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Foreign prisoners face uncertain fate in Afghanistan

November 25, 2001

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Nov.25) The two prisoners are a study in contrasts: one a self-confessed al Qaida terrorist who says he would kill again. The other a misguided youth who says he made the wrong decision and ended up on the losing side.

Salih Jan, 31, from the United Arab Emirates, and Maqsoud Ali, 22, from Pakistan share a decrepit prison compound with 78 other Taliban prisoners captured in recent weeks by Northern Allliance fighters.

Most of the men here have been imprisoned for common crimes like murder, robbery, theft and burglary, but Jan and Ali share a unique status among their fellow inmates. They are foreigners who answered the Taliban’s call for jihad, or holy war.

Their fate is uncertain. The prison warden says they will remain here until the northern alliance forces capture the last Taliban holdout at Kunduz, about 40 miles away. Some of them may be exchanged for captured northern alliance fighters. Some of them may be sent home. Those deemed responsible for crimes may face justice in an Islamic court.

The paths that brought them to this prison could not be more different.

“I came here with the Taliban to see whether these people or Muslim or not,” Jan said. “I came to see the people with my very own eyes. When I see people who aren’t Muslim, I want to make jihad. I came here to fight against the Russians and Americans and people like them. It is (sacred) to fight against those who are not Muslim.”

Jan rambles on for several minutes. At first, he denies that he is a member of al Qaida and claims to have been born in Afghanistan. The warden says he is lying, and like a stern, abusive father, he boxes Jan lightly on the ear and shoulder. The warden says that Jan can’t even speak Persian or Pashtun, two of the dominant languages in Afghanistan. But fortunately the warden says he speaks Arabic and can translate.

Jan smiles at the warden and speaks to him in Arabic. He seems eager to please.

It is unclear how much of what Jan says is being distorted by the warden, but he now claims that he received terrorist training in the United Arab Emirates for seven years before coming to Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban took power. He arrived with 7,000 others, and they were split into smaller groups and sent to different al Qaida camps.

There, Jan says, “we got training in how to fight against the infidels.”

He claims to have learned how to build and detonate bombs and to use various weapons like AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

“We made plans to kill Masud, and we got him,” Jan says, referring to the popular and charismatic northern alliance leader who was assassinated by al Qaida terrorists on the eve of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He claims to have killed 20 people he believed were infidels because they did not accept the Taliban interpretation of Islam.

“I invited them to be with us and accept the Taliban and to fight against the infidels,” he says. “If they didn’t accept my ideas then I killed them.”

Jan smiles at the warden as he is talking and the warden translates. Barefoot and dressed in filthy, disheveled clothes, it is unclear whether Jan is telling the truth about his exploits or lying. Perhaps, he is simply crazy. It is also unclear how much of what he is saying is being distorted by the warden. At one point, he squats on his heels, while the warden strokes him on the head as if he were an obedient dog. Jan looks up at the warden and smiles, squinting in the sun. His teeth are brown with stains. He nervously fingers his prayer beads. His lips move as if he is reciting a prayer.

At one point, Jan says those who fight for the United Front are not Muslim. In the next sentence, he says he is happy that foreign Taliban have surrendered to the United Front in Kunduz because the United Front fighters are good Muslims, too.

Those who kill infidels or die in battle, even if they blow themselves up in suicide attacks have a special place in heaven, he says.

“They are doing these things for God,” he says. “They are going to be martyrs.”

Al Qaida trained us that this is not the real life, that the real life is in paradise.”

Jan says that he cares nothing about his family back home in Dubai. Bin Laden’s organization sends his family $1,200 a month for his service in Afghanistan, he claims. And he declares that he is unrepentant about his deeds.

“My enemy is America,” he says. “When I get out of here, I will fight again against America, Russia, Israel and India.”

Jan announces abruptly that he does not want to talk anymore. He retreats to a spot near a metal shipping container he shares as living quarters with several other prisoners. After a few minutes, he takes his prayer rug to the middle of the tennis court-sized compound and begins to pray. It is unclear how long where he was captured or how long he has been imprisoned. He kneels for a long time in the midday sun.

By contrast, Maqsoud Ali, 22, joined the Taliban only one month ago after he answered the call to jihad at a madrassa, or religious school, in his native Peshawar. Like thousands of other devout, young Pashtuns in Pakistan, he joined the Taliban out of obedience to his mullah, or religious teacher, only a month ago, when American bombs began raining down on Afghanistan.

“Our leaders told us that Afghanistan is a Muslim country, so we have to go make jihad against the infidels. But when I came here, I found that all of them were true Muslims already, and that the mullahs were wrong.”

Ali said at that point, he decided to return to Pakistan, but didn’t have the money go back home. He ended up in a Taliban camp in Takhar province with three other Pakistanis who entered the country with him.

He spent all of his time living in a former school with 12 other Taliban, his three Pakistani countrymen and nine Afghans. He thought that he might be sent to fight against the United Front, but was told they would be kept in reserve.

But they spent their days studying the Koran and other Islamic literature, rather than in military training.

“There was no difference between the local Taliban and the foreign Taliban,” he said. “We ate the same food. We drank the same water. We slept in the same place.”

He and the other Taliban at the school were taken by surprise when northern alliance forces moved swiftly in Takhar province 14 days ago, as they made their stunning march across Afghanistan after capturing the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Though the Taliban teaches its young fighters that it is preferable to die in battle than to be captured, Ali says he and his group gave up without a fight.

“It was not the time to die,” he said. “Maybe God decided it was best to keep me alive.”

All around the small compound, the other prisoners sit and watch Ali tell his story. Some of them begin their preparations for midday prayers by bathing in a ditch that runs through the area.  The early afternoon is filled with the sounds of dry hacking coughs and men spitting. The walls of the mudbrick prison are covered with graffiti like those of prisons everywhere.

The warden, 23-year-old Quiamuddin Noori says the prisoners here are treated well, in contrast to the conditions he faced when imprisoned by the Taliban himself.

“When I was in prison and in control of the Taliban, they didn’t give me any food,” he said.

Ali notes that the Taliban taught them that the northern alliance soldiers could be cruel to their prisoners, but says he has not been mistreated.

“I don’t have any complaints about them,” he says. “They haven’t punished me yet.”

Ali says that all he wants to do now is to return home and resume his life. He regrets that he ever came to Afghanistan.

“I just wish for the United Front to make me free,” he says.

Noori, the warden, says that he treats the foreigners no differently from the former Afghan Taliban fighters and even feels sympathy for them.

“They are the same to me,” he says. “In fact, I prefer the foreign Taliban because they are refugees in my country. They made a mistake and they are not happy with what they have done.”

As he stops at the entryway, Noori says again that he doesn’t know what will happen to the prisoners. Perhaps, they will be exchanged. Perhaps, they will be set free. But he is adamant that they will not be harmed in anyway.

However, as he pauses, Noori acknowledges that he understands why so many foreign Taliban have been reluctant to surrender to the northern alliance forces. His comments suggest that justice may not yet be done for many of them.

“They think that if they surrender, they will be killed,” he says. “They have murdered a lot of people when they were in Takhar province, and now they think they will be killed in return.”

Noori shakes hands warmly as he bids goodbye. Over the entryway above him were the following words: “We begin in the name of Allah, who is merciful and kind.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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