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Afghanistan’s memory museum pushes for justice by reframing a war

‘For the majority of Afghans, justice is equal to truth. They want their stories to be heard.’

Black-and-white photo display at the Afghanistan Center for Memory and Dialogue in Kabul Giuliano Battiston/TNH
Black-and-white photos show members of one extended family in this display at the Afghanistan Center for Memory and Dialogue in Kabul. A father, uncle, and sister were killed during different eras of the country’s war.

A mound of charred and blood-stained clothing, shoes, and scarves is heaped within a large glass container. They’re the everyday items belonging to brothers Asadullah and Hikmatullah Shafayee – two victims of a July 2016 suicide attack that killed dozens of people in Kabul.

The display is one of 36 “memory boxes” found in the Afghanistan Center for Memory and Dialogue, a basement museum that opened in a Kabul suburb last year to commemorate the untold stories of the victims of Afghanistan’s 40-year conflict – and to highlight elusive justice and accountability for ongoing violence.

“This country has not come to terms with the legacies of the past, with war crimes, systematic torture, human rights abuses,” said Kazim Ehsan, the museum’s programme manager.

The museum was created by the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), a local NGO established in 2009 that is part of a coalition of groups pushing for accountability for the country’s abuses.

The goal is ambitious: to use oral history and ordinary objects, like the Shafayee brothers’ belongings, to rewrite the unresolved history of the last four decades from the perspective of victims and survivors.

“We believe that if the past remains unaddressed it will continue to foster a spirit of revenge and feelings of injustice,” Ehsan said.

Justice and accountability are still missing from the conversation even as Afghanistan’s volatile peace process inches forward. The Afghan government and the insurgent Taliban began their first direct peace talks in Doha on 12 September after months of delays. But there has been little public discussion from either side about reconciliation and accountability.

“If the past remains unaddressed it will continue to foster a spirit of revenge.”

Internationally, both the Afghan government and the United States have opposed a war crimes investigation at the International Criminal Court. The United States this month imposed unprecedented sanctions against ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, whose probe could also be the first to examine abuses allegedly committed by US forces and the CIA.

“The peace process should have been shaped according to the victims’ perspectives, taking into account the requests for justice, but there’s no sign of it,” said Hadi Marifat, the executive director of AHRDO.

Justice is a multilayered concept in Afghanistan, Marifat said. While there are demands for criminal prosecutions, many also want their suffering to be publicly recognised.

“For the majority of Afghans, justice is equal to truth,” he added. “They want their stories to be heard. With our museum, we promote a policy of remembrance and a space for truth-telling.” 

Memories span regime change and violence

The basement museum is a monument not to the war’s combatants, but to its victims. 

The museum’s curators began collecting stories from survivors and victims’ relatives more than nine years ago. Everyday objects are the medium: books, toys, kitchen utensils, hair brushes, private letters, old photos. Each box contains a life; each box tells a different story.

Some are jarring reminders of the violence: blood-rusted clothing and shoes. Others are intimate snapshots of families torn apart: a child’s doll and paint set; a faded photo of a football team – all brothers from a family of 14 children, six of whom have disappeared.

Some boxes are stacked with personal items. Others are striking in their emptiness. One sparse container holds only a few reminders: A pair of boots, a glass mug, prayer beads, and a tiny photo mark the life of Sayed Abedin, a 58-year-old man killed during April 2018 twin bombings in Kabul.

“His death took our happiness away,” Nabila, his wife, states in an accompanying description.

The memory boxes reveal stories from more than 40 years of conflict and regime change spanning Afghanistan’s volatile recent history: the communist government that took over the nation in 1978, blamed for arbitrary arrests, rampant executions, torture, and repression; the invasion of troops from the Soviet Union and battles with the mujahedin, which were backed by Western forces including the United States; the civil war between mujahedin factions; the rise of the Taliban, and the drawn-out conflict that would follow their ouster in 2001.

Some families bear scars from multiple eras. In one box, grainy black-and-white photos show a father and uncle executed in the late 1970s. They sit beside a portrait of a sister killed in the early 1990s.

“I felt like I had lost everything and everyone,” the surviving brother, Tawab Fayazi, recalls in the accompanying description.

Peace without justice

There has been little accountability for atrocities and rights abuses during each era of Afghanistan’s war.

Instead, successive regimes, governments, and the international community have “fostered the culture of impunity”, Marifat said. He cited a controversial amnesty law that rights groups said shielded “war criminals”, a pact that protected US soldiers from Afghan prosecutions, and a transitional justice plan the government adopted in 2005 but did little to implement.

“Political deals have always ignored the voices of victims and neglected the issue of justice,” said Ehsan Qaane, a researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent organisation based in Kabul. 

Rights activists see signs of this impunity in the current peace process – and on the global stage. Judges at the ICC initially rejected a war crimes investigation last year, arguing that it “would not serve the interests of justice”. The ruling was overturned on appeal in March, but the recent US sanctions against the ICC prosecutor show there are major roadblocks ahead.

“Political deals have always ignored the voices of victims and neglected the issue of justice.”

The museum’s proponents say they’re pushing back against the idea that in order for Afghanistan to have peace, justice must be sacrificed.

It is “the entrenched culture of impunity that has prolonged the conflict, not the search for justice,” said Jawad Zawulistani, AHRDO’s managing director. “The country will never see an endurable peace without justice.”

This resonates with people like Mohammad Nekzada, a member of the People’s Peace Movement, a grassroots group that staged high-profile marches, sit-ins, and hunger strikes across the country starting in 2018.

“The political deal, from top-down, is fine. We need it of course,” he said, speaking on a visit to the museum last year. “But what we need even more is a social reconciliation, from the bottom up, which restores a shared sense of belonging.”

The museum, and the everyday lives it commemorates, are necessary, Nekzada said: “We cannot move forward unless we properly deal with the legacies of the past.”


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