QALE ZAMAN, AFGHANISTAN — The road to Bala Baluk district stretches arrow-straight ahead, with heat-shimmered cucumber fields on either side. But determining exactly what transpired nearly two weeks ago in a hamlet called Garani takes a far more twisted path.
A battle raged. Bombs fell. Afghan officials say at least 140 civilians died, two-thirds of them children and teenagers, in what may prove the most lethal episode of civilian casualties since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Days of interviews with U.S. and Afghan commanders, mourning villagers and jittery provincial authorities, doctors and human rights activists about the fighting of May 4 yielded accounts that could be likened to a series of linked circles; some elements overlap while others appear irreconcilable.
Villagers consistently told of a bombardment that came at least 90 minutes after the Taliban had melted away from Garani, a village just 22 miles from the provincial capital, Farah City. The military insists that the airstrikes were based on real-time information and driven by precise battlefield imperatives. Local people are adamant that bombardment caused the civilian deaths; the U.S. military asserts that at least some were inflicted by the Taliban, and it sharply disputes the toll of 140.
Whatever emerges as something akin to truth, the events that took place in this desolate patch of western desert stand as a microcosm of the Afghan war, a stark illustration of the enormous obstacles faced as the new American administration commits greater numbers of U.S. troops than ever before to confront an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency.
Piercing wails rose into the antiseptic-scented air where four blistered and bandaged little girls lay in side-by-side hospital beds. One of them, 5-year-old Ferishteh, writhed and cried almost continuously, unable to find a position that did not cause her pain from the burns that covered her arms, legs and torso.
On the night of May 4, the girls' families, frightened by hours of fierce fighting between insurgents and Afghan and Western troops in and around Garani, had sought shelter, together with dozens of neighbors, in a pair of sprawling compounds belonging to the village's most powerful tribal clans.
After the clashes subsided in the early evening, residents said, many were bedding down by about 8:30, still huddled together in hope of safety.
That, they say, is when the bombs fell.
Nine-year-old Nazbibi, whose large brown eyes were half hidden by swollen eyelids with eyelashes burned away, remembered falling asleep with her mother and 10-year-old sister by her side.
"I heard a big boom, and I was buried except for my head," she said. "Everything collapsed -- the roof was on me, and there were flames. I was so frightened."
Her sister, Gulbuddin, was killed. Her mother, Sanam, suffered burns but survived, although the night's events so unhinged her that she apparently suffered a mental collapse.
Because of the seriousness of their condition, the girls were eventually brought to the country's best burn treatment center, at the regional hospital in Herat, about 150 miles north of Farah City.
Marie-Jose Brunel, a nurse working for a French humanitarian group that helps run the unit, grimaced when asked if they would live. She thought yes, but wasn't sure.
Nurses and doctors said Nazbibi's father, Saeed Malham, rarely left her bedside. Like many of the village's men, he works as a laborer across the border in Iran, and did not learn of the catastrophe that had befallen his family until two days later.
"When they told me what had happened, I fainted under a tree," he said. Then he rushed home, returning to a village marked by destroyed homes and fresh graves.
The father of the other three girls in the burn unit, Saeed Barakat, was also separated from his wife and children at the time of the bombardment. He had gone to the mosque in the early evening, and then to the home of an elder married daughter to spend the night.
When the alarm was raised, he hurried to the compound where his family had been sleeping. There he encountered a nightmarish landscape of blood-covered rubble and severed limbs. A hand was found in a nearby tree. Only seven of more than 70 people inside were alive, according to Barakat and others interviewed.
Echoing sentiments that would be expressed in the following days by many other villagers, Barakat aimed his bafflement and fury squarely at the U.S. military.
"We blame America," he said. "With all their technology, they don't determine who is a fighter and who is an innocent. Now my house is gone. My wife is dead. My children are burned."
But the other father, Malham, was angrier at the Taliban.
"I say this to them," he said in a low voice, glancing over to make sure he was not frightening his daughter with the vehemence of his tone. "May God bring their houses down on their heads."
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