Excerpt from Dari-language Death Lists

An excerpt from page 2 of the Dari-language "Death Lists," released by the Dutch National Prosecutor's Office in September 2013.

What Are the Death Lists?

Standing at the core of the resources behind Shattering Afghanistan are the so-called "Death Lists" released by the Dutch National Prosecutor's Office in September 2013. Offering insight into the mass killing unleashed upon Afghanistan by the PDPA and its security agency, the KhAD, the lists – constituting almost 5,000 records of Afghans murdered by the regime under various pretexts from the spring to the autumn of 1979 – offer readers and scholars interested in the history of Afghanistan and digital history techniques an unusual chance to begin to probe the country's past.

What are the "Death Lists?" Most simply, they are hundreds of pages of documents describing the personal details – name, last name, occupation, hometown, accusation, and date of execution – of thousands of Afghans killed by the Communist PDPA regime during the period described above. After a sucessful revolution in April 1978 and knowing that it was facing a vast internal opposition – ranging from anti-Communist Islamic scholars to Tajik and Uzbek nationalists to land owners who opposed the PDPA's radical land reform policies – the Party launched a huge internal crackdown across the country to imprison and execute its opponents.

Afghans from all around the country were often kidnapped at night and sent to the notorious Pul-i Charki prison outside of Kabul, where they were crammed into cells, interrogated, tortured, and often killed for perceived crimes against the regime. Inmates who survived the harrowing conditions recall prison superintendents yelling at new arrivals that the regime only needed a million Afghans to build socialism in one country (the population of Afghanistan was some 15 million at the time of the Revolution).

While many of the records from Pul-i Charki and the KhAD more broadly are suspected to have been destroyed or lost during the Afghan Civil War (1992-1996), the Death Lists constituted the tip of a perhaps-lost documentary iceberg that allow historians, Afghans, and an interested international public to comprehend the scale of the mass killing and trauma inflicted upon the country before the Soviet invasion.

The story of how the Death Lists became public information bears some explanation. An October 1, 2013 article in the New York Times by Kabul correspondent Rod Nordland explains:

The chain of events that led to the lists’ discovery began with an asylum request by Amanullah Osman, the head of interrogation for Afghan intelligence in 1978 and 1979, who fled to the Netherlands in 1993. In his asylum interview, according to the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Osman admitted to signing documents concerning people who were to be executed. “That was expected and desired of me,” he said. “If you don’t go along with it, you can never attain such a high position.”

The Dutch denied him asylum but never expelled him, and eventually opened up a war crimes investigation. That led them to a 93-year-old Afghan refugee in Germany who gave them the death lists, which she had gotten from a former United Nations official, Felix Ermacora, who had never released them. Dutch authorities said they were confident of the lists’ authenticity.

The prosecution was dropped in 2012 when Mr. Osman died, and the Dutch decided to release the lists. “The close relatives of the deceased in this case have the right to know the truth about the circumstances of the disappearance and the final fate of their loved ones,” the prosecutor’s office said.

While this release surely constitutes only the beginning of a process of historical reckoning with a traumatic past, one can only be grateful that it marks - for too few families, surely - the end to decades of grieving and wondering what became of their loved ones.


Death Lists in Excel

An example of the Death Lists re-formatted into an XLS file, after being processed with ABBYY. First names and last names have been hidden in this case.

Formatting the Death Lists

Having learned about the Death Lists through the article in The New York Times, I immediately began thinking about ways in which they might help historians and the general public learn more about the history of Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Given the presence of a supportive community of fellow scholars in a Digital History seminar, led by Professor Kelly O'Neill, and some of the best quantitative and DH minds in the country in the broader Harvard-Cambridge area, I began thinking about ways in which the Death Lists might be used to shed deeper light on the processes of state destruction in Afghanistan during the last third of the 20th century. But how to make the information - originally frozen in both the Persian original but also an English PDF transliteration - actually usuable for GIS or other Digital Humanities analysis?

The first step was to actually transform the information in the PDFs into something one could work with in Excel or another database program. With the professional help of Dr Jeff Howry, a Research Associate at Harvard's Semitic Museum, I used ABBYY, a text-recognition program, to scan the hundreds of pages of English PDFs into .XLSX (Microsoft Excel) format in order to avoid what would have been dozens of hours of tedious data entry work. Some errors of transcription or of information in the wrong rows persisted, but eventually I managed to produce a copy of the Lists in Excel format (in English). To the dates of death indicated in the Afghan calendar (which differs from the Gregorian calendar) I appended equivalent dates in Gregorian time, leaving me with a list of 4,785 entries of people murdered by the PDPA between April 12, 1979 and November 28, 1979. (Several hundred entries had no date associated with them; given the lack of context we have for the Death Lists, it appears unable to reconstruct more details.)

Still, in order to be made useful for GIS analysis, the Death Lists had to be geo-referenced, too. Here the role of the historian as amateur geographer came into play. Using an online geographic names database,, as well as several atlases of Afghanistan and Kabul, I was able to geo-reference 4342 of my entries, leaving only 43 instances which did have a geographical name uncoded - a rate of around 99 percent. (This does not take into account the 400 entries which lack any geographical reference at all.) Hand-coding the latitude and longitude of these locations meant that we were getting somewhere. In addition, in order to allow inter-operability with the other data I had, I referenced every individual place name with the province in Afghanistan in which it was located at the time, as well as a standard numerical code associated with each province. With this information, it then became possible to import the XLSX tables into ARCGIS, which was used to generate many of the maps in this presentation.

Beyond geo-referencing the place names in the record (which included several entries in Iran and Pakistan), I also began to code the professions listed in the Lists according to standard coding practice of the International Labor Organization, an international organization headquartered in Geneva that deals with labor issues of almost all member states of the United Nations. Using the ILO's International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-08), I categorized the 3,403 records (71 percent) that included information on the murdered's profession into twelve categories: 0 (military), 1 (managers), 2 (professionals), 3 (technicians and associate professionals), 4 (clerical support workers), 5 (services and sales workers), 6 (skilled agricultural, forestry, and fishery workers), 7 (craft and related trades workers), 8 (plant and machine operators and assemblers), 9 (elementary occupations), 11 (students), 12 (unemployed, nomads, or transients). [The lack of a code for 10 came from changing classification schemes.] This data, more than giving us a sense of who was killed by the regime, also allows us to get a sense of just how deeply the "modernization" of the preceding decades had really penetrated Afghanistan. This was a society of not only land owners and mullahs, but also professional soldiers, airport traffic controllers, professors, and doctors.


An example of how GIS analysis allows us to visualize the state-conducted killing in Afghanistan during 1979: this "heat map," produced through Google Fusion Tables, color-codes the density of instances (i.e. deaths) from our geo-coded spreadsheets to show the spatial dimensions of killing in Afghanistan in 1979, using the place of origin of those killed as the geo-location. Red, opaque points indicate the areas of the country most targeted; green those less affected. This map was produced with a point radius of 50, an opacity of 50%, and no weighting. Constructed using Google Fusion Tables.

Beyond the "Death Lists"

That said, the Death Lists constitute just one piece of evidence in this presentation. Beyond working with the files from the Dutch National Prosecutor's Office, I consulted numerous other sources - census data, refugee reports, dissertations, and scholarly monographs - to obtain a more comprehensive picture of state destruction and migration in Central Asia during the 1980s. For much of the refugee data, Harvard's Map Collection contained maps (and, in effect, databases) of province-by-province refugee statistics for Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Surveys conducted by aid workers in Pakistan provided an even more granular picture of where Afghan refugees in the camps came from - if not where they intended to resettle following the putative end to the war in Afghanistan. Taken together, these sources allow us to develop a more fine-grained picture of which provinces in Afghanistan were most hard-hit (or at least depopulated by the events of the 1980s.

Of course, this project can only constitute the beginning of a more serious investigation into the crimes of the PDPA, the KhAD, and the Soviet Union and its allies in Afghanistan during the period in question. In the former Eastern Bloc, the archives of the Stasi (the former security agency of the East German state) in reunited Berlin contain reams of documents on cooperation between the Stasi and the KhAD, but relatively little on actual treatment of prisoners or executions. The archives of the KGB, in Moscow, are closed to researchers, and one cannot reasonably expect change on that front anytime soon. While the archives of the Bulgarian KGB (BKGB) are, in theory, open, I have not had opportunity to visit Sofia to investigate the situation there. Closer to "home," in 2011, the historian Mirwais Wardak published a collection of copied documents (in Pashto) from the KhAD archives that would appear to have been stolen from Kabul (in facsimile if not the original) and smuggled to Peshawar, but the resulting book, Dah khalq parcham da janayato zhwandi asnad (Live Evidence of the Crimes of Khalq and Parcham) provides little context for the documents, and a translation into Persian or English does not appear to be forthcoming.

While aware of these holes, Shattering Afghanistan seeks to at least sketch a preliminary picture of the killing conducted in the name of the Afghan state during these years - often with the help of the intelligence agencies of the Eastern Bloc. Although the results may be imperfect, it constitutes the best that we have until we see progress that would include the governments of Russia, Afghanistan - and historians from both countries - working together to declassify and publish more material on the traumatic pasts of this part of the world.

“First stage in the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan”. Soviet soldiers-internationalists returning home from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.<br />
<br />
 «Первый этап вывода советских войск из Афганистана». Возвращение советских воинов-интернационалистов из Демократической Республики Афганистан. Туркменистан, Кушка

Soviet delegates from all of the Union Republics greet the first wave of troops returning home to Soviet territory in Kushka, Turkmenistan, in the autumn of 1986. The withdrawal, however, did not mark the beginning of a mature reconciliation with the meaning of the occupation in Soviet history.

Photograph: Yuri Somov, “'First stage in the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan'. Soviet soldiers-internationalists returning home from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan." RIA Novosti archive, image #644467. Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 License.

(Memory) Holes in the Record

That said, arguably the biggest problems that historians and the public in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and elsewhere faces has less to do with documentation than with the politics of memory in all of these countries. In Afghanistan, many figures in the present Karzai regime either worked in the PDPA or are implicated in atrocities that occurred during the Afghan Civil War that followed the collapse of the Communist regime in 1992. Some argue that other post-traumatic, post-Communist societies, like Poland, have taken "lustration" ("cleansing") too far by limiting the participation of former Communists, or those implicated with the security services, in post-Communist governments. 

As New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland argues in his article on the publication of the Death Lists, many in the current American-supported government fear that the publication of more historical records on killing and trauma could prove too sensitive for society to handle.  Writes Nordland:

"The government was afraid as always that this was the beginning of a process, and it will not stop just in this era of the Communists. Those in the government were also involved in the ’90s, and the Taliban also committed similar atrocities.”

 One particular target of popular anger is Assadullah Sarwari, Mr. Osman’s boss at the Afghan intelligence agency in 1979, who was initially sentenced to death but later had his sentence reduced to a 19-year prison term.

 Shalizai Didar, a former governor of Kunar Province, said 11 people from his family were on the lists, along with 100 people he knows. “We demand from the government to execute Assadullah Sarwari — not only him but also his colleagues.” 

Another former official who is frequently mentioned is retired Gen. Abdul Wahid Taqat, who headed the intelligence services under the last Afghan Communist government. General Taqat called the publication of the lists a plot against him to thwart his own presidential aspirations.

The situation in Russia is different but arguably just as complicated. Because the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was decided upon in a totally non-democratic fashion, and because the public was largely kept unaware of the military debacle unfolding to the south of the Union for so long, many Russians view the Soviet-Afghan conflict less in terms of Afghan trauma than in terms of an injustice inflicted on the Soviet (or Russian) people. Stories abound of zinc coffins being unloaded from cargo planes, of mothers being told - cynically - that their son died "fulfilling his internationalist responsibility." Public memory surrounding the war - films like Aleksei Balabanov's Gruz-200 (Cargo-200, a reference to the bureaucratic form used in the Soviet military for cargo transportation of corpses) - focuses largely on this trauma inflicted at home by the Soviet state upon Russian families. The sense of humiliation and shame inflicted - but also of an honor never fully accorded by the Soviet or Russian state unto these post-World War II veterans - runs deep.

Hence, even if one did possess full documentary evidence of the KGB's crimes in Afghanistan - something that former intelligence operatives like Vasily Mitrokhin have begun to provide Western and Russian scholars with through his smuggled collections - making a dent in Russian public consciousness is another story. However unjust the crimes inflicted upon Afghans in the name of socialism were, Russia itself - due not just to the Afghan intervention but also the legacy of Stalinism - remains a traumatized society whose engagement with its 20th century history remains very much a work in progress. Again, one can only hope for a maximally inclusive and international discussion of these events on the basis of full archival documentary evidence one day.