Vengeance is in the air. The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has caused fear and consternation among Afghans that the newly victorious fundamentalists will carry out reprisals against those who worked with the Americans and their western allies during the past 20 years. The Taliban are known for their intolerance of girls and women; they have also proven to be brutal towards their opposition and allied collaborators. The Kabul airport is a chaotic scene of those trying to flee.
And there are good reasons for those trying to leave. Reports of Taliban seeking vengeance are not hard to find. Former Afghan government officials told The New York Times that “the Taliban had been combing through records at the Ministry of Defense and Interior and the headquarters of Afghanistan’s spy service, drawing up lists of operatives to search for. And there are more and more reports that the militants are exacting swift and fatal revenge when their targets are found,” they added ominously.
A recent tragic story coming out of Algeria shows another lesson about retribution for the past. A young Algerian was lynched and burned by a furious crowd on August 11. Djamel Bensmail was accused of starting fires which have ravaged the Kabyle region around Larbaa Nath Irathen. Ninety people have died in the fires; entire villages were destroyed.
When the police took Djamel into custody, a mob captured and lynched him near the police station. His body was dragged to the town center where it was burned and mutilated. It was subsequently established that Djamel had come to the region to help the population fight the fires. He was not a pyromaniac, far from it.
Video images of the entire incident were quickly shown on social media to the horror of Algerians. Djamel’s father, Noureddine Ben Ismail was overwhelmed with emotion. “My son left to help his brothers from Kabyle, a region he loves, they burned him alive... I’m devastated,” he said.
But the father did not call for vengeance. “I lost a son, but I gained a whole region,” he explained “The death of my son has united all Algerians.”
Not everyone was willing to pardon the guilty. The wise men of Larbaa Nath Irathen issued a statement presenting their excuses for the entire region and asked that justice be done against the mob. The president of Algeria, Abdelmajid Tebboune, has also mentioned the crime on several occasions. The police have arrested 36 suspects although their passivity when Bensmail was in custody continues to be questioned.
Why mention this incident? While there have been calls for justice against members of the mob, the reaction of the father is extraordinary. “We do not want trouble among our fellow Moslems,” he said. “All of Kabyle are our brothers.”
Will Djamel’s father’s call for unity among “fellow Moslems” be followed among Afghans? Will the Taliban be able to work with and represent all Afghans including non-Moslems?
Taliban spokespersons have tried to be reassuring despite evidence to the contrary: “We are the servants of the people and the country,” Suhail Shaheen told the BBC. “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe – there will be no revenge on anyone,” he promised. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, told reporters that it would grant amnesty to Afghans who had worked with the American-backed government.
Those fleeing don’t believe these promises of safety and amnesty. The Taliban’s record for not keeping their word is well known. The spirit if not the exact wording of the agreements they reached with the United States under President Trump in 2020 were not respected. Why should we believe them now?
The situation in Afghanistan is in flux. The Taliban is not yet a legitimate government; they have not been diplomatically recognized. During their previous rule, 1996-2001, only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan officially recognized them. So far, no country has. They have no legal legitimacy.
Those seeking to leave Afghanistan are desperate. The chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport show their desperation. Thousands are fearful of retribution for their past association with western actors. Will the Taliban punish those who can’t leave? Will the Taliban seek vengeance?
The example of Djamel Bensmail’s father warrants greater publicity. He lost a son under horrendous circumstances. But he has gained respect because of his humanity.