The heartbreak of Mazar-e-Sharif
CBC News Online | January 27, 2004
Mazar-e-Sharif, variously described as the "key" city, the "strategic" city, the "linchpin" city in the "war against terrorism," is the capital of Balkh province. It has always been a major trading centre, famous for Turkmen carpets.
Irrigated by the Balkh River, the territory around the city grows cotton, grain and fruit. The inhabitants of the city are mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmens. Exquisite silk and cotton textiles are manufactured in the region.
A city of 130,000, about the size of Moncton, N.B., it is in one of the most fertile areas of Afghanistan, 320 kilometres northwest of Kabul. It is a vital staging area and supply route and it has an airport than can handle warplanes, bombers and helicopters.
Mazar-e-Sharif has figured predominantly before in wars in the rugged, landlocked expanse of Afghanistan. Genghis Khan fought here. But perhaps the bloodiest and most violent chapter came when Taliban fighters captured Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998.
It is remembered as "The massacre in Mazar-e-Sharif." In a few days more civilians were killed and murdered and raped than at any time in the previous 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Taking Mazar-e-Sharif gave the Taliban control of every major city and important territory in northern and
central Afghanistan. Taliban soldiers killed 4,000 people, many of them found in house-to-house searches.
Others were cut down indiscriminately on the streets and at markets.
Taliban soldiers sought out male members of the ethnic Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek communities. The Persian-speaking, Shi'a Hazaras were the prime targets, as the Taliban most of them Sunni Muslims consider Hazaras infidels. Soldiers and civilians were killed, their bodies dropped in wells. Others were loaded into container trucks, driven to the desert and left to die in the sun. The brutal attacks were in response to an earlier massacre of 2,000 Taliban soldiers by the Hazaras.
The name Mazar-e-Sharif means "tomb of the saint," referring to the tomb of Hazarate Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. The tomb is housed in a blue-tiled mosque, first built in 1136. Genghis Khan destroyed the shrine, but a new one was built in the 15th century.
Soviet forces took control of Mazar-e-Sharif when they were fighting in Afghanistan. They established a command centre in the city in 1981, when they began construction of road and bridge links to Uzbekistan.