Photos by Roc Morin
The man’s headless body was found sprawled in the middle of a road in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province. Pinned to his chest was a bloodstained note that read: “Anyone who attends this man’s funeral can expect the same fate.” The Afghan National Police had suspects, but nobody was talking. That’s when they called the nation’s first and only forensics laboratory, the Criminal Techniques Department in Kabul.
The CTD gave the case to Noorullah Sangarkhil, their document-exploitation expert. Using a highly specialized $98,000 machine consisting of specialized lights and digital sensors his NATO instructors had trained him on, Noorullah was able to match the handwriting on the note to the handwriting of one of the suspects the police had apprehended. Thanks to the murderer’s capture, the headless victim’s funeral was well attended.
I traveled to the CTD with a six-man military escort. Here in Afghanistan—an environment of frequent insider attacks—the amount of armor NATO soldiers choose to wear is a good indicator of how they feel about the Afghans they’re dealing with. Once we arrived at the lab, the soldiers shed everything but their rifles, leaving their heavy, ceramic-plated vests and ballistic helmets inside our up-armored SUVs. “We’re here a lot,” explained US Senior Advisor David Jacobson, “These are good guys who care about what they do. I mean, they actually show up for work every day, which in this country isn’t always the case.”
The director of forensics, the affable Colonel Ayaz, met us at the entrance. He invited us into his office for customary tea. “If men do not take tea, it means they are fighting,” he quipped via translator before continuing with a description of his facility. Established in 2003 by NATO, the CTD occupies a single floor at the Ministry of Information. Its 102 technicians receive more than 300 new cases a month from around the country. The department’s purpose is to promote rule of law and the professionalization of the police. Before the CTD, for example, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) found by the Afghan National Security Force were immediately destroyed. Now, many officers around the country have been trained to collect evidence first in order to find and prosecute the perpetrators. After our talk, the Colonel invited us on a tour of the department.
In the ballistics lab, where seized assault rifles were stacked on every available surface, the strain of the CTD’s workload was apparent. The five-man team labored around the clock, to keep up, one technician claimed. They all shared a single specialized microscope to match bullets—the only such device in the entire country. The microscope had been a gift from Germany when the lab first opened, and was already 30 years old at the time. “We have one,” a technician noted, “and we need ten.” In response to their concerns, an additional forensics complex is being built in the city of Herat, scheduled to open later this fall.
The tour continued. In the corridor, we passed a room with the letters “DNA” on the door. “Four years ago,” Colonel Ayaz explained, “I didn’t even know what DNA was. Now, our personnel have been trained in DNA analysis and we’re just waiting for the arrival of the right equipment.”
In the fingerprint lab, I shook hands with senior technician Colonel Gulzar Ali. I asked him via translator how he had chosen his profession. The two smile lines around his mouth deepened. His hands lifted into the air as he spoke. “I was a physics and chemistry teacher,” he explained, “but experiencing 30 years of war in our country encouraged me to work in this office. This is the only department in Afghanistan that knows which people are telling the truth and which are telling lies. Democracy depends on this.”
Colonel Ali handed me a sheaf of papers: all of the cases he was working on. He picked a sheet at random. “In this instance, a woman was found shot. The family claimed it was a suicide, but her fingerprints are not on the gun. Someone else’s are.”
“Do most Afghans know that they can be identified by their fingerprints?” I asked.
“Most do not,” he replied. “Maybe the most educated 20 percent know.”
“That must make your job easier.”
“What case from your career are you most proud of solving?”
“Well, I can show you one case. A female was killed by a government official. He denied it, of course, but through the fingerprint on the gun, we found that this person killed the female. We sent that information back to the court.”
“What happened to the official?”
“He has power, so he is still playing around the country, still free.” The Colonel rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together indicating money. “In this country, some of the criminals go to jail and some go free because of the people they know.”
“How do you feel knowing that all of your work was for nothing?”
“It’s so painful for me that I am working day and night to catch the criminals and due to corruption they are free.”
“What’s the name of the official who killed that woman?” I asked.
Colonel Ali hesitated for a moment before launching into a long monologue in the local languge of Dari. When he was finished, I looked to the interpreter.
“He says he doesn’t know,” the interpreter replied.
“He doesn’t know, or he can’t say?”
The interpreter conversed again with the Colonel before turning back to me.
“He says he doesn’t know.”
“He’s afraid?” I asked.
“Yes,” the interpreter nodded. “I think he is afraid.”