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Dutch Arrest Rekindle Hopes For Afghan Justice

Kerala Village in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.
Kerala Village in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.

The residents of a remote mountain community in eastern Afghanistan waited over three decades to see the man responsible for ordering the death of more than 1,200 men and boys meet justice.

The October 27 arrest of Sadeq Alamyar in the Dutch city of Rotterdam finally raised hopes for the survivors and relatives of the victims. They can now find some kind of closure for the wounds haunting them for most of their lives.

"I want to thank the Netherlands for this arrest. It is great news for the families of the martyrs of Kerala," said Mohmoud Shah Qazikhel, a survivor of the spring 1979 massacre in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.

Qazikhel, now in his 50s, vividly remembers that Friday, which coincided with April 20, 1979, when a young officer of the radical communist regime ordered an indiscriminate massacre of men and boys in the mountainous Kerala village.

He says he hid in his uncle's house during the massacre that saw most males in his community killed. Some 36 years after the tragedy, the pain and suffering of the fateful day are still fresh. Qazikhel lost two brothers and more than 600 members of his extended Pashtun clan in Kerala.

"The government summoned mullahs, tribal elders, and young men and boys of the village, telling them the provincial governor wanted to talk to them," he recounted as to how the entire male population of Kerala was gathered in the small village square. "After they gathered, Commander Sadeq Almyar ordered soldiers to open fire on the people, and more than 1,260 people were killed within minutes."

Alamyar was the commander of the 444 Commando Force of the Afghan Army. His unit was sent to Kunar to tackle the ascendant anti-communist mujahidin guerillas. The rebels had captured most of the countryside in Kunar. Alamyar was a Khalqi, the radical arm of the Afghan communist Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Its brutality after capturing power in a blood military coup in 1978 provoked armed resistance across Afghanistan, and within a year Kunar emerged as a stronghold of resistance.

Qazikhel recalled that Alamyar and his military comrades were infuriated by the killing of a senior commander in a mujahedin ambush days before the massacre.

"They blamed our village for helping the rebels launch the ambush, and they decided to punish us," he said.

He says the women and children of the village fled to other parts of Kunar, from where they fled into neighboring Pakistan's Bajaur tribal district -- becoming the first wave of millions of Afghan refugees who sought to escape the war and violence in their country.

Qazikhel says Alamyar's arrest paves the way toward a comprehensive process of transitional justice in Afghanistan where perpetrators of grave rights abuses during the past 35 years can meet justice.

Nezamuddin Malyar is another survivor of Kerala village. He says successive Afghan governments have failed to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice.

"The defenseless people of Kerala, who numbered 1,265, were all massacred in cold blood," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "They were first shot and were then hastily buried by bulldozers while some of them were still alive."

Three decades later, memories of the atrocity still haunt Malyar. "This is an unforgettable tragedy. No one can ever forget such a crime."

Patricia Gossman is senior Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. She says that if Alamyar goes into trial it would be important for the long-delayed transitional justice in Afghanistan.

"Among the Afghan diaspora around the world, there are many people whose relatives disappeared during that period or in the decades that followed during the different phases of the war," she told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "And absolutely none of them have ever seen any accountability for all the crimes committed."

Afghanistan's top rights watchdog welcomes Alamyar's arrest. Rafiulah Baidar, a spokesman for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says the commission believes more people were responsible for the atrocity.

"We believe that the perpetrators may be not one or two or three," he said. "All of them should equally be brought to justice because of the severity of the crime that took place at that time. And no one should be dealt with impunity in the face of those crimes."

Baidar urged Kabul to show some political will to punish the perpetrators of war crimes and grave abuses.

"In our laws, crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity are not mentioned," he said. "The government needs to make sure that aside from the international courts the national judicial system should also be able to address such crimes."

Since the massacre of 1979 in Kerala, Afghanistan has witnessed many gruesome atrocities in seemingly endless cycles of wars.

More than 60,000 civilians were reportedly killed and millions more forced to flee Afghanistan during a civil war between various mujahidin factions. The capital, Kabul, was the main arena, and it was completely ruined in the fighting.

Gossman says Alamyar's prosecution would give hope to to victims everywhere that they too might see justice on day.

"It's a very good reminder to those in power now who have their own skeletons in the closet," she said. "They cannot always be so certain that they escaped justice just because they are very powerful right now."