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In a Freezing Kabul Refugee Camp, a Former Taliban Commander Turned NATO Ally Says He Was Betrayed

Mohammad Sardar laid down his arms and began working for the Afghan government under a NATO-backed assimilation policy. Now, he says, he has been abandoned by his new employers and branded a traitor by his old.

by Guy Smallman
Mar 16 2015, 11:25am

Photos by Guy Smallman

The year began badly for the Afghan government, newly responsible for its own security after international forces finished their withdrawal on the last day of 2014. On January 1 one of three mortar rounds allegedly fired from an Afghan Army outpost killed at least 20 civilians attending a wedding party and injured dozens more in the volatile Sangin district of Helmand province. This latest horror came as little surprise to one of its former residents. His tale of conflict and betrayal has delivered him and his family into one of the worst places to survive anywhere in Afghanistan. Life was much easier when he commanded a unit of the "mujahadeen." 

Our meeting with our contact was delayed by over 40 minutes as Kabul's usually slow traffic was gridlocked to a standstill. The reason, we discovered, was the blocking of several major routes around the Ministry of Defense by the local police using large flatbed trucks as mobile barriers. The Afghan MOD and National Directorate of Security (NDS) have become favorite targets for the Taliban since NATO began its stand-down.

'They said they would return our weapons and recognize our authority as part of the government. But they did nothing for us. ... I reminded them of their promise to protect me.'

When we arrived at our destination — one of Kabul's 110 refugee camps — a scene of organized chaos greeted us. The World Food Program was distributing flour, sugar and cooking oil to the camp's inhabitants. Boys queued with wheelbarrows to collect their families' rations while unregistered residents begged the NGO workers to include them in the handout. Nearby, the boys' mothers shrieked orders at them from under their burkas.

Despite the draw-down of international forces, violence is on the rise in parts of the country, with civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict.

The fighting in Helmand province has recently intensified, causing sprawling camps like this one to swell during Kabul's harsh winter.

Related: Afghanistan: What We're Leaving Behind (Full Length). Watch video here.

A tribal elder was liberally swinging the buckle end of his belt at anyone who tried to jump the queue. To our left, some boys were fighting over a bag of sugar that someone had dropped. To our right, an intense looking man, with peeling skin and claw-like hands, was eyeballing us. After a bit of hesitation he walked over.

Kabul, the capital, is now home to 110 refugee camps.

Abdul Samad lost two daughters, a son and 32 members of his extended family when NATO bombed his village in Sangin six years ago. His beard and thick black hair has long since grown back but his face still bears the scars of the fire from which he tried in vain to rescue the bodies of his children. The damage to his hands has made finding work in the city labor markets all but impossible.

Abdul Samad lost two daughters, a son and 32 members of his extended family when NATO bombed his village in Sangin six years ago.

As he guided us through the network of paths and open sewers that divide the camp dwellings, we were startled by a scream from an opening. A middle-aged woman named Sabza Gul was wailing over the body of her father, 80-year-old Abdul Kaliq; beating her face and periodically adjusting the dirty blanket serving as his shroud. We were told that he spent the last few months of his life begging on the main road nearby. Stripped of dignity in life, there was none to be found in death either as his family revealed that they have nowhere to take the body.

An unsympathetic municipal official recently informed the camp dwellers that the local cemetery is for documented Kabul residents only. The displaced and landless must make their own arrangements.

Refugees must make their own arrangements to bury their dead, as the local cemetery is for the use of Kabul residents only.

Two minutes later we reached the compound of dusty frozen mud that was home to Abdul Samad's cousin — known to all in the camp as The Commander — and his surviving family members.

His cousin Mohammad Sardar looks much older than his 30 years. He is softly spoken and has the demeanor of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. As the most senior elder in the family, he bears overall responsibility for his relatives. He apologized for the freezing temperature in the bare room, in which we sat cross-legged with five other men and two boys. He then added that his baby son had just died.

Mohammad Sardar, known to all as "The Commander," gave up his arms as part of a NATO-backed policy to assimilate less radical Taliban elements into pro-government militia.

"My child's name was Sharafuddin. He died around ten days ago; he was one and a half years old. The coldness of the house killed him. We don't have a wood burner; we don't have enough blankets or mattresses. Many of us are sick. My uncle's wife is very serious. She is bloated. My cousins asked me for help as she needs to be treated in Pakistan but we do not have money for this."

The mortality rate in the camps is painfully high, especially in winter. Another man in the room, Ramazan, told us his wife died just over a month ago as a result of complications following childbirth. His baby daughter survived and was passed around the women in the camp for milk before falling sick. She is now in the Children's Hospital and Ramazan fears that a single mobile phone picture may be all he will have to remember his wife and daughter by.

The mortality rates in the camps are high; Ramazan lost his wife in childbirth and his baby daughter is now in hospital.

Commander Sardar began to explain how he and his clan came to be in this hellhole. "A while ago I was a commander in the mujahadeen. We were fighting the government but the elders of our village became tired of the killing. They said that we would kill five government people then they would kill five of us and it was pointless. They begged me to join the peace process."

The process in question was a NATO-backed policy in the late 2000s, of assimilating less radical elements of the Taliban into tribal militias, charged and paid to administer lawless areas on behalf of the government. It is a policy that has paid dividends in neighboring Kandahar but which has been fraught with problems elsewhere.

"We handed over our weapons and made peace with the government," Sardar explained. "I asked them what they would do for us? They promised us land, facilities and bodyguards.

Sardar says that he agreed to work with the government and US forces but soon found himself abandoned.

"They said they would return our weapons and recognize our authority as part of the government. But they did nothing for us. They didn't ask how we were doing? What we were eating? What was the condition of the village? After seven months they eventually fixed me a salary of $350 a month as a pro-government commander. They paid me for nearly a year, then for six months there was nothing."

It was unclear whether he was cut off for falling out of favor or because of the corruption that plagues every aspect of Afghan government. Whatever the reason, it put him in an impossible position.

"When I was escorting American soldiers through our village, I started receiving night letters from the Taliban saying that I was bringing foreign troops in to search peoples' homes. That I was a traitor. That I was not a Muslim. I told them that I had joined the government to help the Afghan people. The Taliban said that they were the Afghan people. That the government was not Muslim because they worked with the Americans and I had given them our weapons.

He was forced to flee Helmand Province after attacks from the Taliban who regarded him as a traitor.

"The Taliban and their supporters began a campaign of harassment against me. They attacked our sheep and cattle. They even attacked our home and started shooting at me.

"Three times I sent an application for weapons — three AK47s — to provide for my own security, but they refused the authorization. I reminded them of their promise to protect me. I had even handed over a suicide bomber to them but they did nothing. That is why I was forced to leave Helmand and live here."

To add to his woes, Sardar's history ensures that his potential to provide for his family is seriously limited. Most men from the camps scrape a living working as casual laborers. But for the likes of the Commander that is not an option.

Sardar says that since he joined the government initiative everyone knows who he is, and won't give him work.

"I am able to do any kind of work. But I cannot find any since I joined the government. Everybody knows me, what I was, that I was a Taliban. They all know that I carried a gun. So now no one will give me a job. People who have a clean background get jobs. I was a mujahadeen."

He also confirmed the grim assessment that life has got even harder for local civilians in volatile areas since the NATO withdrawal.

"The situation in Helmand is now much worse. The government troops are weaker so the Taliban ambush them more often."

I finished by asking if he would ever consider returning. His answer came without hesitation.

"Here, if I die from exposure or starvation, I have to accept this. Because if I go back to Helmand they will kill us and there won't even be someone there to bury the body. I would rather freeze than be strangled or beheaded."

Refugees at Kabul's camps face final indignities in death.

As we left, Abdul Kaliq's body was being unceremoniously loaded into a beat-up estate car for his final journey. The rickety tin bed on which he lay was too long to allow the rear door to close, so a family member was perched on the end, clamping the makeshift casket to the floor to steady it. One of the metal bed legs caught the uneven road — nearly dragging him out, and causing his daughter to scream once more.

For the refugees of Helmand, the future looks bleak indeed. Being caught in the crossfire between a strengthening Taliban and trigger-happy government troops is bad enough. Existing off inadequate handouts in the freezing and filthy refugee camps of Kabul almost seems worse.

Follow Guy Smallman on Twitter: @GuySmallman