TARIN KOWT: In the twilight that passes for reality in Afghanistan, the story of Hakim Shujoyi does not add up neatly – but there's enough in its different parts to suggest that a monster is stalking the eastern flank of Oruzgan province.
Personal detail is opaque, but not the contradictions from which Shujoyi draws inordinate power in Khas Oruzgan, a wild and mountainous swath of the province in which the Kabul government is yet to assert its authority beyond the confines of the Khas Oruzgan bazaar.
"He's a cruel killer, but he has big support behind him," says Haji Mohammad Qasim, a senior elder of the Popalzai tribe.
As a minority Hazara, Shujoyi ordinarily might be expected to step gingerly around the majority Pashtuns, but a reputation as a fearless "Taliban hunter" has earned enough US military protection for him to cast himself as a new warlord – even as the Americans were backing him into the leadership of a new grassroots community protection service, the Afghan Local Police or ALP.
Shujoyi enjoys a second layer of valuable insurance. Shielding him from official pursuit and prosecution are fellow Hazaras who hold senior positions in the Karzai government – in particular vice president Mohammad Karim Khalili.
American officials issue repeated denials. But in the space of a month, government officials and MPs in Kabul, Oruzgan police chief Matiullah Khan, a respected NGO, influential Oruzgani tribal elders, local businessmen and humanitarian workers cross-reference repeated claims of how cover by US Special Forces has emboldened and protected Shujoyi.
Accounts of his treatment of Pashtun villagers are appalling. It is said he favours the use of rape as a weapon and that a signature punishment inflicted by his men is to use their teeth to tear the flesh of their rape victim's breasts. His modus operandi, as described by several sources, is to lash out wildly in the wake of any Taliban violence against members of his Hazara community.
"He takes revenge on village farmers and the like. Elders and other prominent people are safe from him, so it's the lowly and the innocent who he makes pay the price," says a local observer, as he explains that Shujoyi's collective punishment of villages for the real or imagined wrongdoings of individuals perpetuate cyclical violence.
Retaliatory attacks by Pashtuns include a massacre in which 11 Hazaras were beheaded, all by the hand of the brother of a man who died in an assault on his village by Shujoyi's men. The Pashtun man who did the mass beheadings used a knife which, several sources say, he had recovered from a gaping wound in his brother's throat after the initial Shujoyi attack.
The head of the national parliament's complaints commission, Haji Obaidullah Barakzai, says he has referred more than 120 formal complaints against Shujoyi and his men to various arms of the national security and legal apparatus.
"We summons the Interior Minister – he always says that Shujoyi will be arrested in the next week or so," Obaidullah says in an interview at his Kabul home.
Men and boys are rounded up on a regular basis. Fairfax Media was told that sometimes as many as a dozen would be hauled away for execution – often with the long fabric of their turbans being used to bind their hands. A father complained that one of his small boys had been stoned to death in August.
The Americans give Shujoyi a position, so he goes and kills 18 people in the one family ... He rapes, he kills the old and the young. His men steal money, cars and motorbikes. Shujoyi participates in gang rape and robbery.Haji Obaidullah Barakzai, head of the national parliament's complaints commission
"The Americans give Shujoyi a position, so he goes and kills 18 people in the one family – 12 of them women," Obaidullah alleges. "He rapes, he kills the old and the young. His men steal money, cars and motorbikes. Shujoyi participates in gang rape and robbery.
"One of the reasons the people so dislike the Americans is that they breed killers like Shujoyi."
A former chief of police in Oruzgan, Juma Gul Heimat, explains that he arrested Shujoyi on the orders of President Hamid Karzai. "We flew by US aircraft to pick him up and the Americans held him for about a week as we started an investigation, but then he disappeared from custody," Juma Gul says.
"His people do a lot of bad things – they rape and loot in the name of the Hazara. Hundreds of people die in disputes between the Hazara and the Pashtuns. But the problem is, thousands would be dying if the American Special forces were not there."
Even prominent Hazara figures are wary of Shujoyi.
Senior members of the community are lobbying to have the warlord dumped as commander of the ALP, according to NGO sources. They argue that because Shujoyi was from adjoining Ghazni province, and is not a native Oruzgani, he should not have been put in charge of the ALP.
Fear of the ALP commander and antipathy towards the US emerge as incendiary issues that infuse research work from the district by a reputable international research team (which cannot be named here).
"[Shujoyi] is universally disliked, with some of his only supporters being the Americans at Forward Operating Base Anaconda," Fairfax Media was told.
The ALP commander is described as a "former thief and bandit in Ghazni . . . who continues to maraud and harass the people he's supposed to protect".
The only difference is now he is said to have the unwavering support of the Americans.
Locals complain that the ALP reports directly to the Americans – which makes sense given the Americans' role in appointing Shujoyi. Anger at the Hazara commander's elevation is the more intense because it comes on the back of what locals perceive as their shabby treatment by US forces.
Perception becomes reality in a region in which tit-for-tat hostage-taking is common enough between Pashtuns and Hazaras, distrustful of each other after decades of reciprocal abuse. Repeated US denials of support or protection for Shujoyi count for little because of what the people claim to see and hear.
Recently, a 40-man delegation went to Kabul to complain, delivering photographic evidence of what purportedly were the breast wounds suffered by several women.
"Officials of the Interior Ministry pleaded that we not present our case to the President or to the media and he promised that Shujoyi would be arrested within days," one of the organisers of the delegation said.
Asked about the frequency of rape, he said "six or seven" men in the delegation were the husbands of victims. He said Shujoyi and his men had killed 120 or more people in the past four years.
He explains that underlying the broader conflict is a war of revenge by the Shiite Hazaras, spearheaded by Shujoyi, for the violence and humiliation inflicted on them by the Sunni Taliban in the five years before the US-led invasion in 2001.
Locals insist it is the Americans who have imposed Shujoyi as leader of the ALP. They say he drives police vehicles, has the run of a US base in the town and brags locally of the fuel, ammunition and supplies he collects from the base.
Juma Gul says when Oruzgan was selected late in 2010 to pilot the ALP, US Special Forces stationed at Khas Oruzgan insisted Shujoyi be appointed to run it. His claim is corroborated by several other sources, including Ali Akbar Qasim, an MP and vocal supporter of Shujoyi.
"He runs the ALP and he still works for the US," the former police chief claims.
A community leader in Khas Oruzgan, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said officials of Afghanistan's Ministry of the Interior had subsequently intervened to block the appointment, but that Shujoyi and his heavily armed force of about 150 fighters ultimately took over, patrolling the district in police vehicles. About one-third of his men were drawn from the ALP and the remainder a mix of local freelancers and Afghan Security Guards, a US-funded, militia-type organisation that has barracks in or adjacent to American bases.
Theoretically there is a warrant out for Shujoyi's arrest, but he still works alongside the Americans, spending a good deal of time on the US base at Khas Oruzgan. Describing what sounds like membership of a unit of the shadowy Afghan Security Guards, Juma Gul says Shujoyi first worked for the US as a camp guard.
Dubbed "the grey dogs" because of their uniforms, the guards are often criticised as a law unto themselves because of the real or imagined American protection they enjoy, and their frequent resort to threats to tell the Americans that anyone who crosses them is a Taliban activist or sympathiser.
The American push to install Shujoyi in the ALP is read by some analysts as an effort to ensure continuing employment for local allies who otherwise might lose their jobs as the American operation at Khas Oruzgan folds in the coming months.
"How can a person with eyes not see what is happening here?" asks the Khas Oruzgan community leader. "Afghan officials say on TV that he does not have their support and that he is to be arrested on sight, but Shujoyi drives out of the US base in a convoy of five vehicles, filled with weapons, ammunition and food.
"In the bazaar, he sells some of the fuel they give him. He tells people that the Americans are supplying him and that they'll give air support when he needs it. And, like the Taliban when they are on the move, the Shujoyi militia intimidates village communities to shelter and feed them – commandeering cattle and sheep as they wish."
Such is the fear of reprisals that a prominent local insists on being brought to Kabul to share his accounts of violence.
About eight months ago, he says, Shujoyi's men corralled "17 or 18" villagers whom they killed, some by dropping rocks on them.
How big were the rocks? He points, indicating the size of a minibar fridge in the hotel room and then goes through the motions of a front-end loader picking it up.
Did he see it? "My friend collected the bodies – he showed me pictures . . . some were handcuffed."
The community leader laughs when asked why provincial police chief Matiullah Khan has not executed the warrant for Shujoyi's arrest.
"Like MK, Shujoyi has international support and the foreigners tell MK to back off.
"MK himself tells me that he cannot conduct this operation. And the provincial governor tells us that Shujoyi has American support and that we must take our complaint to Kabul; and in Kabul we're told that if we are quiet, Shujoyi will be arrested and dealt with."
Accounts of Matiullah Khan's attempts to arrest Shujoyi vary. The Khas Oruzgan community leader says the police chief has told him the Americans would not allow him to be in the same room as Shujoyi while both were visiting the Special Forces base at Khas Oruzgan.
MK had headed a delegation, which included the governor, prosecutors and detectives, demanding that the Americans hand over Shujoyi and one of his lieutenants, the notorious Roi Gul. "They refuse – and then they tell MK that Shujoyi has 'escaped'."
The Americans had allowed the delegation to take Roi Gul who, after a period in detention in Tarin Kowt was mysteriously released, says the community leader – before outlining what he insists is an open-and-shut murder case against Roi Gul.
"A few days ago, one of MK's people told me that Shujoyi has been arrested," says the community leader. "But this is not true because people in Khas Oruzgan tell me that he is still driving around the bazaar with his bodyguards."
In the context of a row between Pashtuns and Hazara, this Pashtun community leader might be expected to give MK a bit of space – he doesn't. "Matiullah Khan doesn't care much about the happiness of his own people, but making just a single foreigner [Australian or American] happy is very important to him."
MK confirms that he led a delegation to Khas Oruzgan, where it was confirmed that Shujoyi was indeed in the US Special Forces compound, with Roi Gul.
"We captured Roi – but the Americans 'disappeared' Shujoyi. He escaped to Kabul, where the Interior Ministry detained him and put him in jail – we asked that he be sent back to Oruzgan to face trial, but he was released on the orders of vice-president [and fellow-Hazara] Khalili.
"He returned to Khas Oruzgan five months ago and started killing again – nine innocents died. We go after him and he escapes again. Now he is in Kabul – lounging in Khalili's vice-presidential guesthouse."
The wispy-bearded Ali Akbar Qasim sits in the semi-darkness of his office at Parliament House in Kabul. His electoral territory borders Khas Oruzgan, but as an ethnic Hazara he feels duty-bound to look out for the Hazaras of the region – who number about 30,000 but are not represented in parliament by one of their own.
By his account Hazaras and Pashtuns had served side-by-side in the ALP. But then the Pashtuns defected to the Taliban and by the time the US got around to arming and equipping the ALP, it was a purely Hazara force. He claims the Pashtuns retaliated, perpetrating violence on their own people which they then blamed on the ALP.
The MP describes Shujoyi as a low-profile jihadi commander who has evolved into a powerful local figure. "He knows how to protect his people and the Taliban can't defeat him, so now they use the provincial police to try to capture him.
The MP vehemently denies the allegations against Shujoyi. "If he did any of the things he is accused of, don't you think that the Americans and the Australians would have arrested him by now?" he asks. "I mean, is it a crime to fight the Taliban – if yes, then Shujoyi is a criminal. "The only support he gets is from the foreigners and without it he would have been torn to pieces by now."
On that, there appears to be local agreement. "As soon as Shujoyi loses American protection, the serious fightback will start," a community leader says.
"We don't want to do what the people did after the killing of Daoud Khan," he says, referring to a tribal revenge attack on the killer's brother, who was beaten senseless in the main street of Tarin Kowt and then killed by a vehicle being driven over his head.
"But if MK can't do the job, we'll go to a Taliban court and if that can't happen then the people will order a suicide-bombing. Simple . . ."