Alleged human rights violations in Panjshir: what sources on the ground say
For months, widespread reports of Taliban abuses in the province have surfaced on social media, raising concern among human rights organisations. However, sources say many incidents go unreported.
8 Nov 2022
This article mentions graphic details and includes links to graphic videos. The following article is based on interviews; incidents have not been verified by AW unless stated otherwise.
Names have been changed for safety reasons.
On 18 October Afghan Witness (AW) released a report conclusively linking one group of Taliban fighters to the execution of ten men in Dara district, Panjshir. The report also includes credible evidence of a further 17 executions and 30 deaths as a result of the Taliban offensive against alleged resistance fighters in Panjshir in September 2022.
In recent weeks, the northeastern province has been a focal point for human rights investigators and organisations, with Richard Bennett, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan recently visiting Panjshir to investigate the situation, later describing a “massive crackdown on civilians” and “widespread human rights abuses”. On 27 October, the Taliban responded by calling the rapporteur’s conclusions “unbalanced”, but insisted that if violations occurred “in error” they would be investigated.
Home to between 150,000 and 200,000 people, the rugged, mountainous province of Panjshir has long been a resistance stronghold. It was the centre of resistance during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Taliban’s previous rule between 1996 to 2001. Panjshir was also the last province to fall to the Taliban during their takeover last year when resistance fighters - led by Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) - vowed to continue their fight.
Resistance activity in Panjshir and neighbouring provinces intensified in Spring, coinciding with the end of Winter and the onset of the so-called fighting season, which also saw an increase in reports of human rights violations (HRVs), though allegations of Taliban abuses in Panjshir have been surfacing since September 2021, after the group claimed “complete control” of the province.
As journalists face restrictions on reporting and have limited access to the valley, many of these reports emerge from social media. However, with the province cut off physically and technologically, it has been difficult to assess the scale of the claims. Where possible, AW uses open-source techniques (OSINT) to verify footage and images coming out of Panjshir - as seen in the recent report - though sources we speak to say many HRVs go unreported.
Zuhal - whose name has been changed for security reasons - is an Afghan activist who recently evacuated to Canada.
When AW contacts her about claims of HRVs in Panjshir, she replies: “I don't know which one to talk about.”
“They have beheaded people. They have thrown people down mountains. They even shot children and let them burn,” Zuhal says, adding that she and other activists have been trying to publicise these incidents to “grab the international community's attention”.
According to Zuhal, from 5-7 September last year, a number of men who were previously members of the former government’s security and defence forces stood against the Taliban in the Umeraz area.
“The Taliban had the upper hand, of course,” adds Zuhal. “[They] killed the men and set several houses on fire, including civilian houses. My mother’s cousin was also killed in that incident.”
She alleges that more than twenty men - NRF members and civilians - were killed in one night. In mid-September 2021, the BBC found evidence of at least 20 civilians killed in Panjshir Valley.
Ahad, not his real name, is living in hiding in Kabul and has similar stories to tell.
His family has been moving between Panjshir and the capital in recent months. He says that while evidence of alleged HRVs is shared widely via social media, many incidents “go unreported due to the Taliban’s severe censorship and control”.
He alleges that in the Abdullah Khel area of Panjshir’s Dara district, the Taliban have killed many NRF members. In May, AW geolocated [GRAPHIC] two videos showing the dead bodies of NRF fighters to the Abdullah Khel Valley. Several pieces of footage have also arisen documenting high numbers of arrests - allegedly local men - which AW has been able to geolocate to Abdullah Khel and other areas of Panjshir. By August AW had recorded the arrests of at least 181 men in the province.
Ahad says Taliban fighters go house to house in areas of Panjshir and eavesdrop to identify families who are in mourning.
“This way, they identify families of deceased NRF fighters,” he explains.
Ahad says there have been disputes over burials, with some Taliban fighters attempting to prevent the burials of deceased NRF fighters. In such cases, he says “the dead bodies are left in the mountains.”
But sources say it is not just alleged NRF forces being targeted.
“The Taliban have created numerous checkpoints in Panjshir province, mistreating and disrespecting people while doing their inspections,” says Ahad.
“People who live in the upper areas and highlands of Panjshir cannot get out of their houses because there is always the risk of them being shot by the Taliban,” he adds.
Majeed, not his real name, is originally from the province but currently lives in Kabul. He alleges that earlier this year his brother, who was a shopkeeper, was killed by Taliban fighters when he refused to open his shop for them one evening.
“They tortured my brother until early morning [the next day] and threw his body near his shop at around six or seven in the morning. His whole body was bruised,” Majeed says.
“My brother was not a member of the NRF - he was just a grocery shopkeeper,” he adds.
Similar cases have been reported by the BBC, with one shopkeeper accused of selling sim cards to resistance fighters. Days later, his body was reportedly dumped near his home, with witnesses alleging that it showed signs of torture.
According to Majeed, the Taliban’s governor for Panjshir and other Taliban elders came and met the family following his brother’s death. After arresting the perpetrators, Majeed says the Taliban representatives asked for forgiveness, though eventually freed the men responsible.
Women and children most vulnerable
While much of the media coverage around Panjshir focuses on resistance forces, Zuhal says the women of Panjshir are the most vulnerable.
“When the Taliban face pressure from the NRF, they compensate by harassing civilians - mainly women,” she explains. “Women and children have suffered the most in Panjshir.”
In August, media reported that the Taliban kidnapped women and children after retreating from the Abdullah Khel Valley, according to sources.
Zuhal alleges that she knows of seventeen girls - four related to her family - who have been taken by Taliban fighters this year.
“Their only crime was that they were Tajiks and they were from Panjshir,” she adds.
Ahad agrees. “It does not matter to them whether or not a Panjshiri is an NRF fighter,” he says. “The Taliban see every child and woman of Panjshir as an enemy.”
Forced to flee
The picture of Panjshir painted by sources is a desolate one - all three stress that many residents have fled, while Zuhal and Ahad allege that some have been forcibly displaced.
In June, sources told Hasht-e Subh that residents had been forced to evacuate their homes in the villages of Chamalwarda, Doshakh, Balaq, Naryan and Bota-war in Rukha district. Sources said Taliban fighters seized people’s property, turning their houses into military barricades.
“Many have left [Panjshir] and have relocated to Kabul, including me,” says Majeed. “The Taliban enter people’s houses and harass them on suspicion of cooperating with the NRF.”
According to Zuhal, the Taliban set some civilian homes on fire, forcing people to leave. She adds that forced displacements mostly occurred in the Dara district, where mainly Hazaras reside.
Ahad says Taliban fighters warned elders of the Abdullah Khel district that if NRF fighters did not surrender, they would displace the elders and their families to other provinces.
“Most of the areas in Panjshir are deserted, and people no longer live there - only locals who are poor and have had no family members working for the former government have remained in some areas of the province,” says Ahad.
As a result, the residents who remain face limited public services, he says, adding that schools have been turned into Taliban military bases - which AW has found some evidence of - and the university left deserted, with many former lecturers and students having left the country.
On 16 September 2021, reports surfaced claiming Panjshir University had been burnt and destroyed. A video claiming to be from the same area surfaced two days later. After Investigation by AW, both posts were geolocated and confirmed to be of Panjshir University.
Ahad says many health clinics have also closed and that access to healthcare is only available in the lower parts of the province. This is further stressed by Zuhal - whose family has been personally impacted by limited healthcare.
“My aunt’s husband died two months ago due to a heart attack,” she says. “His family could not get him to a doctor on time - clinics have shut down.”
Physical and digital isolation
According to Zuhal and Ahad, local sources in Panjshir have a lot to say but face limited access to the outside world. In late August 2021, as clashes intensified, it was reported that the Taliban cut off internet and mobile phone services.
“The first thing the Taliban did after capturing Panjshir was to disconnect the locals' access to the internet and telecom services,” says Ahad. “In some areas where the Taliban suspect NRF activities, people still do not have access to telecom services.”
“People need to walk long distances to obtain internet access, which is also very dangerous as the Taliban might stop and inspect them,” adds Zuhal. “Only in Bazarak, the capital city of Panjshir, access to telecom services is better.”
The rugged, mountainous terrain of the Panjshir Valley limits access in the first place, but it is further isolated by limited internet services and the restrictions facing journalists trying to report on the conflict - few can gain access to the valley, and journalists face broader restrictions in terms of what they can and can’t report under the Taliban.
With media limited and Panjshiri locals isolated, Zuhal feels a duty to do what she can from abroad.
“We have been sending dozens of emails to human rights organisations, media and diplomats, asking for their attention,” she explains.
However, she adds that raising awareness has been difficult: “We have a whole database of the incidents in Panjshir, but unfortunately, no one listens to us.”
Majeed says he is trying to leave Afghanistan. He is unemployed and relies on financial support from relatives living abroad.
Ahad, despite having opportunities to leave, says he is committed to staying in Afghanistan regardless of the political situation. However, he is desperately trying to evacuate his family as he feels responsible for their suffering.
He is fearful of retribution: “I know who I am facing, and I know the risk,” he says.