Trails of Tears


Aerial photograph of Pul-i Charkhi prison, site of mass killing during the 1980s and 1990s. Photograph Copyright Amnesty International, used under Fair Use Doctrine.


Many of those who appear in the Death Lists were presumably murdered at Pul-i Charki (Persian for "Circular Bridge, presumably a reference to the prison's Benthamite design) prison, east of Kabul. The prison, built in the mid-1970s to house the political opponents of the Daoud regime, ironically became the major prison site where the PDPA housed its burgeoning population of political prisoners, among them former members of the previous government. Not only that, but the prison grounds themselves became a killing field where thousands of prisoners were shot and murdered without trial. At once a relic of an older age of terror and a still-functioning prison, Pul-i Charki constitutes an important, if also insufficiently problematized, site of Afghan historical trauma and memory.

Everyone who arrived in Pul-i Charkhi came there via different paths, but the testimony of one man, Jabaar, from northern Afghanistan, interviewed in the mid-1980s by West German media, provide some sense of how the process worked, at least during the late 1970s. [For the original audio, in German, click the Quicktime player below and to the left.]

After growing up in Pul-i Khumri, an industrial city in northern Afghanistan, in the 1960s and 1970s, Jabaar's family was shocked by the April Revolution. The city, with one asphalt road connecting Kabul with the Soviet border was small, where "everyone knew one another, and Jabaar had many friends." But following the Soviet invasion, he was repeatedly warned by the local authorities to stop causing trouble - his older brother was known to have been active under Daoud as a Maoist. Often, he was interrogated and criticized by the vice-chief of the KhAD in Pul-i Khumri itself, a man who had been the family's neighbor for twenty years. "Jabaar had to break off all of his relations with friends, even though he himself was not politically active." Local PDPA committees in his school warned him again, and the family's house was searched by local police forces. 

Upon the recommendation of his father, Jabaar fled to Kabul to complete his secondary education, living with his sister in the capital. At his new lycee, however, students were regularly kidnapped by the KhAD for days-long interrogations and roughing-up, even though they had not done anything. One evening, while walking from his sister's home in the Khair Khana neighborhood of northwestern Kabul to a family's home to commemorate the death of their son (a friend of Jabaar's), Jabaar was intercepted by a KhAD jeep, the driver of which ordered him to get in. "What do you have planned for me?" he asked. An officer in the passenger seat pointed the gun at him. "This," he said. Jabaar was first shuttled to a small jail in Khair Khana, Shash Derakht ("Six Trees") where he was tortured, then taken to a house search where KhAD officials ransacked his sister's home before Jabaar's eyes. There, he was almost killed in the course of a dispute between Parchamist and Khalqist officers. 

Later, Jabaar was taken to Pul-i Charkhi - called "the slaughterhouse" at the time in Kabul - where he was ferried to a 9'x9' solitary confinement cell on the second floor of the 1st Division. Jabaar was trapped alone in this cell, which had no toilet, for four or five months. In addition to being physically tortured, Jabaar was often taken into humiliating interrogation sessions where the inmate was questioned for five or six hours at a time and fed copious amounts of diuretic green tea. When he inevitably protested that he had to go to the bathroom, guards either forbade him from doing so - resulting in the inmate wetting his pants in humiliating fashion, adding to the filthy conditions - or tied him down, tying barbed wire around his penis so tight that he could not relieve himself. Further, recalled Jabaar, prisoners were routinely taken out for public shamings by younger KhAD officers. In a culture like that of Afghanistan, where deference to elders and revenge held great importance, to be humiliated as a (for example) college professor or religious scholar by ruffian prison guards in front of an audience of hundreds - while also drenched in one's own excrement - was even worse than torture.

A West German report from the mid-1980s on the travails of one Afghan refugee from Pul-i Khumri, in northern Afghanistan, who was imprisoned and tortured at Pul-i Charkhi. This radio report was sequestered by the East German intelligence service in its own files on Afghanistan, and remains held in the archives of the Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republikthe Federal Commissioner for the Documents of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic, the archive of the "Stasi" in Berlin, Germany.

After more than a year and a half in custody, Jabaar was suddenly released without any reason being given for his initial arrest. Appealing the torture and humiliation was out of the question. Instead, Jabaar chose to consult the expensive (and bustling) market in human smuggling. Having payed several hundred dollars to elite smugglers, Jabaar managed to make his way first to Pakistan (via Jalalabad and Peshawar) and thence to India (where Afghan refugees were provided with a small but liveable stipend). He then spent another year working with local traffickers who promised to secure him plane tickets to a European country and a passport - and with it, the chance to apply for asylum at a West European airport. Finally, Jabaar paid several thousand dollars for a flight to Copenhagen, allowing him to apply for asylum in Denmark and begin the process - itself long and complicated - of trying to re-establish himself, traumatized, in a foreign land. 

Upon reuniting in northern Europe, Jabaar's brother was shocked at his sibling's appearance. Brought to a refugee processing center, he barely recognized his brother among two other Afghans, and rushed to greet him. But "the unusual appearance of his face turned me silent. He starred at me, and immediately an image of the torture chamber at Pul-i Charkhi came into my mind. He spent a year and a half in this notorious Kabul prison [...] the thick, black lines under his eyes and his embittered smile gave some sense of what he had been through." His story was not unique.

Building Pul-i Charki

Upon arrival to Pul-i Charki, detainees entered a prison compound that brought together the expertise of the secret services of Eastern Bloc countries to create a hellish atmosphere. Afghans who survived imprisonment and torture at Pul-i Charki wrote memoirs describing the level of involvement of Soviet and other socialist countries’ advisers in the running of the prison. As Mohammad Ostar Rostar, a professor at Kabul University arrested shortly after the Soviet invasion recalled, information on what parts of the prison system the KGB, as opposed to the KhAD and other socialist countries’ police agencies, was scarce. In theory, the Bulgarian BKGB was tasked with providing food, bedding and basic services for the prisoners. But not only did Abdul Razaqh Hareet, the head of Pul-i Charki’s first and second blocks, turn the Bulgarian food shipments into the basis for a vast "network of theft" that resold the food shipments on the open market in Kabul. More than that, in 1984, foreign advisers had

a spacious swimming pool built in the courtyard of Pul-i Charki to the west of the second block, near the steam-baths. The amount of funds which was spent on the construction remained undisclosed, but speculation indicated that at least Afs. 30 million had been paid out. With these funds they could have purchased several water pumps in order to tackle the water problems of the higher floors of the blocks. If this was impractical, they could have at least avoided cutting off the water supply of the first and second blocks to fill the swimming pool, if only once a week for 24 hours, and avert the stoppage of water […]

In a still more Kafkaesque turn, KhAD authorities frequently invited foreign advisers to spend weekend afternoons at said swimming pool. Recalled Rostar: ‘the “vanguards of the proletariat”, furthermore, provided them with vodka and kebab out of the morsels of the imprisoned workers and peasants.’ All of this went on even as prisoners were frequently denied access to toilets, suffered from infections and disease, and had neither heating in winter nor cooling in the summer. Not only that, but as Vasily Mitrokhin writes, "following the Soviet example, compulsory labor was first introduced in prisons in the DRA in 1981. In the first year a profit of 30 million Afghani was made from production of the prisoners. 61,000 sets of uniforms and underwear were made for the military police in the workrooms of the Pol-I Charki prison."



Location of Pul-i Charkhi Prison relative to central Kabul. Map from Google Maps.


Yet more traumatizing than any of these privations was the torture carried out against Afghans by KhAD agents who themselves had, Rostar insisted, been trained by Soviet and East German trainers. "Members of the KhAD Department of Interrogation held special sessions whereby the Soviet advisers taught the effective measures of interrogation and selected the most talented members for training courses in espionage, most often in Tashkent," wrote Rostar. Yet even this specialized training could not hide the fact that most interrogators were not professionals but rather illiterate, poorly-educated Parchamists, often members of religious and ethnic minorities specifically recruited by the KhAD to the interrogation centers.

The stories from those who survived the interrogation sequence defy belief. Shah Mohammad from Qandahar, for example, was arrested on suspicion of affiliation with Hezb-i Islami in 1981 and tortured before being sentenced to six years in Pul-i Charki. "After being beaten severely, they tied electrodes to my fingers and genitals. They administered electric shocks for one hour, every day for one week. Now," Mohammad recalled, "after six years blood keeps issuing from my genitals. I have lost all sexual desire now for a long time." Others suffered more psychological trauma. After Mohammad Shah, a peasant from Farah Province, was arrested in the course of a battle between DRA forces and mujaheddin, he was arrested and transferred to Kabul, where

They wanted me to confess my participation in the battle, but they couldn’t succeed in making me confess. Then they placed me in a coffin and carried it to the cemetery. Four guards carried spades, a pickaxe and automatic rifles. Two soldiers put the coffin on the ground and began to dig a grave. One of them murmured, “You had better confess now before it’s too late, otherwise you will be shot on the spot and buried without delay.” When I refused, the guard asked me to say my last words. Then, they fired at the coffin in which I was laying, but, thank God, the bullets were only blanks. […] They then fired real bullets which riddled my right leg. But I again refused to talk as they asked further questions. This is the fourth year that the bullets remain pegged in my leg and the pain prevents me from going to sleep at night.

These, it bears remembering, are the recollections of those who survived.

Pul-i Charkhi Skulls.jpg

In 2007, a returning Afghan exile exposed mass graves outside of Kabul suspected to have been used as part of mass execution sites by the KhAD during the late 1970s and 1980s. One fears that they are only one of an entire archipelago of such mass graves. Here, Afghan police inspect exhumed skulls of victims. Photograph taken by Massoud Hossaini for BBC World News, used under Fair Use Doctrine.

Mass Murder

While the testimonies we have provide a picture of the harrowing conditions at the prison, they have the grim common quality that they were all produced by people who survived imprisonment. As many of the reports of survivors and the Death Lists themselves make clear, however, not all were so "lucky." Mass shootings were common at the prison throughout the PDPA regime, but perhaps especially so under Taraki and Amin. Lutfullah Latif, a correspondent for the BBC's Persian-language Service who was imprisoned at Pul-i Charki from the summer of 1979 onwards, recalls how "one day a group of about 200 prisoners were taken away and soon after we heard gun shots outside the prison gates [...] We heard rumours about people being taken to the waste land outside the prison and executed. Later on, much later, graves and bodies were found there." Similarly, in a 2008 essay, Fariba Nawa, whose uncle was imprisoned by the PDPA, has written of how prisoners were often driven to the deserts outside of Kabul where they were shot and buried in unmarked mass graves.

While several of the mass graves around Pul-i Charkhi and in the killing fields outside of Kabul have slowly been unearthed by military forces and native Afghans, a complete physical anthropological exhuming of this violent past remains distant. In 2006, NATO forces discovered a mass grave of some 2,000 bodies near the prison; in 2007, an anonymous 70-year-old Afghan man who had returned from exile unearthed a similar tomb consisting of 15 "rooms" of skeletons, some with fragments of robes or blindfolds still on them, that was supposedly used by the KhAD as an execution chamber. While groups of forensic activists like those at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have campaigned for more transparency vis-a-vis these and other mass graves, such a more toward frankness and openness remains halting. Few people remember where the graves are.

More problematically still, "hunting" for tombs threatens the possibility of discovering other, more recent mass graves that could implicate currently venerated Afghan national heroes or members of the political elite in mass murder. PHR itself has sued the US government for greater information on a number of mass graves in northern Afghanistan near Sheberghan that "appeared" in November 2001 (after the US invasion) and were subsequently tampered with. Yet understandably, US government and military officials who have relied on northern militias and warlords to guarantee (relative) security in northern Afghanistan are loath to open up a human rights enquiry. In short, the graves from Afghanistan's Communist era form just one stratum in a multi-decade geology of fear that bodes to make a historical reckoning in Afghanistan some time away.


This US Air Force-produced photo collage of Bagram Air Base, a Soviet-constructed air field used as the major logistics center in Afghanistan for US forces, obscures the important role that the base now plays as a linkage for another kind of cargo - prisoners, many of whom have either been dispatched to the offshore penal colony of Guantanamo Bay or sent into Afghan national custody at Pul-i Charkhi prison. In 2013, a Detention Facility adjacent to the base was handed over to the Afghan government. However, according to Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, US citizens may be held in the remaining US-run facilities at the Detention Center indefinitely and without the possibility of appeal.

Pul-i Charki Today

Like many other prisons in the former Communist world and the Third World, Pul-i Charkhi continues to operate as a functioning detention facility to this day. For obvious reasons, the documentary record is sparse, but what we have been able to piece together is the following. Following the collapse of the Najib regime in the spring of 1992, the facility was taken over by the Northern Alliance and used as a base and makeshift prison until the sack of Kabul by the Taliban in the summer of 1996. For the next five years, according to Afghan-Pakistani NGO RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), the Taliban crowded the prison with over 100,000 inmates, including women. Writes a RAWA source:

In addition to the already-full 18 blocks of the prison, the Taliban opened two new blocks that were previously assigned to female prisoners. Each block has 116 rooms and in each room they have crammed 40 to 50 prisoners like animals. In order to control the prison and maintain its "security," there are 150 Taliban fighters who constantly beat, flog, torture, humiliate, and sodomize the prisoners. There are more than 2,000 prisoners in the first block, the vast majority of which are small shop owners and other poor working class people. The Taliban's religious police arrest them for supposedly violating the religious rules, but these people have committed no crimes other than being ethnic Tajiks. A few months after being arrested, finally someone may look into their cases. Most of them are convicted of some cooked-up political crime and are sentenced to unknown prison terms.

A lot of prisoners were arrested from streets during the first Taliban's attack on the northern regions and were transferred to the Pol-e-Charkhi Prison. After almost three years they still face an unknown fate, and many of them have become mentally and physically ill, and some are on the verge of insanity. Each prisoner receives only a dried-up, 180-gram loaf of bread and every six prisoners get 450g of boiled rice in every 24 hours. At least three people die every week as a result of such poor nutrition. The prison personnel transfer the bodies to a hospital and then pronounce them dead due to some illness.

Following the collapse of the Taliban regime and the establishment of the Karzai regime, Pul-i Charkhi - renamed the Afghan National Detention Facility - became the hub of a new penal regime in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Still overcrowded, although now more with Afghans suspected of being members of the Taliban than with political prisoners, the prison remains a target of criticism from both domestic Afghan opposition groups and international human rights campaigners.

Particularly of concern to some is the way in which this former Communist prison has slipped so comfortably into an American-administered global penal regime stretching from Guantanamo Bay to Bagram, Afghanistan (itself part of a former Soviet military compound) to Pul-i Charkhi itself. Since 2007, for example, some 250 former detainees at Guantanamo Bay who were Afghan citizens have been transferred to Pul-i Charki for putative trial for terrorism under Afghan national laws. Yet the snafus inherent in transferring prisoners initially held as international criminals (yet never provided with a trial due to their status as "enemy combatants" and a lack of evidence) in Cuba to domestic legal regimes whose codes on terrorism are themselves recent inventions has led to numerous snafus. Although much less peripatetic, a similar process has happened to those Afghans captured and imprisoned in Bagram as "enemy combatants" and then transferred to Pul-i Charkhi. The prison, overcrowded and non-compliant with international standards for prisons, hence continues to serve as a digit in a larger American-administered system of international imprisonment.

Traumatic Memories

All together, this means that Pul-i Charkhi remains "under-remembered" - "under-problematized," in the jargon of historians and academics - in the global imagination of the 20th century, Afghanistan, and the Cold War. Sadly, this is not a unique fate among many prisons in the former Second and Third Worlds. The archives of the former Ministry for State Security of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), now open in Berlin, contain some peripheral information on operations at the prison; beyond the limited information in the Mitrokhin Files (files about the KGB in the Third World released by former operative Vasily Mitrokhin) and Mirwais Wardak's Pashto-language document collections, we have precious little information on how the prison actually worked. 

Still, there exists a small but powerful literature among former prisoners describing conditions in the prison. Users who read Persian are invited to consult some of the following volumes:

  • M. Osman Rostar, Zindān-i pulcharkhī : dūzakh-i istiʻmār-i Rūs dar Afghānistān (Pul-i Charkhi Prison: The Colonial Hell of Russia in Afghanistan)

  • Rawshan Ahmad Shah, Bīst māh dar zindān-i Pul-i Charkhī (Twenty Months in the Pul-i Charkhi Prison)

  • N. Husainy Haripur, Nigāhī bi-zindān-i Pul-i Charkhī-i Kābul (A Glimpse into the Pul-i Charkhi Prison of Kabul)

Reign of Terror
Trails of Tears