The Taliban’s Reign of Terror in Kunduz

President Obama announced this week that several thousand U.S. troops would remain on the ground in Afghanistan through the end of his term in 2017. The administration’s goal is to protect the nation’s fragile democracy from another takeover by the Taliban, a group that ruled viciously until 2001.

Under Taliban control, women were not allowed to work, go to school or even leave their homes without a male escort. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, however, women have made enormous strides: 4 million girls are enrolled in school; 20 percent of college students are women; and women’s literacy has increased to 15 percent nationwide, up from 5 percent in 2002. But those gains remain fragile.

The Feminist Majority Foundation, which has run a campaign for Afghan women and girls since the 1990s, says that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan could assist the country’s women and girls in continuing to carve out space for themselves in public life, with some protection from the Taliban.

“Afghan women and girls have come too far to be forced to turn back,” said FMF president—and publisher of Ms.—Eleanor Smeal. “If the Taliban returns, or if ISIS is allowed to come to power, too many of the girls who have gone to school, too many of the women who have gone to work and who have taken on leadership in government or civil society, will be killed. The U.S., NATO and the world have a moral obligation to stand with these women.”

The Taliban recently overtook the northern city of Kunduz, where militants committed mass rapes and murders. Though it withdrew its forces this week, the takeover raised fears that more cities and rural areas could fall to the Taliban, leaving women and girls highly vulnerable. Said Smeal, “The recent situation in Kunduz shows that threats to the security of the Afghan people, especially Afghan women, are real. This is no time to leave Afghanistan completely. President Obama has made a difficult, but necessary, decision.”

Below, reprinted with permission from Amnesty International, is a report on the turmoil that played out in Kunduz.

Mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches by Taliban death squads are just some of the harrowing civilian testimonies emerging from Kunduz as Afghan forces this week claimed to have regained control of key areas of the northern city, Amnesty International said.

The organization has spoken to numerous people, the majority of them women, who have fled Kunduz since Monday, when the Taliban launched a sudden assault on the city. Women human rights defenders from Kunduz spoke of a “hit list” being used by the Taliban to track down activists and others, and described how fighters had raped and killed numerous civilians.

“The harrowing accounts we’ve received paint a picture of a reign of terror during the Taliban’s brutal capture of Kunduz this week. The multiple credible reports of killings, rapes and other horrors meted out against the city’s residents must prompt the Afghan authorities to do more now to protect civilians, in particular in areas where more fighting appears imminent,” said Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher at Amnesty International.

“Heavy fighting continues as Afghan forces try to regain full control and restore law and order in Kunduz. Protecting civilians from further onslaught and serious abuses at the hands of the Taliban is of the utmost importance.

“Many humanitarian agencies have bravely continued their work in and around Kunduz over the past days. They must be granted access to carry out their life-saving work. With thousands forced from their homes, it is also crucial that all parties agree to a humanitarian corridor that allows civilians to leave the city safely.”

One woman who provides assistance to victims of domestic violence in Kunduz and escaped to safety in a nearby province told Amnesty International that Taliban fighters were using a “hit list” to track down their targets. It allegedly includes the names and photos of activists, journalists and civil servants based in Kunduz.

The woman said the Taliban’s roadblocks on exit routes from the city forced her and numerous other women and men to flee on foot. They trekked for more than seven hours over rough terrain, leaving them exhausted and with bloodied feet.

When the Taliban took control of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and other government and NGO offices in Kunduz on Monday, they gained access to reams of information about NGO staff, government employees and members of the security forces—including addresses, phone numbers and photos.

Since then, Taliban fighters have allegedly been using young boys to help them to conduct house-to-house searches to locate and abduct their targets, including women.

Another woman human rights defender had her home and office burned and looted by Taliban on Tuesday night. Taliban fighters kept calling her to ask about the whereabouts of the women whom she had been helping.

She and several other women managed to receive assistance for themselves and their children to flee to safety. But she told Amnesty International she and her family escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and were left terrified by the ordeal.

According to local activists, Taliban fighters also raped female relatives and killed family members, including children, of police commanders and soldiers, especially those working for Afghan Local Police (ALP). The Taliban also burnt down the families’ houses and looted their belongings.

The relative of a woman who worked as a midwife in Kunduz maternity hospital told Amnesty International how Taliban fighters gang-raped and then killed her and another midwife because they accused them of providing reproductive health services to women in the city.

The Taliban released all the male prisoners held in Kunduz and gave them arms to fight against government forces. Female prisoners were raped and beaten, then the Taliban abducted some and released others.

An eyewitness told Amnesty International that a civilian woman in his neighborhood had been shot amid fighting between Taliban and the Afghan security forces. Taliban fighters responded to her screams of pain by entering her house and shooting her point blank in the head, forcing her husband to watch her die.

“When the Taliban asserted their control over Kunduz, they claimed to be bringing law and order and Shari’a to the city. But everything they’ve done has violated both. I don’t know who can rescue us from this situation,” a female human rights defender from Kunduz told Amnesty International.

As Afghan government forces regain control of Kunduz, Amnesty International calls on them not to retaliate against any captured or injured members of the Taliban. Any Taliban fighters suspected of serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law must be investigated and prosecuted in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.

“Breaking the cycle of violence and returning to the rule of law means ensuring that Afghan troops and authorities do not mete out revenge on any prisoners, which would amount to a war crime,” said Horia Mosadiq.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user J McDowell licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Read more about Amnesty International’s work in Afghanistan