“Shattering Afghanistan: State Destruction and Mass Murder in Central Asia”

A "heat map" of state-led killing in Afghanistan during the spring and summer of 1979, one of many pieces of my new digital exhibit, "Shattering Afghanistan."

A “heat map” of state-led killing in Afghanistan during the spring and summer of 1979, one of many pieces of my new digital exhibit, “Shattering Afghanistan.”

After much huffing and puffing this semester about my activities in a digital history seminar offered by Harvard historian Kelly O’Neill, I’m happy to unveil the result of several weeks of work: an online Omeka exhibit entitled Shattering Afghanistan: Mass Murder and State Destruction in Central Asia. Fastidious readers of this blog will have known that I’ve been interested in applying GIS techniques to my own work on the history of Afghanistan and Central Asia in the twentieth century, and the combination of the seminar and the release this autumn of the so-called “Death Lists” from 1979 by the Dutch National Prosecutor’s Office provided an ideal opportunity to stop talking the talk and walk the walk.

I’ve provided more information on the project on a special page on this website, but since brevity is the soul of wit, the project was built through Omeka, a content management system and web publishing platform produced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media at George Mason University. Going into the project with a motley mix of data scraped from maps in Harvard’s Map Library and the new information of the Death Lists, my mission was to produce a more detailed, granular picture of mass murder and forced migration in Afghanistan during the late 1970s and 1980s, showing precisely (insofar as we can do so) which regions of Afghanistan were most affected (targeted by state kidnappings, or depopulated during the Soviet occupation) during this traumatic period in the country’s history. In the long run, I hope that some of the graphics that I’ve produced for this project will interface with the broader argument I’m trying to make in Developing Powers, the book project that I’m slowly birthing out of my D.Phil. dissertation.

A screen cap of "Shattering Afghanistan." Check it out and let me know your thoughts!

A screen cap of “Shattering Afghanistan.” Check it out and let me know your thoughts!

Interested parties can download the data I’ve used to make the maps, whether to check for any errors of interpretation or fact that I’ve made, or for their own projects. It’s my hope that this data can serve not just as an endpoint to decades of uncertainty about Afghans’ family members’ fates (the immediate impact of the Death Lists when released two and a half months ago) but also for a broader conversation about traumatic pasts in Central Asia. While work like that of Sarah Cameron’s (a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park) has begun to grapple with the legacy of hunger and mass famine caused by Soviet policies in Kazakhstan, for example, our understanding of the crimes of Communist (and other) regimes in this part of the world remains under-developed compared to that for, say, Eastern Europe. Shattering Afghanistan is hardly the last word: my hope is that it constitutes one of many avenues for engagement between Western historians and historians and scholars for the region to conduct a critical and mature conversation on crimes and atrocities in the region.

Lastly, I’d like only to give thanks to some of the people who helped me think through this project: the other seminar participants (Leland Grigoli, Bao Kham Chu, Jacob Feldman, Anna Esty, and Nicole Topich); Professor O’Neill; and two of the many wonderful GIS specialists at Harvard, Jeff Howry and Jeffrey Blossom. All errors are my own, of course.

If you have any comments or suggestions on the site, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


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