A day on the job with Kabul’s crime scene investigators

Ghullam Faroq bustles through the narrow hallways at the old Ministry of Interior building in the heart of Kabul, a stack of folders tucked in the crook of his arm and a phone pressed to his ear. He climbs the stairs to the second floor and is buzzed through a series of doors with metal bars and touch keypads.

It is just after 7:30am on a day in late 2019 and the end of a 24-hour shift leading a team of 11. Before he heads home, Faroq has a debriefing with the director of investigations.

Faroq, 54, is from Logar, a restive province roughly 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Afghanistan’s capital. His crime investigation career spans more than 30 years – the past 11 years of those spent here at Kabul’s crime scene investigation (CSI) department.

“It’s a busy morning. It’s always a busy morning,” Faroq says, settling into a seat in the director’s office. He cuts a dapper figure in his black turtleneck, mustard blazer, striking moustache and slim spectacles.

The CSI unit travels to as many as 30 crime scenes a day, conducting investigations and interviews with witnesses, collecting evidence and submitting it to the Forensic Medicine Directorate (FMD), the country’s only working forensic laboratory, located in the Ministry of Public Health, a two-storey building in the centre of Kabul.

Kabul’s CSI department was established in 2009 in a city police station. Today, Faroq says there are 10 smaller CSI units and 50 investigators working across Afghanistan but the Kabul CSI team of 33 takes on the brunt of the workload, facing a deluge of hundreds of cases a week from across the country. These range from homicides to assassinations of the country’s highest elected officials to serial killings, burglaries, armed robberies, theft and extortion. There are also crimes linked to narcotics, to which an estimated three million people in the country of about 34 million are addicted, kidnappings, street crime and domestic violence – the archives are overflowing.Moreover, the team has not been able to start work on a backlog of thousands of cold cases due to a lack of staff, forensic evidence, and adequate equipment – particularly for DNA testing.In 2014, when US troops left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield as part of a military drawdown, valuable American forensic equipment was handed over to the Ministry of Interior (MOI). But with a lack of trained experts in Afghanistan who know how to use that equipment, the laboratory in the MOI currently remains inactive, while the American instruments sit locked away in a warehouse gathering dust, according to FMD specialists.

 

The operational forensic laboratory at the FMD takes criminal cases from the CSI department and judicial departments and is working towards building the first national DNA database for Afghanistan, but it also suffers from a lack of resources and equipment. Despite being in operation for 39 years, FMD receives minimal government funding and is forced to send the majority of its DNA samples to Canada for analysis.

The shooting

Faroq’s meeting is interrupted by a phone call from the police station – a fatal shooting at a local hospital. He jumps to his feet and heads outside to join three members of the CSI team climbing into hazmat suits and loading up their van with forensic equipment.

Careening through Kabul’s busy streets, Faroq receives another phone call. The victim is no longer at the crime scene – police officials violated protocol and took his body to a nearby military hospital.

Faroq takes the development in stride and the team detours – this is not the first time a body has absconded. “Usually, we would go to the crime scene first to collect evidence before it is tainted by others, but we also need to take blood samples and photographs and notes of the body before the family receives it for burial. If the body is no longer at the crime scene, we have to make a choice of priority,” he says.

The victim is a hospital security guard, allegedly shot in the neck by his colleague while they were both on the night shift. At the military hospital, Faroq learns the victim was still alive when he arrived at the emergency room but died while being treated. “The suspect and two other witnesses are now arrested and under investigation at 11 police station,” he says.

In the hospital courtyard, behind a screen, the victim lays on a stretcher.Faroq takes his fingerprints while another member of the CSI team inspects the body, scribbling down notes. A third member photographs the wounds. “One bullet with an entry and exit point, here in the trachea,” calls out Faroq.

 

“Now NDS [National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service] district head is talking with the family of the victim and telling them that we want to take the body to FMD. But the family is protesting. They want to take the body for the funeral now and I don’t think they will allow FMD to take it,” says Faroq.

“It’s important for the body to reach FMD so that they can determine the exact time of the shooting, the firing distance etc. If we can get the suspect to FMD also, they can also conduct tests to tell us if the victim or suspect was under the influence of any alcohol or narcotics.”

On the other side of the screen, amongst a crowd of curious onlookers, is the dead security guard’s four-year-old son with a male relative. As the team packs up and leaves the hospital, in a private gesture, Faroq hands the child his father’s boots.The team heads to the crime scene, the van moving through crowds of people in the bazaar.

 

“I have been working with the CSI team for seven years,” shouts one of the team over the din of the bazaar streaming in through the open windows. He reaches into a box under his seat and hands out cans of energy drinks to the driver, who also acts as the team’s photographer, Faroq and another team member in the back seat.

“He’s been here for three years,” he says in Dari, gesturing to the scrawny man in the back seat. “But he doesn’t talk. He stopped speaking two years ago. Do you want to interview him?” he adds.

“Today there are only four of us,” continues the team member, explaining that two teams are sent to investigate more serious or complex crimes.

“It’s a very dangerous and difficult job. Honestly, I think it is having a really negative impact on my mental state. I’ve personally visited around 5,000 crime scenes. Homicides are just one kind of case. We see a lot of suicide cases, and also the aftermath of suicide bombings.

“These are the photos of the suicide attack near the Ministry of Interior,” he continues, referring to the deadly January 27, 2018 blast, flipping through photos on his phone. “Here they are just photos, but I remember what it feels like to collect the flesh of someone’s body in my hands and put it in a bag.”

Violence, crime on the rise

On February 29, 2020 the United States and the Taliban signed a conditional peace deal in Doha, Qatar. The deal offers a basic bargain that requires US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months on the condition that the Taliban ratchets back attacks on US and Afghan troops.

Despite the agreement and the beginning of the intra-Afghan peace negotiations on September 12, the country has seen a surge in violence. The Taliban has continued attacks across the country, carrying out 356 attacks in just one week, the interior ministry’s spokesman said on October 24, 2020. October was the deadliest month in Afghanistan for civilians – with at least 212 killed – since September 2019, according to data compiled by The New York Times. At least 369 pro-government forces were killed that month.

According to Human Rights Watch, a leading cause of civilian deaths and injuries were Taliban attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and in 2020 Afghanistan remained the deadliest country for civilians. The latest quarterly report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 5,939 civilian casualties, including 2,117 killed and 3,822 injured, from January 1 to September 30, 2020. According to the report, the Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties, and Afghan national security forces for 23 percent, mostly due to ground engagements.

Moreover, Afghanistan is seeing a rise in civilian assassinations. On January 1 this year, Bismillah Adil Aimaq became the fifth journalist to be killed in two months. On January 17, two female supreme court judges were shot dead in an early morning ambush in Kabul.

“We record everything. Every detail can help us to have the full picture of the case before it goes to the attorney general or judge,” says Faroq, surveying his team at work.

“We need to check the list of the guards with the hospital director to determine who was on duty and at what time. Another team is searching for the first responder who transferred the victim’s body to the hospital. He could be a witness or a suspect at this point and we want to collect his fingerprints and interview him also. If we can’t find him, we will follow his phone signal and find him that way.”

The victim’s phone will go to the technical team to see what they can extract. The suspect and witnesses’ clothing will be taken into evidence.

“We should complete our work on a case in two days,” says Faroq.

The team is finished. They pack up their battered cases, now full of evidence and samples, and head to the police station. “We need to meet the suspect, take his fingerprints and it’s time for his questioning.”

 

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