Chancing the 'horror highway'
 

When the Kabul-Kandahar highway was re-opened in 2003 after two decades of disrepair, it was meant to connect Afghanistan’s two largest cities and strengthen security and prosperity. But daily kidnappings have turned it into the 'highway of horrors'.

A stretch of the "highway of horrors" in Ghazni. (Photo: Alizada)

Ahmad Shah no longer looks forward to his trips to Kabul. A year ago he, his wife and children were driving to the capital from Ghazni when their car was stopped by gunmen on a stretch of Highway 1, or the country's Ring Road, in the Sayedabad District of Maydan-Wardak Province. His family were left in the vehicle, but the gunmen took him with them.

“They took me to a house,” says the Ghazni resident, who heard his kidnappers bartering with each other over the price of the ransom. Ahmad was kept in a tight space for nearly a week while his abductors negotiated the price of his life. “After several days in a ground level room I managed to escape,” he says, safely back at home and still exuding relief at his good fortune. But he won’t be traveling to Kabul again any time soon.

Ahmad is one of a growing number of people taken hostage on or near this infamous stretch of the highway which, despite its strategic importance to Afghan and foreign forces and the country's commerce, still defies efforts to secure it. So much so, that people in this notorious area south of Kabul have dubbed it  the rahi wahshatnak, or the highway of horrors. 

Growing numbers of victims

In the past, insurgents and unaffiliated bandits and kidnappers mainly targeted military transport and goods convoys. But now ordinary civilians are increasingly susceptible to harrassment and attack, spreading alarm in many districts.

“Armed individuals come to the highway and kidnap drivers on a daily-basis." Sahib Shah Qazi, chairman of Ghazni Provincial Council.

Official statements and victim testimonies suggest that scores and possibly even hundreds of people are kidnapped every year on this stretch of the Ring Road between Kabul and Kandahar, mainly towards the capital. Measuring almost 500 kilometres in total, it passes through some extremely barren and sparsely populated terrain.

On the Wardak-Ghazni stretch of the highway alone, 58 kidnappings were reported in the first nine months of 2011. The separate Wardak-Bamyan road that branches off through highland to the west has also been plagued by incidents, mainly because the ransoms provide a ready source of income for organised criminal networks. And the problem is acknowledged as getting worse this year.

“Every day, members of the families of kidnapped individuals report their lost loved ones to our office,” Sahib Shah Qazi, chairman of the Ghazni Provincial Council, told Afghanistan Today. “Recently, the kidnappings have increased dramatically. Armed individuals come to the highway and kidnap drivers on a daily-basis,” added Qazi, noting that kidnappers usually target expensive cars and well-dressed passengers for ransoms of thousands of dollars. 

Feeding off the civilian traffic has become an easy way for gunmen of all stripes to fill their pockets. (Photo: Nick Allen)

In July 2012, 16 people were kidnapped on the road, and only five had been rescued by law enforcers, Ghulam Hossein Naseri, a parliamentarian for Maydan-Wardak, told Afghanistan Today. Six were killed by Taliban forces in the Julrez District of Maydan-Wardak on August 4 this year, according to Naseri.

The fate of many of the people abducted remains unknown. One morning last year, Ghazni resident Naser set off at dawn to Kabul with four other passengers in a minivan. “Somewhere near Shah Gow, unidentified armed individuals stopped our vehicle and took one of the passengers named Aslam out of the car to an unknown location,” Naser said. He tried to inform the victim’s family but was unable to find them. 

In response to complaints, the Ghazni Provincial Council set up a commission together with their counterparts in Maydan-Wardak to find ways to improve security for road users.

Shahedullah Shahed, a spokesman for the Maydan-Wardak Governor Mohammad Halim Fidai, acknowledged there are serious security issues on the shared stretch of the road. But local residents are “cooperating with terrorist and criminal networks,” he claimed, making security hard to enforce.

Good cop, bad cop

“The police are trying to address kidnappings so that people can travel safely on the highway,” Abdul Wali, a spokesman for the Chief of the police in Maydan-Wardak, told Afghanistan Today.

He pointed to several successful rescue operations. “In the last month alone, the police have successfully rescued 12 persons, including a woman and a child,” said Abdul Wali.

Politician Mohammad Mohaqiq led calls this month for greater security on the affected stretches of highway. (Photo: Alizada)

But some locals are sceptical. Masood, a Ghazni resident, accuses the police of being part of the problem. “The security forces are partners with kidnappers. They rarely interfere when they see the Taliban doing random stop-and-search road blocks on drivers on the highway,” says Masood. 

His overall concern is shared by many others. On August 3, hundreds of residents of west Kabul held a demonstration to protest against the insecurity on the highway from Maydan-Wardak to Ghazni and the spur road to Bamyan.

Speaking at the demonstration, the leader of the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, Mohammad Mohaqiq, urged the government to take drastic measures to improve security on both roads.

Others advocate independent action against the threat, which they say comes from Taliban and other insurgents, bandit rings, opportunists - anyone with unregistered firearms and no moral qualms about persecuting innocents. 

“Taliban-supported kidnappings have increased and we know the Taliban support drug cartels and criminal networks for financial reasons,” said Ghazni resident Paiman, expressing admiration for the example of villages in Ghazni's Ander District, which reportedly took up arms against local Taliban cells that had closed down schools. “People are now living a normal life there."

 
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