TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Earlier this month, James Risen, of the New York Times, reported that Bush administration officials had repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners by the forces of an American-backed warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. This was during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The mass grave in which the bodies were hidden was discovered in early 2002 by members of Physicians for Human Rights. The group has been investigating the story ever since, combing through documents they received through the Freedom of Information Act, and pressing for an investigation.
I have three guests from the group. Dr. Jennifer Leaning is one of the doctors who discovered the mass grave. She's a co-founding board member of Physicians for Human Rights, or PHR. She's also a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Dr. Nizam Peerwani conducted the autopsies on several bodies exhumed from the mass grave. He's an advisor for PHR's International Forensic Program and is chief medical examiner for three counties in Texas.
Nathaniel Raymond is leading the Physicians for Human Rights' investigation into the alleged massacre.
Welcome, all of you, to FRESH AIR. Dr. Leaning, let me start with you. What have you been able to learn so far about who's in this mass grave and how they got there?
Dr. JENNIFER LEANING (Co-founding Board Member, Physicians for Human Rights; Professor, Harvard School of Public Health): The story, as we have pieced it together, is that there was a major battle in the north in the war in Kanduz, and thousands, between 6,000 and 12,000 Taliban, surrendered to Northern Alliance troops that were also there with participating U.S. military forces. And coming from that surrender -that northern edge, the northeastern edge of Afghanistan - coming from that surrender, thousands of Talibans were put in trucks and brought to prison sites around Nazar.
There was an attempt to disarm them before they took them into the Qala-i-Jangi Prison, but as they dismounted at a crossroads to head towards the Qala-i-Jangi Prison, it became evident that there were - the men, the Taliban men, were too numerous, and there were not enough Northern Alliance men, which some U.S. military observers there, to create a protected environment. So these Taliban were sent to Qala-i-Jangi. These were men wrapped in their blankets, who had not been personally searched. They went to Qala-i-Jangi, and there was a hold put on the whole trail of prisoners coming from Kanduz because Qala-i-Jangi wasn't clear how many they were going to hold.
Then we had the uprising at Qala-i-Jangi, which in itself is a terrible story, but it ruined the fort, and it ruined the prison for any occupancy. Then there was a process of taking the remaining Taliban prisoners, which were the great bulk of the prisoners, and putting them into container trucks, which are closed trucks - that this took a process of time that there was - it appears to be a deliberate attempt to smother them, and this is a modus operandi for the Northern Alliance and actually for other forces as well in Afghanistan. And then they brought them to the Sheberghan Prison, offloaded those who were alive and took the remainder, who had suffocated, and buried them in the Dasht-e-Leili Desert, at a site that we saw that was only half a mile from the Sheberghan Prison.
GROSS: Do you have any idea whether these prisoners were intentionally put into trucks where they would likely be suffocated, or do you think the suffocations were an accident?
Dr. LEANING: What we understand from people who have investigated this closely is that there was the intent to see a large number of them die.
Mr. NATHANIEL RAYMOND (Physicians for Human Rights): This is Nathaniel. At this point, we still need all the facts to determine what the motivation was and whether there was intent in terms of the suffocation of these prisoners. But what we're hearing now from the FBI interviews that were conducted with at least 10 survivors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is that there are allegations that forces, presumably Northern Alliance forces, fired directly into the containers at various points in the journey from Nazar to Sheberghan. And so it's essential that we have an investigation to determine why they were transported in containers -according to the survivors, 100 to 200 in a small shipping container -and whether there was direct firing into the sides of the containers or into the containers themselves through the open doors.
GROSS: Dr. Leaning, you and one of your colleagues found the mass grave. How did you know when you found it?
Dr. LEANING: It was - it was remarkable. I have seen old massacre sites. I have seen some mass graves that are smaller, but we were riding in an old Toyota Land Cruiser, heading southwest out of Sheberghan towards Maymana, and as you take a road out of Sheberghan to enter the Dasht-e-Leili Desert, as I say, within a matter of a few hundred yards, we suddenly saw this dry desert expanse, and it's really desert. This is January. There wasn't snow on the ground, but it was dry, cold, hard-packed desert. It was 40 degrees with the wind. And we saw fresh, moist sand and deep tracks of major vehicles, of what looked like bulldozers and also huge trucks - bulldozers meaning there were real treads on it. And there were these vast areas of disturbed sand and earth, moist and darker in the light compared to the hard, firm, undisturbed surface of the Dasht-e-Leili on both sides of this dirt road that we were on, and we got out.
And we were careful because we were within a line of sight of General Dostum's military post up there, one of his headquarter posts, which is very near Sheberghan and the prison. And since everything is so flat, it was possible from the third floor of this outpost where he - where his troops were, at least, for him actually to see what we were doing - for his forces to see. And we had figured that out…
GROSS: Meaning you weren't necessarily safe being there.
Dr. LEANING: No, and…
GROSS: Because he might have been behind the mass grave. That's a possibility. His men might have been behind it, so…?
Dr. LEANING: Possible, yes, because he was…
GROSS: He might not have wanted you sniffing around there.
Dr. LEANING: No. He was in military control of this part of Nazar and the area going north and east, where Sheberghan was. He was in control of this whole area, and of the Sheberghan Prison. It was his people that were wardens in the prison.
And so we got out of the Land Rover, and we stayed on the road because -of the Land Cruiser - because we were afraid that some parts of this might have been mined, which is often the case around mass graves. And yet, as we walked a little bit hesitantly into the disturbed earth, it became evident that, virtually as far as the eye could see on both sides of this road but particularly on the right-hand side as we were heading southeast out of Sheberghan, that there were black turbans tangled in the dirt, that there were prayer beads, isolated sandals and flip-flops, other little garments that I didn't stoop down to investigate because some of them would have involved walking 20 yards into this disturbed area, and exposed human bones. I mean, I'm a physician. There were pieces of rib cage. There were bones that looked as if they were parts of femurs. And it appeared as if some of the surface of this grave had been already defaced by animals who had come to dig and then, smelling things, had explored deeper so that the - as I say, it was an area of disturbed earth with surface remnants of human remains and human clothing that extended on both sides for a very large area.
And we saw three or four military vehicles at Dostum's outpost begin to fill with troops, with these men with uniform that we could see from a far distance, and begin to turn out of that compound and head down the road towards where we were. And so we quickly got back into our Land Cruiser, did a U-turn and went very fast. Before they got onto the road to the Dasht-e-Leili, we got back and went into Sheberghan town.
GROSS: So what is the protocol when you've discovered a mass grave like this?
Dr. LEANING: John Hefford(ph) and I were human-rights investigators, and I am a doctor, but we are not forensic experts. And so we felt equipped to say, in our reporting to Physicians for Human Rights and in our debriefing to several key agencies back in Nazar about what we saw, we felt equipped and empowered to say that we had seen just what I described to you: this vast area, several football fields in size, on both sides of this road, disturbed earth with the tracks and disturbed with human remains and human clothing.
We are not in any position to say how many people were buried there, and we were not really in a position to say how recent it was except that the earth was so obviously recent that we could say that. And our next protocol is to talk to Physicians for Human Rights and get the forensic team, with adequate U.N. permission and U.N. protection in this time, to come and take a closer look at the grave.
GROSS: Well, let me bring in a forensics expert into our conversation. Dr. Nizam Peerwani is joining us by phone, and he conducted the autopsies of several bodies found in this mass grave. He's an advisor for Physicians for Human Rights' International Forensic Program, and he's the chief medical examiner for three counties in Texas.
Dr. Peerwani, thank you for joining us. So when you were told about this mass grave and asked to investigate it, what did you do when you first got there?
Dr. NIZAM PEERWANI (Advisor, International Forensic Program, Physicians for Human Rights): Well, it's a pretty large grave, about 60 meters by 16.5 meters. It was obviously disturbed earth. We could still see that. And as noticed earlier, there were a lot of fragments of clothing items and surfaced bones, many of them bleached.
We were concerned about mines, of course. So we had a team with us, and we did a surface mine detection to see if there was anything there. Once we were certain we were safe, we began to do test bits. And we were very fortunate that within a very short time, we were able to locate the perimeter of the grave.
We did a rather large excavation. We were able to locate 15 bodies that were in this area - 15 bodies were just a part of a very large grave, to put that into perspective. Now, these bodies were not buried in Islamic tradition in the sense that it was not a burial site, an Islamic burial site as you would normally see it. These were just bodies that were thrown the way they were located, and they were about a couple of meters from the surface.
We were able to pull out three bodies, and I did a rather complete autopsy on those three bodies. And they were just sampler bodies in the sense that there was no way we could examine all the bodies. We did not have a team to do all that. We were able to establish, first of all, they were males. And we did some anthropomorphic studies, and we were able to establish the ages. The first male was 18 to 23 years of age, the second was 25 to 30 and the third was 35 to 45. They were wearing typical clothing items, which we were later able to identify as those worn by the Pashtun tribes. In addition, they were also having black turbans, which is very typical of the Taliban's clothing items. And so, we felt pretty comfortable that we were working with Taliban bodies.
GROSS: What were you able to determine from the autopsies that you conducted?
Dr. PEERWANI: Well, the objective of the autopsy was to decide if I could establish the cause of death. I was able to say with great degree of confidence that they did not die of any blunt-force trauma. They were not strangled. They were not smothered. They didn't have sharp-force injuries or firearm injuries. I was also able to say they were not starved to death. I was able to document presence of fat, subcutaneous fat, and there were formed stool in the large bowel, which means that they had recently been fed. And so really, one has to decide on a cause of death in the context in which the bodies are found, that's number one, but also by exclusion.
Frequently in forensic autopsies, certain types of death have to be established by ruling out all other types of death - for example, an unwitnessed seizure death or a sudden infant death syndrome. So in this particular case, the negative findings of trauma and the fact that I was not able to demonstrate starvation and other findings such as this, made me conclude that they had really suffocated to death, especially because they were pretty young people, and there were no organic diseases that I could document in the organs that were still there in the body.
GROSS: So you were able to determine that the cause of death was probably suffocation.
Dr. PEERWANI: Yes.
GROSS: And that the people in the grave were probably Taliban based on the articles of clothing that you found.
Dr. PEERWANI: That's correct, yes.
GROSS: So can you estimate from the size of the grave how many people may be buried there?
Dr. PEERWANI: I would say certainly several hundreds, if not a couple of thousand. I think that the size of the mass grave, which is 60 meters by 16.5, could hold, depending upon how the bodies were stacked in other parts, as many as several hundreds, or at least one- or two-thousand bodies.
GROSS: Well, Dr. Peerwani, I want to thank you very much. I know you're on vacation right now, and I really appreciate you taking some time out to talk with us. Thank you so much.
Dr. PEERWANI: You're welcome, Terry.
GROSS: Dr. Nizam Peerwani conducted the autopsies of several of the bodies found in the mass grave. He's an advisor for Physicians for Humans Rights' International Forensic Program and is chief medical examiner for three counties in Texas.
We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about (unintelligible) grave and about Physicians for Human Rights' attempts to get the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration, to investigate what happened.
After we take a short break, my guests will be Jennifer Leaning, a founding board member of Physicians for Human Rights, she and one of her colleagues discovered the mass grave of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan, and Nathaniel Raymond, who's leading the Physicians for Human Rights' investigation into the alleged massacre. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I have two guests from the group Physicians for Human Rights. Dr. Jennifer Leaning discovered a mass grave in Afghanistan in which the bodies of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners were hidden. They were allegedly killed in 2001 by the forces of a warlord aligned with the U.S.,. Nathaniel Raymond has been leading the Physicians for Human Rights' investigation into the mass killing and pressing for an official investigation.
Nathaniel, you spent years investigating what happened at the mass grave and trying to get the United States government to investigate. Why should the U.S. government investigate? It's a grave in Afghanistan. What claim does the U.S. have?
Mr. RAYMOND: Well first of all, Terry, I think when people hear about this case, they think it's about the past, and for me, the Dasht-e-Leili massacre investigation is really about the future, both for the United States and Afghanistan. What happened there was a crime that allegedly occurred when we, the United States, were working with the Northern Alliance. So legally, under international and domestic law, we have responsibility for the actions of our allies when we are operating jointly during a time of war.
But more than that, it's really about the question of accountability. Will there be accountability in the United States for crimes committed during the Bush administration? Will there be accountability in Afghanistan for 30 years of impunity by warlords, by Taliban, for crimes such as Dasht-e-Leili?
GROSS: Now, you've met with resistance in your efforts to open an investigation. James Risen of the New York Times reported earlier this month that there were attempts to stop an investigation sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and your group, that the Bush administration resisted efforts from all of those ends. And Risen quotes Pierre Prosper, who is the former American ambassador for war crimes, and he served in the Bush administration, and here's what he said. He said: At the White House, nobody said no to an investigation, but nobody ever said yes, either. The first reaction there was oh, this is a sensitive issue. This is a touchy issue politically. Why would this be a touchy political issue?
Mr. RAYMOND: Well, as Jim Risen reported in the New York Times, General Dostum was on the payroll of the CIA. He was an asset of the United States government. And at the time when the first efforts were made by lower- and mid-level officials at the Department of Defense, the FBI and the State Department, to find out the truth in regards to Dasht-e-Leili, Dostum was the deputy defense minister under then-Chairman Karzai, the president now of Afghanistan.
So it was an issue of a U.S. ally who had worked with (unintelligible) special forces in the CIA in breaking the back of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan soon after September 11th, who, according to Jim Risen, was basically shielded by the actions of at least three Cabinet-level departments to impede any investigation from going forward.
GROSS: So Nathaniel, what kind of requests did you make to the Bush administration to investigate the mass grave?
Mr. RAYMOND: Well, as soon as our team, led by Jennifer Leaning and John Hefford in Afghanistan, had discovered what we believed to be a mass grave, and as soon as our forensic team had done a preliminary assessment in February of 2002, we immediately raised these concerns to the State Department, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council. We called for immediate protection of the site, security for any witnesses, and we asked them to begin, immediately, an investigation in cooperation with not only the government of Afghanistan but the United Nations.
GROSS: And your response was?
Mr. RAYMOND: Basically silence. There was, throughout 2002, a constant stonewall from the Bush administration, saying that they had done an oral debrief of the special forces when they returned to the United States. And that the special forces said, in this verbal debrief, that no human rights abuses apparently occurred, and so thus there was no U.S. responsibility.
We are still trying to learn the full story of those within the Bush administration, particularly at the State Department but also the Department of Defense, who definitely fought for an investigation but were, it appears, shut down.
GROSS: Nathaniel Raymond and Dr. Jennifer Leaning, of Physicians for Human Rights, will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about a mass grave in Afghanistan where the bodies of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Taliban prisoners were hidden after they were allegedly killed by the forces of an American-backed warlord, General Dostum. I have two guests from the group Physicians for Human Rights. Dr. Jennifer Leaning is one of the doctors who discovered the mass grave in early 2002. Nathaniel Raymond has been leading the group's investigation into what happened and pressing for an official investigation. The Bush administration -resisted pressure to investigate from human rights groups and from officials from the State Department and FBI.
Now, one of the concerns of Dr. Leaning and Dr. Peerwani about the gravesite was that it could be tampered with and one of the things you wanted from the Bush administration was protection of the site so that evidence would remain there. You have evidence now that the site in fact has been tampered with.
Mr. RAYMOND: Our consuming fear from day one, Terry, was that any evidence there was going to be removed and/or destroyed. We were also deeply concerned about witnesses who had spoken to journalists such as Newsweek, to the United Nations and to others. And now, sadly, we know two things. One, we know that there is clear evidence that our forensic team document 2008 of tampering at the site. And we also have satellite imagery which shows in 2006, less than a month approximately after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in U.S. federal court, there is one large hole present at the site and what appears to be a hydraulic excavator in a dump truck digging what becomes the second large trench that our forensic team found in 2008.
But for me, and I want to make this very clear, the great tragedy in this case has been the loss of the witnesses. We now know through State Department documents we received through Freedom of Information Act request that at least four witnesses - innocent men - who were bulldozer drivers and truck drivers have been tortured, killed and disappeared.
GROSS: Nathaniel, you requested Freedom of Information Act files related to the mass grave. Your request was made in June of 2006. And I know you had a lot of trouble getting the Freedom of Information Act files, although you finally got them. What kind of trouble did you have?
Mr. RAYMOND: Well, the trouble Physicians for Human Rights had was that the Bush administration didn't want to release any documents and so with the help of Ropes and Gray, a law firm in Washington, we were able to pressure them to release the documents and we started receiving them in 2008. And what we found was frankly jaw dropping.
In a November 2002 State Department intelligence report there was a body count. And it was from a three-letter redacted intelligence source, which means we couldn't see who was reporting it but whoever was reporting it was identified by three letters. And this three-letter source said that at least 1,500 to as many as 2,000 had died as part of the massacre. And what we also learned, which was very hard for us at Physicians for Human Rights to see is that the U.S. government had confirmation that at least four witnesses had been tortured, killed, and/or disappeared.
GROSS: What does it say to you that within these Freedom of Information Act files there was a source whose name was redacted who actually gave an estimated body count in this mass grave?
Mr. RAYMOND: Speaking with former Bush administration officials, that source was an agency. And we still do not have confirmation about what U.S. intelligence agency that was but it was absolutely outrageous, the fact that the U.S. government would be saying there was no grounds for U.S. investigation, no grounds for security of the site, no grounds for protection of witnesses, but they had a body count for years. And they had clear evidence that people, innocent bystanders in this case, were being killed and they did nothing.
GROSS: Is there any other important information that you got through the Freedom of Information Act files?
Mr. RAYMOND: I think there were several critical pieces in the Freedom of Information Act files. One was a list prepared by the Department of Defense, as an internal briefing paper, of all of Abdul Rashid Dostum's previous alleged human rights abuses, including a missile attack in the '90s on Kabul which killed approximately 4,000 people, mostly civilians. And it was amazing to see evidence of reservations...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RAYMOND: ...about the alliance with General Abdul Rashid Dostum. And what you also saw is drafts of letters from the Department of Defense to Physicians for Human Rights, the actual effort of them figuring out what to say to us as we requested protection for our investigators to go back under U.N. auspices and perform a full exhumation and request for site security. It was an amazing window into a process of bureaucratic kick the can.
GROSS: So James Risen reported earlier month that there were requests from inside the government to investigate what happened at this mass grave. Did you know about those requests?
Mr. RAYMOND: We knew from speaking with former administration officials that there had been informal conversations about the need for an investigation. What we did not know is that the FBI had filed 10 witness reports. What we also did not know...
GROSS: And these are witnesses who were in Gitmo but who...
Mr. RAYMOND: This is a really...
GROSS: ...had been in that, as you describe it, the convoy of death.
Mr. RAYMOND: Yes. This is a really important point, Terry, is that the FBI was there to interrogate suspected terrorists and they started filing reports from witnesses to an alleged crime. And I think it's a credit to special agents Spry and the FBI agents who were at Guantanamo that even in that environment they were trying to do their job as U.S. law enforcement.
We did not know that until The New York Times reported it. And also, you really get a sense, a clear view of Special Ambassador Prosper's efforts to move the investigation forward, as we had some sense of the State Department's efforts through public statements and also through the Freedom of Information Act request. There was a cable from then-Secretary of State Powell to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul requesting that they work with the United Nations and the government of Afghanistan to -this is at the end of 2002 - to push forward an investigation in the wake of the Newsweek story.
GROSS: Might there be legal consequences for members of the Bush administration somewhere down the line depending on what an investigation, if there is an investigation, eventually uncovers?
Mr. RAYMOND: Underneath international law, which the U.S. is party to, covering up a war crime can itself constitute a war crime. And we still don't know the full story of why and how those investigations inside the Bush administration did not go forward. There needs to be, to sound like a broken record, Terry, hearings.
There needs to be an investigation. But the fact of the matter is is that the Obama administration must commit to this simple fact, that if a law was broken in the initial crime or in any follow on crimes that may have occurred by the Bush administration, then those who committed them need to be prosecuted. And I think that Dasht-e-Leili should not be swept under the rug. It is critical to show the people of Afghanistan, the people of the United States that the United States once again abides by the rules of law when the laws of war are violated.
GROSS: Now, President Obama recently said to CNN, the indication that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention. And he said he asked his national security team to collect the facts for me that are known and I'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up. So what's next for Physicians for Human Rights in terms of investigating what happened at this mass grave?
Mr. RAYMOND: Well, it's been seven and a half years but we are going to keep going until the full truth is known. We are preparing potentially more Freedom of Information Act requests. We are continuing to communicate with the United Nations and all other relevant international agencies about follow on investigation requirements. And most of all, we are advocating to not only the Obama administration, but to the American public for people to see Dasht-e-Leili more than as some crime in the past but as really a critical part of what's happening now in Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan are fighting more than the Taliban, Terry. They're fighting a culture of impunity that has existed there for now over 30 years. And if there is going to be stability in Afghanistan, there must be justice. And crimes like the Dasht-e-Leili crime must be investigated. Families must know what happened to their loved ones regardless of what side they fought on. And we must strengthen the institutions necessary to have impartial justice in Afghanistan and Dasht-e-Leili is a test case for that.
GROSS: Dr. Leaning, Nathaniel Raymond, have either of you ever been involved in an investigation of an atrocity where the United States had been an obstacle in the investigation?
Dr. LEANING: I've been involved in atrocities in investigations in the West Bank and Gaza, in Chad, Darfur, in Kosovo, in Angola, in Soviet Union, in Soviet Georgia, a number of other places where there have certainly been oppressive and punitive regimes and high levels of threat for the kinds of investigations we've done, that is Physicians for Human Rights.
But this is the first one that I've been involved in where there is very strong evidence that there is a link to U.S. high level political knowledge about a crime - an alleged crime - but if it is established, a war crime of significant magnitude. And I do feel as an American that it's very important that we get this one right.
Mr. RAYMOND: If I can just...
GROSS: Yeah. Go…
Mr. RAYMOND: ...very quickly. In addition to investigating the Dasht-e-Leili case, I've been working for Physicians for Human Rights investigating detainee abuse by the Bush administration over the past three years. And for me, Dasht-e-Leili is part of a larger horrific mosaic of what happens when the United States, a supposed human rights leader and with a proud legacy of not only following but of helping to establish the international laws of war and treatment of prisoners, abandons that commitment.
And I think that the issue for accountability here has obviously both on detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib, the issue of Dasht-e-Leili, Guantanamo, CIA black sites, has become politicized. But accountability in these cases is not some political witch hunt. It is about being able to restore our reputation. And that's some ephemeral thing, Terry.
It is, as someone who's worked on investigations on the horn of Africa and in the Middle East, when the U.S. gives the green light to the abuse of prisoners, to the wanton disregard for their rights, it gives the green light around the world to regimes to do whatever they want. And so it's not just about this case. It's about showing that the United States is back in its position of working to enforce the laws that we helped create over our 200 plus year history.
And so I think it's easy when people say, well, these are Taliban and al-Qaida dead. Well, it's, to quote Senator McCain, "It's not about them. It's about us." And that's why for me, the Dasht-e-Leili issue is so important. Our values are, are they the values of our founders or are they the values of an Afghan warlord?
GROSS: Dr. Jennifer Leaning, Nathaniel Raymond, thank you both very much for talking with us.
Dr. LEANING: Thank you.
Mr. RAYMOND: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Nathaniel Raymond is leading the Physicians for Human Rights investigation into the mass killing in northern Afghanistan. Dr. Jennifer Leaning is a board member of Physicians for Human Rights and a professor at Harvard School of Public Health.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.