A Dying Nation

(The following is drawn from “Tears, Blood and Cries: Human Rights in Afghanistan Since the Invasion, 1979–1984,” a Helsinki Watch report issued in December.)

A whole nation is dying. People should know.” The terseness and directness of this statement befitted the speaker—Mohammad Eshaq, a resistance leader from Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, a man of strong convictions and determination. Yet his eyes were filled with tears when he told us about the fate of two men, brothers, from his ancestral village of Mata. Aged ninety and ninety-five, and blind, they stayed behind when the rest of the villagers fled during last spring’s offensive: “The Russians came, tied dynamite to their backs, and blew them up.” He paused to collect himself, then added simply: “They were very respected people.”

For five years now, in their remote, mountainous land in the center of Asia, the people of Afghanistan have been defending their independence, their culture, their existence itself, in a desperate battle with one of the world’s great super-powers. Yet the inherent drama of such a confrontation does not appear to have captured the world’s imagination. News from Afghanistan has been scarce.

There are many reasons for this. The Afghan government has officially closed its doors to most of the major world media and to international humanitarian organizations, and the information it releases is dictated by the needs of official propaganda. The Afghan resistance parties based in Pakistan, on the other hand, are hardly objective sources of information and are often at odds with one another as well. Independent investigation requires the visitor to enter the country illegally from Pakistan, trek for weeks over forbidding terrain, and brave the dangers of a war without fronts. The largest group of victims consists of uneducated people, immersed in their own traditions, with no idea of how to tell their story to a foreign world.

What little news we receive comes from a handful of intrepid scholars, doctors, and journalists who have taken the risk of “going inside,” usually under the aegis of one of the resistance groups. Their reports, covering a variety of aspects of the Afghan conflict, have included numerous accounts of atrocities and other human rights abuses since the Soviet invasion of December 1979.

During September of 1984, we went to the Afghan border—to Peshawar in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, and to Quetta in Baluchistan—to collect information about human rights violations in Afghanistan by interviewing some of the Afghan people who have sought refuge there. We had already interviewed Afghan refugees in the United States and Paris and had read extensively in preparation for our trip. Nothing, however, prepared us for what we were to see and experience in Peshawar.

The vast scale of the exodus—an estimated four to five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, representing one-quarter to one-third of Afghanistan’s prewar population—is immediately apparent in Peshawar, where the largest concentration of the more than three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan …

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