Former Taliban fighters swear their war is over

Released prisoners say they were forced to fight, just want to go home

March 28, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - They were sitting on a dusty sidewalk yesterday, 150 former Taliban soldiers newly released from prison, and they swore that their war against the United States is over.

"I had a Kalashnikov and I laid it down when I surrendered," said Mohamed Rami, a balding, skeletal figure who sat cross-legged next to a concrete drainage ditch. "We will never fight again."

The men, all from the group of 276 prisoners released from Shibergan prison in the north, the largest of the interim government's detention centers, were lingering in brilliant sunshine outside the walled compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross. They were there to beg for money to pay their way home.

Most were from villages far from Kabul, to the south or west. They had already spent the 500,000 Afghani - $15.63 - provided by the Red Cross at the time of their release. They had traveled three days by government truck to the capital, but needed help to complete their journey.

At least 5,800 prisoners are still being held in detention centers around the country, and the government is unsure what to do with them. It cannot afford politically or financially to detain them indefinitely for having fought for what was a popular cause. But there is concern that some freed prisoners might join guerrilla bands.

Rami, who guesses he is 30, is a Pashtun shepherd from Helmand province, in the harsh desert southwest. Like the other former prisoners at the Red Cross, he claimed that he was forced to fight.

The Taliban deployed him on the front lines near Mazar-e Sharif, just before U.S. warplanes began bombing, he said.

"A lot of people were injured or killed," Rami said.

After his capture, he was locked in a metal shipping container for three days without toilets or ventilation. About 200 men were with him.

"Some died," Rami said. "Maybe most of them died. We couldn't tell."

Rami was taken to Shibergan prison, where he was fingerprinted and interrogated by Americans working with Afghan authorities.

"They took pictures of us and they put these on our feet," said Rami, pointing to a plastic ankle bracelet.

"They asked us how we had joined the Taliban and whether we were real fighters," he said. The Americans believed him, he said, when he reported that he had been forced to fight.

Rami and seven other men from a village in Helmand province were captured together, stayed together during their imprisonment and traveled together after being released in a gesture of goodwill. Two days ago, a village elder heard they were headed home and began traveling north to meet them.

Mohamed Rasul, 19, surrendered with Rami. The young wheat farmer said he was forced to join the Taliban and worked only as a cook, without ever firing his weapon at enemy troops. The Americans, he said, "treated us very well."

Now he is headed home to his parents. "And I am contrite that I was with the Taliban."

None of the half-dozen soldiers who spoke expressed sorrow about the Taliban's defeat.

"It was God's will that they fell so quickly," said Mohamed Aref, 18, a farmer from Helmand. For four years, he said, he fought for the Taliban and it was all for nothing. If villagers asked him to join another holy war, he would refuse.

"The Taliban brought us to the war, and that was our destiny" said Aref. "What is the need for us to fight? Now I must support my family."

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