A forgotten case; Zurmat victim family determined to seek justice

With so many unanswered questions in his mind, Salehkhel, 45, runs to government offices and human rights watches to find out why and on whose command six members of his family were killed in a night raid. Based on his account, which is confirmed by local authorities, operatives of the 08 unit of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) have killed six of his family members in a 15-minute long raid overnight in Zurmat district of the eastern Paktia province.

Ghulam Mohammad Salehkhel, who seeks justice, has lost two of his brothers, three of his nephews, and one cousin in an arbitrary night raid, which, as now he claims, the authorities deliberately hesitate to investigate.

Six members of a single family killed in 15-minutes

Nearly two years ago, on December 31, 2018, Ghulam Mohammad was sleeping when a massive explosion startled him awake. Getting out of his sleeping room, he finds that the gate of their large castle-like house is destroyed.

Ghulam claims that operatives from the 08 unit of the NDS, commanded by a man named Shaheen Waziri, with almost 50 military vehicles from Argon district of the province, had been deployed to conduct the operation. “They martyred [six members of our family] in front of the eyes of their children, sisters, and brothers within 15 minutes and immediately left the house,” he recalled the scene, adding that the NDS operatives also damaged some agricultural equipment and vehicles.

Upon getting out of his room, Ghulam Mohammad gets arrested by the operatives and held under custody. The operatives who held him under custody try two to three times to kill him but some of them stop the attempts. “It was a night and everyone (his brothers) were sleeping with their children inside,” this is what he remembers before his two brothers, three nephews, and one cousin were killed by the 08 unit operatives.

“The government has ordered us to kill all members of your family,” Ghulam Mohammad quoted one of those NDS operatives as saying. The 45 years old man added that he pleaded to the operatives that he will be ready to answer any questions at any court or elsewhere. “I was not aware that they had already killed them.”

The operatives, then, set free Ghulam Mohammad and leave the area. As Ghulam Mohammad comes back to his house, his eyes catch the dead bodies of his six family members. Children and women of the family were ally crying and mourning while watching the dead bodies, he recalled.

Who are the victims?

The eldest victim among the deadly night raid is Mohammad Naeem Farooq. He was 57 years old and a tribal elder. During the transition administration officially titled as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, he was assigned as police chief of the district by Zurmat tribe and had gotten membership of Paktia peace council in late years of his life.

His second brother named Sayed Hassan Paktiawal, 37, was a businessman in Paktia. “The government describes the Taliban trials as kangaroo court but I don’t know how to name their [the government’s] trial,” Ghulam Mohammad questioned.

Another victim is Karim Khawrin, who was 28 years old by year he was killed. He was a law graduate of Paktia University. Karim was married and left a son behind. Atiqullah, 24, was a third-year student of Sharia Faculty, and Fathul Rahman, 20, was a second-year student of literature department of Paktia University. The two young members of the family were engaged, according to Ghulam Mohammad, their uncle’s daughters.

Photos of victims who lost their lives in a night raid conducted on December 31, 2018.

His cousin, Mohammad Omar, who was 35 years old and a farmer, was also killed in the raid.

Akhtar Mohammad Salehkhel, who is a tribal elder of Zurmat district and a neighbor of the family, accompanies Ghulam Mohammad in pursuit of justice in Kabul. He was also awaken by the explosion sound and quickly rushed to the incident site. He recalls the terrifying scene in which the NDS operatives killed Omar. “They had taken [Omar] out and then killed him. They took out his wife and children and blasted their house with a bomb,” claims Akhtar Mohammad. The NDS operatives had shot all the six family members on the eyes by pistols with a built-in-silencer, he says.

A day later after the incident, Abdul Wali Soha, former deputy governor of Paktia, told press that the province’s governor office, police department, and NDS provincial agency, were not informed about the night raid. “The man who has been martyred in this attack is a tribal elder and was always a supporter of the government,” he said, underling that it was a terrorist act to kill a tribal elder.

In a video clip, Shamim Khan Katawazi, the incumbent General Director of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) and former Paktia governor, says that he has sent an official letter through the IDLG upon request of the victims’ family to facilitate a meeting between the victims’ family and the President. He added that it was what he could do.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), says that violation of the international humanitarian law is very likely in the incident and the Afghan government is obliged to listen to the demands of the victims. The Afghan government must probe the case and if it was proved that the civilians were killed, if not, it could be a war crime, said Zabihullah Farhang, deputy spokesperson for the AIHRC.

He expects the Afghan justice and judicial organs to take immediate action and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unheard voices

Outraged by the deadly attack, the next day, locals took the dead bodies to the office of Paktia governor, asking for immediate act and prosecution of the perpetrators. Since then, at least three delegations appointed by the central government, the Senate, and the local administration have visited the incident site to probe the incident. Moreover, Ghulam Mohammad has met local and government authorities in the capital Kabul, including the then NDS chief, Mohammad Massom Stanekzai, several times, calling for investigation of the case but to no avail. “No organ is left. We have not knocked the door of [every government organization]. We have not met the President so far, for no one helped us to meet him despite our repeated attempts.”

Ghulam Mohammad says he is not looking for revenge while Zurmat people would not hesitate to do so and block the highway. “We have gone to every [government] organs, except the office of the President. I made a lot of efforts to meet him but no one allowed me.”

Akhtar Mohammad Salehkhel, on the left, accompanies Ghulam Mohammad in pursuit of justice in Kabul.

Mr. Mohammad has met Stanekzai twice. At each meeting the former NDS chief promised him that he would handle it within five days. As per account of Ghulam Mohammad, once Stanekzai has offered him money compensation and hiring the family’s students in top governmental positions but he has rejected the offer, reiterating on identifying the murderers.

“Now he is in Doha and leads the Afghan government’s negotiation team with the Taliban. I want to ask Stanekzai through you and the media that how you represent me while you have murdered us? I will file a lawsuit against you once you return. How you represents the Afghans there?” Ghulam Mohammad said, addressing Stanekzai.

Ghulam Mohammad and his companion were sitting at office of a human rights organization while carrying a large numbers of requests and complaint letters addressed to different national and international organizations. “The man who did this cruelty to me was an Afghan and commander of the 08 unit. Perhaps, someone else might has helped him too. If there is a government, they must be asked legally for why they did commit the murder?”

According to Akhtar Mohammad and Ghulam Mohammad, someone has made a deal with the unit 08 commander, Shaheen, over the killing of their family members for the family has not any dispute or hostility with the NDS commander. “We think some government commanders and officials did not want him (Mohammad Naeem Farooq) to remain alive,” Akhtar Mohammad elaborated on their suspicion.

According to Ghulam Mohammad, Salehkhel family are still suffering from the traumas of the incident. “My son, haven’t they killed you yet?” Salehkhel’s 90 years old mother would asks him sometimes since she lost his sons and grandsons. She would also say that no one would be able to take revenge but the almighty God. Whenever Ghulam Mohammad returns home, his mother asks “didn’t you go to the President or the governor to ask why they killed your brothers and their sons?”

Of Ghulam Mohammad’s four brothers, two are now alive and have been left to take care of the 80 membered family.

Government response

Kabul Now has asked local authorities, the NDS, the IDLG, and the Office of the National Security Council to give details about the incident but local authorities say that the incident took place two years ago and they do not know nothing about it.

Shamim Khan Katawazi, Director General of the IDLG, says that the local authorities had completed a comprehensive investigation into the case and then handed it over to the then senior security officials in Kabul and shared it with the Resolute Support forces too. According to him, the case is currently under investigation by the Office of the National Security Council and by the local administration in Paktia. However, the local authorities told Kabul Now that no case is under investigation in this regard in Paktia province.

Though Kabul Now asked the NDS for updates about the case 20 days ago, it has not provided details yet.

A year after the incident, President Ghani, in an exclusive interview with TOLOnews, said that he had instructed the relevant authorities to investigate into the case and prosecute the perpetrators. But his spokesperson refuses to comment on Zurmat raid.

Mr. Ghulam Mohammad says that the relevant authorities or organs are reluctant to sue a mass-murder case perpetrated by government forces.

This story has been developed by Etilaat-e-Roz’s Abdul Wahid Haidari and translated into English by Mokhtar Yasa. 

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