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A Times investigation

Afghan civilian deaths: Who is to blame?

Commanders and villagers give conflicting accounts of the attack that Afghan officials say killed 140 civilians, a toll disputed by the U.S. But injured girls make clear the costs for two families.

May 17, 2009|Laura King

There is no cellphone service in most of Bala Baluk at night, so villagers were unable to summon help, and they were too frightened to make the drive to Farah City. The wounded who weren't lucky enough to be unconscious shrieked themselves hoarse until morning finally came.

After the bombs

Bilquis Roshan's phone rang early on May 5, and did not stop ringing. An outspoken provincial council member, she is a well-known figure throughout Farah.

"People rely on me to get things done," she said with no small amount of pride.

By midday, she had visited the first victims arriving at Farah City's rudimentary hospital. Speaking to families she knew, Roshan began compiling a list of the dead. One family gave her 19 names, another 11. The toll she compiled quickly grew to 100, then 150. She alerted news media and human rights contacts in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Almost immediately, cracks began to show within the provincial government. Roshan, along with some others, complained that the governor, Rohul Amin, initially downplayed the extent of the disaster because he has close ties to the Americans.

By late afternoon, angry villagers showed up outside the governor's compound with two truckloads of bodies, about three dozen in all. Two days later, hundreds of angry demonstrators besieged the governor's compound, shouting anti-American slogans.

Amin denied any foot-dragging in response to the reports from Garani, but acknowledged that he sometimes felt tugged in two directions by his loyalties to his restive public and to the U.S. officials on whose largesse he depends, in a city where the zone of relative safety extends about six miles, and no more.

"The public and the Americans," the governor said with a small, tight smile. "It's like trying to balance two babies in your arms."

'Want this child?'

Eight days after the bombardment, a doleful procession made its way to the governor's compound. A high-level government panel sent from Kabul had compiled a list of 140 dead in Garani, and their families had come to receive condolence payments: crisp bills doled out from a battered black suitcase, in a mournful ritual that would last two days.

The Afghan government payments were the equivalent of $2,000 each, more than most Afghan workers could earn in several years. But Mahmoud Gul Mohammed, balancing 1-year-old Dawajan in his lap, was a portrait of desolation. His wife had been killed, along with a second son, and his home destroyed, he said. Even his cow and three sheep were dead.

"I don't see how the West or the government can bring us peace," he said, cradling his son, who was wearing tattered trousers and a tunic secured with a safety pin.

When Dawajan reached for a dirty baby bottle, the father fumblingly mixed a batch of sugared water and fed it to him.

He hoped to use his condolence money to arrange another marriage, he said, because he did not know how to care for an infant.

Seeing the eyes of two foreign visitors on him, he looked up hopefully.

"Do you want this child?" he asked.

Evidence fades away

No one predicts a full accounting of what happened in Garani.

The U.S. military said its inquiry, a forensic-style examination of everything from flight logs to radio transmissions from the field, could take weeks more. American officials have advanced the theory that the Taliban killed large numbers of villagers with grenades, infuriating local people who describe buildings clearly blown apart by far larger external blasts.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent outside group to have reached the village, has not yet released its findings. A United Nations delegation was unable to secure a military escort to the scene last week because travel was deemed too dangerous.

Local people said they wanted outside observers to see the destruction, but even with Afghanistan's unbending tradition of personal hospitality, tribal elders warned that they could not guarantee any visitor's safety. Drivers in Farah City refused to venture any farther in the direction of Garani than the village of Qale Zaman, about six miles outside the city.

Meanwhile, under the scorching desert sun, traces of evidence fade away daily. The dead have been buried. And in all likelihood, the Taliban of Bala Baluk will be back.

--

laura.king@latimes.com

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