SHIBARGHAN, Afghanistan, Dec. 9 — Dozens of Taliban prisoners died after surrendering to Northern Alliance forces, asphyxiated in the shipping containers used to transport them to prison, witnesses say.
The deaths occurred as the prisoners, many of them foreign fighters for the Taliban, were brought from the town of Kunduz to the prison here, a journey that took two or three days for some.
Colonel General Jurabek, the Northern Alliance commander in charge of some 3,000 prisoners being held here, said Saturday that 43 prisoners had died in half a dozen containers on the way, either from injuries or asphyxiation. Three others died from their wounds after arrival, and had been given a Muslim burial at the town of Dasht-i-Laili, he said.
But the number of deaths may be much higher. Several Pakistani prisoners interviewed in the prison have said that dozens of people died in their containers during the journey here. Omar, a pale and slight youth, who clutched a blanket round his head and shoulders, said through the bars of his prison wing that all but seven people in his container had died from lack of air. He estimated that more than 100 had died. Another Pakistani said 13 had died in his container and that the survivors had taken turns to breathe through a hole in the metal wall.
One prisoner, Ibrahim, a 30-year- old Pakistani mechanic interviewed in the presence of General Jurabek, said he thought some 35 people had died in his container en route from Kunduz. "No oxygen, no oxygen," he said urgently in English. The general corrected him and said only five or six had died.
Faced with transporting thousands of potentially dangerous prisoners even while a prisoner uprising in the Qala Jangi fort near Mazar-i- Sharif was under way, the Northern Alliance packed many of the detained into the sealed shipping containers for the journey from Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in the north, to this town, the hometown of Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Shipping containers line the roads of Afghanistan and are frequently used not only to hold and transport prisoners, but to use as shops where items of all sorts are for sale.
The uprising at the Qala Jangi fort, in which some 230 prisoners and one C.I.A. officer died, and the sheer logistics of detaining and transporting more than 4,000 prisoners — many of them foreign fighters for the Taliban — have overwhelmed the new authorities in the north, who are still confronting pockets of Taliban resistance.
One witness, a local driver who declined to be interviewed but spoke to Afghan acquaintances, said he had seen soldiers unloading many dead bodies from a container by the road not far from here.
General Jurabek, who oversees the largest detention center for Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan, watched from his upstairs room in the gatehouse of the prison as a container packed with prisoners was backed into the prison courtyard below. Fifty-five more Taliban prisoners were arriving from the town of Balkh.
"I am here 24 hours a day," he said. "If I was not here the prisoners would be eating each other"
General Jurabek does appear to have brought order to the chaotic scenes of a week earlier, when thousands of dirty, hungry and hostile prisoners milled in the central courtyard and guards fingered their guns nervously. Among those prisoners were up to 100 who were wounded, and more than 80 men who had survived the battle in the fort.
It was considered a success — and a significant improvement on the widespread revenge killings of previous offensives in Afghanistan's 22 years of civil war — that the Northern Alliance negotiated for the Taliban to surrender Kunduz, their last stronghold in the north, without a fight. But the enormous number of prisoners posed its own problems. At Qala Jangi, more than 100 Northern Alliance soldiers and officers died in the uprising, which took six days to quell.
More prisoners are arriving each day at the prison here. After several days of barring journalists on security grounds, the authorities have now opened the prison gates to foreign visitors. The prisoners have been registered and questioned, and the badly wounded have been transferred to a newly secured wing of the local hospital. New kitchens and barrels of drinking water have been set up for them.
They are kept in three wings around a central courtyard, approximately 40 men to a room off a broad central corridor. On Saturday, they approached the bars at the end of the corridor to the courtyard to talk to their guards and to journalists. The mood was calm as a line of prisoners was allowed out with plastic bowls to collect rations of rice and bread. A bag of rubber galoshes lay in the corridor for those prisoners who were without shoes. Prisoners are also receiving re-education.
"Day by day we are explaining to them that no one will hurt them and that we will treat the injured," said General Jurabek, a Soviet-trained officer. "I explained to them that Osama bin Laden is a vile hard-line terrorist and Mullah Muhammad Omar too, because they wanted to destroy all of Afghanistan," he said. "And the prisoners are changing their minds now."
Yet there remains a feeling of desperation among some of the prisoners. Eleven men from Uzbekistan survived the battle at Qala Jangi but now fear that they will be deported home, where they would face brutal treatment and even death under the harsh system run by President Islam Karimov. "They are going to send us back to Uzbekistan, and there we will not survive prison," said one, Abdul Jabar, 26, close to tears. "We are all educated. We don't want to be returned home."
Another prisoner, an Iraqi from Baghdad, Ali Abdul Matalib, 30, said he had been trying to smuggle himself from Kunduz to Russia and then Europe when he got caught up in the war. "I had nothing to do with this," he said, leaning through the bars. "This was between the Taliban and America. I am just afraid for my future. I just want to get to Europe."
The other Arabs, some 40 who survived the battle in Qala Jangi, would not consent to be interviewed and remain set in their opinions, General Jurabek said. "When we mention America they spit on us," he said. "And when we say their own country will serve the death sentence on them, they say `Thanks be to God.' "
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company