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U.S. Raid on Village Raises Hard Questions

Afghanistan: 'Why are they shooting our women and children?' one victim asks, after the hunt for militants costs more civilian lives.

July 05, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In the intensive care unit of the Mirwais Hospital, a 6-year-old boy, his legs as spindly as pencils, lay with a bandage over his chest where doctors had removed life-threatening shrapnel.

Across the hall, five children--all with shrapnel wounds--told a terrifying story of being pursued by an American warplane as they ran for their lives through wheat fields and dry riverbeds.

In the men's ward, the injuries were similar, but the tone was angry, indignant, betrayed. Among the injured were people who had fought with Afghan President Hamid Karzai against the Taliban and had backed the U.S. war on terrorism.

All of them were victims of a U.S. airstrike early Monday in a village deep in Oruzgan province in central Afghanistan. Afghan officials estimate that 44 people died and 120 were wounded, with more than 20 requiring hospitalization.

Although many questions remain about the reasons for the raid and the amount of Taliban activity in the province where it took place, there is no doubt that during the attack women and children were killed and injured; friends and fellow fighters of Karzai's were killed; and a party for an upcoming wedding came under fire.

Here in Kandahar, where the majority of the severely injured were brought, the episode poses hard questions about the costs associated with the U.S. policy of hunting down every last Taliban and Al Qaeda fighter.

"Why are they shooting our women and children?" asked Abdul Kaliq, a 25-year-old farmer from Kakarak, the village where the raid took place.

"The Americans should make peace in Afghanistan and rebuild Afghanistan," he said, wincing as he moved in the hospital bed. Shrapnel lacerated his back and both arms during the raid.

Others sounded angrier.

"Those people bombed our women and children, they killed our women and children, they are our enemy," said Khudai Nazar. The Kakarak resident was at the hospital visiting fellow villagers who were injured.

Nazar, along with several of the injured men and Karzai, is a member of the Popolzai clan and fought with the Afghan leader last fall when Karzai went to Oruzgan to rally citizens against the Taliban.

This is the second time Nazar has lost someone close to him as a result of U.S. military action. His cousin died when American forces mistakenly bombed Karzai's troops in December, killing three U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers and about 25 Afghans.

The circumstances surrounding the Monday attack near the town of Deh Rawod--as in many of the other American actions that have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries--remain shrouded in contradiction. Pentagon officials insist that their forces were fired on repeatedly by antiaircraft weapons in the area, while villagers are adamant that they were celebrating the upcoming wedding and, according to Afghan tradition, firing guns. The Pentagon says there were Taliban in the village; the locals say they oppose the Taliban and that, although some supporters of the former regime once lived near there, none were in the village the night of the party.

Army Maj. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the joint Afghan-U.S. team investigating the attack, said American forces on the ground had reliable information from several sources that senior Taliban leaders were in the tiny village at the time of the attack.

He said a Special Forces team had surveyed the area at least four times in the last two weeks and that each time planes had been fired on by antiaircraft guns.

Whether the gunfire was celebratory or aggressive, the response affected far more lives than those of the people firing the weapons, according to injured villagers and their relatives.

If there were Taliban in the village, as U.S. officials contend, there also were about 300 people attending the engagement party for a villager's son. As is customary, the women were celebrating in one group and the men in another. The party went late because summers are hot in Afghanistan and only night brings some welcome coolness.

As tradition dictates, neither the groom nor bride were present, although the party was held in part at the home of the groom's family. Many relatives were among the dead or injured.

With the festivities, some people said they didn't even hear the AC-130 gunship as it approached the compound. Sadiqa, 15, was in the women's section listening to music when the firing started.

The first fire hit among the women, she said. Terrified, she and others ran out of the courtyard and into surrounding fields. Sadiqa said she searched for a dry stream bed where she could hide. She was shot as she ran, the shrapnel shearing into both legs.

Days later, she still wore the salmon-colored dress she had put on for the party. Her injuries will heal, doctors say; far harder is the loss of her entire family, 15 people who died in the raid.

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