By Zahra Nader and Zahra Mousawi
A police vehicle stopped in a shopping area in the Chah-Baba neighbourhood of Mazar-e-Sharif on March 3. Five Taliban gunmen got out of the car and dropped two bodies wrapped in black cloth on the road. “Control your women or else this will be their fate,” the commander told bystanders.
Mohammad was an eyewitness. “They dumped the bodies near a shop and threatened people that no one should know about this,” he tells Zan Times in a phone interview. “There were more bodies in the car when it drove off,” he adds. (Like all witnesses interviewed for this article, he spoke under pseudonym because of the danger involved in talking to the media.)
The two bodies left in the street of the capital of northern Balkh province were identified as Fatima and Sharifa, two young women who left their houses a day earlier, according to Pari, a neighbour who attended their funerals. “I knew both girls,” says Pari in a phone interview. “One of them was the daughter of our neighbourhood elder. They both received a call and after that, they went missing. The next day, the Taliban dropped their bodies in the bazaar. One of them was shot in the head once, the other one was shot several times in the face — to the point that she could not be recognized.”
The murders of Fatima and Sharifa follow a disturbing pattern that has been occuring ever since the Taliban returned to power: young women vanishing in Mazar-e-Sharif and then their bodies being discovered, dumped anonymously in the city. The deadly violence aimed at women seems to have its origins in female-led protests in the city against the regime in September 2021.
In this investigative report, Zan Times spoke with survivors as well as witnesses involved in those protests in Mazar-e-Sharif, which appears to be the epicentre of the Taliban’s brutal suppression in the province. They share disturbing accounts of how the Taliban beat, abducted, tortured, imprisoned, and killed women for their roles in peaceful protests — and afterward suppressed information about the women’s fate and threatened their families in an effort to stop more knowing of their repression.
At least two major protests took place in Mazar-e-Sharif in September 2021, according to several people involved. During the first, on September 6, protesters and journalists were beaten and threatened by the Taliban. Mahboba, who coordinated that protest, says that no one was arrested.
However, the peaceful protest that was held three days later, on September 9, was violently broken up by the Taliban, according to survivors and witnesses, who say that close to 80 people were arrested. “All my friends who were holding banners and placards were brutally thrown into a Ranger [pick-up truck] by the Taliban,” says Robaba, who participated in the September 9 protest.
Then, the bodies of some of those involved in the protests began to be found in and around the city. “After that day, corpses were found in every corner, in the sewage, in the ruins, and in the Shadian desert,” Robaba says, explaining that she was following the news closely, especially for names of those involved in the protests. “They had been tortured and shot to death. There was a girl’s decomposed body found in the water in my neighbourhood. She was protesting with us.”
Three of the bodies were those of Robaba’s friends, including Frozan Safi, an activist and economics lecturer. She was among the first publicly confirmed deaths of a woman activist who had taken part in the Mazar-e-Sharif protests. She went missing on October 20. Later, her body was identified in a provincial hospital’s morgue. “We recognized her by her clothes,” Safi’s sister told journalist Zahra Nader (one of the authors of this article), when she was reporting on the death for the Guardian and Rukhshana Media. “Bullets had destroyed her face.”
While reporting on Safi’s death in November 2021, we heard rumours about more bodies being dropped at Balkh provincial hospital by the Taliban, a claim that was rejected by the hospital officials.
Those at the hospital won’t talk. A civil society activist as well as a former doctor whose relatives are working in the hospital both say that doctors and hospital officials have been threatened by the Taliban and aren’t allowed to officially share information about bodies in the morgue with the media.
“Getting information out is almost impossible because the Taliban control all channels of communication in the country,” says Ahmad, an activist who was a civil society group organizer in Mazar-e-Sharif. He explains that the victim’s families and relatives are also threatened. “I spoke with a family that lost several members. The survivors asked me not to follow up on the issue because they are scared of being killed themselves,” Ahmad says.
Through his personal network with health workers, he claims to have seen a list of 115 women whose bodies were brought to hospitals following the protests from September to November of 2021. “The women were brutally killed, mutilated and amputated,” he says, adding that he collected information in order to report it to human rights organizations. He also shared with Zan Times a list that shows names and information of six victims, including one man.
“The [Taliban] carefully planned everything,” says Robaba, “including how to shut down litigation and documentation about the murders. Some of our friends were killed merely for speaking to the media. There were only two of us doing interviews, but the Taliban killed anyone they suspected.”
Robaba was arrested for her involvement in the September 9 protest. She says she was tortured in prison for 11 days. She was finally released only after her family pledged their real estate as collateral.
“These allegations are extremely concerning and merit careful investigation,” Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, tells Zan Times. “They highlight how difficult it is to gather accurate information about rights violations in an environment where the Taliban have intimidated Afghan journalists, international journalists have little presence outside the capital, and UN human rights monitoring is thin on the ground.”
What happened in Mazar-e-Sharif appears to be part of a pattern of repression by the Taliban, who have banned all unauthorized protests. In January 2022, Human Rights Watch documented their violent crackdown on women protesters in Kabul. Those who still attempt to demonstrate are beaten, pepper sprayed and threatened with weapons.
After a protest in Kabul on January 16, 2022, the Taliban raided the homes of several participants. Among those detained by Taliban intelligence were Tamana Zaryabi Paryani, her three sisters, and another protester, Parwana Ibrahimkhel. Adding to the stress and worry of their families, the Taliban publicly denied even arresting them. In February, the women were released along with another group of women activists whose forced confessions were broadcast by the Interior Ministry.
After the arrests and killings in Mazar-e-Sharif, both Mahboba and Ahmad believe that the Taliban were able to locate and arrest so many demonstrators because they had infiltrated the activists’ WhatsApp groups.
“We couldn’t trust anyone to share information,” says Mahboba. “People were burying the bodies of their loved ones in secret because they were scared for the rest of their family.”
She knows that from personal experience: “When my own brother was arrested by the Taliban, there were three of us working in the media. But we didn’t make it public because we were worried they might kill our brother,” she says. By her count, more than 75 people were arrested for their involvement in the protests, including the son of her neighbour.
That’s roughly the same number of arrests that Ahmad has noted in the months following those September protests in Mazar-e-Sharif. “We had 57 girls and about 20 boys who were tortured and some girls who reported they had been raped,” he says, “They received electric shocks, were insulted, and made to humiliate each other and beaten with water pipes until they were unconscious.”
Ibrahim was one of the protest organizers on September 9, 2021. He spent 10 days in the custody of the Taliban for his role in those peaceful demonstrations. “Our hands were tied with handkerchiefs. My cell phone was taken. They tied my legs, hands, and arms and took me into a room. My back was bent. They lifted me off the ground. Without asking anything, they shocked me with an electric shock,” he explains. “After hours of torture, we were left alone for 36 hours [without food and water].”
Mohammad recounts how his captors forced the prisoners to attack each other, saying, “The Taliban brought a prisoner and gave me the cable to torture him. You wonder how I could do such a thing, but if I didn’t beat him, they would beat me instead.”
Robaba saw toddlers in the prison while she was being detained. “I remember that there were children with us in the prison, including the three-year-old daughter of one of my friends and the five-year-old child of another woman. To torture women, the Taliban slapped the children and put guns on their heads,” she recounts. “They would come at two in the morning and take women for interrogation. Every night, three or four Talibs with rifles on their shoulders [would] force us to speak against ourselves and give forced confessions at gunpoint.”
Though activists including Ahmad and Mahboba are attempting to keep track of the fates of the protesters, the exact number of those detained, tortured or killed is unlikely to ever be fully known — or at least, as long as the Taliban continues to suppress information and intimidate those who try and share it.
“They snuffed out our protest at its inception,” says Mahboba. “No one had the chance to record a video or take a picture.”
All names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.