Death List Provincial Breakdown

A breakdown of those killed in the Death Lists according to their province of origin. Three provinces alone - Kabul, Ghazni, and Parwan, all the capital itself or close to it, accounted for more than fifty percent of all of those killed in the spring, summer, and autumn of 1979.

Having looked at some of the general chronological trends to the mass murder of 1979, we can now begin to delve into some more specific data on the killing, hopefully raising as many questions as we answer. Most basically, since the KhAD noted the place of origin for all of those whom it killed (hence our ability to generate the geographical maps on the previous page), some sleuthery and hard work allows us to generate a list of the relative prominence of certain provinces in the Death Lists. Even if we accept the administrative boundaries of Afghanistan as semi-arbitrary, what do the patterns here tell us?

The picture with respect to the provinces is surprising in some ways but confirms natural intuitions in others. Three provinces alone (Kabul, including the capital; Ghazni, to the south of Kabul along the ring road; and Parwan, north of the capital) accounted for more than fifty percent of all of those murdered in spite of those same provinces constituting only around fourteen percent of the population in Afghanistan at the time. Most of the killing was visited upon people who lived no more than two or three hours away from the capital, concentrated in a relatively small area of the country.

As we will see, unlike the Soviet invasion - which triggered an invasion primarily out of borderland provinces, especially those adjutting Pakistan, the KhAD's wave of violence was more regionally constrained. Still, no province of the country was left untouched by the violence.


This chart shows the proportion of "overkill" in those provinces which were over-targeted: that is to say, provinces where more killing took place than what one might have expected purely on the basis of population numbers.

We can get a more fine-grained picture of the killing apace in Afghanistan in the late 1970s if we refine the analysis to ask: which provinces were over-targeted with respect to their population? In other words, we might expect heavily-populated provinces like Kabul, Nangarhar, or Qandahar to have born a heavier share of the killing in 1979 if only because they had more people, while more lightly-populated provinces like Farah or Nimroz could be expected to see less violence (on an absolute basis). 

When we look at the numbers, however, we find some startling points. Kabul turns out to have been the most over-targeted province of all, accounting for around four percent of Afghanistan's population in 1979 yet accounting for thirty percent of all of those murdered as reported in the Death Lists. Tentatively, this would appear to have to do with simple geographic proximity and the logistics of kidnapping and murdering victims: the next two most over-represented provinces are Parwan and Ghazni, to the north and south of the capital, respectively. Ghazni City accounted for 338 deaths, for example.

Yet factors beyond those of mere proximity may account for other over-represented provinces. Wardak Province, for example, is also to the south (and primarily east) of Kabul (indeed, one has to drive through it to get to Ghazni), but many of the victims from that province came from Markazi Behsud, a district dominated by Hazara, descendents of Turko-Mongol tribes who are Shi'a Muslims and stand at the bottom of an inofficial caste system that pervades Afghan life. Essays by Soviet scholars like Vladimir Basov suggest that Hazara were deliberately targeted by the PDPA for ethnic cleansing, especially under Taraki and Amin, who viewed them as "ethnic material" that could not be transformed into part of a Pashtun-dominated Pashtunistan.

This may also explain the relative over-representation of Ghor, a province in central-western Afghanistan that is majority Tajik but also has a significant (around twenty or thirty percent) population of Hazara. The over-representation of some of these provinces, especially Wardak and Ghor is all the more striking as transportation links with these regions were under-developed. According to Afghan and Polish sources from the late 1970s and 1980s, there were few paved roads to Markazi Behsud (in contrast to a road leading to Bamiyan further north) or from western Afghanistan into Ghor Province. How these people were logistically kidnapped remains unclear and beyond the scope of this essay, but the fact that they were kidnapped and murdered speaks to the brutal ambitions of the PDPA.

Heat Map for "Khomeini"

A heat map for accusations containing the phrase "Khomeini," the KhAD's slur for Shi'as victims.

One of the great ironies of the PDPA's wave of violence was that even as the Khalq possessed numerous real enemies, the PDPA and the KhAD seemed to go out of their way to target Afghans for the most arbitrary reasons possible. The Death Lists contain thousands of lines of "accusations" - the reasons for which people were killed, ranging from the ideological ("Ikhwani," Perso-Arabic for "brotherhood," referred to Islamist activists) to nationalist (many killed were "Setamists," members of an anti-Pashtun Leftist organization, Setam-i Melli [National Oppression]) to the obscure. One man, Sayed Ibrahim from Jowzjan Province, was killed not only for being a "supporter of Iran" but for having "insulted the Great Khlaq Leader." In other cases, homeless people were apparently swept off the streets to be shot and killed after a mock trial, at best.

In having generated these markers for those it so unjustly murdered, the KhAD has left historians with a two-faced source. Do we read these accusations as markers of the actual geography of resistance in Afghanistan, or more as evidence of the warped prism through which the KhAD saw the world as it murdered thousands of innocent civilians?

Khomeini Accusation Map sans Kabul

A heat map for accusations containing the phrase "Khomeini," the KhAD's slur for Islamist rebels.

Looking at the heat maps produced by filtering the Death Lists for some of the terms that the KhAD used to classify its enemies, it can be hard at first to see any patterns. Some accusations, like "Ikhwani" or "Rebel," were so meaningless in the hands of the KhAD that filtering for them merely replicates the total heat map of killing. Other categories, dealing with anti-government conspiracies that emanated from specific villages or regions (the Panjshir Valley, home to renowned commander Ahmad Shah Massoud) are so geographically constricted by their very nature as to make any mapping attempt largely tautological.

Still, we can get a slightly more refined picture of the topography of killing by doing a special filter for accusations of "Khomeini" (i.e. Shi'as or supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran) and by filtering out the cases of those murdered who came from Kabul Province. Because Kabul so dominates any heat maps we can produce, by filtering it out we can get a more refined picture of the relative balance of victims from other parts of the country.

In the case of Shi'as, what we find is not necessarily surprising but interesting nonetheless: Markazi Behsud, the settlement in Wardak Province mentioned above, accounts for most of the Shi'a killing. Other major sites of killing were Ghazni (perhaps having more to do with the violence that Ghazni bore in general than specific targeting of Shi'as) and Bamiyan, capital of Bamiyan Province and populated almost entirely by Hazara Shi'as.

Death List Time Patterns

According to the Death Lists, while killing went on consistently throughout the summer of 1979, four spikes dominate the chronograph of the mass murder. May 20th, June 26th, and November 28th saw more than two hundred people murdered in one day. However, because we lack further context for killing under the Amin regime (seen in the abrupt path of the line from September to November) it is difficult to speculate about whether the November killing (the single bloodiest day in the records) constitutes a true outlier.

Thus far, we've looked mostly at who was killed where, and have broken down the timing of killing on a monthly basis for the heat maps. Yet doing so arguably obscures the daily rhythm of the killing throughout the spring, summer, and autumn of 1979.

Unfortunately, since the Death Lists do not tell us when prisoners were delivered to Pul-i Charkhi, it is difficult to speculate about the connection between certain events or military actions in Afghanistan throughout 1979 and discrete waves of killing. For now, moreover, I have not yet conducted an in-depth analysis into the geography of killing on certain days (whether everyone from Ghazni, for example, was killed on a certain day) or the breakdown of accusations for a given day of killing. This is all the more difficult given the arbitrary labels that the KhAD attached to its victims. Superficially, however, the killing seems to have taken place in "batches" of people from the same village: for settlements of any size, often multiple people from the same settlement were killed at once on the same day.

In any event, looking at the data that we do have, a couple of basic patterns stand out. The killing was rather "jagged": even though the average number of people killed in any day was around 55 (merely taking the average of the total), we can see that from day to day typically around twenty or seventy people were shot. More vividly, we can see that four "spikes" - May 20th, June 26th, July 30th and November 28th - stand out as days where more than 140 people were killed. Given these numbers, it is no surprise that mass graves continue to be discovered around Kabul.

One obvious trend in the chart that demands commentary is the sharp spike for the November 28, 1979 round of killing, the only data point we have for the Amin era. Both Soviet and Afghan sources (which in the 1980s were produced by Parchamist-controlled organs, granted) frequently stressed that mass killing grew worse under Hafizullah Amin, who had Taraki murdered in September 1979 and ran the country for the next three months before being assassinated by Soviet Special Forces. On one level, the data spike for November (during Amin's rule) would appear to confirm this; but without other data points for before and after the Amin regime, it is difficult to offer any real substantive analysis. More than that, the ouster of Taraki also corresponded with the removal of Assadullah Sarwari (who had tried to oust Amin that summer and took refuge in the Soviet Embassy until the invasion) and the appointment of Assadullah Amin, Hafizullah Amin's brother, as the head of the KhAD. Barring a richer micro-history of the KhAD during this period, most of our research questions - indeed also the wishes of the families of those killed - will remain unanswered.

Death List Professional Breakdown

A breakdown of the Death Lists according to the profession of those killed. At the same time that the PDPA conducted a campaign of violent land redistribution in the provinces, the KhAD primarily targeted the intelligentsia and managerial class of Afghanistan, killing primarily students, professionals, and managers. These classifications derive from professional classifications created by the International Labor Organization, the International Standard Classification of Occupations.

Finally, we can add more subtlety to our analysis by looking at the professional breakdown of those killed by the KhAD during the period in question. In addition to keeping information about the accusation levied against those killed, the killers also noted the professions of the nearly 5,000 people it murdered in the summer of 1979. These jobs ran the gamut, from university professors to air traffic controllers to homeless people to students to merchants. At first glance, they present the diversity - and pre-war richness - of Afghan society. But they also seem to present a problem of classification: how to classify and simplify so many professions, particularly in a society often deemed "backwards" as if it failed to conform to "modern" economies?

In order to do so - while remaining aware of the epistemological problems inherent in any classification - I grouped the professions listed in the Death Lists into twelve categories, corresponding to those listed in the International Labor Organization's Handbook on the International Standard Classification of Occupations. Based on their guidelines - the product of much professional work on whether small shop owners "really" classify as executives or managers versus other categories - plus some categories of my own (students, who seemed to be a group apart and who are not included in the ISCO; and another for homeless people and nomads, who constituted many of the victims), I produced the above chart.

While I am aware of some of the inaccuracies in using any classificatory regime, the ISCO seemed to represent the most standardized and commonly used scheme available; scholars and readers are welcome to make suggestions as to alternate schemes that might capture the social makeup of Afghanistan more precisely.

Heat Map Plus Provinces

Another visualization of the "overkill" statistic discussed above, overlaying a heat map of the location of those killed according to the Death Lists on top of a map showing population in various provinces of Afghanistan circa 1979 (darker means more populous). We can see how concentrated the killing was in the east, and how relatively underpopulated Wardak Province was near the center of killing, hence the high "overkill" rate.

In any event, the chart paints a disturbing picture. True, many of the PDPA's victims were representatives of the traditional society that ideologies like Taraki and Amin claimed to be sweeping into History's dustbin: mullahs, land owners, and nomads, all enemies of the enlightened, secular, urban, settled socialist future. But classified according to the ISCO's scheme (which admittedly groups mullahs and landowners into "professionals" and "managers," at least in my reading of it) many more of those killed represented the administrative elite and the future of Afghanistan: professors, businessmen, vice-presidential-level administrators in the civil service, but, above all, students. Students not only of Islamic Law (one sub-grouping), but also Engineering, Law, and Literature - the academic disciplines and traditions without whose presence in a nation's universities a country is dooomed. While proclaiming themselves to be History's progressives, the PDPA managed to destroy hundreds of the "best and brightest" of what could have been an alternative 1980s and 1990s for Afghanistan.


Reign of Terror