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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Questions Lurk in a Dead Village

War: U.S. says it bombed hamlet to kill Talibs. But locals claim military fell victim to misinformation.

January 08, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The U.S. does not understand the ways of Afghans, the willingness to go to any lengths to eliminate an enemy, and these satellite phones appear to have been distributed rather indiscriminately," he said.

Paktia province, where both of the recent controversial bombings occurred, lies along the east-central border of the country, where mountain peaks rise to more than 10,000 feet. Some local residents and commanders say Al Qaeda members and senior Taliban leaders passed through the province on their way to hiding places in the mountains or in Pakistan. It is difficult to know if a few are still hiding in small villages such as Qalaye Niazi.

Qalaye Niazi is a collection of hamlets separated by long stretches of Afghan plain. The dwellings that were bombed, about two miles from Gardiz, the provincial capital, housed farmers and at times some of the Kuchi people, who are nomads.

A week after the bombing, neighbors were still picking through mounds of rubble, searching for the dead. They said 10 houses were struck.

Strewn about were what appeared to be the remains of simple lives. Pink, yellow and blue dresses elaborately embroidered with flowers and leaves, and shawls far more colorful than those worn elsewhere by women in Afghanistan, lay on the ground. Half buried under some bricks was a child's severed shoe. And vanishing into the desert dust was flour from a large metal bin whose top was twisted off by the powerful bombs.

On the night of the bombing, the village had more than its usual number of people because Bahram Jan, a farmer, was having a wedding party for his son. Members of the bride's family had come from as far away as Jalalabad, several hours by road, said Sher Khan, an elderly man who lives in a nearby village and lost seven relatives and a car the night of the bombing.

The roar of the planes started around 3 a.m., and then the bombs began to fall, according to neighbors who watched from a distance, some of whom climbed on their roofs to see what was happening by the light of the nearly full moon. Accounts are not completely consistent, but several people said the planes flew three sorties over the village and a helicopter hovered close to the ground firing flares and then rockets.

"I got on the roof and I thought to myself, 'They are destroying my family,' " Khan said. "I saw the people running from the village in the light of the flares and the moon."

Villagers said a number of women and children ran from the houses toward a dry pond and irrigation canals, probably in search of protection from the rockets and bombs, but were killed as they ran. An initial investigation by the United Nations said the charges were well founded.

After two hours, the aircraft left and dozens of people lay dead. The United Nations report, which was based on a source's information that U.N. officials described as reliable but unconfirmed, said that 52 people died: 17 men, 10 women and 25 children. Among them were six neighbors who rushed to the village to rescue victims but were fired upon, the U.N. said. Khan said 48 people were still missing but that they had buried 10 people. In one grave, he said, they put the remains of three bodies, and in another a number of pieces that could not be identified.

Near the destroyed homes, the ground is covered with unexploded ammunition--much of it Russian- or Chinese-made varieties that the United States does not use. Three buildings that were damaged were packed with unopened boxes of bullets. Clearly this village was a major ammunition dump, but for whom?

The elders of the Paktia tribal council say the munitions were government property that predated the Taliban. They say the munitions were moved to the village because they feared they would explode and cause civilian casualties if Gardiz was targeted in the U.S. air campaign.

But anti-Taliban soldiers who accompanied visitors to the village said they had no doubt that the Taliban had put the munitions there.

It is unclear why the United States left the ammunition intact rather than destroying it. Much of the ammunition still looks as if it could be salvaged.

As the shadows lengthen and the winter air turns chill, four women, their blue and pink veils blown by the wind, walk steadily toward the destroyed hamlet. They have come to look for relatives who are missing. As they approach, a plane streaks high overhead. A few men picking through the rubble look up nervously. The plane makes a second sweep in the other direction. The men call out to the women that it is not safe and that they should turn back.

Will anyone ever return to this village?

"No one is alive to come back," said Haji Taj Mohammed. "We have not seen any wounded."

*

Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.

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