Fear and Nightmares: the dark life after Taliban captivity

By Kazim Ehsan

When I asked a former Taliban prisoner, Zabih (not his real name), he spoke of his time in Taliban captivity with a surprising lack of bitterness. “It was a misunderstanding, and they treated me well,” he said. Despite his words, the pallor of his face and his visibly weakened state suggested a hidden story he could not share openly with the media or those outside his close family.

Zulaikha, Zabih’s wife, offered a contrasting account. She confided in our correspondence that her husband had been fundamentally changed by his time in the Taliban prison. Once a social man, Zabih shuns contact with others, retreating into a world of silent introspection. His physical health, too, has taken a turn for the worse.

“He struggles with regular nightmares and wakes up screaming from his dreams. He cannot walk long distances and says his legs and waist are in excruciating pain,” Zulaikha revealed. Although Zabih bears no visible injuries, his body is covered in weaves of scars – a chilling testament to the untold horrors he faced while imprisoned.

In a disquieting development under the Taliban’s rule, an atmosphere of fear and enforced silence has begun to permeate the lives of the Afghan people. The Taliban, known for their brutal suppression of dissent, have created an environment where individuals are reluctant to discuss even matters unrelated to the regime with the media.

The KabulNow has obtained evidence suggesting that the Taliban is actively threatening prisoners and their families to ensure their silence. These families are unable to report arrests by the Taliban to the media, fearing that publicizing the issue will lead to increased pressure on their incarcerated loved ones.

Several sources, recently released from Taliban prisons and speaking on the condition of anonymity, have confirmed to KabulNow that they were warned not to talk with the media. One case involves a young vendor who was arrested in Kabul six months ago for alleged connections to a former local anti-Taliban commander. Since his arrest, none of his family members or relatives have dared to speak with the media. The detainee has spent the last six months in the oppressive confines of a Taliban prison, pleading with his family to remain silent about his situation.

Further indicating the climate of fear, many of those arrested by the Taliban deny their experiences in captivity. Three cattle traders from the same family were detained in western Kabul within two months. Fellow traders claim that the wealthy family was targeted for financial gain, with the Taliban extorting money through torture. Despite this, all three detainees have denied their arrests by the Taliban and refuse to acknowledge in the media that they were detained or forced to pay for their release.

In a similar case, six months ago, a young man from Lal-o-Sarjangal district in Ghor province was arrested in Herat City, for wearing a suit, according to information obtained by KabulNow. Upon his release, he could not speak with the media about his arrest. A relative revealed that the Taliban had threatened them with retaliation if they shared their story with the press.

In collaboration with Etilaatroz, KabulNow interviewed dozens of former Taliban prisoners, most of whom could not discuss their experiences in Taliban detention due to fear of retribution. Several female protesters released from Taliban prisons refrained from speaking about the abuse they endured, with some actively denying any mistreatment. Despite confirmed evidence, these individuals could not share their accounts with the media or organizations such as Human Rights Watch.

Numerous former detainees confirmed to KabulNow that they were warned against speaking with media outlets and human rights organizations, including UNAMA, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. These warnings illustrate how the Taliban continue to exert control over former prisoners and their families even after their release.

In some cases, the Taliban have coerced family members of detainees into collaborating with their intelligence network, forcing them to spy on their communities. The wife of a former military officer, currently held in a Taliban prison, confirmed to The New York Times that the Taliban gave her an ultimatum: cooperate and report on her community, or her husband would be killed. In exchange for her compliance, she is allowed to visit her husband in prison and was given assurance that he would not be executed.

Reports from media outlets and human rights organizations reveal that the Taliban employ brutal torture techniques to coerce detainees into confessing and implicating relatives or family members who may be working with anti-Taliban movements within and outside Afghanistan. The group’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) and its morality police wield the unchecked authority to arrest and punish individuals for a range of alleged offenses, spanning moral deviance, social and political activism, and ties to opposition groups.

These detainees are confined to cramped, unsanitary cells, where they endure physical and psychological torture, including beatings and electric shocks. During their detention, prisoners are held incommunicado, without any contact with their families or access to legal representation.