The locals call the place “The Taliban Cemetery,” a weed-clotted memorial to the men who died for the movement during its fiercest campaigns in the years before 9/11.
The graveyard, next to Tarakhel, a tiny village north of Kabul, sits a few miles from what was once the front line against the rebels who fought the Taliban after the group captured Kabul in 1996. Those rebels, then known as the Northern Alliance, finally overran the Taliban and captured Kabul — with American help — in November 2001.
Eight years after the last fighter was buried here, the cemetery has fallen into decrepitude. Many of the gravestones are broken and smashed — the vandalism, the villagers say, of a marauding anti-Taliban militia. Weeds and rocks and tattered prayer flags obscure much of what is left. The villagers of Tarakhel, though Taliban enthusiasts, have given up trying to care for the place.
But with a little digging and scraping, the Taliban cemetery reveals itself, and the time that it preserved. Together, the surviving graves offer a history of the Taliban’s early years, and of the tumultuous era when young jihadists from around the world travelled to Afghanistan to train and fight. There are perhaps 200 men buried here, not just Afghans but Arabs, Chechens, Indians and Pakistanis. There is even the body of a young man from Britain.
“The Arabs are buried over there,” said Mohammed Zahir, sweeping his finger toward a swath of broken earth at the rear of the cemetery. Zahir, who lives in Tarakhel, wandered over when he spotted a foreigner walking among the tombs.
The Arab fighters, Zahir said, were killed in the first American bombardment in October 2001. A U.N. truck brought their bodies here and dumped them. The villagers of Tarakhel gave the dead hurried burials, in unmarked graves; they feared the gunmen of the Northern Alliance would dig up and desecrate the corpses if they discovered them. As it was, they came and smashed many of the tombstones.
“They were animals that day,” Zahir said. Yet many of the gravestones are intact, preserving the stories of the men underground: their names, the places they were born, the days when they died. Each of the dead here, over the years, got his own granite tombstone, a gift from the Taliban warlords who ran the country then.
Toward the front of the cemetery lies the grave of an Afghan Talib — the word means “student” in Pashto — who died from wounds suffered in a battle against the Northern Alliance in Kunduz in 1997. The Afghan dead appear to be a minority in the Taliban cemetery; it’s possible that even Talibs are, too. Most of those buried in Tarakhel appear to be foreigners, either volunteers with the Taliban or regulars with one of the many armed groups that flocked here in the 1990s.
A couple of tombs away from Ahmed’s is that of a man named Sher Khan Kashmiri. The white gravestone says he was born in “Occupied Kashmir.” Kashmiri, the gravestone says, was a member of Harkat-ul-Ansar, a Pakistan-based militant group fighting in Kashmir. In the 1990s, the group also fought alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It was a Harkat-ul-Ansar training camp in eastern Afghanistan where the United States, in August 1998, fired a volley of cruise missiles to kill Osama bin Laden. He was not there.
Kashmiri, the gravestone says, was “martyred” in Pul-i-Kumri, in northern Afghanistan, on June 7, 1997.
Other militant groups are represented in the Taliban Cemetery, including Muhammad’s Army, another Pakistani militant group and an offshoot of Harkat-ul-Ansar. Members of Mohammad’s Army were implicated in the death of Daniel Pearl, the American reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. They, too, fought alongside the Taliban.
“The Martyr Lives Forever,” a Muhammad’s Army gravestone says, above the name of Hafez Mohammed Wazir of Mansera, Pakistan. He was killed on June 26, 2001.
Perhaps the most startling of all the relics here is the grave that contains the man named Mohammed Usman. His tombstone says he was from Britain, and was killed in Kunduz in December 1998. The words on Usman’s white granite gravestone are written in Urdu. A bit of poetry is carved into the stone:
“A person who goes through life unfamiliar with the meaning of justice will vanish from the minds of men.”
As the scattered dates indicate, the Taliban cemetery started small and filled up over the years, with many of the dead coming from battles on the northern steppes, where the Taliban conquest finally stalled. The first tomb dates from 1996, when Taliban fighters captured the Afghan capital. The last are from the autumn of 2001, after the start of the American war. Along with those dead Arab fighters brought here in 2001 were many living ones, the villagers of Tarakhel said. Dozens of them survived the American onslaught in October and November of 2001, and fled through Tarakhel to fight another day.
“We took the Arabs to the border and helped them escape,” said Ayahuddin, an elderly villager in Tarakhel. “We were with them then.”
And they are with them now. The Taliban cemetery may have fallen into disrepair, but the villagers say the Taliban are fighting the good fight, just as they were in bygone days. “They’ll be back, you know,” Zahir said. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service