are struggling to have their voices heard to help them come to terms with the past.

There's Fatima whose father was a rich businessman murdered at midnight outside his home by the Taleban.

Baqir Ali's father was also killed, but by the Soviets in the 1980s - the abuses go back decades.

'Traumatised and depressed'

And Qureish lost six close family members to the Taleban and had to drag the bodies into a makeshift grave on her own as her male relatives had been killed.

Faces of the missing
Many people have still to be accounted for

She took us to their grave at the huge war cemetery so close to the village that it is a constant reminder of what they have been through.

"People lost hope," she said. "Everyone was mentally affected, everyone has been left traumatised and depressed."

She described in detail the day the Taleban came: "We didn't know them, they were wearing masks when they came here, killed and then left. People lost the heads of their families and children were orphaned.

"We don't know our enemies so we cannot take revenge. May Allah do justice and take our revenge."

Musa Sultani is from the Bamiyan branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

He sees this as a conflict between the need for justice and maintaining the little peace which the country has achieved in the last six years.

The idea of the play was to spark discussion and he was pleased with the way it went.

"Most of the victims, especially women, spoke out about their desire for justice to be done with regard to the past," he said.

"We had a very constructive dialogue - even representatives of factions who were involved in the past conflict were there and expressed their viewpoints."

But it's been just one part of a much larger process, and even after six and a half years there are few outlets for expressing grief and anger here.

For now there's little chance those responsible will be forced to face their past.



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