KABUL, Afghanistan –May 10, 2010 – Over 30 years of conflict and violent repression in Afghanistan have left at least 1.5 million people dead and millions more displaced, maimed, and bereaved. Today, the Afghan government and international community talk about reconciliation, but what do the people want? What kind of peace do victims of serious human rights violations envision?
Afghans explored these questions in an unprecedented way on May 9, when more than 100 victims and their representatives from every region of Afghanistan and every phase of the country’s long-running conflict gathered in Kabul to share their experiences with each other and articulate a shared vision of a just peace.
The Victims’ Jirga for Justice, held at the Sitara Hotel, was organized by the Transitional Justice Coordination Group, a coalition of 25 civil society organizations working on issues of transitional justice in Afghanistan. The Jirga provided a valuable forum for the exchange of ideas of the forgotten majority in the reconciliation debate – the people of Afghanistan.
Emotions ran high at this first event of its kind in Afghanistan, as victims recounted stories of brutal crimes, personal loss and enduring impunity. “I was very young when I got married,” said an elderly female victim from Kunar province. “Then a mass killing took place in my village, in which my husband, uncle and all of our people were killed.” The speaker’s village was the site of a communist era massacre of more than one thousand people.
A male victim from Takhar broke down describing an official’s reaction to the abduction and murder of his two children at the hands of a local commander in 2007. An official reportedly told him ‘You’re young; you’ll have more children.’ “If we want justice, perpetrators have to be brought to court” the victim said.
The demand for trials was a common refrain from the jirga participants.
“A war criminal is a war criminal regardless of ethnicity or religion. They all have to be brought to court,” said a victim of Taliban era abuses in Kabul. “If we want to see a real peace, not a political or short-lived peace, there at least must be acknowledgement of the past.”
The speaker described how his brother was beaten to death with cables by the Taliban in 1997. His voice shaking, the speaker added, “We don’t want vengeance. We don’t want to wash blood with blood. We want justice.”
A victim of civil war era abuses in Parwan compared peace without justice to “praying without ablution.”
During the second half of the Victims’ Jirga, participants in small breakout groups discussed how to address the crimes of the past and how to bring peace for the future. The recommendations the groups presented at the conclusion of the conference were products of consensus reached among victims from widely varying backgrounds.
Their demands included the prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes and serious human rights violations, social and economic support for victims through reparations, support for disabled victims, transparent and fair reconstruction efforts and aid delivery to conflict-affected populations, and the creation of more spaces for victims to express their demands. Some breakout groups also recommended the removal of perpetrators from government, and the prevention of future crimes through comprehensive disarmament and the freezing of perpetrators’ assets.
When asked what they wanted from the international community, the victims said they would like the international community to aid in the location and documentation of mass graves and other atrocity sites, and to strongly support the transitional justice process.
Every group emphasized an overarching message —without justice, there will be no durable peace in Afghanistan.