Published January 13, 2015
The recent cries of human rights groups against the conditions of a U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were cast into a new light as many jailed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan raised their voices in the plea: "We want to go to an American prison."
Anything, they say, to leave Shibergan prison in northern Afghanistan, now jammed to more than 10 times its capacity with about 3,500 men. But unlike the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, this has been a prison largely out of the spotlight.
"I can't lie and say it's fine. The problems are clearly visible," said the head warden, Gen. Jurabeg, "We are struggling."
The mud-walled compound provides a lesson of sorts: with local militiamen in charge in much of Afghanistan, there's an ad hoc approach toward rank-and-file Taliban prisoners.
"From region to region, there are different ways Afghan authorities are dealing with Taliban prisoners," said Samuel Emonet, who heads the Red Cross team inspecting detention facilities in the region. "Shibergan stands out because of its size and the uncertainty of what will happen to the prisoners."
The prison about 75 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif is controlled by the forces of Gen. Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who rules much of northern Afghanistan. He and other militia leaders are under international pressure to help build a credible central authority in Kabul.
But Dostum still apparently answers to no one about many aspects of his fiefdom.
Prison doctors have begged for medicine from Dostum's military hospital in Shibergan. Only a few boxes of antibiotics and rehydration salts have been sent to Shibergan, one of the largest detention camps in the country.
An official at the hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said supplies are critically low and there is little money to buy more. "The Taliban prisoners are not a priority," he said.
Nearly a third of the prisoners at Shibergan are suffering from chronic dysentery and other gastric problems, doctors said.
"We have no medicine. It couldn't be worse," said Dr. Abdul Bashir, one of four prison physicians. "No, let me correct that. I[t] will get worse when the weather gets warmer. We could be seeing things as bad as cholera."
The Red Cross, under its mandate as a neutral watchdog of prison conditions, cannot provide a steady supply of food or medicine. It does arrange daily deliveries of 5,200 gallons of water — well below what's needed, doctors say.
"This is not a crisis?" asked Bashir. "We just can't take care of the prisoners."
The worst cases — mostly bronchitis and tuberculosis — are sent to the military hospital. Others are placed on feces-stained beds or on straw mats in the prison clinic. One inmate carried another who had blacked out from high blood pressure. He was put on the floor, but there was no way to treat him.
Many prisoners see their former enemy as a possible savior.
"The United States should help us. How can the world ignore us?" pleaded Maqsoud Khan, 26, who is among about 1,100 Pakistani prisoners in Shibergan.
Khan wrapped himself in a blue blanket donated by the Red Cross. But it offered little warmth against a bitter cold wind, which froze the puddles and hardened the mud in the prison yard. There are no prison uniforms — only the clothes the men wore when they were captured as U.S.-backed forces retook northern Afghanistan in November.
The fortunate ones have black plastic slippers supplied by the Red Cross. Others are barefoot.
After an hour in the prison yard, the prisoners are herded back to their quarters: bare six-by-nine foot rooms where up to 60 men try to sleep on icy cold concrete floors. Latrines empty into fetid swamps.
There were no claims of torture or specific abuse. The prisoners spoke, however, of another type of agony: uncertainty about the future.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters have been freed around Afghanistan under an ill-defined amnesty encouraged by the interim government. But there have been no such releases from Shibergan.
"Will we be held here forever? No one can tell us," said an Afghan prisoner, Qari Habib Rahman. "We were simple fighters. We know nothing about the Taliban leaders."
U.S. interrogators, seeking Taliban leaders and members of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network, moved several dozen prisoners from Shibergan last month, the warden said.
A commander for Dostum's forces said all the other prisoners would remain at Shibergan until the American investigations are complete. In Washington, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem confirmed this week that "initial interrogations" were being conducted in Shibergan and elsewhere.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.