Death Row in Afghanistan
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Haji Musa took me to their country house in the Panjshir for the weekend. His fifteen year old son Tayub speaks quite good English and interprets for him.
‘Massoud fight big battle here with tourists during the war,’ said Tayub.
‘What?’
‘Massoud. He fight here with tourists. Taliban, and Chechen, and Saudi tourists.’
‘Oh. You mean terrorists.’

Just down the road from Haji’s house is a ramshackle building which Tayub said was used as a prison for ‘Taliban tourists’. The gate was made from corrugated iron and there was a sort of watch tower in which a man with a Kalashnikov squatted. He asked us in for tea with the commander. (Time is the only thing they’ve got plenty of and their idea of fun is to waste it. They watched me as if I were a television.) Tayub said that during the American war, 2000 Taliban were kept here. Many of them had been shot when the Northern Alliance arrived in Kabul and there was a sort of murderous Saturnalia – a few days in which old scores could be settled before the new regime got its feet under the table. There were reports of a gruesome massacre at Mazar-I-Sharif and I wondered whether something similar had happened here. It seems to be almost traditional when Kabul changes hands. When the Taliban captured the city they stormed the UN compound and found Najibullah, the communist puppet. Like some members of the Tory party (who they in other ways resembled) they thought hanging was too good for him, so they castrated him and stuffed his genitals in his mouth before execution. You can buy pictures of this in Kabul.

A group of men drinking tea were sitting on a carpeted staircase that ran up the outside of the main building. We joined them – together with some small children who had skipped through the gate with us, before it was shut. A larger group were outside, shouting up at the guard. ‘What are they saying?’ I asked Tayub. ‘They say it is not fair that they are not allowed in too.’ The governor said that his life was easier since the war, and he only had six inmates, all murderers. ‘Were any of the Taliban shot?’ I asked. ‘Not one.’ ‘And where are they now?’ ‘I don’t know. Gone home. To Pakistan,’ he said vaguely. Further down the staircase a rather nice-looking man was standing, his hand on the cropped head of a child. ‘Look!’ said Tayub, and pointed to the man’s feet. They were joined by a short chain with a hinged circle of steel round each ankle, now locked, his skin protected by a sort of partial sock. He was one of the murderers. I wondered if his mother knitted the socks and sent them to him.

‘Good afternoon,’ he said to me, politely. ‘Good afternoon,’ I said and shook his hand. He said he had been learning English. He said he had killed someone in the course of a fight. He shrugged. It was one of those things that happen. He had now been in jail three years, and hoped to be let out soon, perhaps in a general amnesty at Christmas or after the elections. In the sunlight on the other side of the yard was an alienated looking youth sitting alone. ‘He is murderer, too,’ said Tayub proudly, like an uncle pointing out the sights. I went over to shake his hand, full of tabloid prurience. ‘Who did he murder?’ ‘A woman.’ He had detected a married woman engaged in an adulterous affair and killed her. ‘How many years will he get for that?’ The First Murderer (the fighter) grinned and drew his finger across his neck. ‘Good God,’ I said.

But in fact, part of me was quite cheered by the sentence. Which part? I’m not sure, but I think the bleeding-heart-liberal part that saw this as a vindication of the rights of women much needed in medieval Afghanistan. Another, theological, part of me wanted to say – But what’s the crime? Isn’t that Islamic law? Will you go to Muslim heaven? ‘Can I interview him?’ There was a brief conversation, which ended with the Second Murderer shuffling off into the communal cell, looking depressed. ‘No,’ said the First Murderer. ‘Can I interview you?’

He seemed pleased at the idea. He didn’t get many opportunities to practise his English. We went in to the communal cell. It was a large room and quite a lot of work had gone into decorating it. Blankets had been nailed on the floor and the walls. The prisoners’ belongings were hanging in plastic bags on hooks on the wall. The chains with the little socks were lying on their beds. There was an area for boiling water for washing and making tea. Mirwais, the First Murderer, had the corner, and had made it very comfortable. There was a picture of Masoud on the wall and beside his bed a small table, draped with a brightly patterned Pakistani scarf and a pile of books. Mirwais told me about the day that he was nearly executed.

‘I was taken to a field in Parian [a valley at the top of the Panjshir] and the governor gave a gun to the man that was to shoot me.’ ‘And what did you feel when this was happening.’ ‘I made ablution and prayed to Allah, please, please, save me. All the time I was thinking of the hereafter and Paradise. Just as they were about to shoot me, someone from my village said: “We will give 500 lakhs of afghanis and another 600.”’ ‘Blood money?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why don’t you try to escape?’ Another murderer came up. He was sixteen and had a narrow, beardless face and looked evil. ‘What did he do?’ ‘He killed his neighbour.’ ‘Oh. Can I ask why?’ He grinned. ‘In my garden grew several fruit trees which belonged to me, but my neighbour, he say that they belong to him. He came to my house and said very bad words. So I went to his house and stabbed him.’ ‘Where?’ ‘In the heart.’ He was now actually laughing. ‘And are you going to be executed?’ Mirwais took up the story. ‘The man’s family, they want him to be executed. They are complaining to the judge. But the boy’s father, he knows many commanders and they buy the judges.’ We went out into the courtyard. On the far side was a volleyball court cut into the side of the slope and with a net stretched across the middle. The governor was standing by the net. ‘If I were here I’d try to escape. Ask him if anyone tries to escape?’ ‘No, the guards would shoot them.’ ‘You would strangle the guards first. But first I would have dug a tunnel. I’ll bring you a spade the next time I come.’ They were all roaring with laughter. ‘What would you do with the earth?’ ‘I’d eat it.’ I saw another man standing by himself next to the volleyball court. ‘Are you a murderer?’ ‘No, he has come to play volleyball.’ As I left, Mirwais asked me if I would like to stay the night in the cell. I was very touched, but felt this might be rude to Haji. So I regretfully said no. We went back home for the night. I saw a black ghost shooing two goats into the privy for the night. Haji kindly gave me a change of clothes, and after I had changed I found him looking at the death throes of a turkey for a slap-up dinner in my honour. I was surprised that the corpse twitched as he amputated the legs.


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