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RESPONSE TO TERROR | WAR ZONE CASUALTIES

Recovery of Slain Comrades a Grisly Task for Opposition

Conflict: In western Afghanistan, anti- Taliban forces secure an air base while searching for remains of fighters executed by the regime.

November 21, 2001|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHINDAND, Afghanistan — On this wind-swept air base that stretches as far as the eye can see, Mohammad Sayeedi and his fellow anti-Taliban fighters searched for their brethren, whose corpses lay hidden in unmarked, shallow graves.

Sayeedi said that as many as 50 of his men were executed here by the Taliban four months ago, shot at close range, thrown out of helicopters or dismembered. Twenty-six decomposing bodies were found during the weekend.

The others will be found, said Sayeedi, 43, a supervisor of guards loyal to Northern Alliance Gen. Ismail Khan who now control the base in western Afghanistan. But it may take a while.

"We need to find insiders who can help us," he said, referring to collaborators or others who are knowledgeable of Taliban activities on the base. "This place is too large. We can't do this by ourselves."

For now, Sayeedi and his charges are focused on maintaining control over Shindand. It is a daunting challenge, one which the Taliban failed a week ago.

Thousands of nearby villagers drove the Taliban off the base last Thursday morning, hours before 500 of the anti-Taliban troops loyal to Khan arrived. Jumping into dozens of four-wheel-drive vehicles, much of the vanquished force fled south, taking Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns and other weapons, said Habi Bollah Azizi, 32, the Shindand base's acting commander.

One opposition fighter was injured and four Taliban troops were killed in the takeover, he said. An additional 40 Taliban were taken prisoner and sent to Herat, Azizi said.

One of two major air bases used by the Soviets during their 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, the Shindand complex 70 miles south of Herat is a testament to the nation's violent history. Two decades of damage--inflicted by the moujahedeen, then the Taliban, and more recently, the Americans--have rendered this vast complex virtually useless. The runway is pocked with holes left by Western bombs. Twisted, blackened frames that were once radar equipment litter the airfield.

Shindand's officers and technicians will begin repairing and reconstructing the base today, Sayeedi said. He said that the military personnel are not Taliban but public servants willing to serve a new administration.

Still, there's little hope the repairs will help defeat the Taliban strongholds to the southeast. "All we have left is maybe one or two MIGs," Sayeedi said.

What is more important, he said, is to find their dead and give them a proper funeral. The same thought is on the mind of Shindand's deputy commander, Nader Ghoreishy. The remains of 43 of his men are rotting 50 miles east, where they were ambushed several weeks ago, Ghoreishy said.

Four of the men executed at the base were buried Sunday, their graves covered with jagged pieces of slate, a common practice in the town of Shindand. But these graves are also decorated with strips of brightly colored cloth symbolizing martyrdom.

It's a designation that won't feed her five children, said 30-year-old Sheima, whose husband, Nour Ahmad, was among those found dead, his hands tied behind his back with a black cloth, his skull shattered by a bullet fired at close range.

"The last time I saw him was six months ago, on the base where he was kept prisoner," she said, pinching her brow with weathered fingers. "It was morning, and he told me, 'It's not clear where they are taking me.' "

She never saw him again, although she believed he was alive. Four days ago, the opposition fighters brought his remains to their mud hut in Shindand, 10 miles southwest of the base.

"I'll never forgive the Taliban, never!" she said, tightening her grip around her youngest child, who is 18 months old. "Not until judgment day. They should all die."

Her anger is echoed throughout the impoverished village, where residents struggle with a Northern Alliance decree that could mean amnesty for the enemy.

"The people here are not satisfied with the amnesty," said Azizi, the acting base commander, whose nephew was executed on the base. "These Taliban have committed a lot of crimes."

Most of the anger is aimed at Pakistani Taliban, who ruled the Shindand area for nine years. Afghan Taliban, like Shayesta Popalzaie, 28, who was taken prisoner a week ago while he and five others were headed south from Eslam Qaleh to Kandahar via lesser traveled roads, are looked upon with more sympathy, Azizi said.

Popalzaie--imprisoned in Shindand village--said he was an unwilling recruit and surrendered, while his five comrades fought back and were shot to death.

"This war must be finished," Popalzaie said in his native Pashtun, then headed off to wash his hands and feet for afternoon prayers.

Azizi said pockets of Taliban fighters like Popalzaie are hiding in the mountains visible from his village. Most are interested in surrendering, he said, adding that on Tuesday he sent a representative to Zerkuh to negotiate the surrender of 60 local Taliban troops.

Gholseldeer Rahimi, 40, a sharecropper turned opposition fighter, is less forgiving. He endured the falaka repeatedly over the last two years, a Taliban punishment in which a prisoner is beaten across the feet with a length of cable.

"We're unhappy," Rahimi said. "They killed . . . us and left the bodies to be eaten by dogs.

"We want to retaliate, to avenge the blood of those killed."

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