Two years after her execution by the Taliban in November 1999, Zarmina — a mother of five accused of killing her husband after years of abuse — became the faceless, nameless symbol of Taliban barbarity in Afghanistan. A video of her execution was smuggled out of Kabul and eventually shared across the globe. Her death became one of many used by American politicians and activists in order to justify foreign intervention.
Of course, in the process of toppling the Taliban, American forces aligned themselves with the commanders of the Northern Alliance, including Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, well known for his brutalization of women throughout the Afghan civil wars. About 20 years and 39,000 civilian deaths later, Zarmina still lies in an unmarked grave in a country subsumed by war and violence.
When I first heard a poem recited about the mass graves in Dasht-i-Leili, a desert in northern Afghanistan, I assumed that it referenced some atrocity from the Soviet occupation or the civil wars. Years later, I learned that during the early stages of the American invasion of Afghanistan, as many as 1,500 Taliban fighters, who had surrendered to the American-backed forces of General Dostum, were “stacked like corkwood” into metal shipping containers and went without food or water over three days. The prisoners subsequently suffocated or were later shot and dumped into a mass grave in Dasht-i-Leili. Satellite photos have shown that the mass grave may have been completely relocated.
After his death, Marshal Mohammed Fahim, a former military commander for the Northern Alliance, was buried in a massive mausoleum at the top of a hill in Kabul. Though Marshall Fahim carried out horrific atrocities during his tenure as a warlord, thousands attended his funeral. While slain farmers lay in obscured graves of stones and branches, warlords like Fahim were given massive funerals and grand tombs.
According to Kabul folklore — I heard the tale on several occasions from friends, relatives and strangers — shortly after his funeral, terrifying moans began to echo out from his grave. Local residents couldn’t sleep at night, so they gathered together and complained to the government. With time, the moaning became so loud, and the complaints so constant, that the government secretly relocated Marshal Fahim’s reportedly tortured corpse. His mausoleum now stands empty at the top of its hill. Utterly silent.
When I returned to Logar in 2017, there were more graves to visit. By then, the Taliban had all but conquered Deh Naw, and my mother’s family had fled to Kabul. Five years earlier, in the winter of 2012, my uncles Farhad, Ahmad Zia, and Raiz were driving home to Deh Naw for a graduation party. Farhad, at 24, had recently graduated from a university in Kabul. Ahmad Zia, his eldest brother, was a farmer in Logar with training as a pharmacist. He used to ride around Deh Naw on a motorcycle, inoculating bedridden villagers. That night, he drove.
My uncle Raiz Ahmad, an administrator with the United States military’s interpreter program, sat in the back seat. He had let his younger brother Farhad sit in the front because of his recent graduation. According to Raiz, when two insurgents stepped in front of their vehicle in a narrow alley and opened fire, the bullets had been meant for him. Raiz survived, but Farhad and Ahmad Zia died under the cover of snowfall, just yards away from their home. Now, two markers stand at the mouth of the alley where Farhad and Ahmad Zia were ambushed.