A Body and Spirit Broken by the Taliban
Falsely Charged as a Christian, Afghan Suffered Ruthless Torture
Sayed Abdullah, 28, in his current home as he thinks about the five months he was beaten and brutalized by the Taliban. (Kevin Suliivan - The Washington Post)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 5, 2002; Page A01
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Sayed Abdullah sat cross-legged on a thick carpet as dusk fell. He lit a kerosene lamp that hissed loudly, cutting the cold and darkness in his bare living room. He shifted his broken body, trying to find the position where he felt the least pain. There is always pain. He moved constantly for the next four hours, telling his story long into the night.
In a nation trying to heal after 22 years of war, Sayed's personal healing comes from talking. Taliban leaders are no longer around to tell their side of the story. But the truth of Sayed's tale was supported by interviews with his friends and family, his doctor and humanitarian workers, as well as by Taliban prison records. The most telling evidence is Sayed's scarred body.
The Taliban is on the run. But before the radical Islamic movement disappears down some dark alley of history, Sayed wants the world to know what Taliban enforcers did to him because they thought he was a Christian.
It began one afternoon late in 1999. About 15 Taliban soldiers carrying AK-47 assault rifles surrounded his house. Sayed was inside with his mother, his wife and his two little girls, then age 3 and 1.
Sayed remembers their leader saying: "We are suspicious of you. We want to ask you some questions."
Sayed couldn't imagine why. He led a good life. He was a 26-year-old father working in a medical supply warehouse of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was smart and gregarious, he had learned English in school and he kept a library of 500 books. He loved European history. He had photos and short biographies of every U.S. president from Washington to Clinton. He was too poor to leave Kabul, but books freed his mind to explore the world.
The Taliban soldiers put him in a pickup truck and took him to the building that housed their Intelligence Division No. 1. They locked him in a tiny cell, not big enough for him to lie down. He sat in the dark on the wet floor, fearful but sure that the misunderstanding would soon sort itself out.
Hours later guards came and led him to a large room. He saw a table with metal legs and a wooden top, and next to it, a Taliban commander. And next to the table were Sayed's books -- his entire bookcase ripped off the wall of his house and carried there intact.
He felt a rush of fear.
Sayed says the Taliban commander held his two copies of the Bible, one in English and one in Dari, the main language of Afghanistan. Bibles were strictly forbidden by the Taliban.
"We have here a man who has converted from Islam to Christianity," the commander said. "Who are you working for? Which country? Which people?"
"I'm a good Muslim," Sayed said. "I have those books for information, for learning, not for changing religions. Everyone should know about other religions and other parts of the world."
The commander cut him off.
"Enough! If you won't talk to us now, you will later."
Several guards came in and forced Sayed face down on the table. They tied his hands and feet to its legs. Then they beat him with sticks and heavy plastic ropes, punching, pounding, whipping. Sayed says he endured two or three hours of it before he passed out.
Begging for Privilege to Kill
When he woke up, he was back in the tiny cell. It seemed to be daytime, although little light was in the cell. He hurt everywhere. Blood was on his face and his clothes. He was hungry and thirsty. He called out, but no one came.
Later a group of Taliban soldiers came to see him. They taunted him.
"Come and see what an important person we have," one said. "He converted from Islam to Christianity."
The Taliban, an extremist militia that seized power here in 1996, tried to turn Afghanistan into its version of a pure Islamic society. Its restrictions on women, its public executions and amputations, and its destruction of such Afghan cultural treasures as the centuries-old Buddhas carved into cliffs at Bamian were well known to the outside world, which responded with outrage and sanctions.
But only after the Taliban's fall is its practice of harsh, systematic torture becoming clear. Behind closed doors here in Kabul, in the southern city of Kandahar and elsewhere, the Taliban enforced its Islamic code with a brutality only hinted at by its public actions.
Non-Muslims were a common target. About 50 Hindu families who live here were ordered by the Taliban to wear distinguishing yellow clothing. Most of the few remaining Jews in Kabul left the country. There may be a few Christian Afghans; if so, they hid from the Taliban for fear of execution.
With Sayed, the Taliban thought it had to set an example.
The soldiers pulled him out of his cell. They kicked him, punched him, pulled his hair. They spat on him. The soldiers begged the commander for the privilege of killing Sayed with their knives.
"God will give us our reward, because this is the one who converted," they said.
When it got dark again, they took him back to the room with the blood-stained table. They handed him a piece of paper with written questions: Who do you work for? Who is giving you money? Name all the people you have taught and converted.
Sayed handed it back.
"Those questions do not relate to me. I haven't committed this crime," he said.
The Taliban guards again tied him on the table. This time, they poured water on his feet, then wound electrical wires around both of his big toes. The wires were attached to an old Soviet military field telephone. The guards turned the telephone's crank, sending a searing electrical current into Sayed's feet. It went on for more than an hour. He felt as if some powerful force was lifting him high off the table, then slamming him down again, over and over.
"Do you want to write something now?"
Sayed thought that if he continued to refuse he would convince them of his innocence. And he thought that if he confessed, they would kill him, probably in Kabul Stadium, where the Taliban held public executions. He imagined his body hanging there before the screaming crowd, with his own family too scared to claim it.
He couldn't pick up the pen.
They cranked the phone.
"I swear to God I am innocent," he screamed.
He felt the current slam into his bones. Then he blacked out.
Life in a Closet-Size Cell
He passed the next week or so in the closet-size cell. No one spoke to him. The floor was wet, and it was dark all the time. There were swarms of bugs -- on the floor, on the walls, on him. Twice a day, a guard gave him a cup of tea and one piece of bread.
He counted the days by scratching notches into the soft concrete walls with his fingernails, or making a mark with his blood.
He couldn't walk. His feet were battered and swollen from the beatings and the shocks. All his toenails were blackened. The toilet was a bucket on the next cell's floor. When they let him out to use it, he had to crawl there.
A Penalty Is Proposed
One morning the guards came for Sayed. He couldn't stand up, so the Taliban soldiers dragged him to a pickup truck and drove him, along with all his books, to Intelligence Division No. 3, a walled compound with barred windows in central Kabul.
The division commander met him. He insulted Sayed's mother and said nothing more. The guard who dragged him to his cell in the basement said to the other Taliban members there, "He will die soon. Pray for him."
Sayed felt weak and queasy.
Two weeks passed. Sayed was left alone in his basement cell, one of about 15 rooms about eight-feet-square along two dark corridors. He felt a little hope. Maybe this was not a place where they tortured prisoners.
Then they took him upstairs to a room that struck Sayed as some sort of torture museum. Whips, sticks, electrical cords. A device in which a man with his feet shackled to the floor is kept standing by a rope from the ceiling tied to his hair. They would each become familiar to Sayed, as would even more hideous electric shocks that made him urinate blood.
The place is now a jail run by the Security Ministry of the new Afghan government. Shah Wali, the deputy director, said that when he arrived shortly after the Taliban fled on Nov. 13, he found plastic ropes and heavy sticks in the torture room. He said blood was spattered on the walls and floor and on a large table in the middle of the room.
Shah opened a tattered yellow book of records left behind by the fleeing Taliban. It notes that 26-year-old prisoner Sayed Abdullah arrived in March 2000. It lists his crime as "belonging to the Christian religion."
When Sayed entered the torture room, a Taliban soldier told him: "We do not want to torture you. Just confess."
"I swear to God. I swear on the holy Koran. I am not the man you are looking for."
Sayed cried. The six or seven Taliban men there laughed.
"So you are British, huh? You are a Christian?"
They tied him facedown on the table. Slowly, they took off their turbans, then their coats, then rolled up their sleeves. They beat him like meat on a slab, chanting: "God is blessing us. God will reward us." One remarked that he would enjoy ripping Sayed's muscles out with pliers.
The beatings continued every few days for a month, until Sayed was ready to sign.
He wrote and wrote and wrote. Names of friends living in other countries. Made-up names. Made-up stories about spreading Christianity, about foreign money and shadowy networks of conversion-crazed preachers.
Anything they wanted to hear. Anything to make the torture stop.
A few days later, Sayed was carried out into the courtyard, a grassy oasis with flowered trellises and tall rosebushes blooming next to a gazebo. It was the first time he had seen the sun in a couple of months. There were several high-ranking Taliban officials gathered there.
"It is shameful that you converted from Islam to Christianity," said an older man, who Sayed assumed was a government minister.
"I confessed, but I never converted," Sayed said.
An enraged Taliban soldier ran to him, pulled his head by the hair and put a knife to his throat. "Give me permission to cut his throat so I may be rewarded by God," he said.
The Taliban official waved him off. He calmly told Sayed that his case was now closed and that he had been convicted. He said his file would be sent to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's leader, and that Omar would certainly approve the recommended punishment.
"We will take you to the roof of the Ministry of Communications," he said, referring to the 18-story building that is Kabul's tallest. "First we will burn you. Then we will throw you over the edge so that everyone can see you and know the punishment for converting from Islam."
Then he turned to the guard.
"Take this pig away."
First Signs of Hope
Months had gone by and Sayed's mother, Fokhraj, was frantic. Then the bloody jacket arrived. She said a sympathetic Taliban soldier who lived in her neighborhood and had seen her crying gave it to her. He told her he had access to Sayed's cell and sneaked his blood-stained jacket out.
"Here, I want you to know that he is alive," he told her.
Fokhraj couldn't stop crying. She had already lost her husband and Sayed's only brother when a rocket hit their house in 1993, during fighting between rival warlords. She had to do something.
She went several times to Taliban leaders, who denied that they had Sayed. She asked everyone she could think of, until she finally spoke to a powerful Taliban military commander.
"This is a difficult case, and you can't solve it just by saying he is innocent," she recalls him saying. "I can help, but you should please pay me $5,000."
It was an enormous sum. But she sold the house -- the one where Sayed was arrested -- and almost everything in it, which yielded a little more than $5,000. She moved in with relatives, taking Sayed's wife and daughters with her. She gave the money to the commander.
His next moves showed a keen understanding of bureaucracy. Sayed's case was being handled by military authorities. If they sent the file to Omar for final approval, the sentence would be irreversible. Nobody questioned Omar.
But by pulling some strings that are still unclear to Sayed and his mother, the commander got the case transferred to a civilian court before the file went to Omar. Civilian judges were still with the Taliban, but they were more willing to deal. And the commander apparently paid them well.
Sayed was taken from his cell one day and brought to a civilian court. As he was being carried in, a judge walked up to him.
"Do not worry, you will be released soon," he said quietly.
The court proceedings took nearly a month. Twice a week Sayed was dragged into the court, and he listened to the judges argue about everything, it seemed to him, except the merits of his case.
Things changed at the jail. The torture stopped. There were no more beatings. Guards began putting sugar in his tea. They told him that after he was released he should come back and give them money, as a tip for not killing him.
Sayed tried to feel cheered by that, but couldn't.
A representative from the International Red Cross was allowed to visit him. It was someone Sayed knew from work, but the man didn't recognize him. It had been more than four months since he was arrested, and he now looked like an old man.
Sayed was allowed to give the Red Cross worker a letter to his family. He wrote: All is well. My health is fine. Don't worry about me. I will be home soon.
But he told the Red Cross worker that he expected to be executed at any time. He asked that his salary be paid to his family at least until he was killed.
A Final Session
Early one morning, 5 1/2 months after his arrest, the guards came for Sayed one last time. They dragged him up the 17 dirty stone steps he had crawled up so many times to reach the fetid bathroom. They took him into the office of the commander, the one who had greeted him by insulting his mother.
Sayed didn't know what was happening. But the commander gave him back the few papers he had in his pocket when he was arrested. He handed him his Red Cross identification card, torn in half. It dawned on Sayed: The commander, illiterate like most Taliban soldiers, thought the cross on the card was a Christian symbol.
"Sign this," he said.
He pushed a paper in front of Sayed. It said that the prisoner certified that he had been well cared for, that he had not been tortured and that he had been well fed. Sayed tried to pick up the pen, but his fingers were dislocated from the beatings. He scratched a faint mark on the paper.
"I don't know how this miracle happened, but you should be punished," the commander said. "You didn't die from the torture, but God will kill you soon. Or maybe the injuries from the torture will kill you."
The guards dragged him outside to a truck where the Taliban officer who had arranged his release was waiting. When they arrived at the house where his family was living, his mother ran to the car and hugged him. Then she fainted. His wife and children ran to him. The girls had grown so much. The younger one, Mazama, didn't recognize him, and she cried in fear when he tried to hold her.
Sayed stepped down from the truck. Looking toward the house, toward freedom, he did something he had not done in months.
Sayed spent six months in hospitals, in Kabul and in Pakistan. He wanted to leave Afghanistan for good, but he couldn't afford to move his whole family, and they have nowhere to go anyway.
Mohammed Zaher Osman, the orthopedic surgeon who still treats Sayed, said the torturers broke several bones in Sayed's back. He still wears a brace around his midsection to help him stand.
Sayed says he still has difficulty hearing, and his vision is weak. His short-term memory is sketchy. Osman said those problems are the result of repeated heavy blows to the back of his head.
He has chronic kidney problems and scars on his arms, back and feet. Beneath his stockings, his ankles and feet have odd peaks and valleys. He still takes painkillers, and antibiotics to fight recurring infections.
Osman said that Sayed could barely move or talk when he first saw him in a Kabul hospital in early 2000. He said the blows to his head and spine had caused severe nerve damage, leaving him incontinent and making it hard for him to control his hands, feet and speech.
Osman said Sayed's case was typical of many Taliban torture cases he has seen. He treated a woman whose forearms were broken by the Taliban because she complained to police that her husband was beating her. He had to amputate a man's leg because a Taliban soldier had emptied all 30 rounds from an AK-47 clip into his thigh.
"They were animals," Osman said. "They were animals to Sayed Abdullah."
Most of Sayed's hair has grown back, but he pushed back his curly mop and showed where torturers had ripped patches of hair out by the roots. Once a fairly fluent English speaker, he can no longer put together more than a few words.
He's back at work, helping to move crates of medicine around. But he's on doctor's orders not to lift anything heavier than about 15 pounds. Too many parts of his body could give out. He is 28.
He is delighted that the Taliban has been exorcised from Afghanistan. For months after he came home, one of the Taliban officers who had beaten him kept coming around his house, looking for money and making threats.
Now Sayed is free. But it is liberty without joy.
"He used to joke all the time, but he doesn't anymore," said Ebadullah Ebadi, a physician and Sayed's childhood friend.
Sayed's house is gone, sold to get him out of jail. He lives with his in-laws. He has little money left. Afghanistan is moving on to a better future, but Sayed feels the past is not yet ready to release him.
Looking into Sayed's eyes in the glow of the kerosene lamp burning long into a cold winter night, it is clear that the Taliban took something from deep inside him.
He will not try to replace his library, which the Taliban burned.
He can't bear the sound of the word "book."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company