KABUL, Afghanistan – The chilling, cold-blooded killing of a 10-year-old Afghan girl has sparked an investigation into a possible organ harvesting or snuff filmmaking ring.
The tragic death of the girl, Henna, occurred more than a month after her family applied for Special Immigrant Visas to leave the Taliban-controlled country – but according to her grief-stricken relatives, her family has not heard back from the US government.
In the early hours of a Friday morning earlier this month – the only weekend day in Afghanistan – the girl was allegedly targeted by her neighbor to “do them a favor” and buy them bread, her relatives said. The neighbor, Mohammad, allegedly claimed to have had a heart condition and told the neighbors he did not want the women of the house roaming the streets under the Taliban’s gaze.
“The women were relentless,” the sobbing grandmother, Parveen, recalls. “They made Henna get out of bed, and that is how they got her.”
But when Henna went to deliver the bread, her family says, she was “abducted” and murdered. Five adults inside the neighboring home — suspected ringleaders Mohammad, 67, and his son Ahmad, 26, as well as three women — were arrested and remain behind bars.
The true motivation for the killing may never be known. But both her family and the Taliban suspect a broader, more sinister kidnapping ring has been unearthed. The two men of the house had already been taken in for questioning a week earlier, Taliban police say, on suspicions of child abductions and organ harvesting – and the property was under surveillance when the grim homicide took place.
Henna was apparently suffocated and the side of her neck was severed, and she sustained multiple stab wounds around her abdominal region, as evidenced by pictures of her wounds.
“They tied a scarf around her neck, and then there were at least seven or eight knives to the stomach, possibly trying to remove the organ,” said Taliban Police Commander Mawalwi Tayeb, Head of the Criminal Investigation Department.
As per Islamic custom, she was buried immediately before a proper autopsy and investigation could be conducted.
Yet Tayeb also notes that they are probing the possibility that the “mafia” could also be motivated financially by making “black films” – usually referred to in the west as snuff films – showing the brutal death, which are then disturbingly sold to twisted minds over the internet.
“These cases generally have two purposes. One is to take body parts, usually the kidneys, and the second is to make black films,” he says. “We have not seen a film so far, but it seems they were targeting her to remove body parts to sell.”
Taliban police forces believe the suspects have been kidnapping and killing people for around five years, continuously moving from province to province to avoid capture.
The organ harvesting trade has become something of an underground business in Afghanistan in recent years amid a lawless environment, rife with corruption and the majority of resources devoted to the war effort. Impoverished Afghans have also volunteered to surrender one of two kidneys for a quick financial boost, often leaving them too weak to work and deepening their financial burden.
Dr. Dil Aqa Mahboby, Kabul’s Deputy Head of the Forensic Department, is skeptical that the alleged ring has such capabilities as organ harvesting, believing it was likely a revenge murder – or a kidnapping gone wrong – as no body part was extracted.
“If a person dies, there is no part of the body that works at all. When a human dies, everything dies. If they were planning to do an organ transplant, they would have kept the child alive and cut from the center of the chest and put into cold storage,” he explains. “This could be a kidnapping for either money or because (the child) knew some secrets.”
Mahboby stresses that the perpetrators would have needed to have been affiliated with a professional medical institute to undergo such an operation immediately.
Dr. Khan Alam at the Khatam Modern Transplantation Hospital in Kabul, one of the country’s few specialists in kidney transplantation, said he is not familiar with any such illicit organ or kidney-related trafficking rings.
But with the United Nations estimating that more than 90 percent of Afghans will soon fall below the poverty line, experts fear that trafficking will continue to occur.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), most transnational trafficking cases – whether it be for organs, sex or labor – involve children, and they are most often moved to neighboring nations including Iran, Pakistan, and India. In 2008, the Hamid Karzai-led Afghan government passed legislation mandating that kidnappers and human traffickers face life behind bars. However, the new Taliban regime has taken punishments significantly further.
Last month, Taliban officials hung the already-dead bodies of four alleged kidnappers – killed in an exchange of gunfire – in the streets of the northern city of Herat, as an ominous warning to any other criminals engaged in or contemplating the practice. The swift justice came a day after a family alerted authorities that a man and his teenage son were abducted. They were safely returned.
“(Let this be) a life lesson for other kidnappers,” Mulwi Shir Ahmad Ammar, the city’s deputy governor, warned.
Yet trying to obtain any updates or insight into the Taliban’s investigation on Henna’s case remains an almost impossible task. Multiple regional security experts I spoke to on the matter say it’s likely – given stretched capabilities and the limited resources of the new government – that the focus is less on what has already transpired and more on what happens next.
“Islam has its rules for major sins. For example, killing someone has different rules. If you do it intentionally, if you know the person and intentionally kill the person, you will be killed back,” says Mohammad Yousuf, who says he is around 32 years old and responsible for the “central zone” of Afghanistan at the Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and Propagation of Virtue.
One Taliban intelligence official indicated to me that the first slate of public executions – including the perpetrators of Henna’s death – was supposed to take place earlier this month outside Eid Gah Mosque in Kabul, but plans were derailed when a bomb blast erupted at the gates amid the memorial service for the mother of chief Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.
“We have thousands in the prisons, kidnappers and thieves,” says the insider. “People are tired of waiting.”
Since then, punishments have been halted as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan attempts to gain traction with the international community to release the $9.4 billion in frozen assets and offer humanitarian and financial aid to the economically beleaguered nation.
“We want to get out before there is any punishment,” says Shafi Rahman, Henna’s teary father. “We are still being threatened, and there is nothing anyone can do to protect us. This could make it much worse.”
But the consensus among the Afghans milling in the streets outside the home that Henna’s life was taken are ardent about the type of punishment they want the perpetrators to face.
“The kidnappers should be hanged in front of us,” the residents, young and old, chant almost in unison.
Another relative, Muhibullah, 30, says that the Taliban even asked the father what punishment he wanted for those who took his daughter’s life – but for Shafi Rahman, there is too much at stake to call for any executions.
In frantic WhatsApp messages, Henna’s family says they are receiving threatening calls and are followed each time they move to a new place or endeavor to step outside. The father says he was even pulled aside by mafia affiliates upon leaving the Central Command office last week after the Taliban called him in to verify the identities of the alleged murderers.
“The gang members took a pistol to me and told me to go back and tell the Taliban that these people are innocent and it was an accident,” Shafi Rahman notes. “And they told me if any member of that group is (executed) by the Taliban, they will kill all my family. So now we don’t know where we should go.”
Even the Taliban has seemingly warned the mourning family to lay low.
“They told us to be very careful,” he continues. “It is a very big gang.”
According to the family’s documentation, their Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications to leave the beleaguered country were submitted on August 28.
In an open letter to the international community, the uncle of Henna – by marriage – and a US green card holder, Obaidullah Ibrahimi – Chairman and CEO of Obaidullah Ibrahimi International Groups (OII Group), which has assisted the American war effort since 2006 – has launched a desperate appeal for help.
“I run a charity organization (OB AID) funding over 2,000 underprivileged children’s education – mostly girls; in rural areas and helping some 200 poor families. We have worked and delivered numerous US Army and International Forces projects in the most dangerous places in Afghanistan,” he writes. “Now, as the Taliban has overtaken Afghanistan, there is an imminent threat and great danger against my family members, who were part of our company and worked on the numerous US and International funded projects in Afghanistan.”
According to Obaidullah, the kidnappers who killed his niece are linked to 26 other child murders, as the Taliban told the family.
“At this time; my family is threatened by the kidnappers not to testify to the Taliban regime – as if they testify; the Taliban will hang the ones they have caught, and are also under immense pressure not to get recognized by the Taliban for their history of work with the US Army, International Forces, and the previous Afghan government and their relation to me,” he continues. “My family members and most of my employees are SIV eligible and applicants; who have all the necessary supporting documents. Thus, they are at extreme risk from the Taliban, a ring of human traffickers, and other insurgents. I once again humbly urge and request the US Government, other governments, and all the Humanitarian agencies and organizations to help and evacuate my family and staff at the earliest possible, please.”
Henna’s relatives are left to mourn while also fearing for their lives.
The girl’s mother, Zohra, “doesn’t sleep” following Henna’s death, her father Shafi Rahman says. “She cries sometimes and thinks our daughter is still there,” he said.
Henna was the oldest of four children. She had a brother Ferdawse, 7, sister Zohal, 4, and the youngest brother Yahya, born only three months ago. Zohal tells me sorrowfully that she knows her big sister has gone away and is never coming back.