First Person: The Battle of Qalai Janghi
QALAI JANGHI, Afghanistan – It had been called a massacre in which none survived. But Saturday 84 Taliban fighters emerged alive from the bloodiest battle of the war.
Dazed and exhausted, they emerged from the bunker in which nobody was meant to have survived. Yesterday, inside the fort where the most savage battle of the war had taken place, more than 80 Taliban fighters straggled out into the daylight, hands in the air, some walking, some half-dead.
It seemed inconceivable that anybody could have lived through the carnage that had erupted a week ago when some 450 Taliban prisoners overpowered their guards, killed a CIA agent and stormed the armory in the Qalai Janghi fort near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
For days the rebel prisoners had been bombed and blasted by Northern Alliance troops and U.S. and British forces. Outside the bunker the compound had been littered with bodies, bomb fragments and blood. But survivors there were.
It started at 7:30 a.m., when a group of 13 emerged into the daylight; the cold had finished their resistance. The soldiers of the Northern Alliance had pumped water from a fire truck into the bunker, flooding their enemy out. The first Taliban to surface were drenched, shivering and exhausted.
At 10 a.m. the remainder agreed to surrender. Nobody was sure how many were left in the hellhole. One by one they came out of the shattered entrance. Some brought up guns. The Northern Alliance soldiers stripped them of weapons and boots, and tied their arms. Then, in a parade of limping, tattered individuals, the fanatical fighters of Usama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network were led barefoot down a dirt path towards a red shipping container.
Yemenis, Saudis, Uzbekis, Czechens and Pakistanis — I counted 84 of them. Several looked as if they might be North African. One came hopping down the path, his other leg broken and useless. Others seemed to have survived without a scratch; the 40th prisoner, a Pakistani, appeared to share a joke with his guard.
Most ignored questions or were too shell-shocked to heed them. But the 44th man stopped in front of me. I asked him where he was from.
"Where am I from?" His English was impeccable. He surveyed the compound and sniffed the air, as if trying to recollect some distant memory. "I was born in America."
Again he looked around, as though searching for inspiration. "Baton Rouge," he said. "Baton Rouge, Louisiana — you know it, yeah?"
Who was this man? How had he come to fight in this distant land? Before he could answer the guard prodded him on. He glanced back one last time before taking his place in the container.
The Red Cross arrived and a representative was allowed to tend the injured on the ground outside the container. One man was trembling uncontrollably. Another had stopped moving on his stretcher, too weak to eat the apples and bananas fed to the wounded by Red Cross workers. He seemed unlikely to survive.
Northern Alliance soldiers were bewildered and angry.
"They will eat your apples and bananas and then blow us all up," warned Abdul Rakhman, a local villager whose house the Taliban had burnt down. As stretcher-bearers carried away the last foreign fighter to emerge from the bunker, an elderly man sprang from a doorway brandishing a rock.
"You killed my son," he yelled at the groaning Arab, who feebly raised an arm in defense. The fingers of his right hand were bloody stumps except for one hanging by a thread of skin.
The old man was about to smash the rock on the prisoner's head when I rushed up. It prompted a Northern Alliance officer to intervene, wrestling the rock out of the old man's hand. Another man sat with an ugly shrapnel wound in his leg, rocking back and forth; he was from Chechnya and spoke Russian. "We were very hungry," he said, chewing on a Red Cross apple. "It was dark and cold in there. There are many dead. There are dead all around us."
A whiff of mindless massacre had already been in the air. Amid accusations that all the Taliban had been slaughtered in the battle — some with hands tied behind their backs — Amnesty International had called for an inquiry. Now, as the survivors emerged from the stinking, Stygian gloom of the bunker, wounded, desperate, but still armed, still alive, one thing became clear.
From the outset to the bitter end, the negotiated "surrender" of these foreign Al Qaeda fighters had been shot through with duplicity and danger.
Saturday: Prelude to a Battle
Set beside pomegranate orchards a few miles outside Mazar-e-Sharif, the Qalai Janghi fort dominates the area like a giant sandcastle out of the Arabian Nights. Its sloping ramparts, rising 60 feet above the plain, are topped with a 6-foot-high crenelated mud wall enclosing a vast area of compounds, low buildings and bunkers.
The Russians used it as a base. So did the Taliban until the Northern Alliance drove them out early last month. Then General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a fearsome warlord with bulging biceps, a thunderous laugh and a fondness for drink, took it over as his headquarters and kept his horses stabled there.
It was at the fort 10 days ago that Dostum negotiated the surrender of the die-hard foreign fighters of the Taliban in Kunduz, 85 miles to the east. The deal was a murky one, for the foot soldiers at least, and as part of it a band of about 450 Taliban traveled by night across the desert deep into territory held by the Northern Alliance.
Early last Saturday morning they were camped five miles outside Mazar when Dostum's forces mustered to greet them. Had the foreign fighters come to surrender, or had they been duped by their leaders, sacrificed as bargaining chips?
According to Amir Jan Naseri, a former Taliban commander who had switched sides and had helped to negotiate the deal, the black-turbaned fighters had expected to hand over their weapons and be set free.
Unrest spread. Tense negotiations dragged on for hours until, reluctantly, the Taliban agreed to yield. They handed over their rocket launchers, machine guns and Kalashnikovs, which were piled high in a truck that drove through Mazar to some fanfare. A man on top fended off attempts to snatch weapons from the pile. The prisoners were to travel separately to the fort.
"We will check how many are from Pakistan, Chechnya, Iran and Arab countries, and then we will hand them over to the United Nations," said Dostum.
An experienced survivor of warfare in Afghanistan, he moved well away from the road as the prisoners were jammed into five high-sided open trucks, warning journalists to keep back in case the Taliban sprang any surprises. A few days earlier some Chechens had detonated bombs hidden under their clothes while surrendering, killing several Northern Alliance commanders in a suicidal gesture of defiance.
It should have been a warning. But even this time not all the prisoners were searched as they boarded the lorries. Only inside the fort did the Northern Alliance begin thoroughly to screen the Taliban, who were confined to the southern compound.
Andrea Catherwood, an ITN reporter, was watching the process when a young Northern Alliance soldier beckoned her over. "He showed me two grenades that he had found hidden in the clothes of a Taliban fighter," she said later. She moved back towards one of the trucks where a Northern Alliance police officer was searching prisoners. She was about 10 yards away when an explosion blew the man to pieces.
"I felt the blast hit my leg," she said. A prisoner had detonated a grenade, killing himself, the police officer and another Northern Alliance officer. A piece of shrapnel had punched its way deep into Catherwood's knee.
"I knew I was okay, I was still standing," said Catherwood. "My initial concern was that the Northern Alliance did not look in control. The foreign fighters were milling around. I thought they might take it as a signal to revolt."
Panic threatened as the Northern Alliance guards shouted and cocked their weapons. More rushed in from another part of the fort, screaming at the Taliban to put up their hands.
Catherwood, her translator and cameraman slipped away towards the exit. "It was getting dark," she said. "We knew we had to get out." Nobody can be sure why the grenade went off but, as Catherwood said later: "I doubt it was an accident in the light of subsequent events."
That evening , last Saturday, the Northern Alliance quelled any potential revolt. To the Taliban, perhaps as the truth of their incarceration dawned, there may have seemed only one way out. During the night, according to Naseri, eight of the foreign fighters blew themselves up in a room.
Sunday Morning: Fighting Breaks Out
The following morning Simon Brooks, head of Red Cross operations for northern Afghanistan, and another Red Cross official drove along the tree-lined dirt track that runs through the main compound of the fort. They had an appointment with our host to arrange access to the prisoners to ensure they were being treated humanely.
Other Westerners were also inside the walls. A German television crew had arrived. Nikolai Pavlov, a correspondent for Reuters, was also heading towards the prisoners' compound with a cameraman.
"We were about to go inside to interview some of the captives when we were halted at a small gate by a commander who said we needed permission from his superior," recalled Pavlov. It was shortly after 11 a.m.
Inside the prisoners' compound the Northern Alliance, fearing more suicide bombings, were searching prisoners and binding their arms. "We decided they were very dangerous and that we should tie them and put them in a basement," said Naseri, the former Taliban commanders who had switched sides.
Did the Taliban believe they were going to be executed? They had some reason to think so, knowing only too well Dostum's bloodthirsty reputation. Military transactions involving him have been characterized by bloody betrayals and counter-betrayals.
Some 3,000 Taliban had been killed in Mazar fighting him in 1997. The foreign fighters doubtless also knew the legend of how Dostum once ordered a soldier accused of theft to be lashed to the tracks of a tank, which then went on a tour of the fort — and that was one of his own men.
Into this volatile brew of Islamic fury and fear had walked the CIA. That morning two of its agents, known as "Dave" and "Mike", were in the compound with Said Kamal, the local chief of intelligence, to interview prisoners.
Johnny "Mike" Spann, a 32-year-old former marine, was "quiet, serious and absolutely unflappable", according to George Tenet, director of the CIA. His stoicism "concealed a dry sense of humor and a heart of gold".
One prisoner hurled a rock at a guard's head and grabbed his rifle. Another threw himself at Spann and detonated a grenade. Both died in the explosion. Other prisoners pounced on Dave, who drew his gun and killed at least one.
Dave then shot his way out, racing from the building across the compound towards the administration buildings. Witnesses saw another group of prisoners crushing the skull of the local intelligence chief with a rock. Some were untying the arms of those who had been bound. Within minutes the Taliban fighters had overpowered the small band of guards and seized their weapons.
In the administration building in the other compound, Brooks, the Red Cross official, was starting his meeting. "We heard some gunfire," he said. "A few gunshots is nothing unusual around here. Then all hell broke loose."
Our Northern Alliance host made polite excuses and went to investigate. As the thuds and bangs echoing round the fort intensified, Brooks and his colleague headed into a basement.
"Then we noticed there was no way out," Brooks said. "We were cornered. We went back upstairs."
Outside in the main compound Pavlov and his cameraman had thrown themselves to the ground under some trees. "We heard two grenades exploding and then rifle fire," he said.
From the wall in the middle of the fort Northern Alliance soldiers were shooting down on the prisoners. Bullets fired from below pecked at the top of the wall. Pavlov made a dash for shelter and reached the parapet above what had been Dostum's quarters. He found himself hunkered down near the German television crew and Dave, who was screaming into a satellite phone he had borrowed from the Germans.
"Mike's been killed," Dave was yelling. "They overpowered him. We need troops. We need airstrikes." The CIA man was horrified at the death of his colleague, according to witnesses. "Dave was going to pieces," said one witness.
"He was yelling into that phone for support, talking about Mike 'going down.'" The fort was out of control, Dave told the Red Cross workers; they had to escape. Only about 100 Northern Alliance troops had been left to guard the Taliban while Dostum and his best forces had returned to complete the capture of Kunduz.
The prisoners had seized the southern compound and some guards began to slip over the northern battlements. Brooks, Pavlov and others followed, leaping off the 6-foot wall, tumbling, rolling, running down the dusty ramparts as the bullets flew.
"We sprinted to the main road," said Brooks. Beyond the fort a strange normality still ruled and Brooks "hailed a taxi to Mazar."
Inside the fort, the Taliban had no way out, but had broken into the arsenal. It contained rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons.
Haji Mohaqiq, a politician allied to Dostum, said that in retrospect it had been a mistake to house so many prisoners next to a weapons dump.
"We wanted to respect them, to show them goodwill," Mohaqiq said. "But they were a very radical and fanatical bunch, foreign militants on suicide missions."
Sunday Afternoon: Special Forces Arrive
The distress call from the CIA agent went to the American embassy in Tashkent, the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan, which acts as the main base for American and British special forces sent into northern Afghanistan.
The message was doubtless relayed to American central command in Florida, where General Tommy Franks is in overall control of operations. He and his commanders had to act fast if the Taliban were not to break out of the fort.
An obvious option was to use the detachment of several dozen British SAS men stationed at a school in Mazar. At about 3 p.m. a group of them roared up to the fort in two white desert patrol vehicles.
"I heard this voice saying, 'Anyone here speak English?'" an aid worker said later, imitating a Cockney accent. American special forces also arrived. They were in uniform, while the SAS men were in plain clothes.
Inside the fort a full-scale gun battle was under way, with a demented percussion of bangs and explosions as the Northern Alliance tried to contain the Taliban foreign fighters. A few had made it out of the fort only to be shot down. Two lay dead beyond the walls.
"We were worried that they were going to break out," said Fausi, our host. "We had to ask the British and Americans for help."
The special forces appeared to split into two groups, according to one eyewitness. One headed for the southwest corner of the fort, apparently to fight any Taliban that might try to escape that way. The others went into the fort at the northeast corner.
Perched on a parapet there, Fausi advised the special forces on co-ordinating the jet fighters and bombers that materialized out of the pale blue sky.
"I would say, 'I could use a missile over there', and they would say, 'One minute'," said Fausi. "And the next thing you knew a plane would drop a bomb right on the spot."
The aerial pounding was ferocious but the Taliban were hitting back. Dostum's men were dropping from the parapets. Bodies were strewn in the courtyard below. As darkness fell the fort became a giant firework, emitting flashes and dancing points of light that could be seen from miles around. Inside the fort scores of fighters, possibly more, were already dead.
That night in Kabul, Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, a deputy in the Northern Alliance ministry of intelligence and security, said: "Most of the foreigners were killed. Up to 300," he said. "It's not a big deal."
Monday and Tuesday: The Battle Drags On
For the Taliban it was all or nothing, and some were still alive. The Jeeps and vans of the special forces shuttled back and forth the following day as it became clear that a core of at least 40 or 50 Taliban had survived the night. They were hiding in basements, still heavily armed, and were striking back. Four mortar shells landed outside the walls.
"They kept firing with machine guns all day," said an alliance spokesman. Heavy fire was also coming from the stables where several dozen Arab fighters had holed up. The stables had been the pride of Dostum's horse-loving Jowzjan militia who had fought all over Afghanistan against one enemy or another. Now the battle was on their doorstep.
A special forces team called in another airstrike just before 10:50 a.m. on Monday. "The plane is coming in from the west," shouted an officer close to where a journalist was taking cover outside the fort. "Danger close. Bombs coming," he said into a radio.
High above, the pilot of an F-18 Super Hornet dropped a 2,000-lb. bomb. Did he make an error or were the co-ordinates he was given wrong? Either way, on the parapet of the fort Fausi was hurled off his feet as a huge hole was blown in the wall. Miraculously, he survived with slight shrapnel wounds on one cheek.
But the bomb had seriously injured five Americans and dozens of Northern Alliance soldiers. Afghans were crying out that the target was wrong. "Cut it please," pleaded Alim Razem, a commander. "Cut the next one please. You hit the place of our soldiers."
The battle continued all that day and on through the night. Spectre AC-130 gunships used their terrifying firepower to rip through parts of the fort held by the Taliban. Bombers targeted the munitions dump.
Just after the morning call to prayer on Tuesday, an enormous explosion reverberated around the fort. The arsenal had been hit. A tank moved in and blasted rounds into the building where the last Taliban fighters were believed to be holed up.
When shots still emerged from a bunker underneath, troops of the Northern Alliance shoved rockets into a culvert to obliterate whoever was left alive in the warren of basement corridors.
Wednesday Through Saturday: The Last Holdouts
Towards dusk on Wednesday evening an eerie silence hung over the fort. The stench of decay emanated from various rubble-strewn doorways. The carcasses of some 50 horses lay scattered about. A dirt track leading through the middle of the main compound was coated in green pine needles and branches scythed off by bullets.
Further up this path were the charred remains of Jeeps; further on still I could see that everywhere the ground was littered with blackened detritus — here a smouldering rifle butt, there a machine gun cut in two. Unexploded rocket and mortar rounds poked out of the walls.
Dostum's Uzbek soldiers picked through the wreckage. Some stripped clothes from the dead. Others carried off bloodstained copies of the Koran.
Later claims that 50 bodies had been found with their arms bound were wrong. About 30 corpses had lain on the parade ground where the battle had started; no more than eight had had their arms tied behind their backs.
The Northern Alliance had been binding them after searching for weapons. These prisoners appeared to have been cut down in the shooting as the revolt erupted; there was no sign of any having been executed.
As if reason for the slaughter were needed, one of the clean-up workers claimed to hear muffled voices coming from an underground bunker. Soldiers scurried forward with shells that they pushed into holes above the bunker and detonated. It was hard to imagine how anybody hiding below ground could have survived the series of deafening explosions. They did.
On Thursday morning the work of removing bodies continued. "The reality is," said Brooks, as a stretcher went past bearing a crumpled body, "that behind each one of these bodies is a family."
The Red Cross planned to photograph each body and send the data to a "tracing center" so that relatives, with luck, might be able to track down missing loved ones.
But many of the dead would be forever anonymous. Several had no heads; some "bodies" were no more than small pieces. Brooks was undeterred in his work. "Somebody has to do this," he said.
We were standing at the entrance to the bunker. Wafting up from the gloom was a nauseating stench.
"We think there must be lots of bodies down there," said Brooks. "Nobody wants to go down."
He gestured at stretcher bearers going about their grim business with scarves wrapped over their faces to mask the odor of death.
A man was hauling bodies onto a trailer. He was perched on two layers of corpses from which stiffened limbs poked up at odd angles: a dusty hand, a blood-smeared leg.
"Come and see the stables," said Brooks. "There's a huge pile of bodies there."
We walked a few yards, spent cartridges crunching underfoot. Behind us four gunshots rang out from inside the bunker. Stretcher bearers dropped their loads and fled. We ducked behind a low, mud wall, near the carcasses of two horses.
"Don't tell me there are still Taliban alive down there," Brooks whispered.
At the entrance to the bunker, where we had stood a minute before, two rescue workers had been shot, one in the hand, one in the leg. Groaning, they were being pulled to safety.
Nobody could tell how many Taliban were lurking underground. Some 175 corpses had been recovered, leaving perhaps 275 unaccounted for if the original estimate of prisoners brought to the fort was to be believed.
"We fear they might try and break out," said one of Dostum's soldiers, standing in front of the bunker entrance, occasionally spraying bullets from his Kalashnikov into the gloom.
More shells were dropped into the bunker but it was hard to say with what effect. Nobody cared to go down and take a look.
"Perhaps if somebody talks to them they might surrender," a young soldier suggested. His elders laughed.
"They'll never surrender," said a bearded man in a turban. "We have to kill them before going in there."
At 3:30 p.m. three white Jeeps pulled into the fort. Out jumped a dozen men, at least six of them Americans and the rest from the SAS. But no attack came.
After days of brutal bombardment, by the most powerful warplanes in the world, and assault by hundreds of troops guided by Western special forces, it was time for different tactics.
That night the Northern Alliance flooded the bunker with water. Stuck in darkness, starving, freezing, wounded, with corpses floating amid the filth — for those trapped below the horror is unimaginable.
After the bedraggled fighters had emerged and been led away, I ventured down the steps of the bunker. Foul air and gloom wrapped me in a clammy embrace. At the foot of the stairs a body was floating on its back. A corridor full of water stretched away into the darkness.
Entombed in there were the bodies of other men, probably many bodies. Had they been determined to fight to the death? Some of those in the battle had shown no mercy to anybody. Or were others merely prisoners caught up in a brutal revolt by diehard fanatics?
Through the murk of the basement and the battle, it seemed impossible to tell. I peered into the darkness and then turned and went back up to the air and the light.
Additional reporting by Carlotta Gall in Qalai Janghi and Richard Woods in London