The return to Afghanistan: Collateral damage
The first anniversary is approaching of the attacks of 11 September and
the subsequent 'war on terror'. To mark the date, The Independent today
launches a major new series of special reports by our Middle East
correspondent Robert Fisk. In his first dispatch from Afghanistan, he
relates the untold story of Hajibirgit, a tiny village in the south-west
of the country, where a raid by US Special Forces left a tribal elder and
a three-year-old girl dead . . .
06 August 2002
President George Bush's "war on terror" reached the desert village of
Hajibirgit at midnight on 22 May. Haji Birgit Khan, the bearded,
85-year-old Pushtu village leader and head of 12,000 local tribal
families, was lying on a patch of grass outside his home. Faqir Mohamed
was sleeping among his sheep and goats in a patch of sand to the south
when he heard "big planes moving in the sky". Even at night, it is so hot
that many villagers spend the hours of darkness outside their homes,
although Mohamedin and his family were in their mud-walled house. There
were 105 families in Hajibirgit on 22 May, and all were woken by the
thunder of helicopter engines and the thwack of rotor blades and the
screaming voices of the Americans.
Haji Birgit Khan was seen running stiffly from his little lawn towards the
white-walled village mosque, a rectangular cement building with a single
loudspeaker and a few threadbare carpets. Several armed men were seen
running after him. Hakim, one of the animal herders, saw the men from the
helicopters chase the old man into the mosque and heard a burst of
gunfire. "When our people found him, he had been killed with a bullet, in
the head," he says, pointing downwards. There is a single bullet hole in
the concrete floor of the mosque and a dried bloodstain beside it. "We
found bits of his brain on the wall."
Across the village, sharp explosions were detonating in the courtyards and
doorways of the little homes. "The Americans were throwing stun grenades
at us and smoke grenades," Mohamedin recalls. "They were throwing dozens
of them at us and they were shouting and screaming all the time. We didn't
understand their language, but there were Afghan gunmen with them, too,
Afghans with blackened faces. Several began to tie up our women our own
women and the Americans were lifting their burqas, their covering, to
look at their faces. That's when the little girl was seen running away."
Abdul Satar says that she was three years old, that she ran shrieking in
fear from her home, that her name was Zarguna, the daughter of a man
called Abdul-Shakour many Afghans have only one name and that someone
saw her topple into the village's 60ft well on the other side of the
mosque. During the night, she was to drown there, alone, her back
apparently broken by the fall. Other village children would find her body
in the morning. The Americans paid no attention. From the description of
their clothes given by the villagers, they appeared to include Special
Forces and also units of Afghan Special Forces, the brutish and
ill-disciplined units run from Kabul's former Khad secret police
headquarters. There were also 150 soldiers from the US 101st Airborne,
whose home base is at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. But Fort Campbell is a
long way from Hajibirgit, which is 50 miles into the desert from the
south-western city of Kandahar. And the Americans were obsessed with one
idea: that the village contained leaders from the Taliban and Osama bin
Laden's al-Qa'ida movement.
A former member of a Special Forces unit from one of America's coalition
partners supplied his own explanation for the American behaviour when I
met him a few days later. "When we go into a village and see a farmer with
a beard, we see an Afghan farmer with a beard," he said. "When the
Americans go into a village and see a farmer with a beard, they see Osama
All the women and children were ordered to gather at one end of
Hajibirgit. "They were pushing us and shoving us out of our homes,"
Mohamedin says. "Some of the Afghan gunmen were shouting abuse at us. All
the while, they were throwing grenades at our homes." The few villagers
who managed to run away collected the stun grenades next day with the help
of children. There are dozens of them, small cylindrical green pots with
names and codes stamped on the side. One says "7 BANG Delay: 1.5 secs
NIC-01/06-07", another "1 BANG, 170 dB Delay: 1.5s." Another cylinder is
marked: "DELAY Verzagerung ca. 1,5s." These were the grenades that
terrified Zarguna and ultimately caused her death. A regular part of US
Special Forces equipment, they are manufactured in Germany by the Hamburg
firm of Nico-Pyrotechnik hence the "NIC" on several of the cylinders.
"dB" stands for decibels.
Several date stamps show that the grenades were made as recently as last
March. The German company refers to them officially as "40mm by 46mm sound
and flash (stun) cartridges". But the Americans were also firing bullets.
Several peppered a wrecked car in which another villager, a taxi driver
called Abdullah, had been sleeping. He was badly wounded. So was Haji
Birgit Khan's son.
A US military spokesman would claim later that US soldiers had "come under
fire" in the village and had killed one man and wounded two "suspected
Taliban or al-Qa'ida members". The implication that 85-year-old Haji
Birgit Khan was the gunman is clearly preposterous.
The two wounded were presumably Khan's son and Abdullah, the taxi driver.
The US claim that they were Taliban or al-Qa'ida members was a palpable
lie since both of them were subsequently released. "Some of the Afghans
whom the Americans brought with them were shouting 'Shut up!' to the
children who were crying," Faqir Mohamed remembers.
"They made us lie down and put cuffs on our wrists, sort of plastic cuffs.
The more we pulled on them, the tighter they got and the more they hurt.
Then they blindfolded us. Then they started pushing us towards the planes,
punching us as we tried to walk."
In all, the Americans herded 55 of the village men, blindfolded and with
their hands tied, on to their helicopters. Mohamedin was among them. So
was Abdul-Shakour, still unaware that his daughter was dying in the well.
The 56th Afghan prisoner to be loaded on to a helicopter was already dead:
the Americans had decided to take the body of 85-year-old Haji Birgit Khan
When the helicopters landed at Kandahar airport headquarters to the 101st
Airborne the villagers were, by their own accounts, herded together into
a container. Their legs were tied and then their handcuffs and the manacle
of one leg of each prisoner were separately attached to stakes driven into
the floor of the container. Thick sacks were put over their heads. Abdul
Satar was among the first to be taken from this hot little prison. "Two
Americans walked in and tore my clothes off," he said. "If the clothes
would not tear, they cut them off with scissors. They took me out naked to
have my beard shaved and to have my photograph taken. Why did they shave
off my beard? I had my beard all my life."
Mohamedin was led naked from his own beard-shaving into an interrogation
tent, where his blindfold was removed. "There was an Afghan translator, a
Pushtun man with a Kandahar accent in the room, along with American
soldiers, both men and women soldiers," he says. "I was standing there
naked in front of them with my hands tied. Some of them were standing,
some were sitting at desks. They asked me: 'What do you do?' I told them:
'I am a shepherd why don't you ask your soldiers what I was doing?' They
said: 'Tell us yourself.' Then they asked: 'What kind of weapons have you
used?' I told them I hadn't used any weapon.
"One of them asked: 'Did you use a weapon during the Russian [occupation]
period, the civil war period or the Taliban period?' I told them that for
a lot of the time I was a refugee." From the villagers' testimony, it is
impossible to identify which American units were engaged in the
interrogations. Some US soldiers were wearing berets with yellow or brown
badges, others were in civilian clothes but apparently wearing bush hats.
The Afghan interpreter was dressed in his traditional salwah khameez.
Hakim underwent a slightly longer period of questioning; like Mohamedin,
he says he was naked before his interrogators.
"They wanted my age and my job. I said I was 60, that I was a farmer. They
asked: 'Are there any Arabs or Talibans or Iranians or foreigners in your
village?' I said 'No.' They asked: 'How many rooms are there in your
house, and do you have a satellite phone?' I told them: 'I don't have a
phone. I don't even have electricity.' They asked: 'Were the Taliban good
or bad?' I replied that the Taliban never came to our village so I had no
information about them. Then they asked: 'What about Americans? What kind
of people are Americans?' I replied: 'We heard that they liberated us with
[President Hamid] Karzai and helped us but we don't know our crime that
we should be treated like this.' What was I supposed to say?"
A few hours later, the villagers of Hajibirgit were issued with
bright-yellow clothes and taken to a series of wire cages laid out over
the sand of the airbase a miniature version of Guantanamo Bay where they
were given bread, biscuits, rice, beans and bottled water. The younger
boys were kept in separate cages from the older men. There was no more
questioning, but they were held in the cages for another five days. All
the while, the Americans were trying to discover the identity of the
85-year-old man. They did not ask their prisoners who could have
identified him at once although the US interrogators may not have wished
them to know that he was dead. In the end, the Americans gave a photograph
of the face of the corpse to the International Red Cross. The organisation
was immediately told by Kandahar officials that the elderly man was
perhaps the most important tribal leader west of the city.
"When we were eventually taken out of the cages, there were five American
advisers waiting to talk to us," Mohamedin says. "They used an interpreter
and told us they wanted us to accept their apologies for being mistreated.
They said they were sorry. What could we say? We were prisoners. One of
the advisers said: 'We will help you.' What does that mean?" A fleet of US
helicopters flew the 55 men to the Kandahar football stadium once the
scene of Taliban executions where all were freed, still dressed in prison
clothes and each with a plastic ID bracelet round the wrist bearing a
number. "Ident-A-Band Bracelet made by Hollister" was written on each one.
Only then did the men learn that old Haji Birgit Khan had been killed
during the raid a week earlier. And only then did Abdul-Shakour learn that
his daughter Zarguna was dead.
The Pentagon initially said that it found it "difficult to believe" that
the village women had their hands tied. But given identical descriptions
of the treatment of Afghan women after the US bombing of the Uruzgan
wedding party, which followed the Hajibirgit raid, it seems that the
Americans or their Afghan allies did just that. A US military spokesman
claimed that American forces had found "items of intelligence value",
weapons and a large amount of cash in the village. What the "items" were
was never clarified. The guns were almost certainly for personal
protection against robbers. The cash remains a sore point for the
villagers. Abdul Satar said that he had 10,000 Pakistani rupees taken from
him about $200 (130). Hakim says he lost his savings of 150,000 rupees
$3,000 (1,900). "When they freed us, the Americans gave us 2,000 rupees
each," Mohamedin says. "That's just $40 . We'd like the rest of our
But there was a far greater tragedy to confront the men when they reached
Hajibirgit. In their absence without guns to defend the homes, and with
the village elder dead and many of the menfolk prisoners of the Americans
thieves had descended on Hajibirgit. A group of men from Helmand province,
whose leader is Abdul Rahman Khan once a brutal and rapacious "mujahid"
fighter against the Russians, and now a Karzai government police commander
raided the village once the Americans had taken away so many of the men.
Ninety-five of the 105 families had fled into the hills, leaving their mud
homes to be pillaged.
The disturbing, frightful questions that creep into the mind of anyone
driving across the desert to Hajibirgit today are obvious. Who told the US
to raid the village? Who told them that the Taliban leadership and the
al-Qa'ida leadership were there? Was it, perhaps, Abdul Rahman Khan, the
cruel police chief whose men were so quick to pillage the mud-walled homes
once the raid was over? For today, Hajibirgit is a virtual ghost town, its
village leader dead, most of its houses abandoned. The US raid was
worthless. There are scarcely 40 villagers left. They all gathered at the
stone grave of Zarguna some days later, to pay their respects to the
memory of the little girl. "We are poor people what can we do?" Mohamedin
asked me. I had no reply. President Bush's "war on terror", his struggle
of "good against evil" descended on the innocent village of Hajibirgit.
And now Hajibirgit is dead.
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