Slain foreigners aren't mourned by Afghans

Sunday, November 25, 2001

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Numbers 57 to 61, their holy war over, were bundled into white plastic bags Saturday and trucked to an unceremonious burial in the "enemies' cemetery" near Kabul.

They were Pakistanis, but no one here knew their names. Probably no one ever will.

"Our mission is burial, not establishing identity," said Bernard Barrett of the International Red Cross, which is collecting bodies left behind in the northern alliance advance on the Taliban militia.

The five fighters had arrived recently from Pakistan, eager to defend the Taliban's strict brand of Islam. They were sent to hold the line in Qala-e-Gulay, a village near an air base north of Kabul.

They died Nov. 12, the day before the Taliban abandoned the capital.

When local farmers who had been pressed into service by the Taliban secretly communicated by radio with advancing alliance forces, the hapless outsiders were quickly overrun. Villagers melted away from the Taliban ranks, leaving only 250 fighters, mostly Pakistanis, to hold the line.

"They were foreigners who came to oppress us, and we hated them," said Taza Gul, 28. "Still, we urged them to surrender, telling them that the fellow Muslims they were fighting would not kill them. But they resisted."

The identities of the dead Pakistanis are but one part of a puzzle that may never be put together after massive American bombing softened resistance in the north and sent Taliban forces into headlong retreat to Kandahar.

As fighters rapidly changed allegiances, many also altered accounts of events to put themselves in a better light. Objective sources are rare.

On the Bagram plain above Kabul, Red Cross teams have collected 61 bodies so far, most of them unidentified, but villagers also buried uncounted others.

Gul and his neighbors did not mourn the loss of outsiders.

"When the Taliban came here, they beat us with steel cables, tortured us, and said they would burn our houses and fields if we did not join them," he said.

The collected bodies were stacked in an open truck and taken to a small cemetery near Kabul, where International Red Cross worked painted large numbers -- 57 to 61 -- on rough hewn slabs of slate.

"It's not our job to identify people," said Abdul Wasse Naziri, the Red Cross officer in charge, who has buried 1,000 people and helped 80,000 more during 11 years on various front lines.

"We take digital photos of the bodies, and if we find identity cards we keep them," he said, "but normally we don't think about who they are."

As the burial crews worked, Mohammed Qasim, a 61-year-old teacher, stopped his car to see what was going on. He nodded with satisfaction when told the dead men were from Pakistan.

"We call this the 'enemies' graveyard,'" he said. "They came here to fight, and they ended up like this. "

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