CNN documentary on Mazar-i-Sharif prison revolt
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World Socialist Web Site
CNN documentary on Mazar-i-Sharif prison revolt: film footage
documents US war crimes
By Kate Randall
17 August 2002
"House of War: The Uprising at Marzar-e-Sharif," broadcast August 3
on CNN, documents the events at the Qala-i-Janghi prison fortress in
northern Afghanistan last November. Broadcasting footage shot by
German, American and other film crews, much of which has never been
seen by a US audience, the program records events that, by their
conclusion, would leave at least 400 captured Taliban soldiers dead.
Pieced together, scenes from the documentary serve as an indictment
of the US military and government for war crimes in direct violation
of the Geneva Conventions and international law. The CNN documentary
clearly confirms that what transpired at Mazar-i-Sharif last year can
only be described as a massacre, led and orchestrated by US forces.
Some of the most harrowing images come near the conclusion of the
program, on the final night of the prison siege, as the fortress was
bombed by US air strikes. That night, warplanes dropped 2,000-pound
bombs on the compound. AC-130 helicopters gunships, firing up to
1,800 rounds a minute, as well as tanks were ordered in by US forces
on the ground. The next day, witnesses describeand the cameras
recorda scene of horrific carnage, with dead bodies and body parts
Events leading up to this final assault depicted in "House of War"
confirm that this slaughter was in no way a defensive response of the
US and Northern Alliance forces, but was provoked and orchestrated by
Special Forces and CIA operatives on the scene with authorization at
the highest levels of the Bush administration and the US military.
Footage near the beginning of the program shows Uzbek warlord General
Rashid Dostum and his forces during the negotiation of the surrender
of Taliban forces to the Northern Alliance near Mazar. Curiously,
several CIA agents, donning sunglasses and scarves, accompany him.
The program's narrator notes that while Dostum indicated that
captured Afghans would be allowed to go home upon surrender, and
foreign Taliban should be handed over to the UN, this notion was
considered a "slap in the face to the Americans." The implication of
the CIA agents' presence at the surrender negotiations is that they
were on the scene to see to it that such a "slap in the face" did not
It is well-documented that during the weeklong siege of Konduz which
preceded the Mazar-i-Sharif uprising US Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld made repeated statements calling for the killing or
imprisonment of all captured foreign Taliban. In direct violation of
the Geneva Conventionswhich expressly prohibit discrimination on the
basis of race, nationality or religionall of the foreign Taliban
were subsequently transported to the Qala-i-Janghi prison.
Some of the most indicting footage involves the treatment of the
prisoners following their transfer to the fortress. The program shows
them being taken out in groups with their hands tied behind their
backs to the prison courtyard, where they are interrogated by CIA
agent Johnny Michael Spann and another agent referred to as "Dave."
The narrator indicates that the US operatives are attempting to
single out the terrorist "leaders" among the prisoners.
The two CIA men strut among the prisoners, barking provocatively in
their faces: "You are terrorist," and, "You come to Afghanistan to
kill people, no?" The prisonerswho on their surrender had been led
to believe they would be allowed to return homewere now confronted
by the two American bullies and feared for their lives, with
legitimate reason. CNN freelancer Robert Pelton comments: "It started
to sink in to these prisoners they weren't going anywhere. The
Americans want to use them for intelligence."
Alex Perry from Time magazine underscores this point: "Threats have
been made to the Taliban and that could quite plausibly have set off
the revolt. You tell people they're all going to die, and then they
talk to the CIA and that completely undermines what Dostum said about
guaranteed security and so on."
The situation quickly unravels. The narrator reports that "the revolt
was under way" and the Taliban prisoners have seized the main
weapon's store in the facility. A German news team films "Dave,"
running from the courtyard with his Kalashnikov and pistol, as he
arrives at another area of the fortress. He reports that prisoners
have overpowered Spann and he believes he is dead. "Dave" says he
shot and killed four prisoners, and he believes Spann killed two.
Obviously shaken, he nervously attempts to fasten his pistol under
his waistband. He then uses the German crew's satellite phone to
contact the American Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, reportedly to
call in air support.
German reporter Arnim Stauth (ARD-TV) says that "Dave" is in charge
at this point, and tells them, "It's time to go." "Dave," the film
crew and Northern Alliance forces make their way out of the fortress
under Taliban fire and find a car waiting for them. The narrator
reports that "allied and US reinforcements" and "a few special
forces" then began to arrive on the scene. The stage is set for a
brutal assault on the fortress and its captives that will last for
two more days. Among those on hand are the British Special Air
Service commandos and the US 10th Mountain Division troops. The air
One of the first bombs hits the wrong target, reportedly killing six
Afghans and wounding five Americans. The Americans don't appear
overly concerned about bombing their allies. Some of the reporters on
hand are enthusiastic about the show of military might. Cameraman
Damien Degueldre comments about one of the bomb blasts that it's
a "beautiful explosion ... pretty impressive" and one comments later
that reporters came "looking for adventurelooking for a story. It's
wild, just a wild story."
The Special Forces want the journalists to do them a favor, with one
asking, "We do a lot of cool stuff and we never get to see itcan we
get a copy of your video?" A member of the Special Forces warns them,
however, "Whatever you do, don't be inside the fortress tonight,"
indicating that a scorched earth campaign is planned.
As members of the German film crew accompany a number of the Special
Forces as they direct the operation, one US trooper orders them to
turn their cameras off"I'm going to f-ing shoot you," he says,
clearly nervous over the operation being filmed. One of the reporters
retort: "You're not in America. You're a guest, just like we are." In
the end, they are allowed to continue filming, and the footage they
capture is both gruesome and damning.
One journalist describes the actions of the Northern Alliance forces,
clearly operating under the direction of the Americans, as
the "carpet-bombing approach." A number of them go to the top of the
wall of the fortress and begin shooting into the prison to slaughter
any Taliban prisoners still left alive after the air strikes. They
shoot through windows. They pour huge cans of gas into the building
followed by grenades. Finally, a tank is brought in and few final
shots are fired.
The Northern Alliance troops exhibit particularly heinous behavior. A
reporter recounts how the soldiers were seen throwing rocks at the
head of a Taliban prisoner they found alive. Footage shows the dead
body of a Taliban being propped up as a sandbag as the soldiers
continue to fire into the compound.
At the time, an Associated Press photographer who entered the area
reported seeing the bodies of about 50 prisoners, who appeared to
have been executed with their hands tied behind their backs with
scarves. Northern Alliance soldiers were seen cutting the scarves
with knives and scissors, evidently to destroy evidence they had been
executed. There were other news reports of the corpses of Taliban
prisoners propped up in a gateway, each killed by a single bullet to
On Wednesday, November 28, General Dostum returned to this scene. The
siege continued into Friday, when the US and Northern Alliance pumped
cold water into the fortress in a final effort to rout the prisoners.
On Saturday, those who miraculously survived the three-day assault
finally walked out, giving themselves up.
Among those who survived was John Walker Lindh, the so-
called "American Taliban." Lindh is filmed shortly after his
surrender describing the assault, clearly disoriented and in pain. He
describes the treatment of the prisoners holed up during the
siege, "Yesterday we were bombed; with airplanes, missiles, guns.
They poured gas and burned us; poured water down into the basement.
Every single one of us believed we were going to die."
The documentary at this point flashes back to CIA agent Spann's
interrogation of Lindh, who has been singled out for questioning and
is seated with his hands ties behind his back. Spann says: "The
problem is he needs to decide if he wants to live or die, and die
here. I mean, if he don't wanna die here, he's gonna die here 'cause
this is ... we're just gonna leave him and he's gonna sit in prison
for the rest of his f-ing short life. It's his decision."
Robert Pelton comments that "in a strange way, they sort of threaten
him with death." Spann continues: "We can only help those guys that
want to talk to us. We can only get the Red Cross to help so many
guys." In another violation of the Geneva Conventions, the CIA agent
indicates that medical treatment will be withheld if Lindh does not
The narrator concludes that John Walker Lindh has subsequently
pleaded guilty to charges in the US and sentenced to 20 years in
prison, and that the majority of those who survived the massacre at
Mazar-i-Sharif have been transferred to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba. No mention is made of the fact that these prisoners are being
held indefinitely, without being charged; again, in violation of
"House of War: The Uprising at Marzar-e-Sharif" leaves one with the
impression that the US authorities allowed journalists to film and
report on the events because they anticipated it might result in
useful propaganda for the US war effort; an object lesson for would-
be rebels who might challenge US policy. While the program does
indeed illustrate the brute force of the military campaign, at the
same time it depicts an operation tenuously controlled by its
Most importantly, despite the CNN's efforts to provide a "balanced"
presentation of the events, the savage methods of the US military and
its collaborators are clearly on display. The camera doesn't lie. The
actions depicted in the program further substantiate that what took
place last November in Mazar-i-Sharif was a war crime, and that the
responsibility for the slaughter rests with the highest levels of the
United States government and military.
An interpreter, Jauibullah Qureshi, speaks at the end of the program
to the level of bloodshed at the prison fortress, and the one-sided
attack perpetrated by the Americans and their allies: "Just one
American was killed here, Mike Spann," he says. "But more than three
hundred of them [Taliban] were killed here, more than three hundred,
and I saw many of them with my own eyes."
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